Toolkit Resources


People, Places, And Pipelines: Debating Tar Sands And Shale Oil Transmission - STIRS Student Case Study

Tami S. Carmichael, PhD
Humanities and Integrated Studies Program, University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

Abstract:  This case study uses the pertinent topic of tar sands and tar shale oil transmission to help students develop skills in scientific reasoning and critical thinking. The topic is of current concern and lends relevance to classroom activities and study, allowing students to develop important skills while tackling an issue they will see daily in the news. Ultimately, the case moves beyond analysis of data sets and examination of source validity to give students the opportunity to participate in the larger debate over the common good, considering when and if the needs of the few ever outweigh the good of the many. The data included in the case for consideration are primarily from everyday news sources - the type that every citizen encounters daily and must interpret. The case is divided into three sections to correspond with three 1.5-2 hour class sessions. The first part requires that students consider data pertaining to oil transmission via rail, freight, or pipeline and the effects of these transmission types on the environment.  The second section familiarizes students with the effects of oil transmission methods on humans, including the effects on employment, recreational and visual resources, and on native peoples and sacred places. The third and culminating section provides individual students with the opportunity to articulate and support personal perspectives on the topic in a format that could be utilized in real-world forums of debate on the topic. To be most effective, the use of online forums for posting student responses should be used.

Use in Courses:  This case study was developed for use in general education courses where students may not have strong backgrounds in the sciences. The case is meant to allow students to develop scientific thinking and integrative reasoning skills in the context of a current pertinent topic that has broad-ranging, interdisciplinary components and ramifications. However, it may also be used in courses that are more heavily focused in the sciences or in environmental issues. It has been developed primarily for first or second year students. Additionally, this case can be used in freshman seminars, or in integrative/interdisciplinary classes dealing with natural resources, sustainability, environmental issues and policy, or current events.

Using this case study in a small class allows students the opportunity to develop critical reasoning skills and communication skills by focusing on an area of current concern. They will be connecting their learning skills to real world issues and decision-making.  This is the case for students in a larger class as well; however, using this case study in a larger, lecture-formatted class provides the opportunity for flipping the classroom and allowing students to engage directly with the material and work through problems and issues together as learners.

In any of these scenarios, students will encounter data, arguments, and ethical situations that require that they think carefully about the material and use specific data and arguments to formulate reasoned responses.  They will also work in teams as they consider the information and will have the benefit of learning from each other and considering each others' perspectives.

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Professor Carmichael was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS Program.