Archive for the ‘environmental education’ Category

Oh, those young people

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Young people not so green after all. That’s bad for impacting climate change.

Is this true?

“But I still find myself pretty frustrated a lot of the time,” said Stokes [, a 20-year-old geography student at Western Washington University], who wants to go into marine resource management. “I just think our generation seems fairly narcissistic — and we seem to have the shortest attention span.”

Kelly Benoit, a 20-year-old political science student at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, went as far as calling her peers “lazy.”

“I think it can be due to our upbringing. We want what we want when we want it,” said Benoit, who has worked with lawmakers in her state to try to ban the use of plastic bags in stores.

She thinks members of her generation, like a lot of people, simply don’t want to give up conveniences.

Perhaps we need to tie environmental issues to KONY2012 somehow (although that’s what I was hoping from Inconvenient Truth).

Differences Aside: Coming Together for a Common Good

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

It has been said, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”; it is a quote that I understand to be an Arabian proverb (  I would argue our “enemy” is environmental degradation.

November 10, 2008, there was the talk given by Rabbi Michael Cohen explaining the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies program.  Here, students come together for the common goal of researching on the environment.  There are tensions in the Middle East, but these students are able to discuss the environment and cooperate together.  The program is a chance for the different nationalities to come together and dispel myths of each other.  Rabbi Cohen suggests the program can function because the students are able to meet fellow citizens, get past labels, build trust and cooperate as a community.  This is made easier by the fact that the students are not in deep city and that the environmental issues transcend any boundaries.

You could pose several questions on the subject of cooperation.  First of all, when working towards a common goal will you always get people who agree with you 100%?  I paraphrase that it was mentioned in the talk that to come about change, you won’t always meet up with people in complete accord.  In my opinion It wouldn’t be a discussion.  And dealing with people who have the same ideas makes the decision process easier, but I’d argue that this lessens the amount of solutions you come by, and increases the possibility you’ll run into an insurmountable brick wall.  What’s absolutely necessary is the ability to still listen to who you do not agree with.

This poses another question.  How do you talk about an issue when facing conflicting insights?  You don’t want to abruptly come across as “I’m right, you’re wrong, and that’s all there is to it.”  Without giving up what you believe, you try to see these questions from the worldview of the person posing it.  Then you attempt to explain how you view the question from your worldview.  Either way you cannot be blinded in your own bubble.  You listen by seeing.

Is it possible to solve the global issue of environmental degradation on your own?  No.  Environmental degradation may have one impact on a certain area of the world and a different impact elsewhere.  Deforestation would increase runoff on hill tops and increase salinization in the valleys down below.  You need the consideration of all who are involved to reach a complete solution.

I’d finally like to comment on whether there are instances when people should not be included in a cooperative effort.  During the question period of the seminar, the issue was raised on receiving funding from an organization, certain members of the talk perceived as racist.  If you disagree with the views of one of your supporters would they be capable of making a decision requiring you to discontinue acceptance of any future funding?  Would this instability still be considered progressive?  Are there any conflicts of interest in cooperation?  Could you still “listen”?

From this blog I hope I have not succeeded in preaching to the choir.  I also hope I have not put words in anyone’s mouth.  What I do hope to achieve is the discussion of the issues of cooperation, especially on an issue as global as the environment.  To add one more cliché to this commentary, two heads are better than one, and working together to help the earth would be better than working alone.

I won’t comment but … ;)

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

Never say Never, this is soooo classic… I put often myself in trouble when I am saying that. haha!  I sent an email to you guys last week mentioning that I would not comment on the seminar/debate that I went too (The Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium Series-Origin of Ethics given last Thursday, November 6th 2008).  I know… It will not count as an essay or comment for 650 because I was alone of our class. Anyway, this is not where I want to go.

This morning, I had suddenly inspiration and thought that it would be relatively important to share the stuff that I had in mind with you!  The inspiration came from the Today (Saturday November 8th 2008) Montreal Gazette’s front page where you can read an article on the ECO-SYSTEM ECOLOGY + ECONOMY.  Our professor at McGill, Dr. Peter G. Brown, is cited in many places in this article and he suggested that we should take advantage of the current financial crisis to change our current economic system to a more efficient one, the “environmental economics”.  Simply because our planet is finite and not infinite as most economists think.

The link that I would like to make here with the debate (Origin of Ethic) is the fact that one debater proposed a solution about a problem raised by Peter Brown in the Montreal Gazette’s article.  Dr. Brown explained that the failure of Dion’s Green Shift has been caused by the Free Rider problem “where people don’t want to pay for something that benefits everybody.   

The solution proposed by the debater was simple.  Professor Mafred Milinski (Executive Director, Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön, Germany) observed a similar phenomenon (Free Rider).  He suggested that this behaviour partially explained the Tragedy of the Common phenomenon (Hardin 1968) where free access to a public resource leads to overexploitation and therefore collapses.  Dr. Milinski’ words were “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.  The solution came from one of his experiments (Milinski et al. 2006).  Dr. Milinski did an experiment about preserving the global climate as a public good.  His “game” was to compare who would cooperate and who will not (saving the public good).  He found that humans are prepared to give (e.g. money) to people as long as they have positive reputations of helping.  This is similar to the indirect reciprocity phenomenon which state that “Give and you shall receive” (Nowak and Sigmund 2005).  He also observed that people who gave money were people who were well informed in climate research.  He also mentioned that reliable expert information has an effect too.  This effect is even more important when the information is public (recognisable by everyone).  Investments or donations on the climate change problem can increase when people can see them, can recognise them.  Do not be an anonym person when you make donations!  Finally, he concluded by mentioning this: 

“Humans are prepared to behave altruistically when they know that it can be recognized and when they gained in other situation by this value that they can transfer from one situation to the next which is reputation.  As soon as the reputation comes in, in a moment, people switch from selfish behaviour to altruistic behaviour. ”

Interesting, don’t you think?



If you want to read the Montreal Gazette’s article (free = you need VPN connection), go… McGill Website/ clic Library and Collection tab/ clic Newspapers/ clic Pressdisplay/ Select Montreal Gazette and go to the article by knowing that it is published Saturday Nov 8th 2008.


Literature Cited


Hardin, G. 1968. Tragedy of Commons. Science 162:1243-&.

Milinski, M., D. Semmann, H. J. Krambeck, and J. Marotzke. 2006. Stabilizing the Earth’s climate is not a losing game: Supporting evidence from public goods experiments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103:3994-3998.

Nowak, M. A. and K. Sigmund. 2005. Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature 437:1291-1298.

Do I really care about Activism?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

I was challenged during the last seminar class about the implications of a scientist society.  I am strongly opposed to being an activist because as you know, my personal definition of an activist is any person with strong beliefs that can be expressed in an intolerant manner.  This person or group of persons do not consider other opinions and are ready to do anything possible to make things change according their belief system.

Consider the definition from dictionaries:

English Oxford Dictionary of Politics proposed that an activist is

“any person who takes an active past, usually as a volunteer, in a political party or interest group. […] Either they enjoy political activity for its own sake, or they have off-median views which give them an incentive to pull the party or interest group towards the position they favour, rather than the position it would take to maximize its vote or influence. Hence some have argued for a ‘law of curvilinear disparity’ which holds that activists hold more extreme views than either the mass electorate or the party leadership. There is some empirical support for this ‘law’ but it has rarely been tested carefully.” 

I did not find a definition from a regular English dictionary.  However, here is the definition of Activism in the English Oxford Dictionary:  

Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.”

In these definitions, there is nothing about radical point of views or intolerance.  However, I just noticed an interesting part of the “problem”.  I checked for a French definition and here is what I found. 

The office québécoise de la langue française states that Activist is:

Membre zélé d’un parti ou d’une faction de tendance extrémiste ou extrême qui s’infiltre partout, profite de toutes les occasions et ne répugne devant aucune méthode, même violente, pour assurer le triomphe de ses visées idéologiques ou politiques. 

A translation (a trial) would be: Dedicated member of a party of extremist tendency, who benefits from all the opportunities and by any means necessary, even violent, to ensure the triumph of the party’s ideological or political aspirations.

I am really surprised how these two “dictionaries” define Activist differently.  The English one is more about being active in making things change and the French definition is more about a radical view of how to make things change.  It might explain why in class, we were not in agreement on the definition of activist.  Is it the fact that we have different culture and history and therefore different definitions?  No, I don’t think so… I was the only one who believed that activist focuses more on extremism…  Anyway, it is quite useless to define Activist as long as we know that there is a wide range (different level) of “being active” (doing nothing to extremism).   The level varies among individuals according to the personal willingness to change the world.  Some might want a minimal social implication and others are passionate about it… However, I suggest that we should be aware that the more you get involved, the more you share the information with others and therefore your voice is more likely to be heard.

Even if I do not consider myself an activist, it does not necessarily suggest that I do not get involved.  I personally like to be involved in different public debates.  I have written letters (essays) in Le Devoir, Fédération Professionnel des Journalistes Québécoises website and I have my personal blog.  I hope to been able to publish in other Montreal newspapers soon.  They were not all published but I tried.  Does it make me an activist?  As mentioned, I do not really care about the word Activist itself… I care more about what I am really doing on this planet and do not pay attention to how people define me.  One thing is absolutely sure; I will never be “activist” as suggested by the Office québécoise de la langue française.  Can I do more?  For sure…  I would love to share my ideas and knowledge with kids.  I like challenging myself in order to assess my communication skills but also to see how the perception of environmental issues varies across the generational divide.   Why I am not giving seminars to little kids?  I hate to say that but time is unfortunately a limiting factor. 

This is my concept of been active; get involved in diffusing the “common knowledge” and play your social role if you want to be heard and make a real difference.

However, as opposed to my personal contributions, I also like to read blogs and literature from others with different backgrounds.  It, sometimes, keeps me grounded because I feel occasionally that “my head is in the clouds.  There are always people that challenge and force you to reflect on your true beliefs.  Even if it is very tough, it forces you to come up with stronger arguments.  For me, it is not important if your opponent drags you down with their arguments, I care more about how you bounce back.  Even if it seems impossible, I will always believe that things can change… even if it takes time.

For example, one thing that really impressed me during the last class is the fact that Mr Madhav Govind Badami has shifted from a pretty secured financial situation in India to a real insecure environment.  He did what I called “jumping head first and without a safety net” because when you make decisions driven by your feelings, you do not necessarily consider the consequences of your actions.  He did not turn down opportunities that were offered to him.  These “jumps” are often the best decisions that you have ever made.  He has even called this jump as “madness” but it reflects that everyone can switch and change at any moment of their life.

Anyway, the point that I wanted to go here is simply the fact that I do not really care about the usage of the word “Activist” as long as it does not mean extremist!  Then, get involved and change the world!

It takes all kinds

Monday, October 20th, 2008

This is a follow-up to the posts on Christie Lovat’s seminar on the economics of ecologically managed golf courses.

Previous posts have described the seminar content well, so I won’t repeat those posts here, but I will pick up on two themes which I find interesting. First, while the speaker encouraged greater ecological awareness among golf course managers, the seminar maintained a realistic perspective on the need to understand the economics of golf courses. The seminar dealt not just with  environmental issues (the resources used to maintain golf courses, the biodiversity that can be protected by supportive golf course environments, the implications of using land for courses, the impact of climate on course choices, etc.) but also with the economics of the golfing industry and with related aspects of our society. We learned about how customers can be encouraged to come to the golf course, how golf courses could realistically brand themselves as partially contributing to environmental stewardship, how efficiencies are gained from managing resources ecologically, and how new courses can be built more economically and ecologically at the same time. We also learned a bit about our society when she spoke of people’s preferences for aesthetically pleasing courses, how much we value outdoor recreation, and our desire to maintain personal fitness. To me, this multifaceted approach exemplified the spirit of sustainable development. The seminar raised many questions, like how many courses are too many, the potential impacts of regulation or standards setting in restricting course design and maintenance, whether there is evidence that ecologically branded golf courses attract more clients, etc. For a third year botanical science student Ms. Lovat did a fine job and maintained a good perspective on her subject.

The second theme, actually an elaboration of the first, was raised by free_of_charge: do we need to consider the economic value of nature before protecting our environment? The answer is no, as long as you don’t have any economic needs/wants. If you want to convince the people that do (i.e. most people on the planet) then you need to at least understand the connection between meeting those needs/wants and the environment. Modern society has allowed us to be very dissociated from the ecosystems that service our economic needs/wants, therefore to convince most people of the importance of protecting those environments you have to demonstrate how ecosystems are connected to the coffee they buy every morning, or the paper they read, or the golf game they play.

Where environment, society and economy collide

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

The Beatty Memorial lecture provide the university and community with highly interesting and important issue seminar each year. This year, it was given by James Gustave Speth, professor of Yales university. A firm alarmist activist that ask for the younger one to get active as well. His lecture was presented to a multi-genarational crowd, faculty members of McGill university, students, and citizens as well. The composition of the crowd probably affected his speach as humor was used to carry out his message.

As Shorty already pointed out, there is a problem in our current economical system. It is draining both of our social and environemental strengh. Dr Speth believe that growth is the main problem of our capitalist system. The growing economy is a monster consuming the ressources, leaving no chance for regeneration. Solution were proposed but to get them working, three things are needed. There is a need for a crisis, more violent than any human kind as faced in the recent years. I personnaly believe that climatic changes could be that needed crisis. After the crisis, we need a public mobilisation. People with the knowledge must transfer that knowledge. The last step needed is an enlightened governement, receptive to the problem and ready to act.

Going against capitalism is going to be an hard journey. But Dr Speth presented the situation as follow. There are two roads human kind can follow. The first and easy one will bring us to an early end. The other one, far more difficult to travel, will eventually bring us to a new state were economy, environment and sociaty will be valued to their just level. The crossroad is now and we need to make our turn.

I think this situation is far from being unknowed to us. However, some people out there still believe that this as nothing to do with them. As I got out of the seminar, a passed a man of an advanced age. He turned at me and pointing at the conference room he told me «stupid idiota». My spanish is not perfect but i is good enough for me to understand that the man did not respect nor did he accept the ideas carried by Dr Speth. We had a discussion in class about being activist or not. I’m starting to believe that we carry a responsability, to defend those ideas if we want things to change.

fascinating phones, the real diversity

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Fritjof Capra, author of “The Web of Life” and, more famously, “The Tao of Physics”, gave a course Feb. 22-24 in Dehradun, Uttranchal State, India. It explored the dimensions of a new, emerging sustainability science based on ecological design… but I won’t go too deep into that here.

The site chosen was Navdanya, and organic ‘conservation’ farm that functions as a living seed bank – that is, the crops are not locked away, but actively cultivated. Vandana Shiva named the many pure varieties we ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (incidentally, Carlo Petrini was among the 30-odd participants as well).

So, if you ever get your hands on amaranth, I recommend you sauté it and fold it with honey.

But I digress. The sweetest part of the course was the bike ride through the neighboring villages I took during our afternoon siesta. I could not sleep or chat or read, and there was a clunker of a bike with my name on it. I made friends with Babalu, the go-to-guy on the farm with all the keys, and I rolled down to the ‘main road’ for a long ride.

Let me tell you what I saw:

  • A 600 litre water tank on wheels (portable but not potable) with a tropical sunset scene done in acrylics that graced the front. A cellphone icon and not 1 but 2 cellular numbers were painted on as well.
  • One boy biking on the other side of the street whistled, “Hallo,” which is not uncommon, except he was talking into an microphone wire on his red-dirt shirt.
  • The rental wedding band taking a break by the side of the road. Their marching band attire includes large red ankle bands and vests, on which the cellular number for the dispatcher was embroidered in gold thread.
  • 3-wheeled scooter taxis, AKA autorickshaws, seldom have mobile phones. However, the passenger in one was handing his phone to the driver-wallah so the person on the other end could discuss with him appropriate directions.*
  • Mechanics using mobile phones with white LED lights embedded in the front to see into a motorcycle engine. The Nokia 1100 and 1200 models, which have these mini-flashlights built in, are among the most popular model of phone sold in India and Africa, I’ve been told. My friend uses one to manuever his keys in his front door at night.
  • Many people sitting around, drinking tea, walking, biking, etc. while holding their mobile phone as it plays loud Hindustani music from a non-toll-free number.
  • It goes without saying that the course was excellent, enjoyable, enriching, etc., but it was all very abstract – Dr. Capra is a systems theorist and physicist by training. What was much more apparent was how low-cost mobile phones are facilitating a different, digital web of life. The implications for ‘sustainability’ are large though hard to define from a cursory village cruise on a bike, but are certainly food for thought.

    * This deserves an elaboration: the strategy of calling someone fluent in Hindi at or near your destination has been the salvation of many an expatriate, myself included. Often, the driver or you will have to figure out the route by landmarks. If you are lucky, a shopkeeper or passerby in the neighborhood can direct you once you get close. But – if you and the driver are lost, or you can’t remember the name of this or that street, temple, etc., or your rudimentary Hindi is inadequate for describing the particular location, a mobile phone can leapfrog these problems, saving time, money, and frustration.

    prof replaces term papers with Wikipedia contributions

    Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

    Professor Martha Groom at University of Washington – Bothell has shifted the evaluation scheme from the term paper to Wikipedia in her environment courses (Environmental History and Globalization; Conservation and Sustainable Development). As the article reports, “Instead of letting her students rely on Wikipedia as a source, however, Groom has turned it into a destination for their classwork: in place of a term paper, her students were required to create Wikipedia entries.”

    Students, apparently, loved it and became more invested in the course.

    “This assignment felt so Real! I had not thought that anything I wrote was worth others reading before, but now I think what I contributed was useful, and I’m glad other people can gain from my research.”

    Wikipedia? Not so much.

    One article didn’t survive for 24 hours following its introduction, and four additional ones were ultimately deleted following extensive discussion, their contents merged into existing entries. Groom also noted that some of the comments in the ensuing discussions “were delivered rudely.”

    In addition to learning the Wikipedia culture, there were technical hurdles of learning the wiki markup language. And the students had to do a lot more work to ensure that entries had a high encyclopedia standard.

    Me? I think we’ll stick with blog posts for the near term.

    (h/t Peter J)

    forget virtual pets; how about virtual wildlife?

    Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

    okay, so this is crazy: Mom’s taking care of her children’s virtual pets while the children are away at camp (it’s an “only in NY” kind of story). But it got me thinking: why couldn’t we design virtual megafauna or virtual habitats that kids must take care of?

    We have enough knowledge of simulating habitats and of gaming that we can easily create the environments/animals as well as the interactions (btw, see the latest Communications of the ACM on creating a science of gaming). Similar to Sim City but for habitats and appropriate to the learning ability of children. The trick is to make it as attractive as Webkinz. Webkinz is an Internet/MMORPG tie-in to purchased stuffed animals. The MMORPG resembles the Sims; it has all the consumerism and the interactions although it’s touted as kid-safe. You can buy things for your pet’s home through kids cash, which is earned through playing games and taking quizzes (in a game show format). In our newly developed WebHab (or WebWildlife), instead of buying furniture, perhaps our players could buy padding for a nest, increase (buy?) the number of species, obtain water for the habitat, and so on. Kids could take Dora The Explorer type quizzes to earn HabCash to fund their virtual conservation efforts.

    Our new simulation thus serves several purposes:

    • get kids concerned about the environment and nature from an early age.
    • exploit consumerism for a conservation cause (if WWF can sell stuffed pandas then this could have all sorts of tie-ins, from buying a stuffed animal to sponsoring an animal in the wild).
    • surreptitiously teach children science.

    Now all we need are some conservation minded techies…

    sundance goes green

    Monday, July 16th, 2007

    Posted by Christopher Barry, Senior Vice President, Digital Media and Business Strategy, Sundance Channel

    Here at the Sundance Channel, we recently launched a weekly programming block dedicated to the environment, called THE GREEN.

    As part of this online environment, Google Maps for Enterprise technology offered us a great platform for developing the Eco-mmunity Map, an exciting interactive tool that supports our television shows and creates a community of users around eco issues. The Eco-mmunity Map allows you to list and search for green individuals, businesses, special attractions, and action points anywhere in the world through a customized site. The Google Maps technology makes it simple to share information about environmental causes and events in your community. You can input and search for green information based on four key category “markers” — Individuals, Businesses, Green Action Points, and Green Attractions and Events. By posting markers with detailed descriptions, contact information, related web links, comments, ratings, and photos, you can share local knowledge and suggestions with others from around the world. So come on over to and start adding your content today.

    Ultimately, our hope is that visitors to the Eco-mmunity Map will have the opportunity to share their knowledge and connect with others in the virtual green movement. We’re grateful to the Google Maps for Enterprise team that helped make this online world possible.

    Even the advertisements are for green products.

    abcnews goes green

    Thursday, May 10th, 2007

    Tonight’s reporting from World News Tonight

    * Concern Soars About Global Warming as World’s Top Environmental Threat
    * How to Address Global Warming: A Range of Tips
    * EPA Carbon Footprint Guidelines
    * San Francisco Goes Green
    * Shrinking Your Carbon Footprint
    * Fixing the Planet for Profit
    * Limit Your Impact on the Environment
    * Check Your Household’s Carbon Footprint
    * Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

    google maps for communities

    Friday, April 6th, 2007

    Extreme Tech provides a detailed explanation on building your own community website by hacking Google Maps and Google Earth.

    In addition to using GE and GM to build community sites for both community members and visitors, you could create an excellent green maps mashup.

    Also check out GCensus on the same site, a way to create choropleth maps of census data, using Google Earth.

    take a bite out of climate change

    Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

    Researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting annouced a new game that allows participants to take a wedge out of global environmental problems (Science 23 February 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5815, pp. 1068-1069).

    In a darkened ballroom in the Hilton San Francisco, 413 people tap numbers onto slate-gray keypads, each the size of a thick paperback book. Around them, almost 600 others watch as two screens at the front of the room reveal the results of their manipulations: a selection of strategies for taking wedge-shaped bites out of a graph of projected levels of atmospheric carbon over the next 50 years. Their mission: to whittle future CO2 levels down to a plateau in time to avert intolerable greenhouse warming.

    The “Wedge Game,” based on “stabilization wedges”–a concept developed by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala of Princeton University (Science, 13 August 2004, p. 968)–was part of a town hall-like session for teachers and students at the AAAS Annual Meeting, held here from 15 to 19 February. The game, designed to convey the scale of the effort needed to stabilize carbon emissions and the pros and cons of possible options, was just one of some 200 sessions, ranging from “Addiction and the Brain” to “Education, Learning, and Public Diplomacy in Virtual Worlds.”

    Perhaps influenced by Lovins, the Wedge Gamers voted for a deep-green mix of two parts increased efficiency and one part each solar electricity, wind power, driving less, switching from petroleum to natural gas, and “biostorage” (planting forests to absorb CO2). It’s far from current U.S. energy policy, but it reflects much of the thinking on display at many other sessions at this meeting.

    More on The Stabilization Wedge, a concept and a game as well as the teachers’ guide. For those not computer inclined, the Wedge game is also available in colourful paper format.

    online environmental science education

    Friday, October 20th, 2006

    Do science students need to conduct actual, physical experiments in chemistry, physics, natural resources, environment? Or can all science education lab work be done online? This is the question with which eduators and those who accredit science education are trying to grapple.

    The arguments for online education (not necessarily an exhaustive list): lack of resources (we have no teachers; we have no labs; we’re poor and rural; we want to home school…), better grades (students are performing better on advanced placement exams to get into university), protection of the student (some experiments are dangerous or are in distant locations) and promotion of student individuality (students can take courses at their own pace, can take more advanced courses than currently offered in their schools or can take remedial courses). One such example of online science education is the Virtual High School, a nonprofit educational institution based in the US that reports to serve 7,600 students from numerous countries and US states.

    The arguments against (which are not well-covered in the article): the inability of virtual space to simulate the physical world (e.g., smells, manipulation of substances and instruments), the uneven quality and lack of accreditation of online courses, as well as the dubious connection between doing well on exams and being able to conduct science.

    Add to those, the argument by the online content producers themselves that online science in and of itself is insufficient:

    Earl W. Fleck, the biology professor who created the virtual pig dissection, believes otherwise. Dr. Fleck began working on the virtual dissection in 1997 to help his students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., review for tests and to offer a substitute for those who, for ethical reasons, objected to working with once-living specimens.

    Dr. Fleck, who is now provost at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, said students worldwide found the virtual dissection useful. But he called it “markedly inferior” to performing a real dissection.

    Note how this is an example of mission creep in virtual education. What was created for one purpose, an assistance to real world practice, has become an end in itself. This is a real problem in any distance education. The temptation is to think that all you need is a computer and an Internet connection and you can learn everything you need to know. It’s the computer / Internet revolutionary lure. It’s an efficiency argument (why have our own lab when an online course can do it better and utilize the best instructors in the world?). So there is ample justification that a school need not seek investment in its own science education. More important, like textbook sales, online education is an incredibly lucrative market. There is every incentive to package and sell these virtual labs.

    So can we conduct environmental science this way? Certainly there are strong arguments for online labs. For example, it’s difficult to do a real world science lab on global warming. Much of global warming research is computer-based anyway, so it’s relatively easy to move the desktop models online so that students can conduct their own ‘bite-sized’ climate change models. One can create similar online labs in water modeling and management, food systems, epidemiology and public health, even in sustainable forestry and habitat conservation. Technically, it’s relatively easy. But what does the student lose by not travelling to the river, taking the water sample, and examining it under a physical microscope?

    Believe or not, I’m quite ambivalent. I do research in the use of geographic information systems by poor communities. A lot of the modelling and mapping could be done online and be used to educate people about the impacts of deforestation, air/water pollution, climate change, etc. Poor people in far flung places can be greatly assisted by online courses featuring the best environmental instructors and advocates in the world. But does that mean we need invest in no local teachers nor worry about real world practice in difficult places (say, science education for girls in Afghanistan)? Of course not, but balancing the on the ground environmental education against efficiency / technological razzle dazzle is difficult.