CSTA Classroom Science

The Global Environmental Crisis - The Wicked Problem

By Kim Klinko

The Global Environmental Crisis is a wicked problem. I first heard this idea of a “wicked problem” when I attended the professional development Teaching for Sustainable Communities through the California Global Education Project (CGEP). As a middle school science teacher, I was looking for meaningful, purposeful, and practical summer professional development opportunities. The CGEP afforded me that opportunity. I have struggled with teaching climate change, not because I did not want to teach the topic, but how do I teach it?  A wicked problem as defined by Horst Ritel describes wicked problems as having the following ten characteristics:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. The problem of poverty in Texas is grossly similar but discretely different from poverty in Nairobi, so no practical characteristics describe "poverty."
  2. It's hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another, unlike the boundaries of traditional design problems that can be articulated or defined.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false. There is no idealized end state to arrive at, and so approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide. Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
  5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem, with the appropriateness of the explanation depending greatly on the individual perspective of the designer.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. The interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems illustrates how, for example, a change in education will cause new behavior in nutrition.
  7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  8. Offering a "solution" to a wicked problem frequently is a "one shot" design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.

It is no wonder then that finding a way to teach climate change to students under the age of 15 can be challenging. According to Dr. Art Sussman’s Blog, climate change is just one of the three major parts of the Global Environmental Crisis with the other two being biodiversity extinctions and increasing pandemics.  One way that we can begin to teach this is to use a systems thinking approach. Dr. Art Sussman has put together a website with resources that can help teachers understand this as well as videos that can be shown to students. 

However, we can think of teaching this wicked problem as its own wicked problem. These are three very large sections of content that at the middle school levels cover multiple grade levels if you are teaching the preferred CA Integrated NGSS model. At the high school level in a discipline specific model, these topics could span the entire year. We all have a lot of content to cover in one school year. The global environmental crisis only covers a few DCIs. 

Another issue to consider is environmental fatigue. Students need to feel a sense of hope and optimism when we are learning about these stressful subjects. Adults struggle with disaster and doomsday fatigue. We want our students to feel empowered to become problem solvers and critical thinkers. One way to do this is to create problem-based, design thinking lessons and units that focus on designing solutions. Looking at the Science and Engineering Practices Matrix for constructing explanations and designing solutions, you can see how designing solutions plays out along grade spans. Through Problem Based Learning design solution choice boards, students will be able to create real world solutions for the three global environmental crises and therefore combat environmental fatigue. 

The following 5E, 3D lesson sequence is intended to demonstrate how you can teach this wicked problem. Although it is written at middle school NGSS standards, it can be adapted for both older and younger students.  

Here you see that we decided to tackle environmental fatigue by turning the students into problem solvers. We created 3 choice boards, one per global environmental crisis, as a way to demonstrate learning for these topics. They can design and build solutions for these problems. By starting the sequence watching the video, Human Global Species Test, students are invited to think about the health of our systems at large. By the end, they should be able to better evaluate the health of our planet. By including a CER, we want students to make cause and effect connections between the 3 crises.   

Rittel, H.W.J., Webber, M.M. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sci 4, 155–169 (1973). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730

Sussman, Art. “Systems: The Super CCC (for science and environmental educators).” Art Sussman, PhD. 21 Dec. 2021, https://www.drartscience.com/post/systems-the-super-ccc



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