by Paul Goraczko, Think Green Correspondent
Last spring, Jill Beccaris-Pescatore, Assistant Professor of Economics at Montgomery County Community College, asked her students to think about the world in a different way.
The course she taught, entitled “Introduction to Environmental Economics,” asked students to reexamine an everyday object as simple as a plastic water bottle.
Throughout the course, students were exposed to numerous methods for exploring economic issues like the water bottle, including documentaries, hands-on simulations, and collaborative projects.
They studied a variety of units that helped them to better understand these issues. Sample units included “The Economics of Garbage;” “Why Buy Bottled Water?” and “Is Economic Growth Bad for the Environment?”
By applying economic tools taught throughout the course to these difficult questions and concepts, enrolled students were able to examine the economic sustainability of plastic water bottles, to apply the principles of scarcity and choice to environmental issues, and to analyze the impact that humans make on the planet.
Beccaris-Pescatore designed the course with the assistance of a grant from the Library of Congress through their Teaching with Primary Sources program; the aim of the course was to make economics and environmental studies more accessible to students.
The course achieved its goal and left students with one resounding message: “Our choices matter.”
“We all need to understand that every choice we [make] has a trade off and that impact is not likely felt immediately,” Beccaris-Pescatore said.
These delayed consequences make it difficult to understand the impact of our decisions immediately, but Beccaris-Pescatore insists that understanding the ecological impact of our economic actions is important.
“The better we get at understanding the chain of events that our immediate decisions set off, the better we will be able to have economic growth and a strong environment,” she said.
The conclusions that Beccaris-Pescatore’s class drew after conducting research on our economic and ecological dilemmas were not always flattering and were often disconcerting to the students.
For example, students discovered that American’s use approximately 50 billion plastic bottles annually, but we only recycle approximately 23% (banthebottle.net).
Students were able to present these staggering findings to members of the college community in the Advanced Technology Center at Central Campus as part of the College’s Earth Week Celebration.
Despite some bleak findings, students did come to find solutions to the water bottle dilemma.
Solutions included replacing disposable water bottles with reusable bottles, using filtered fountains, and buying larger bottles of water that use less plastic.
Beccaris-Pescatore is proud of the progress her students made over the course of the semester.
“I feel the students really made a difference on campus,” she said.
The class’ efforts included a push to make others on campus more aware of the filtered water available throughout the campus buildings and even a letter written to the Climate Commitment Advisory Council addressing on campus environmental concerns.
In an effort to encourage members of the College community to make the switch from disposable water bottles to reusable bottles, students partnered with the Campus Bookstore for a water bottle giveaway.
Beccaris-Pescatore hopes her students have walked away having learned that each dollar they spend can make a difference.
“Each ‘dollar vote’ sends a message to produces about what we value,” Beccaris-Pescatore said.
“Buying that reusable bottle and not the case of water sends a message to the market, in turn helps our economy grow on a more sustainable path,” she concluded.
Beccaris-Pescatore has presented on economics and sustainability at a variety of conferences. Most recently she presented at a conference in St. Louis alongside of Dr. Jessica Schocker of Penn State Berks. In the fall, she will be reuniting with Dr. Schocker at the National Council for Social Studies conference in Boston, MA to present on similar issues.
You can follow Beccaris-Pescatore on Twitter @Econ_Bricabrac.