Daniel Mallinson is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration in the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg, and author for UC Press’s journal Case Studies in the Environment (you can read his authored and co-authored–with students!–CSE articles here, here and here). In this post, Professor Mallinson describes his experiences using case studies for classroom projects and instruction.

The launch of Case Studies in the Environment (CSE) came at an opportune time for me. It came amid designing my first offering of a capstone course in environmental policy for our Bachelor of Science in public policy program at Penn State Harrisburg. As with any capstone, I was looking to increase the rigor of the course with the hopes of the penultimate assessment serving as a bridge between students’ academic careers and their future career endeavors. Being an upper-division undergraduate course, it also tends to attract graduate students looking for an elective. In my case, these graduate students were from environmental engineering. Writing for CSE provided a structure for deep student understanding of environmental policy topics while also learning how to explain that topic to a broader audience. I also used an early published case from the journal to teach students about car efficiency standards in the United States. I want to use this blog to discuss both experiences.

A major purpose of the journal is to provide case studies for use in classrooms. The journal’s broad scope in all matters environmental means that its cases are applicable to many disciplines. Case studies provide useful teaching tools for helping students to understand the theoretical content that they are also covering in class. They also help students understand the implications of concepts they are learning in the classroom through “real-world” applications of these concepts.

We used a case by Killeen and Levinson on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards in the capstone course. The case walks students through the history of the development and evolution of the standards, their costs and benefits, and the current debates about electric cars, car size, and the trade-off between safety and efficiency. The case ended with a discussion of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s 2016 midterm review of the standards. While the fact that this case ends in 2016 highlights how quickly cases can become dated, it also helped to facilitate discussion of both the science and the politics of his review, and to compare that to subsequent action taken by the EPA. Doing so helped students weigh how both political and scientific content impacted regulatory decisions. Each case study in the journal includes suggested discussion questions, and the  set for this case helped me to structure class discussion.

In terms of case writing, I elaborated on my experience in an article of the journal, but wanted to also briefly share it here. Using the journal’s structure, I tasked students to work in teams to write a case study that could potentially be submitted to the journal for peer review. Teams could pick their own topics, but they needed to adhere to the purpose of the journal. My hope was that the prospect of publishing would be enticing and would push students to do better work. I was also cognizant of the benefit of a published piece for students’ job portfolios. Given the results, it was apparent to me that this approach in fact raised the quality of the final projects for those students who took seriously the potential for publication. Two of the three groups produced high-quality cases. They were not perfect, and required additional writing and editing by me to make them publication quality, but they were a heads above the third case. Both cases were eventually published. I recently met for advising with one of the students, and they freely recalled the case writing assignment and how it pushed them to dig deeply into their topic. They also remarked at how they now see that topic all the time in the news. For both papers I can say that I see conversation about their topics regularly in Pennsylvania news outlets.

Whether you assign case studies from the journal as readings, or attempt to have your students draft their own cases, Case Studies in the Environment is an invaluable resource for teachers that transcends disciplinary boundaries.

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case study articles and case study pedagogy articles. The journal informs faculty, students, researchers, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.