I’ve been asked by textbook publishers if I had an interest in writing a textbook, my answer was always an emphatic ‘no.’ I don’t even like textbooks and I try not to use them because, let’s face it, if I find them overly simplistic and dull, it’s not hard to understand why my students buy them but rarely read them. And education research is pretty clear: reading textbooks is one of the worst possible ways to actually learn something.
Introductory textbooks are superficial and attempt to cover every possible aspect of a topic, but without any depth. Relevance and appreciation comes from deeper understanding. Instead, I find it works better to address a relevant topic with a good non-fiction book on the issue, and then use that as a way to discuss the science and biology behind it. One of my favorite books currently is Unquenchable by Robert Glennon (2009, Island Press, ISBN 9781597266390). I begin my environmental science class with this book to emphasize the absolute dependence of life on water, the complete orientation of human society around it, the consequences of having unclean and polluted water sources, and the numerous dangers we are facing with its increasing scarcity, and yet we barely recognize that there is a problem. If anything, Glennon’s presentation makes the situation sound worse.
Millions of people die each year around the world as a consequence of unclean and scarce water. In the US, 25% of our domestic water, the cleanest and most dependable municipal water on earth, is used to flush our toilets after we pee on it. Isn’t that more relevant?
Combine this with books on the environment, food, trash, and pollution such as World on the Edge (Lester Brown, 2011), Garbology (Edward Humes, 2013), Fast-Food Nation (Eric Schlosser, 2005) and films such as Waste Land (2010), Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (2004), Chasing Ice (2012), and Blue Gold (2008) and I have a way to grab the attention of my students and jump into great discussions on the science behind current issues.