Advisory Committee on Pesticides, 1963
Project Profile || Background || Roles || Resources  

Teaching Notes -- Format & Day Plans
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The historical resources assembled here may be used in many ways, of course. For example, one may simply discuss the history of the episode or the various perspectives or use documents related to some particular ethical or scientific issue. However, a simluation emphasizes experience as essential. By adopting a role, one understands a particular perspective in depth, while also coming to appreciate how and why other perspectives may differ. Each participant must be provided time to prepare his or her role, to be able to represent that particular perspective in a creative, open-ended exercise.

For each role, there is particular guidance, identifying essential chapters in Silent Spring and background articles--especially published reviews of Silent Spring (links on the Roles webpage). Everyone reads Chapters 2 and 7. There is also a list of common resources, including some internet resources. A background essay -- which can also be the basis for an instructor's presentation -- introduces the history of DDT, Rachel Carson and her book. Additional information details news items, popular music and cartoons. These, too, can be used by an instructor to help set the scene in 1963 (say, at the beginning of class).

Like any case study, activities may expand to include more detail or context. The following is a guide to scheduling, with optional extensions noted.

Introduction (½-1 class)
(a) History of DDT. (~15 mins.) Possibly use text/visuals from the background essay. This may be expanded with more information about agriculture as monoculture, the problems of disease and crop pests, and pesticides used before 1945.
Optional: Set the scene by re-enacting the 1948 Nobel Ceremony. The Instructor takes the role of Prof. G. Fischer and presents the Nobel Prize to Paul Müller (possibly played by a teaching assistant or designated student). Use the Nobel presentation speech (online), possibly edited. Optional: musical fanfare.

(b) History of Rachel Carson & Silent Spring. (~15-20 mins.) Possibly use text/visuals from the background essay.

Alternate to (a),(b): Assign background essay to be read independently by students. The aim is not to provide an exhaustive analytical history or biography, but to present information that an ordinary citizen might know about Carson and pesticides in 1962.

(c) Task Charge. (~15 mins.) Present the simulation scenario and the responsibilities of the Committee (see project profile). Assign roles, discuss reading and writing assignments and available resources.
Optional: The Instructor may adopt the role of President Kennedy and issue the charge directly to students as the Committee. This begins to establish the spirit of the simulation and demonstrates for students how role playing works. Note the brief recording of Kennedy on CBS Reports.

Optional: Preliminary Discussion (1 class)
For added depth in reading Silent Spring, allow students to discuss their personal responses to Carson's book, outside a historical context. This may be based on the whole book, or selected chapters. Chapter 2, "The Obligation to Endure" features many of Carson's themes about control of nature. Chapter 7, "And No Birds Sing," is about harm to birdlife, echoing the book's title. Such discussion might be used to identify or highlight the themes that can guide the Committee's later discussion. A short "reaction essay" may be required.

Testimony ( 1 class)
In this phase, each student gives a presentation to the Committee based on his or her role. I have students prepare a written "position statement" in advance, which also becomes the basis for evaluating their work. The paper is to provide an assessment of Carson's claims from each role's perspective (each focusing on certain issues, as highlighted in the role descriptions). They should include any policy recommendations (new administrative rules or actions, new laws, funding requirements, etc.). I typically preview the statements, so that students have feedback comments before presenting information to class.
I limit presentations to 3 minutes (no notecards) and require a visual to foster development of presentation skills.
Optional: Alternatively, such papers may be posted on a shared website and serve as either required background reading (with no presentations) or as a reference.
Optional: Students may be allowed, as members of the Committee, to ask questions.

To lead the Committee, the Instructor may adopt the role of Jerome Wiesner or it may be assigned to a student as a role (fostering leadership skills).

Proposals & Discussion (1-2 day)
If not included as part of the testimony phase, students present concrete proposals or recommendations to include in the report to the President. (More recently, to economize on time, I have delved into this activity without extended testimony.) Discussion may be more formally organized -- using the key issues identified in the project profile and listed below as a structure. For example, discussing overall Carson's credibility is an appropriate opening. Alternatively, one may consider specific proposals in turn. The structure, or agenda, may also be established by the person playing Jerome Wiesner (PSAC chair), if that role is assigned.

Students may need to decide whether they will work towards consensus (ideal, for working through all conflicts) or some other form of reaching a group decision. The most challenging topic, if adopted for discussion, is Carson's claims about "control of nature": is environmental action beyond pesticides warranted? If so, what?

Some instructors may want students to work on the language and wording of the proposals --and hence, of a final joint report. If so, segments taken from individual position statements (including justification) may facilitate group writing.

See Discussion Guide  arrow

Optional: Presidential Medal of Freedom (½-1 class)
The Committee may consider, if charged by the President, to consider whether Ms. Carson should receive recognition (such as the Medal of Freedom) for her public service. This discussion can highlight more dramatically the role of voices and communication style in public understanding of science. Carson's information all came from published sources, yet her emotive style influenced public opinion. Is her work especially significant or deserving of merit for this reason?

Epilog (½-1 class)
When positions in the simulation are well researched, the participants typically echo the findings of the actual 1963 Committee. That is, they likely validate most of Carson's claims, but also reaffirm the role of pesticides in modern agriculture, hardly entertaining a ban on DDT or other pesticides. You may refer to the actual report of the President's Science Advisory Committee in May 1963, included in the "library" (but not listed among the student resources, so as not to upstage the simulation).

Equally important, perhaps, may be the fact that despite such recommendations, little action was taken. The political power of agricultural business managed to suppress major action until the late 1960s. See:

  • Angus MacIntyre, "Why Pesticides Received Extensive Use in America: A Political Economy of Pest Management to 1970," Natural Resources Journal 27(1987): 534-577.
  • Zuoyue Wang, "Responding to Silent Spring," Science Communication 19(1997): 141-163.
That, too, is part of the lesson about science and politics. An epilog may also be an occasion to reflect on several warnings by scientists and scientific organizations, some in the popular press, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. See:
  • Edmund Russell, "Testing Insecticides and Repellents in World War II," pp. 399-409 in Major Problems in the History of American Technology, ed. M. Smith & G. Clancey, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
One may discuss why they did not have a cautionary effect at that time.

A retrospective is also a good occasion for discussing gender. Carson's gender was sometimes portrayed as relevant to her credibility, as exemplified in the review in Time magazine or other references to "Miss" Carson. One may also discuss whether Carson's perspective was gendered in a way critical to her effectiveness.

One may also wish to view and comment on many of the political cartoons inspired by Carson's work, some included here. See also:

  • Paul Brooks, House of Life.

Optional: One may also discuss current controversies over: (1) the use of DDT in developing nations for control of malaria; (2) the unregulated use of pesticides for individual residences.

Optional Supplements
Various elements may help set the scene in 1963 (for example, as a prelude or opening to class):

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Simulation assembled by Douglas Allchin. || last revised May 21, 2008