Students Tackle Mining Controversy

As they study their fields, graduate science students also need to learn to be good communicators about science. So says the National Science Foundation (NSF).

So Professor Alex Mayer, who has dual appointments in the civil and environmental engineering department and the geological and mining engineering and sciences department, developed a graduate fellowship program–funded by NSF–to help PhD students learn to communicate science to school children and the general public.

This year, PhD students Brenda Bergman, in forest science, and Valoree Gagnon, in environmental and energy policy, chose to develop a news release about the controversy over mining in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and around the nation. Here is their news release:

As mining is resurging in North America, debates across the continent over mines are simplified: “Do we prioritize jobs or the environment? Companies or communities?” These are worthy debates. Yet should the issue of mining really be reduced to “pro-con” statements?

Michigan Tech experts from a wide range of disciplines say no. “The worst type of communication has to do with the simplification of the mining issues. I think the biggest problem is creation of polar opposites so that one has to choose between employment or environmental and health protection” says Carol MacLennan, an environmental anthropologist who has studied mining communities for almost a decade. “Characterizing it that way is very destructive because you’re never forced to confront the complexity of the issue.”

How are members of the general public expected to understand such a complex issue? Answers from Michigan Tech scientists focus on two solutions: education and improved communication between scientists and the public.

According to Craig Waddell, an associate professor of humanities who has studied public participation in environmental disputes, “If you want to prepare a broader range of people to participate, they need to know how to address scientific arguments, how to assess disputes within the scientific community, what counts as evidence and how we evaluate whether or not that evidence is valid.”

MacLennan believes that scientists have an obligation to communicate with the public: “Too often, scientists think about things in terms of ‘furthering knowledge,’ and that, by implication, is a public good. It’s just that it’s often not clear–how is it a public good? How is it publically useful? And you have to always be thinking about different publics–and there are different publics–how are they interested or concerned in the particular work you’re doing?”

For the full story, see Mining.

CBS Detroit and the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report also featured the  story about Brenda Bergman and Valoree Gagnon.  See Mining Dispute to view the article.

Published in Tech Today.


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