Learning From My Students

We’ve reached my favorite point in the semester–the point where I stop lecturing/haranguing and listen while student teams present their research. They teach me.

Each team of students is given fifty minutes within which to present the major arguments involved in an issue currently facing policymakers, and to do so in a manner that is fair to all perspectives. Teams are allowed to approach their presentations in any fashion they choose, and they’re graded on clarity of communication, breadth of resources used, logic and organization. (Creativity is a plus.)

At the beginning of the semester, I assign teams (I use an “algorithm” called the alphabet) and give each team a general policy area (the economy, the environment, education, social policy, etc.) from which they then choose a specific issue to address.

In the past, teams have done skits (complete with costumes!), debates, power-point presentations, multi-media presentations, even movies. The only hard-and-fast requirement is that  all perspectives/sides of the debate be presented as fairly as possible. That said, students are permitted to “weigh in” on one side or the other after they’ve explored the arguments.

Last Monday, one of the teams presenting compared Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CCP) to Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Act(ACE).

They began by discussing the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the underlying legal context (the role of government, the contending interests of state and federal governments, and the ongoing argument about the extent to which market forces should control policy).

They then launched into a comparative analysis of the two measures, focused on environmental impact, energy needs, the impact on jobs (no, Trump isn’t bringing those mining jobs back), and public health.

Let me share just a few of their (copious) findings:

  • The U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas on the globe. CPP was designed to reduce such emissions; ACE “makes no such commitment.”
  • By 2030, CPP would have reduced carbon emissions by 19%. ACE will cut them between 0.7% and 1.5%
  • Coal production will be higher under ACE, but will still decline.(That pesky market!)
  • There is only one “clean coal” plant in the entire country, and the cost of factories able to produce “clean coal” is in the billions, so no others are likely to be built.
  • One-third of the nation’s electricity is still generated from coal, and the percentage is declining.
  • That decline is a market phenomenon, not a result of regulation, although regulation has disadvantaged some types of coal over others.
  • Renewable energy technology is increasingly making alternative sources more cost-effective.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the analysis–at least to me– was the impact of the two plans on public health; the EPA’s mission, after all, focuses on giving citizens clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. The differences were striking.

The CPP passed by the EPA under Obama estimated the social damage done by carbon emissions at $50/ton. The ACE estimated the damage at somewhere between $1 and $7 per ton. Among the reasons for what the students labeled a “drastic” difference was that Trump’s EPA discounted the impact of climate change, and the Obama administration included the identified human health impacts of both climate change and the decline in ambient air quality.

There was much more.

Each semester, I am amazed and impressed at the amount of data these student teams collect, synthesize and analyze–and more significantly, the policy conclusions they draw from that data.

The real reward of teaching is what I learn.


  1. Bravo Sheila!

    I can certainly understand why this is your favorite point in the semester and I imagine it is your students’ favorite point also. They get to experience what it will be like to be a member of a team of attorneys working on a case at a real law firm in the future.

    I hope that all of the students on this team took the info they learned and told their friends, parents, and everyone they know so that these facts about pollution can be spread around and not hidden in plain sight.

    Thanks for sharing this with us and thanks for doing your part to give your students a solid foundation for their future.

  2. What an inventive way to encourage students to become more aware of the interconnections between “the economy, the environment, education, social policy, etc.” and their assigned specific issue because none of them stand alone. It would also raise their awareness of their part in the issues and resolution of problems. Knowing at the beginning of the semester their “specific assignment” would alert them to connections to other issues before the class…and when they appear in the media. I think this form of teaching should begin at the elementary level; I have always believed that encouraging a student to WANT to learn is a major factor in teaching and rewarding for the teacher as well as the student. Active participation is also far less threatening than the looming written tests at the end of a semester. I remember the two teachers who made learning a rewarding experience; my 5th grade Social Studies teacher and my high school sophomore Biology teacher were special and those classes are interconnected.

    It is a wise teacher who learns from her/his students.

    I grew up in the generation of coal furnaces; there were two coal yards in my neighborhood, one was 2 blocks from my home and the other 5-6 blocks away. No avoiding breathing coal dust everywhere and due to loading the many trucks or those shoveling coal down coal chutes into our basements. The thought of “clean coal” wasn’t a consideration.

    Does Trump’s ACE mention raking our forests anywhere to aid in protecting our environment?

  3. The Dalai Lama said when you talk you are saying what you already know (or of the belief you know). When you listen, you learn what you did not know. Good advice I learned from a trusted colleague before entering a contentious meeting … listen nine times before speaking once.

  4. Sheila, I got my Masters in 2009 (having had the promise of a job held for me that tanked because everything else was tanking) and, at 72 still miss being in school because of what you so beautifully described about the teaching and learning process. To me, the best classes were like carefully orchestrated plays with the promise of a successful opening night. Again, i really miss all that.
    I appreciate the sharing of the comparison between an administration that acknowledged our changing physical world and one that only focuses on profit. I do think though, even without the vital stats many of us realize what is at stake and that is why we are working so hard to stop the runaway train.
    Norris Lineweaver, that particular endeavor Dali Lama mentioned is probably the hardest thing for me to master and even more so in this day and age.
    Again, Sheila and everyone else you keep me thinking and sane.

  5. Excellent. When I taught in secondary schools, I asked students to do similar projects in biology. As you stated, the results were gratifying and educational to everyone. Students really respond when one of their own is doing the reporting.

    I took the best of the presentations and offered them for publication in a variety of journals and magazines. THAT produced everlasting love for science and research by the students. You should do the same with the presentations on the projects you mention. Let their good work be known, especially in Indiana and other Republican-controlled states.

  6. Profits over people.

    The Obama or Trump economy is doing well because GDP is up; Unemployment figures are down; the Dow is up; inflation is down.

    We have the Social Progress Index used internationally and The Happiness Index. Both focus on people and quality of life.

    When the USA media focuses on economic indexes exclusively it should cause the people in this country to question it.

    Shouldn’t Hoosiers question why our state has FOUR super coal-burning plants?

    Piggybacking on recent topics on this blog, why don’t our largest philanthropies in our state take issue with killing Hoosiers?

    You would think that every single one of these benevolent nonprofits would take a stand for residents of this state. They hand out money to other nonprofits to study worthwhile causes except for ones which challenge the status quo.

    Yesterday, ML mentioned the little scam Indiana pulls with funneling deals through the private Indiana Economic Development Corp. In my studies on media, I discovered that logjam early. It’s called corruption. The intent is to avoid accountability. Even an IndyStar journalist could connect the dots which occur behind closed doors in Indy when given access.

    In fact, it’s the only way to hold our government accountable which is the role of the free press. And our lame media plays along because of the money coming their way via advertisements in their paper and TV.

    Muncie’s model is the same as Indy which is the same as Washington or New York. The kids today are figuring out rather quickly because of the internet. Watching the new crop of young progressives gives me hope as they are already challenging the corrupt DNC. Hollywood is all in with their support for Pelosi–wonder why?

    btw…censorship has been underway for the past decade but has really increased the past two years mainly with alternative media more in line with the free press our Founders envisioned. However, it’s going to get very interesting as the FTC works with Verizon and Xfinity on throttling the internet or allowing the ISPs to become gatekeepers.

    Fascism requires control of the message and refuses to be held accountable. Dissent is to be avoided at all costs.

    Your students are in for one hell of an education if they commit to being an informed citizen vs an obedient worker.

  7. Sheila; I don’t know if this fits in Public Policy and Governance or not but possibly Civic Affairs, I am ending my decades of subscribing to the Indianapolis Star which many of you here will understand for your own reasons. Is it part of Civic Affairs regarding the source and quality of our local media, our only daily newspaper primarily? I have spent almost 4 years battling to get my morning paper delivered on my porch due to my disabilities; this put me in contact with an excellent source for help and information at Indystar/Gannett/USA Today. My subscription ends December 1st; not even her help dropping the $10 per month increase is incentive to stay.

    Section A which covers local news only is partially informative; there is no national or international news in this section since Gannett bought out USA Today and began including a 4-6 page insert with little, if any national or international news which is/was the objective of USA Today. The print and format of all obituaries changed about 2 months ago; different print and each obit covering a large area of the page, That changed again today. The Op Ed page dropped from daily to only 2 days per week about a month ago. The occasional inserts such as “Taste” with recipes or this week it was an insert commemorating the Jim Jones/Guyana mass suicide and a few other subjects were part of the Star publication. We are now charged monthly for these inserts. The TV Week, 1/4 of which is always wrong and their small print hard to read, became slightly smaller today with slightly smaller print. Reporters in Section A were listed as Indystar and USA Today as employed by that publication. A couple of months ago all Star reporters were listed as USA TODAY INDIANAPOLIS, during the past 2 weeks they are all now USA TODAY NETWORK. Is this some form of media experimentation? It appears to me that Gannett is deliberately driving away subscribers. I really am going somewhere with this regarding Civic Affairs and this is it: the Indianapolis Star is the primary anchor at Circle Centre Mall. If forced to shut down the “factory” in Circle Centre Mall due to loss of subscribers; how will that effect the economy here in Indianapolis, our civic affairs in general and the loss of our only daily newspaper? Will it be the death of already dying Circle Centre Mall? The decline in newspapers has already effected recycling efforts which is connected to the loss of trees and effecting the environment.

    If this is too far off target for Civic Affairs, I apologize. It occurred to me that this study might be an issue for one of your classes due to the media in all its forms being a primary subject IN the media. What will the loss of the Star do to the employment rate locally? Are other city newspapers bought up by Gannett, Inc., suffering the same ill effects as the Indianapolis Star?

  8. Todd @ 9:17: “Watching the new crop of young progressives gives me hope as they are already challenging the corrupt DNC. Hollywood is all in with their support for Pelosi–wonder why?”

    It is not just Hollywood, CNN and MSDNC have hitched their wagons to Nancy Pelosi. A few of their segments that interrupt 24/7 coverage of President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence were clearly slanted to present the case for Pelosi. Opposition to Pelosi is dismissed as rabble rousers that will harm Party Unity.

    Across the Atlantic we see real action: Because ‘Good Planets Are Hard to Find,’ Extinction Rebellion Shuts Down London Bridges to Save Mother Earth.

    Mass arrests resulted on Saturday as thousands of people and members of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement—for “the first time in living memory”—shut down the five main bridges of central London in the name of saving the planet, and those who live upon it, from destructive over-consumption, runaway greenhouse gas emissions, and the ongoing failure of global leaders to address the compounding and intensifying threats.

    “The ‘social contract’ has been broken … [and] it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself,” Gail Bradbrook, an Extinction Rebellion organizer, explained to the Guardian.

    Tiana Jacout, another protest organizer said, “We have tried marching, and lobbying, and signing petitions,” she added. “Nothing has brought about the change that is needed.”

    Tiana is right marching, lobbying and signing petitions have accomplished little in terms of impact. The chemical industry and Agri-Business has the power, the money and the time to delay, impede and suppress any meaningful control on their toxic products. The motto of Agri-Business would be if we did not develop it and patent it – Kill It.

  9. Long article but worth a read: Agribusiness power

    The twentieth first century continues the toxic business as usual of the twentieth century. Agribusiness, part of the military-industrial-complex, is king. The new weapon is spraying the world with mostly badly tested chemical poisons. And the strategy is the control of the natural world and societies.

    Few people know exactly what these chemical poisons do. Occasionally, they do kill insects and weeds. But they do much more, mostly harm. Scientists have revealed certain facts about those invisible effects. But agribusiness nullifies the significance of that knowledge. It does that by buying agricultural universities, the media and influencing politicians. Agribusiness guards its secrets, including how it has been controlling the politics of the world.

    As a Boomer and Vietnam War veteran I am well acquainted with toxic chemicals in the form of Agent Orange. Students and Schools beginning in the mid 1960’s began to question and challenge the status quo and conformity of the 1950’s.

    The Reactionary Right Wing fought back, we were labeled naive, deluded, brainwashed, unpatriotic, as a result of Left Wing Radical teachers. The nail that stands up had to be hammered down by a Corporate Friendly Curriculum and an interminable amount of testing to make sure these young minds were learning rote memorization, rather than critical thinking.

    I have found hope in the younger generations. Somehow, with all the attempts to create a bland big box education system, this younger generation understands the issues, because their future is at stake.

    The first time I went to Bernie for President meeting in 2015, I was expecting just a group of old Socialists like me. I was shocked by the number of young people there, who were dedicated to a Progressive Agenda.

  10. The carping and bitching about Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership is counter-productive in the extreme. She KNOWS how to get legislation written and passed. Who else would you propose? I see no other names mentioned in the “critiques”.

    This behavior is sort of typical of old Democrats. Think about how much you’d like to have Kevin McCarthy as speaker once you’ve divided all the Democrats’ votes. There is a LOT more important work for House Democrats…like wresting control of our spiraling disaster of a nation from the money-laden clutches of Republicans. You people can wail and gnash your teeth about which networks are backing which party leaders, but the fact remains that a prioritization of solutions is most important and those same networks offer them up.

  11. The costs being accumulated by the rein of Agent Orange are inestimable and massive. The National Dept Meter is spinning and that just counts the current debt not the debt that the gang that couldn’t shoot straight is inflicting on future tax payers. The effort that will have to be invested in just restoring fiscal order is incomprehensible. Vernon worries that the DNC is not up to it but there is no other option available.

    One measure of good sense from a climate perspective is how much carbon will we ultimately leave in the ground by the rapidity with which we re-source energy. Considering the current rate of consumption, population growth and transition of populations to middle class the most complete estimate that I have seen is about 30 years of oil and natural gas left of economically recoverable reserves and about 100 years of coal in the world. Considering some guesses for how long it will take us to build a complete system that supplies adequate energy without them I would guess that we will have to use up all of the oil and natural gas and somewhere between half and all of the coal. That means we will have maximized the consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

    We already see the tip of that cost impact in the recovery costs from wild fires and extreme weather and sea level rise every year. We hear mostly about those consequences here in our country but know that they are going on around the world.

    At some point the recovery costs will get so high that adaptation costs will become a better answer so we’ll relocate our civilization to where the recovery costs get less.

    What the RNC has done for the world, not just the US, is to force a plan wherein the costs to re-source energy coincide in time with the recovery and adaptation costs absolutely predicted by climate science, at the same time now that our our National Debt is bound to be oppressive and at the same time as Social Security and Medicare and health care in general all become bigger demands on the GDP.

    We look like the dysfunctional families that eventually declare bankruptcy because banks treat personal debt as an opportunity rather than a threat.

    Can we economically survive the RNC? It’s quite possible that in four years of maximum incompetence under Agent Orange that answer will have changed from maybe to definitely not.

    Think of how welcome the $5T that we’ve spent on our holy wars would be sitting in the bank now instead of having been spent on overseas destruction and the consequences in maintaining our safety at home.

  12. It wouldn’t matter if Nancy Pelosi were an alpha male; what matters is that she is a progressive Democrat dedicated to progressive values, knows how to run a caucus, raise money etc. Yes, she is rich and from San Francisco? So? Everybody is from somewhere and has a net worth statement. These are externalities. Let’s not let the impatient (and Republicans) divide us as we start to share power in the swamp. I for one am not angry with new Democrats who want to move up in our House power ladder; that’s not unusual, but I would urge them to be patient, especially when the House is our only power wedge in making policy for at least the next two years. Nancy has openly admitted that she knows she is a transitory figure. No one lasts forever. To the impatient > Patience. Enjoy her mentorship. Learn, then lead.

  13. Learn , then lead. Isn’t that the message from Sheila today? Wisdom is hard to come by these days. Perhaps we too will listen to the young someday soon.

  14. Thank you, Vernon and Gerald

    As a Boomer, I remember the New Left, whose critique of the Old Left was that they sat around in a circular firing squad arguing the comparative virtues of Bernstein versus Luxemburg instead of actually doing something. More to the point, Will Rogers’ statement about not belonging to an organized political party (he was a Democrat) seems to always apply.

    Sheila – You have great students and I envy your experience learning from them. I wish we could all be so lucky.

  15. Yeah, present those findings to the tRump administration and they’ll say you have your foot on the scale. tRump is trying to undue everything President Obama got passed, even if it poisons our country and could care less about the effect on others!

  16. It’s obvious your students have had a great teacher. Hope you’ll share more of their findings.

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