Helping Students Weigh Environmental Solutions with Podcasts

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

My students love debating, but the conversations often stall when it comes to addressing environmental solutions.  The discomfort experienced in this moment can be attributed to missing opportunities for discussing and practicing climate stewardship.  Navigating unfamiliar language associated with environmental problem-solving can reinforce the sense that weighing environmental solutions has to be a frustrating experience.  Anticipating these challenges, I planned a lesson that helped them investigate a solution in terms of perception versus reality: by thinking about what was said about electric vehicles, my students could debate where perceived and real benefits actually aligned.

Lesson Steps:

  1. Model with a text pairing
  2. Study a podcast as a mentor text
  3. Engage in group hexagonal thinking
  4. Imagine the solution in local context

Earlier this year, my students were struck by the number of Super Bowl television ads devoted to promoting electric vehicles (EVs).  As I listened to them analyze how celebrities were used to draw attention to newly released EVs – from Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed as Zeus, wielding electrifying lightning bolts, to Mike Myers assuming his persona as Dr. Evil, hatching a new plan for world domination – I considered what we could do in the classroom to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.  The ads they were referencing, seen by roughly 100 million people, no doubt were hugely influential in creating brand awareness.  But they conveyed only part of the story.  If EVs were on the verge of mass adoption, as these ads seemed to suggest, did my students really understand why or why not?

The story of how we can mitigate the worst effects of climate change isn’t going to be communicated in a 60 second TV spot.  But I realized my students’ curiosity about marketing strategies was creating a great entry point for a longer discussion – we could begin to speculate about the assumptions these manufacturers were making about potential consumers.  This is a crucial goal for educators committed to developing environmental literacy: figuring out how to bridge the habits of a consumer with the mindset of a climate steward.

Image via Will Ferrell Super Bowl Ad – General Motors [2021]

#1 Model with a Text Pairing
I frequently leverage text pairings in the classroom as a means to see what students notice through the juxtaposition.  How could listening to a podcast about electric cars supplement what an ad was communicating about a shifting car market?  We first chose a recent General Motors Super Bowl ad featuring Will Ferrell entreating the USA to catch up with Norway in electric vehicle purchases per capita.  On the recommendation of my student, I chose an episode of TILclimate about electric cars.  Created by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, episodes of TIL are chock-full of interesting conversation, but are bite-sized – the episodes we’ve listened to run between eleven and fourteen minutes.

Image via E4: TIL about electric cars | MIT Climate Portal

#2 Podcast as Mentor Text
Hearing host Laur Hesse Fisher talk about electric cars with MIT Sloan Professor David Keith was instructive for many reasons.  The statistics provided at the beginning of the podcast confirmed the ad’s message about a surging worldwide EV market, while the introduction of Professor Keith prepared the audience for understanding the difference between gasoline-powered cars and electric cars, as well as the stakes of the situation: “about 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from what we think of as cars.”  The structure of the conversation modeled the usefulness of staging dialogue to demystify terms that might be currently abstract in our heads.  Instead of just staring at a list of keywords given to them, my students were annotating the transcript and zooming in on words that were unknown or seemed freighted with special significance.

#3 Group Hexagonal Thinking

At this juncture, I asked my students to look over their annotated transcripts and meet in groups to discuss.  One way to help them weigh a solution is to use the hexagonal thinking strategy.  Students record terms, concepts, or ideas on hexagonal tiles and arrange them as they perceive relationships between the tiles, creating a visible web of connections.  Based on their podcast noticings, one group arranged tiles so that the terms “climate change solutions, greenhouse gas emissions, tailpipe emissions, electric powertrain, electric grid, and power plant” were placed together, as seen below:

The term placement was interesting: the tiles appeared to be arranged from top left to bottom right, almost as if mimicking how the terms chronologically appeared in the podcast recording.  But the tile placement also tracked how my students’ thinking became progressively more nuanced: moving from a consideration of what made an EV different from a gas-powered vehicle to an acknowledgment of how the viability of EVs as a climate change solution depends on how clean the grid is.  If the local electricity grid is powered primarily by fossil fuels, charging an EV isn’t a particularly “green” solution.  But, as Professor Keith notes, the fuel economy of the “dirtiest” EV looks something like our best gas vehicles.  Instead of simply suggesting EVs were either good or bad, my students were now considering what infrastructure needed to exist to support the use of a zero emissions vehicle.

Using the hexagonal activity was helping us broaden the scope of our understanding.  I instructed them to write questions that were emerging based on discussing the tile relationships.  These questions could be “banked” for later discussion or used to help structure my students’ own articulated stances, either in debate or through writing.

#4 Find Your Energy Mix

Something I underscore in every lesson I develop in the effort to foster environmental literacy is the place-based nature of our work as climate stewards.  Our weighing of environmental solutions shouldn’t be wrested from local context.  To help my students thoughtfully develop their stance, I ask them to try out the interactive Power Profiler on the EPA website.  By inputting their zip code, they can compare their local air emissions rates for electricity against the national average.  Finding out how clean their energy mix is via the fuel mix chart is an eye-opening way to learn about climate impacts.


How do you help students weigh environmental solutions?  What strategies do you use to prepare them for debate?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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