Vassar Stories

Cool Courses: Hot Topics in Earth Science and the Media

Scientists do vital work, but most of them do a lousy job explaining it to the rest of us. It was that observation visiting assistant earth science professor Mary Kosloski had in mind when she designed a freshman writing seminar she’s teaching this fall called  “Hot Topics in Earth Science and the Media.”

Earth science professor Mary Kosloski leading a discussion about hydraulic fracturing in her freshman seminar, “Hot Topics in Earth Science and the Media.”

Kosloski and her 17 students are exploring topics ranging from the causes of climate change to the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing (commonly called “fracking”) -- injecting treated water underground to crush shale deposits, capturing the embedded natural gas. The students are being asked not only to learn what scientists are saying about these topics but also to analyze how these issues are being explained and debated in the media.

“For the last few years, I’ve wanted to create a course that explores the dichotomy between what’s being said in some mainstream media about high-profile scientific issues and what the science behind those issues actually is,” Kosloski says. That dichotomy exists, she says, “because scientists are notoriously bad communicators.”

Exploring these issues requires a certain amount of media savvy, Kosloski tells her students. She began a recent class on fracking by warning them to beware of “confirmation bias” – selectively seeking information that confirms one’s own opinion -- as they scanned newspapers, magazines and news websites for articles on the subject. “It’s human nature to do this, and we have to watch out for it,” she says.

Kosloski urged her students to determine the validity of the information in a news article by determining the possible biases of the sources used to write it. “Check out who the so-called experts cited in the article are: do they have a particular point of view?” Kosloski asks.

Then she led the class in a discussion of the possible short-term and long-term dangers to the environment that fracking can pose: Concrete well caps built at fracking sites enhance soil erosion. The clearing of land around the wells disturbs wildlife habitats. The vast amounts of water required – 300,000 to 500,000 gallons per well -- reduces the flow of rivers and streams, affecting aquatic life. And many regulatory agencies do not require the firms doing the fracking to divulge what chemicals they are adding to the water. Questions also remain, Kosloski says, about how the water used in fracking is being restored once the process is finished.

As new and presumably safer techniques are developed by the energy industry, it’s premature to say categorically that all fracking is dangerous, Kosloski says: “A lot of the science is new, and there are scientists on both sides of the issue.” She wants her students to be able to pose the right questions about fracking and other  environmentally sensitive issues, and she wants them to be able to tell others what they’ve learned in language they can understand.

Following class discussions about climate change, Kosloski had her students write a letter to a friend or relative explaining in laymen’s terms what scientists have learned about the dangers to the environment posed by the burning of fossil fuels as well as some of the myths that surround the topic of global warming. The students’ final project is two-pronged: Each must create a poster with information about one aspect of the debate over fracking that a person without a background in science can understand. In addition, they’ll be asked to write a more technical paper explaining the science behind the particular aspect of fracking they choose.

Students in the class say they’re glad they chose the course.

“I signed up for this class because the way we treat our environment is important to all of us,” says Emma Glickman ’18, of Livingston, NJ.  “I didn’t know anything about fracking until I took this class, and we’re learning it’s not easy to get all the information you need; it’s something you have to work hard to do. We’re also learning that there are no good answers – all forms of producing energy have their drawbacks, but the first thing we need to do is gather all the facts.”

Emily Martin ’18, of Boston, said she planned to major in science and chose the course “because these are things we all need to know more about. What we do about energy production is critical to our future.”

--Larry Hertz

Photo by Carlisle Stockton

Posted Friday, November 7, 2014