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Technology and Society
B. Effects Of Technology On The Natural World

B. Effects of Technology on the Natural World

As with technology's influences on culture and society, the effects of a technology on the environment can be either positive or negative. Since the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth of human populations, the potential for technology to have a major impact on the environment has grown. Consequently, an essential aspect of technology and engineering literacy is an understanding of certain key principles about the effects of technology on the natural environment and of the many important efforts that people have made to preserve natural habitats, reduce air and water pollution, and maintain a healthful environment.

Individuals who are literate in technology and engineering should be aware of methods that have been developed to reduce the environmental impacts of technology. For example, an important step in designing a new product is to take the product's life cycle into account. Such an analysis may start with the raw materials that need to be mined or grown, the industrial processes and energy needed to manufacture the product, the transportation technologies required to get it to market, and its eventual disposal when the product is no longer needed.

Other ways to reduce environmental impact include the use of communication technologies to allow people to work at home rather than physically commute, the use of computer models to optimize industrial processes to conserve energy and reduce waste, and the expansion of alternative energy sources such as wind power.

In finding a balance between technological development and environmental protection, a key overarching principle is that one should attempt, when possible, to find sustainable solutions. As defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, sustainable solutions are those that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Key principles in the area of Effects of Technology on the Natural World that all students can be expected to understand at increasing levels of sophistication are:

  • The use of technology may affect the environment positively or negatively.
  • Some technological decisions put environmental and economic concerns in competition with one another, while others have positive effects for both the economy and the environment.
  • Reusing, recycling, and using fewer resources can reduce environmental impacts.
  • Resources such as oceans, fresh water, and air, which are shared by everyone, need to be protected by careful planning and regulation of technological systems.
  • Some technologies can reduce the negative impacts of other technologies.
  • Sustainable solutions are those that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland Commission, 1987).

At the fourth-grade level students are expected to know that sometimes technology can cause environmental harm. For example, litter from food packages and plastic forks and spoons discarded on city streets can travel through storm drains to rivers and oceans where they can harm or kill wildlife. However, such negative effects can be lessened by reusing or recycling products as well as by reducing the amount of resources used in producing the products.

Eighth-graders are expected to recognize that technology and engineering decisions often involve weighing competing priorities, and there are no perfect solutions. For example, dams built to control floods and produce electricity have left wilderness areas under water and affected the ability of certain fish to spawn. They should be able to analyze such conflicts and be able to recommend changes that would reduce environmental impacts. For example, students could study the trade-offs involved in using paper or plastic to carry groceries or research the causes and effects of acid rain on forests and the costs of reducing those effects. They should know that designers can reduce waste by taking the entire life cycle of a product into account during design. For example, students should be able to discuss what a community could do when its landfill is close to capacity or find ways that designers of new products could reduce waste by considering the life cycle of a product.

By 12th grade students should have had a variety of experiences in which technologies were used to reduce the environmental impacts of other technologies, such as the use of environmental monitoring equipment. Students should be able to analyze the effects of different technologies on the environment—for example, by using data on the environmental impacts of power plants that use different types of fuel to inform decisions on which types of new power plants to build. Students should also be able to analyze complex human activities, such as energy generation, and propose sustainable solutions. Students could, for example, research the environmental impacts of energy generation and create a presentation to a United Nations council on the trade-offs of various solutions.

Table 2.3 Effects of Technology on the Natural World assessment targets for grades 4, 8, and 12

B. Effects of Technology on the Natural World

Fourth-graders should be aware that the use of technology can affect the environment, that the environment affects technology, and that reusing and recycling products can avoid damaging the environment. Eighth-graders should be able to investigate the environmental effects of alternative decisions by tracing the life cycle of products and considering the trade-offs involved in different technologies. Twelfth-graders should be aware that technologies used to monitor environmental change can help inform decision-making, and they should also be able to investigate complex global issues and generate innovative sustainable solutions.

Grade 4

Grade 8

Grade 12

Students know that:

T.4.5: The use of technology can affect the environment, including land, water, air, plants and animals. The environment also affects technology by providing sources of energy and raw materials.

Students know that:

T.8.5: Some technological decisions involve trade-offs between environmental and economic needs, while others have positive effects for both the economy and environment.

Students know that:

T.12.5: Many technologies have been designed to have a positive impact on the environment and to monitor environmental change over time to provide evidence for making informed decisions.

T.4.6: Reusing and recycling materials can save money while preserving natural resources and avoiding damage to the environment.

T.8.6: Resources such as oceans, fresh water, and air, which are essential for life and shared by everyone, are protected by regulating technologies in such areas as transportation, energy, and waste disposal.

T.12.6: Development and modification of any technological system needs to take into account how the operation of the system will affect natural resources and ecosystems.

Students are able to:

T.4.7: Identify the impact of a specific technology on the environment and determine what can be done to reduce negative effects and increase positive effects.

Students are able to:

T.8.7: Compare the environmental effects of two alternative technologies devised to solve the same problem or accomplish the same goal and justify which choice is best, taking into account environmental impacts as well as other relevant factors.

Students are able to:

T.12.7: Identify a complex global environmental issue, develop a systematic plan of investigation, and propose an innovative sustainable solution.