Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Secondary Education

Major Professor

Barbara S. Spector, Ph.D.


Science education reform, Cognitive dissonance, Reflective thinking


This qualitative study described non-science undergraduate majors' responses to controversial issues embedded in an introductory level environmental science course in a liberal arts college located in the southeastern United States. Participants enrolled in this 12-week summer course were both traditional college-age (late teens to early twenties) and non-traditional age student (thirties to fifties). Approximately 76 percent were female. Students demonstrated various lifestyles (e.g., gay, single-parent, living at home), socioeconomic statuses (e.g., middle-income, low income), employment (e.g., employed, unemployed, ex-military) and ethnicities. The structure of the environmental science course was consistent with the science education reform movement standards applied to K-12 public schools, but not yet pervasive in higher education. Some of the reform techniques included use of open discussion format, cooperative learning, field trips, classroom demonstration, and various media. The theoretical framework for the study was using controversial issues in science to stimulate cognitive dissonance, which may provide a pathway to higher level reflective thinking. Controversial issues triggering a response in students showed elements of injustice and unfairness. Examples included the CHEERS pesticide study on children in Jacksonville, Florida; human radiation experimentation, including the use of depleted uranium in military conflicts; and local groundwater cases that exhibited environmental racism. The study showed the use of controversial issues in the environmental science course stimulated reflective thinking and encouraged the expression of environmental advocacy beyond the classroom. Students expressed participation in energy and water conservation, recycling practices, political involvement, and joining environmental groups. Students shared information with outsiders, such as family, friends, and co-workers when they deemed it personally or societally relevant (e.g., pertaining to family, health, safety, homelife, politics). Generational differences in students were observed in their openness to discuss controversial issues, ability to self-express, attitude toward the environment, quality of writing, and involvement in the educational process.