Toolkit Resources


Exploring Lawns and Gardens as Complex Socio-Ecological Systems: STIRS Student Case Study

Loren B. Byrne, PhD
Dept of Biology, Marine Biology & Environmental Science, Roger Williams University
Bristol, Rhode Island

Abstract: Lawns and ornamental gardens are ubiquitous in urbanized environments and thus familiar to (almost) everyone. However, few people have probably thought about the complex social and ecological context of the motivations, behaviors and consequences of urban landscape management. Strong social expectations that drive the maintenance of stereotypical, idealized lawn and garden appearances (which vary due to geographical context and other factors) are largely unquestioned and taken for granted. Yet, the possible negative environmental and human health outcomes of management practices give rise to concerns about whether people and society have ethical responsibilities to reduce any risks that may arise from them. In this context, lawns and gardens provide an exciting interdisciplinary educational opportunity to engage undergraduate students in scientific and environmental thinking, and evidence-based and ethical decision making in a complex systems context. As such, this teaching case study utilizes lawns and gardens as a focus to help students: 1) learn about concepts from environmental and social sciences; 2) create mental models for thinking about systems and complex human-environment relationships; and 3) develop their quantitative thinking, and analytical and ethical reasoning skills. In addition, the case integrates opportunities to foster students’ metacognitive skills and help them develop personal views and conclusions about lawns and gardens. Through a variety of topics and activities, this case integrates elements of analysis, decision, directed discussion, and jigsaw case studies. Facilitators will be able to adapt the content and learning activities to a wide range of teaching contexts across disciplines and student levels, and that vary in duration from two to five class periods.

Use in Courses:  Although lawns and gardens are interesting (and practical) to think about on their own terms, they provide a useful gateway for learning about many disciplinary and societal topics. As such, this case study was designed to cut across many teaching contexts and objectives. In particular, its central strength is facilitating interdisciplinary and systems thinking in the context of human-environment relationships and through the integration of environmental and social scientific content. The case has relevance to the teaching of, and can be adapted for, courses from many disciplines, within majors and for general education programs.  It is also appropriate across undergraduate student levels, from first-years to seniors.

It is primarily written from an environmental and sustainability science/studies viewpoint and will easily fit within related courses and lessons, including introductory ones and advanced ones pertaining to urban ecology, environmental management, and sustainability analyses. In addition, the case, or aspects of it, are adaptable for use in courses from diverse fields (history, political science, architecture, philosophy, communications, engineering, etc.), especially specialized courses and lessons in them that intersect with environmental and urban issues. The case’s content was written to stand alone so it could be used with introductory students and those from non-environmental or science majors who have less environmental and social science background (as in non-majors general education science courses).

The case has relevance to identified high-impact teaching practices as described by the AAC&U. Because of its interdisciplinary topic and content, the case has broad applicability to general education courses such as first-year and senior/capstone seminars. Further, because it includes many opportunities for group work and discussion, it would also be very useful for use in learning communities and for courses that emphasize collaborative learning. Writing for reflection and formal analyses is integrated throughout the case; as such, it also has relevance to writing-intensive courses. 

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Professor Byrne was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS Program.