Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies

August 19, 2013

Assistant Director, Education and Outreach


What are the topics, concepts, and competencies associated with teaching socio-environmental synthesis (SES)?


By glancing at this word cloud generated by participants of Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies, the short course recently hosted at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), it is clear that SES involves a broad suite of topics, concepts, and competencies. However, the words above—though they hint at the complexity of SES—still do not capture the essence of what it means to teach SES, as it is more than just a collection of topics, concepts, and competencies. Rather, it is a problem-solving approach, and the key to learning about SES lies in the examples—in the details of the profound socio-environmental problems that SES addresses.

Stories are keys to student learning. Teaching is most effective when students are engaged, and a compelling way to draw students in is to relate the lesson to something students care about and are interested in. This is the basis of the case study method of teaching, a high-impact, active-learning pedagogy. Given the problem-based focus of SES, this approach is a good fit for teaching SES. Thus, a course that introduces participants to this teaching approach and helps them build SES-focused case study activities of their own serves as a good place to start our short course offerings.

The short course, held at SESYNC on July 23–26, 2013, drew 41 participants from across the country, and one participant from across the Atlantic. Participants included professors, graduate students, and postdocs from a variety of disciplines in the natural and social sciences, all with varying degrees of familiarity with SES. Each participant, whether as part of a team or as an individual, came to the course prepared to write their own SES case study. Following an introductory day focused on addressing the question of “what does it mean to teach socio-environmental synthesis,” participants then focused on the question of how to teach SES and were introduced to case study teaching by Dr. Clyde Herreid, Director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, who expertly guided them through a series of exercises designed to help them develop their own cases.

Participants quickly discovered—as SESYNC postdocs Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo and Dr. William Burnside and I discovered earlier when writing two SES cases of our own for this course—that writing a SES case study for use in a classroom can be very challenging given the complexity of socio-environmental problems. However, participants also discovered the appeal of teaching SES with the case study method. Not only is it an active and engaging way to teach, but it is also a flexible approach that lends itself well to modification for different courses. Of the many types of case study activities, several are particularly appropriate for teaching the collaborative and interdisciplinary competencies critical for SES. For example, for a case that Dr. Che-Castaldo, Dr. Burnside, and I wrote on endangered species recovery, students work collaboratively in small groups to prioritize conservation efforts for a small number of endangered species based on several data sets. When this exercise is used with students from different majors, it also becomes an exercise in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Over the 3 1/2 day course, a steady buzz of conversation filled the common area of SESYNC as participants dove into writing their cases. Once completed, this collection of SES-related case studies teaching activities will be made available online for others to use either in their own classrooms or as templates for developing their own activities.

The course ended as it began—with words from the participants. This time, a response to how they were feeling at the end of the course: “motivated,” “inspired,” “overwhelmed,” “informed,” “encouraged,” and “pumped!” If I were to add a word, it would be “grateful”—for the opportunity to meet this insightful and dedicated group of scientists and educators.

SESYNC Resource Outage

All SESYNC research resources will be offline starting 9pm, August 18 and will remain offline until 9am, August 19th due to a building-wide power outage.

Examining the Ecology & Sociology Behind the Urban Mosquito

August 12, 2013

Sophie Jin
Sophie gives a tour of the lab she worked in this summer.


“Hey kid! Do you like science?”


Right after he replied, the boy returned to tending his bean plant along his window still. A few moments later, he pointed to our caddies full of bottles of filthy water, turkey basters, and siphons, asking us to explain what we were up to.

As a SESYNC intern, I am spending my summer with Dr. Leisnham’s lab at the University of Maryland College Park, helping a project studying urban mosquito vectors and their social and ecological factors.

Baltimore holds a diverse population of people, with neighborhoods that sit on both ends of the spectrum in terms of income and education. Low-income neighborhoods are marked by trash and dilapidated buildings. They often host unkempt containers and tires, which collect standing water: ideal conditions for mosquito larvae. High-income neighborhoods display fountains, fish ponds, and empty trash cans turned over and tucked away. Through social and ecological research methods, the project hopes to better understand how the different environmental and social structures of Baltimore’s neighborhoods contribute to its mosquito population.

Mosquitoes may only be a nuisance to many Baltimore residents. But as the city acts as an international hub, it risks introduction to new and foreign diseases. Epidemics such as Malaria, Dengue fever, and West Nile virus show the importance of keeping mosquitoes under control as they are excellent vectors for disease, making mosquitoes a significant human health concern.

The research project requires extensive field work in the Baltimore community surveying residents, trapping mosquitoes, and collecting water from potential breeding areas. Some days we may carry large white cylindrical mosquito traps and coolers of smoking dry ice (which releases CO2, a mosquito attractant). Other days we may carry caddies while siphoning water samples of mosquito larvae into bottles. We certainly present a curious sight and naturally, people ask questions.

Communicating our work in the neighborhoods of Baltimore resulted in varying responses, from an appreciative “Thank you for your work” to a dismissive door shut. Amidst the mixed reactions, it is uplifting to see community members, such as the boy who claims to “dislike” science, show interest in what we are doing and hopefully learn that there is more to the urban mosquito than an itchy bump.

Trash collects in an alley in Union Park, Baltimore. Trash and tires can hold water and host mosquito larvae.


LaDeau SL, Leisnham PT, Biehler D, Bodner D. Higher Mosquito Production in Low-Income Neighborhoods of Baltimore and Washington, DC: Understanding Ecological Drivers and Mosquito-Borne Disease Risk in Temperate Cities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2013; 10(4):1505–1526.

About this blog:

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)’s Internship Program provides undergraduate students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of socio-environmental issues. Interns spend the majority of their time working with mentors at their offices or labs on research projects, and participate in weekly Internship Program events, including field trips and seminars. These events include trips to SESYNC facilities in Annapolis, where interns are introduced to the socio-environmental synthesis research approach.

Above, we highlight the summer research experience of one of our interns, Sophie Jin.

SESYNC Has Some Fun with Epistemology

Earlier this year, Alan Alda—an award-winning film and television star, as well as a founder and visiting professor of journalism at the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science—told participants at a workshop hosted at Cornell University to ease up on the jargon when communicating science to the public. Scientists sometimes take specialized terminology, core to the research that they do, for granted.

SESYNC Word on the Street: Epistemology

August 9, 2013

Earlier this year, Alan Alda—an award-winning film and television star, as well as a founder and visiting professor of journalism at the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science—told participants at a workshop hosted at Cornell University to ease up on the jargon when communicating science to the public. Scientists sometimes take specialized terminology, core to the research that they do, for granted. While the use of such “trade language” can make communication between issue specialists more efficient, it can make communication with audiences outside of those niches—including scientists in other specializations—less clear and less productive.

We wanted to pull back the veil from some scientific terms that we use at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). So today, we took to the streets to see how many people know what “epistemology” means.

Watch the video below:

Word on the Street archive:
Wicked Problem

Climate Change & Water Resources Adaptation

"Climate Change & Water Resources Adaptation: Decision Scaling & Integrated Eco-engineering Resilience" Pursuit team meeting

Project Abstract: Climate change is rapidly altering the global water cycle, challenging society’s ability to sustainably manage water both for people (electricity, cities, agriculture) and for aquatic ecosystems and species.


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