Toolkit Resources


To Drill or Not to Drill? A Dilemma in the Context of Climate Change in the Arctic - STIRS Student Case Study

Vandana Singh, PhD
Department of Physics and Earth Sciences, Framingham State University
Framingham, Massachusetts

Abstract: This dilemma/decision type case study presents a complex real-world situation to students: that of accelerated melting in the Arctic, a consequence of climate change, and its impact on local communities and the environment.  The fictional but real-world-based situation calls on students to act as consultants hired by a community of Iñupiat Eskimos at the edge of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, who wish to make an informed decision whether or not to support some combination of offshore and land-based oil and gas drilling in their area.  Through readings, videos and classroom activities the students study the science and evidence for climate change in the Arctic, as well as its current and projected impacts on climate, biodiversity, culture and economy.  They study the possible impacts of oil and gas drilling, economic and environmental, as well as the possibility of alternative energy.  Throughout, students are encouraged to think about these interlinked issues within a complex systems framework. They then present four scenarios for the community’s consideration. 

This case study gives students the tools to think scientifically about climate disruption, to evaluate the reliability of information, to interpret data, to understand where the uncertainties lie, to comprehend the barriers to action, and to begin to visualize alternatives, and perhaps their own role in shaping the world to come. 

To successfully complete this case, students should have basic familiarity with climate change concepts.  The Facilitator Guide provides instructors with teaching resources for courses where students have not previously studied these concepts. 

Use in Courses:  Courses that would benefit from the inclusion of this case study include any courses in which climate change and/or social justice/indigenous rights are relevant.  An integrative introductory physics or biology course (such as “Physics for the Liberal Arts” or “Science and Environment”), an environmental science or sustainability course, a course on climate change that calls for a component on the human face of climatic impacts, as well as courses ranging from environmental justice to indigenous rights would benefit from inclusion of this case study.  The interdisciplinary nature of climate change allows for such wide usage of the material in the study.  In addition the material is ideal for a seminar course on the subject of climate change and indigenous rights. 

This case study is ideal for learning communities, linked courses, first-year seminars and other high-impact practices.  First, it brings real-world relevance to disciplines that many students consider irrelevant to their daily lives.  Second, it brings down disciplinary boundaries so that students can experience how, for instance, apparently disparate subjects like physics and economics might intersect in the real world.  Thirdly, it allows students to experience the complexity of the real world and introduces them to thinking in systems, a skill increasingly valued in our world.  The opportunity to read a variety of material from different disciplines, all relating to the problem of climate change, and to teach other students through cooperative learning practices allows students to complicate their understanding of the real world beyond black-and-white categorizations.  Fourthly, this case study brings to the forefront the vital global issue of climate change that is already changing our world and is likely to have a profound impact on our students’ lives.  The several classroom discussions embedded in the Student Case, following related sets of readings, allow students to immediately express, discuss and internalize what they have learned, with the guidance of the instructor. 

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