The Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Faculty Collaborative consists of 20+ faculty from Davidson College and five other Associated Colleges of the South institutions who are committed to learning and implementing new ways to improve and deepen the quality of their class discussions. These faculty come from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds. They come together to study and discuss different deliberative pedagogy methods, share their ideas and questions with one another, and work to embed deliberation in their classrooms. In this special blog series, members of the Collaborative describe and reflect on their experiences developing and teaching their deliberation-involved courses.
By Bassil El-Zaatari (Assistant Professor of Chemistry, DeeP Collaborative Member)
Plastic pollution remains one of the largest challenges facing us in today’s world. Met with an ever-growing population, the use of plastic materials continues to flourish with limited ability to recycle and reprocess these materials. In fact, projections now show that by the year 2050, there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish. As I embarked on teaching polymer chemistry for the first time this semester at Davidson College, I knew I had to balance what I was teaching from a scientific perspective with thoughtful understandings of the socioeconomic, political, and historical implications of the synthesized materials discussed in class. Through the Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Collaborative, I set up a framework of discussions and readings throughout the semester that culminated in a final “debate” activity during the last week of class.
On the first day of class, I explained to my students that it is critical for us, as current and future scientists, to address STEM-related controversial modern issues including stem cell research, climate change, energy policy, and pollution levels. I made sure they understood that while the ubiquity of polymers and plastics in everyday life has been critical to human advancement, the waste generated from plastic waste has been detrimental to ecosystems, especially aquatic life, and its landfill and incineration has been linked to worsening climate change.
Throughout the semester, I tried to link topics that we were learning about to broader issues and local events. One example that comes to mind was after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that was carrying vinyl chloride, a precursor to synthesize polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a widely utilized plastic material. We chatted about the environmental implications of this polymer precursor from the spillage as well as methods that could have prevented it. We discussed what type of socioeconomic impacts that this derailment will have on the area for years to come and whether the need to synthesize PVC outweighed its potential hazards during manufacturing and post synthesis.
As the semester was coming to an end, the final debate tasked the students to come up with the best approach to the following prompt:
“You and your team have been appointed to solve the plastic pollution problem by world leaders from all over the world. You will have to come up with a plan of action using your polymer chemistry knowledge. You will have to decide where to start from in tackling this problem and present your findings to the class.”
This prompt was supplemented by several articles, both from scientific journals and periodicals, that the students had to read prior to the start of the activity, as well as a special topic lecture that discussed current methods of plastic recycling and reprocessing. While debating this topic, the students were prompted to keep the following questions in mind:
(1) How can we balance the importance of polymers and plastics with the waste generated from not being able to recycle, reprocess and reuse most of them?
(2) Can we reach a world in which plastic waste is a thing of the past?
(3) Does plastic free actually mean pollution free?
The activity was split into two 75-minute class periods. During the first session of the debate, the students were separated into four small groups (consisting of three or four students each) and were prompted to arrive at an evidence-supported position on this topic while weighing pertinent scientific, socioeconomic, and political implications. I walked around the different groups, listened to their conversations, and helped facilitate discussions. The students felt passionate about their positions and worked hard to convince their groupmates of the best approach to this problem, while keeping an open mind and listening to others.
Towards the end of the class period most groups had agreed on a plan of action to present during the next session. In the second session, the groups presented their findings to their classmates. Each presentation was up to ten minutes long and was followed by 5 to 10 minutes of questions from the rest of the class. I was impressed by the elegance in the solutions the classmates produced and the intensity of the Q&A session that followed.
Overall, I would say that the activity was a success and the students left the semester with a sense of scientific intersectionality that they may have not encountered in previous STEM classes. The students seemed to enjoy the activity and were passionate about their positions and defending them to others. The use of deliberation in future chemistry classes is something I intend to implement and improve on.