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Two Courses on Mining and the Environment

Curricular materials created for the 2017 SAIL seminar:

Wilderness in the Anthropocene

I have designed two versions of a highly interdisciplinary course on mining and the environment. Both courses include:

  • Teaching through ongoing controversy and complex problems
  • A multi-day experiential field trip
  • Explicit investigative and multidisciplinary stances
  • Issues of risk to wilderness, natural lands and watersheds

A first-year discussion seminar, “Mining and the Environment,” has been taught twice (15 students) and includes two deep case studies on copper and diamond mining. Both involve dissecting issues of risk related to environmental and human degradation as well as competing interests that fuel these mining industries.

In Fall 2017, the copper case focused the first half of the course on the book Boom, Bust, Boom. This culminated in a three-day field trip to Ely, Minn., where we met with multiple parties around the controversial proposed copper/nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).

The second part of the course was structured around the book Blood Diamonds, where complex political, environmental, social and historical issues were framed by war and atrocity tied to African conflict diamonds. Students learned to identify and understand a wide variety of salient perspectives and then sort them into the most “critical” issues and questions. Students also learned to frame complex problems with concept mapping tools, pose fruitful questions to drive inquiry, write descriptively and with thesis-based arguments, and do some comparative analysis.

This first-year seminar has recently been revised to focus in the future entirely on local mining in Minnesota. After initial mapping of the complex problem of mining metals, iron mining will open the course with a focus on the Iron Range – its history, environmental effects and legacy legal battles to mitigate pollution of watersheds and Lake Superior. The second half of the course will focus, as before, on the modern prospective copper mines near the BWCA. An extended experiential dimension will be added to the Ely trip that incorporates players from the iron mining story.

I have also designed an upper-level mining course aimed mostly at majors in environmental studies. This course, tentatively titled “Climate Change, Clean Energy and Minnesota Mining” will frame mining around the larger context of climate change and the latest emerging technologies in clean energy production and storage. Given that metals are needed to power this green energy economy, the course will open with two to three weeks on climate change and cutting-edge clean energy technologies.

The environmental hazards of resource extraction (metals, etc.) also will be mapped. The bulk of the course will then move through Minnesota case studies in iron and copper – both metals are likely to be essential, earth-abundant and nontoxic for future clean energy technologies. This course will include the experiential field trip to northern Minnesota to talk with parties tied to both iron and copper mining and the use of these metals in clean energy technologies.


The following skills are assessed through a wide range of assignments: daily prep sheets, regular daily class discussion, designed class activities (individually and in teams), and specific/multiple writing assignments throughout the term (most with feedback on drafts and/or thesis statements/evidence base).

Learning Goal First-Year Seminar 200-Level Course
  • Iron and copper mining (science, history, contentious issues…)
  • Environmental/Human risks (water pollution, human/ecosystem health, economic/job impacts…)
  • Risk management strategies
  • Science of complex systems (thresholds, tipping points, feedbacks, interdependent interactions/networks, resilience, persistent cycles, etc.…)
  • Wilderness themes (US acts, definition, strategies for managing)
  • Iron and copper mining (science, history, contentious issues…)
  • Environmental/Human risks (water pollution, human/ecosystem health, economic/job impacts…)
  • Risk management strategies
  • Science of complex systems (thresholds, tipping points, feedbacks, interdependent interactions/networks, resilience, persistent cycles, etc.…)
  • Wilderness themes (US acts, definition, strategies for managing)
  • Climate Change drivers (greenhouse gases, oil/gas industries, economic sectors, politics….)
  • Emerging Clean Energy Technologies (types, uses, involved metals/roles)
Higher-Order Thinking &

Multidisciplinary Analysis

  • Concept mapping of complex problems/systems (how/why issues and ideas are connected)
  • Determination and analysis of “critical/salient perspectives” and questions
  • Comparative analysis (copper vs. iron along one critical issue)
  • Thesis-based arguments with proper evidence on one critical issue
  • How to decide “who to trust”
  • Concept mapping of complex problems/systems (how/why issues and ideas are connected)
  • Determination and Analysis of “critical/salient perspectives” and questions
  • Comparative analysis (copper vs. iron along one critical issue)
  • Thesis-based arguments with proper evidence on one critical issue
  • How to decide “who to trust”
  • Taking a stand on how to manage inevitable risks of extracting metals for a clean energy future
Other Skills
  • Posing sophisticated questions ripe for investigative inquiry
  • Descriptive writing on mining issues (during immersive learning phase)
  • Posing high-quality questions ripe for investigative inquiry
  • Descriptive writing on mining issues (during immersive learning phase)

Examples of these assignments and assessment tools are included below.


The “Mining and the Environment” seminar is complex in its topic, approach to teaching controversy through investigative inquiry, and pedagogically rich environment.

I try to provide advice to teachers in the next section. Roughly speaking, the course opens with one week of small “case studies” on copper and diamond mining. The next three weeks are focused on copper mining, ending with the Ely field trip and a closure writing assignment. The next three weeks center on diamond mining, where even more sophisticated modes of analysis appear. The course ends with a comparative analysis paper on one issue across both diamond and copper mining, plus a final “case study” presented by the instructor (Pebble Copper Mine, Alaska).

The sections below cover more details on the course outline and habitual learning activities.

Course Outline

The seminar opens with a week or so of “buy-in” activities that involve reading three to four media articles on each of copper and diamond mining. This ends with a culminating activity to “frame the mining problem” with a visual concept map, done first individually and then by a team of three students. We also start to practice concept mapping in class, where students work daily at the board in small teams to draw their own maps related to the day’s readings. Several times early on, we walk around and discuss all the maps – their features, emphasis, format and strengths.

From here, the copper inquiry extends for three weeks based mostly on the “Boom, Bust, Boom” book supplemented with numerous media articles. Outside of class, students work in teams of three to do “descriptive writing” (with feedback and revision from a student TA and the seminar instructor) around five major themes surfaced in class discussion:

  1. lifecycle of a copper mine
  2. lifecycle of the copper material
  3. economic systems
  4. environmental impacts, and
  5. local mining communities

This descriptive writing is a way for students to articulate what they have learned in this “immersive learning phase” of the investigation.

The instructor has two meetings with each team, first to formulate an organized approach to the topic and later to provide feedback after the first draft. Several class periods are also spent exploring the concepts and history of wilderness in the U.S. and the BWCA. Students received feedback on several drafts of this writing from the instructor, the course TA and a peer review.

In direct preparation for the Ely field trip, each student poses several questions to multiple parties in Ely, culminating in a lengthy compiled class list of questions that gets simplified, organized and vetted in class to a final version.These questions form the basis for discussions in Ely. After the three-day Ely field trip, a “debriefing” class asks students to reflect on the experience together.

Through discussion, we also surface what students think are the most salient or “critical issues” for the controversial proposals for copper mining in northern Minnesota. The fall 2017 seminar decided on these issues: risk management, land surface effects, economic impacts, science/geology and communication/psychology/rhetorical issues. Students then pick one issue and write a short (three-page) thesis-based paper, arguing from evidence (with citations) on that issue. Also, in the week after Ely, students are doing final revisions on their descriptive copper writing in teams.

The diamond mining section sticks pretty tightly to a close and deep reading of Blood Diamonds over the next three weeks. Though some themes recur from copper, a whole different set of issues emerge related to war, atrocity and African history. The move to this book is jarring, and it is a very difficult read related to the type and level of human suffering with conflict diamonds. During this section, new modes of analysis appear that are later gathered and offered as options for the final writing assignment that is thesis- and evidence-based and must compare one aspect (student choice) of copper versus diamond mining.

Finally, in order to help model how to formulate a thesis for comparative analysis, the instructor can do a final presentation or activity on a case study. The class decided (they voted on several choices I gave them) that I should highlight the Pebble Mine in Alaska (we had read about it earlier in the term). I created a two-part thesis statement, then talked about the context for the problem and the evidence I had to support both parts of my thesis statement (PPT included as resource: see ENTS 100 Bristol Bay Pebble Presentation). This turned out to be a very exciting activity that required me to dig into the latest news.

In just the previous several weeks, EPA Director Scott Pruitt had visited the Pebble Partnership in Alaska and then quickly overturned Obama-era studies and decisions made based on scientific study of the proposed mine. The end of this course sat squarely at the crossroads of the Obama-Trump administrative change and its impacts. Capturing this moment with zeal was part of my commitment to study ongoing controversy with students.

Habitual Activities

Throughout the course, in addition to their major writing assignments, three recurrent and habitual activities – daily prep sheets for discussion, class activities and concept mapping – engage students. These are designed to help students build up and practice skills for critical reading, discussion-based and team learning, and mapping of complex interdisciplinary problems.

Students must write up and submit daily “prep sheets” which prepare them for discussion. I collect these for each class for the first month or so and provide targeted and customized feedback to help students improve their ability to surface major themes, summarize main points, pose questions that fruitfully propel our inquiry, surface critical issues, synthesize ideas, and connect themselves to the work in a more personal way.

For class activities, a rich variety of “discussion modes” are used, most of which first get students working in teams of two to four in “production mode.” I typically provide them with a question or theme related to the reading and each team has to work for 20 to 40 minutes to “produce” something they can share. As they work, they gather information from their prep sheets and the reading, respond to my prompt or theme, and then debrief with the whole class. Often, the debrief period also functions as a space for synthesis and integration.

Finally, we make repeated use of visual concept maps to show the complexity of interactions and relationships for a given topic. Concept maps are used as needed and when they seem to be a good tool for digesting reading that involves a higher complexity of connected issues. Concept maps (and all class “board notes”) are captured with a smartphone camera and posted on the course Moodle page. The goal is to make the results of daily class learning visible and usable after we walk out of class. This also values the collective team learning that occurs in class – as this learning often extends well beyond what is in the reading.

Dissemination Strategies

Teaching Notes

There are a number of major teaching and learning challenges with a small seminar course that is multi/interdisciplinary, discussion/activity-based, centered on ongoing controversy, and investigative in nature. Over the last 30 years, I have devised a large set of pedagogical practices that I deploy in this course.

The most salient aspects of the seminar format and pedagogy are broken into these thematic areas:

  • Investigative Controversy
  • Role of Concept Mapping
  • Interdisciplinary Arc: From Investigative Description to Critical Issues to Comparative Analysis
  • Science of Complex Systems
  • Design and Capture of Classroom Activities
  • Supporting Sophisticated Student Questions
  • Support for Writing with Feedback and Revision
  • Role of Student Choice
  • Managing a Multi-Day Field Trip

Investigative Controversy. Copper and diamond mining have been around for a long time. Yet, the idea for this course is to situate student learning in the messy controversies of today. Selecting a book for each of the copper and diamond mining portions of the course is relatively easy – and the book can vary year to year. The hard part is staying on top of the latest news around the world and in northern Minnesota.

The overall purpose of teaching around a timely controversy is to begin to provide students with a roadmap and tools for dealing with real-world problems that are complex, interdisciplinary, ill-structured and controversial. The goal here is not to get “an answer” about whether to build a copper mine or not, but rather to swim smartly in the problem for a term. The goal is to develop practice with tools for inquiry, argument and analysis that are generalizable.

For the instructor, this requires an openness to move with the current events, the interest of the students and what emerges as the seminar develops. It also requires one to view the instructor role as “head investigator” – expert in some, but not most areas of inquiry. The instructor stance is often best captured by thinking about what the next layer of inquiry should look like, and then designing class activities and assignments to take students there. Teaching is a live and creative project that is emergent on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. This kind of learning mirrors what occurs with groups of citizens working on a local community problem or a group of colleagues working on a professional problem. It is messy, rich, creative and nonlinear, tugs on multiple perspectives, and can be unpredictable. It is smart for the instructor to articulate the goals for this type of learning and how it proceeds directly to the students. Many colleges courses have a simpler and better-defined structure, so setting expectations early is critical.

Role of Concept Mapping. For younger college students especially, visual mapping helps articulate and connect an array of interconnected ideas common to complex problems and systems. As one of the habitual seminar activities, skills are built up over time. Concept maps, or network maps, are great descriptive and analytical tools for interdisciplinary learning. They can be used to first digest the daily reading, and then in stepping back to probe questions, patterns and processes. I thought carefully about when and how I used this tool to advance our learning and inquiry.

Interdisciplinary Arc: From Investigative Description to Critical Issues to Comparative Analysis. I have devised an intellectual arc through the inquiry that is naturalistic. It begins with an “immersive learning” phase coupled with descriptive writing assignments.

Once a great deal of learning has been done, students can begin to gently synthesize – identifying “critical issues” that are the most salient to the problem at hand. After moving through these two phases of learning for both copper and diamond mining, students develop the ability to compare. Class discussions start to naturally include comparison. I talk with students explicitly about this arc, its natural flow, and the importance of stepping back periodically to synthesize the critical issues or locate themes for comparison. In other words, we aim to go well beyond the texts as we focus our inquiry.

Science of Complex Systems. Threaded over the term, I help students understand and apply a number of concepts for complex systems which apply directly to the mining problems we consider – and the linked human and natural systems involved. We start with a class activity using the classic “Tip-It” game which students play for 30 minutes, taking notes on their keen observations about the behavior of this system.

Though this system is one of the simplest complex systems (with two pivot points, like a coupled pendulum), it displays many of the essential behavioral features of complex systems. The class Wiki, a compilation of all the student observations from this activity, is included as a resource.

The major concepts explored include: thresholds and tipping points, feedbacks (positive and negative), interdependent interactions, networks, resilience, stabilizing forces in persistent cycles, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, short vs. long-term risks, system “noise,” hysteresis (one-way processes), and inherent uncertainty.

After we play the “Tip-It” game, I encourage students to identity these concepts in action and application over the rest of the course. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it is quite difficult. I help facilitate the connection of concept to example in class discussions. Eventually, many of these ideas pervade class discussion and student writing.

Design and Capture of Classroom Activities. As an instructor, living this course in real time is challenging but highly stimulating. It feels like inquiry to everyone. To prepare for class, I first do the assigned reading and take notes, synthesize several themes, and attempt to pose draft discussion questions or themes. Then I step back and ask “where have we been, where are we going, what kind of inquiry are we doing now, and how can I support it?”

I often then ditch or modify my first draft of discussion questions and quickly invent a class activity that gets students to work in teams on various aspects of a multifaceted approach to the reading themes. This forms the basis of that day’s class activity. When I feel highly creative and as we move more deeply through the course, I think about how I can nudge students to synthesize their class reports from the small team activities to a larger more holistic understanding. I often finish each class with a five- to 20-minute “debrief” period.

As students work and I lead the debriefing section, all of our work is captured on the board (students draw/write there often, as I do) with a smartphone or in shared Google docs created by student teams or the instructor. At particular times, we return to these docs and images – and use them to advance our investigation or for a writing assignment.

Supporting Sophisticated Student Questions. Questions and inquiry filled everything that we did. I used several regular methods to help students practice their ability to pose more fruitful, sophisticated, detailed and integrative questions. Student had to pose four to six questions in each daily prep sheet. Early on, I provided students with Bloom’s Taxonomy as a general way to think about knowledge and how it advances. I use this scheme to classify their questions, urging them to move beyond description to analysis and synthesis as the term unfolds. I also use this classification scheme and its terminology as I give feedback on daily prep sheets and on questions that emerge over the rest of the term.

The creation of the question list for the Ely field trip involves question posing by individual students, followed by the categorizing, grouping and honing of this big pile of questions to a much smaller list we could use in real discussion with people in Ely. This refinement process is done by a student team and in class. The multi-stage activity of posing and honing these questions is also good intellectual preparation and review of what we have learned prior to Ely.

Finally, as we attempt to identify “critical issues,” we are typically trying to articulate the big unresolved questions. Thus, work on “critical issues” helps us find the most compelling and contentious questions in a debate.

Support for Writing with Feedback and Revision. I operate in two feedback modes with student writing. First, I read their work and provide holistic and customized feedback on a range of issues from organization to clarity to voice to integrity of content…and much more. I read their work and respond as an experienced editor of writing. See the Assessment Section below for more on how I did this.

I have a special list of goals for feedback for the daily prep sheets (see above). For formal writing, I provide a more structured frame for feedback on clarity, organization, flow, grammar/punctuation, quality of thesis statement, quality of evidence base, good use of visuals, and proper use and citing of sources. For example, I have attached as a resource a rubric that I have students use in their own peer review of each other’s descriptive writing on copper.

Because this was a first-year seminar with a focus on adjusting to college writing expectations, I also make an attempt to deal one-on-one with students on writing. Most of my students write pretty well; providing feedback is not difficult and they respond well to that feedback. However, three to four students have faced major challenges with their writing. I meet with them, offer to articulate and prioritize their challenges, and then we make a plan to address them. They then use the college writing center, personalized and more regular feedback with me, and working appointments with me.

This course also involves revision of nearly every writing assignment. Sometimes I provide feedback in Google docs on an entire piece of writing. Other times, I ask them to submit only a thesis statement for a developing paper plus the list of evidence they intend to use to support that statement. This vetting of thesis statements and evidence turns out to be critical – most students have little idea about how to craft a good thesis statement and gather high-quality evidence (without cherry picking or bias) in its support. I do this kind of targeted feedback on the copper “critical issues” paper and on the final comparative paper.

The Role of Student Choice. Throughout all of this, I attempt to provide multiple points where students can make a choice – about a subtheme in early descriptive writing, a critical issue for their writing, or a comparative theme for the final paper. This allows students to work from a place of interest and passion. Some students choose to move around themes during the seminar, creating an experience of breadth over the mining issues. Others choose to specialize in a self-defined and recurrent theme, allowing for deeper development in that particular area. I find that the level of engagement and quality of student work is higher if I provide these kinds of choices.

For this type of collective team inquiry, student choice also sends the message that “it takes a village to manage a complex problem,” and everyone has a role to play. Some students choose to chase science; others focus on environmental justice issues, rhetorical arguments, international politics, or US government regulatory structures and agencies.

Over time, most students take on a persona that we all recognize and appreciate due to their course work on a special interest. This is a wonderful way to build effective teams over time. It is also a way to value the diversity of student experience and interest in a seminar of students who come from very different backgrounds and may eventually declare over a dozen different college majors. It also serves to support inquiry on a complex problem that requires the taking of multiple perspectives plus some degree of specialization.

Managing a Multi-Day Field Trip. The logistics for setting up this trip are quite time-consuming. My advice is to start nine months ahead, expect surprises and cancellations, and plan for how you will be flexible if surprises occur.

I’ve had to raise trip funds, organize lodging for three nights, find transportation, plan and buy trip food (grocery shopping, cooking before departure and at lodge, some reservations for eating out), hire two student trip TAs and define their duties, coordinate with all parties on our itinerary, and do paperwork related to college liability, trip policies and more. The three-day trip costs about $5,000 for 19 people. I lead the trip with two trip TAs.

I also bring along my partner to help with various tasks and when I get tired; this way I can sustain my energy for leading the trip and spontaneous teaching. The funding has come from three sources: $1,100 from our Center for Community & Civic Engagement and (CCCE) for transportation costs, $2,200 from our Environmental Studies program, and the balance from the Dean of the College Office. Our trip itinerary is included as a resource. I would be happy to provide those considering a trip like this with more planning information. As I did, you can learn much and get sample forms from others at your college who have done a trip like this.

Resources & Materials

  1. Syllabus – a course schedule, timeline for major writing assignments, and some articulation on the pedagogy of discussion-based learning
  2. Guidelines for Discussion and Daily Prep Sheet
  3. Resources for Bloom’s Taxonomy and question posing
  4. Resources for Concept Mapping – several student and class concept maps
  5. Rubric for Peer Review of Descriptive Copper Writing
  6. Itinerary for Ely, MN Trip Nov. 2017
  7. Modes of Comparative Analysis – created at end of diamond mining section
  8. Final Pebble Mine Presentation

Outcomes and Significance

Overall, my assessment toolkit draws from many years of experience with teaching writing using a range of rubrics. For any kind of writing, I use some or all of these criteria to assess student work: clear organization and logical flow of ideas, clarity of expression, voice and accessible language/audience, writing mechanics (grammar, sentence/paragraph structure, polish and error rate, punctuation, spelling and format…), compelling narrative, use of examples, use of visuals tightly narrated by text, proper use and citing of sources, and the following of assignment instructions.

When I am assessing student work that is also multi/interdisciplinary in nature, I draw on the work of Veronica Boix-Mansilla.1-3

She and her colleagues argue that this kind of writing shares many of the good qualities of any kind of writing (see list above). However, her research indicates that several new criteria for assessment can be used for interdisciplinary writing: purposeful, disciplinary grounding, integrative leverage and critical awareness. For first-year students, I lean less on the idea of “integrative leverage” (creating something new from multiple perspectives that could not be produced with only one) since this is rare at this stage (though I do see it in the last third of the course with a few students). For the more novice multi/interdisciplinary writer, I also assess writing based on appropriate appearance and use of multiple perspective and whether those perspectives are critical or ancillary to the issue and purpose at hand.

In the “Mining and the Environment” seminar, I provide feedback on many aspects of student work, both in and out of class. The most frequent and structured types of feedback are for the daily student prep sheets and the three to four formal writing assignments. I frame and discuss most of this above, including a list of criteria I use to assess prep sheet quality and a rubric for peer review that echoes some of my own assessment of student writing (criteria above) in the draft and final stages.

In addition, I vet draft thesis statements and their evidence base for two writing assignments. For these, I look not only for a clear, valid argument matched to an appropriate, valid, and high-quality evidence base, I also stare at the kernel of integrative and multidisciplinary work. Thus, I check that thesis statements have a well-focused purpose, are appropriate in scope (students tend to overstate their claims), are specific enough to be valid, and include both critical/salient and multiple perspectives. Typically, the draft thesis statements change and improve dramatically after just one round of my feedback.

Assessment References for Interdisciplinary Work

Boix Mansilla, Verónica & Dawes Duraising, Elizabeth (2007). Toward a framework for assessing students’ interdisciplinary work: An empirically grounded framework proposed. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(2), 215-237.

Boix Mansilla, Verónica, Dawes Duraisingh, Elizabeth, Wolfe, Christopher R. & Haynes, Carolyn (2008). Targeted assessment rubric: An empirically grounded rubric for interdisciplinary writing (Paper,ID Assessment Rubric). The Journal of Higher Education, 80(3), 334-353.

3 Boix Mansilla, Verónica (2005). Assessing student work at disciplinary crossroads. Change – The Magazine of Higher Learning, 37(1), 14-21.

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