Drilling into controversy: the educational complexity of shale gas development

Abstract

Potential development of shale gas presents a complicated and controversial education problem. Research on human learning and our own experiences as educators support the conclusion that traditional, disciplinary-focused educational experiences are insufficient due to the nature of the concepts necessary for understanding the development of shale gas within the energy system as a complex, contextualized phenomenon. Educators engaging in communicating complex phenomena such as shale gas development can also increase sophistication of learner understanding by taking into account the sociocultural and psychological mechanisms that shape one’s understanding of the change processes at work. We therefore review an emerging body of research showing that nurturing environmental literacy requires more than the clear explication of evidence, and instead requires interrogating one’s existing worldview and comparing alternative options for action, as opposed to analyzing energy options in isolation. We then apply the results of this research to the challenging task of creating meaningful learning experiences and engagement with complex issues such as emerging energy systems and shale gas development in particular.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    While many at the poles of this polarizing issue may see it in simple terms, little is simple about it, including the terminology we use to communicate. In the vernacular, horizontal high-volume, slickwater hydraulic fracturing is commonly referred to as simply “fracking,” or “hydrofracking.” While acknowledging this colloquial language, we primarily use other labels in this article. Fracking, hydrofracking, or hydraulic fracturing all refer to the same single process in the suite of technologies that is rapidly changing energy production in the USA. This refers to using fluids at high pressure to fracture rocks allowing gas or oil to flow through these cracks. Such technology has been around for decades. The fact that drilling can be done horizontally is also not terribly new, but putting them together and using millions of gallons of chemically treated water to do the fracturing is considerably newer. The technology of horizontal high-volume, slickwater hydraulic fracturing is one of several unconventional energy production methods that have increased substantially in use in the last few decades. It was no easy task to select a label that concisely conveys the range of unconventional energy development technologies in question. Recognizing there is no perfect solution, we primarily use “shale gas development” in this paper.

  2. 2.

    We also are familiar with research specifically targeting informal educators including Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments (Fenichel and Schweingruber 2009) and Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits (National Research Council 2009). This work complements the research cited above.

  3. 3.

    A third recommendation involves assessing metacognitive competence in particular subject areas. Detailing the implications of this recommendation is beyond the aim of this article. However, we recommend A Private Universe: Minds of Our Own (Sadler et al. 2003) for more on this dimension of human learning.

  4. 4.

    This “situating” phenomenon has different names depending on the body of literature wrestling with the concept, and can be referred to as one’s lifeworld (Habermas 1984; Lim and Barton 2006), positionality (Holland et al. 2001), habitus (Bourdieu 1977), identity (Crompton and Kasser 2009; Gee 2000), or worldview (Kahan and Braman 2006), to name a few examples across diverse fields of study. While the different names indicate that these are not all precisely the same thing, they are labels for closely related phenomena.

  5. 5.

    See McCright and Dunlap (2011) for an example of how identity drives climate science denial and Clarke et al. (2013) for how similar dynamics interact with knowledge of shale gas development.

  6. 6.

    In presentations and materials related to the Marcellus Shale, the Museum of the Earth uses the following statement regarding bias:

    In our outreach related to the Marcellus Shale, the Museum of the Earth will not take a position supporting or opposing drilling in the Marcellus Shale. A fundamental goal of our work is to provide evidence-based information and to build understanding of the science related to the Shale, the extraction techniques employed in gas recovery from the Shale, and associated environmental impacts. Project partners also help nurture understandings of the economic and cultural impacts of decisions related to Marcellus Shale development. We strive to do this work with as little bias as possible.

    More information about our Marcellus Shale outreach efforts can be found here: http://www.museumoftheearth.org/

  7. 7.

    See Revkin (2012) and Wilber (2012) for additional details on the Howarth controversy.

  8. 8.

    Whether or not it is wise to continue our current level of development is beyond the aim of this article. Refer to Speth (2008) and Dodds (2008) for more on this question.

  9. 9.

    Generating capacity for any US power units can be found at http://www.eia.gov/electricity/capacity/ (United States Energy Information Administration, 2012). See also Alley (2012).

  10. 10.

    See Pachirat (2011) for an example of how this phenomenon manifests in the meat industry.

  11. 11.

    A discussion of PBE is beyond the aim of this article, but we recommend Gruenewald (2003), Gruenewald and Smith (2008), Sobel (2004), Smith (2002), and Thomashow (2002) for more on PBE philosophy and pedagogy.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Beth Kinne, Thomas Love, Ken Klemow, David Hursh, Natalie Macquire, Tracey Henderson, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on previous drafts. This material is based upon work supported by the grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF GEO-1016359 and 1035078). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Joseph A. Henderson.

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Henderson, J.A., Duggan-Haas, D. Drilling into controversy: the educational complexity of shale gas development. J Environ Stud Sci 4, 87–96 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-013-0161-9

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Keywords

  • Natural gas
  • Fracking
  • Energy
  • Environmental education
  • Complexity