By the time senior year rolls around and we graduate from Lewis and Clark’s Environmental Studies Program, we are expected to be capable of carrying out analytical research. This entails approaching an issue in a way that incorporates synthesis of multiple views and a full understanding of what is actually happening before asking what can be done. This is a daunting task for a student who has never been asked to do this level of analysis before, and is therefore broken down in each of the ENVS core classes.
Students are first taught the hierarchy of research questions in Introduction to Environmental Studies, or ENVS 160. This hierarchy of questions helps guide research by establishing layers in which students ask what is happening, why it is happening, what can be done, and why it is significant. By honing our skills at creating research questions, we learn what constitutes quality research and make sure that no aspect goes unnoticed. As a transfer student from a university with an Environmental Science Program, I can attest that this emphasis on different levels of research questions was completely new to me when I arrived at Lewis and Clark. These carefully crafted research questions prove invaluable later on in the research process and make sure that we can prove the value and implications of all our hard work.
When students move on to the methods course, Environmental Analysis (ENVS 220), they flex those newly discovered muscles by creating research projects that identify an environmental issue in Portland. These projects aim to identify what is happening with the issue, as well as all the forces involved, and then figure out why it’s occurring. Students are tempted to move forward and make suggestions for possible solutions, but often have to wait until ENVS 330. This course, Situating Environmental Problems and Solutions, equips students to answer the deeper layers of research questions by proposing and analyzing potential solutions. An interesting component of ENVS 330 is that students pick up projects done by previous ENVS 220 students and build on them to study the solutions and their implications. This fosters a sense of connectedness within the ENVS student community and illustrates the infinite ways that any single issue may be approached.
ENVS 220 and 330 students have produced a number of fantastic research projects, but several in particular stand out. The Perception of Renewable Energy Use in Portland project was carried out by ENVS 220 students to understand public perception of energy policy. This project demonstrates the use of multiple methods to fully answer the question: What is the current public perception of energy policy in Portland? This is a great contrast to the Portland Carbon Tax research done by a group of ENVS 330 students. This project builds on previous work to try and answer the question of whether Portland should implement a tax on carbon emissions. For example, the findings of the first project illustrated how open Portland’s populace is to various forms of renewable energy and would influence public response to a proposed carbon tax. This shows that the students have understood the numerous components and controversies of a carbon tax and then applied it to their understanding of Portland’s unique situation to answer complex research questions. A further example of ENVS 330 work is this project that studies the effect of Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary on housing. This project addresses the situation of the Urban Growth Boundary and then goes further by making recommendations on possible solutions to increase affordable housing. Comparing ENVS 220 and 330 projects demonstrates the progression of research questions that students learn as they build up to the point of formulating solutions.
The different types of research questions may seem frustrating at first, but they guide student work in a valuable way. Students are pushed to fully understand all the forces at play before they offer solutions and recommendations. This may help prevent students from eagerly jumping into research projects with predetermined ideas of the ideal ‘solution.’ The hierarchy of research questions provides a framework for us to follow as we get lost in the midst of our research, and provides breadth and significance to all the work we do.