Initial Publication Date: August 21, 2019

An Example of Case Pedagogy: Assessing the Sustainability of - Palm Oil Production

Erich Eberhard1, Elizabeth Oliphant1, Adam C. Simon1, and Meghan Wagner2
1Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Michigan, 1100 North University Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48109
2School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, 440 Church St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Let's start with the good news: There is no right or wrong way to use a case study. The method is intrinsically flexible, both in form and application. And the bad news? There really is no bad news, but successfully implementing a case relies on careful preparation before setting foot in the classroom—much like any other pedagogy. In a companion article (this issue), we describe the Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSC) initiative and the inroads case studies are making into environment and sustainability education. Here we introduce the Gala platform in more detail and provide one example of how a web-based sustainability case study has been used in an undergraduate geology and environmental science course to enhance the student learning experience. This particular case engages students to think critically about the sustainability of palm oil, a product that is nearly ubiquitous in processed foods, as well as personal care and cosmetics, the pharmaceutical industry, animal feed and as a biofuel. The overarching theme of the class in which this case is used is making students aware of the choices society makes when we think about sustainability. Students rarely pick up a box of cookies and read the label and connect palm oil with deforestation in Indonesia, Philippines, or Malaysia. This case works to make that connection by having students play an engaging game as described below.

Gala is the name for MSC's learning platform, where the case studies are housed and users can contribute new material through the Author Tools function (Gala, 2018). "Gala" was chosen because it is an apple variety grown in Michigan (an enduring symbol of the teaching profession), and it references a festive gathering (or perhaps simply a delightful experience). The platform is entirely free to use, although new users must create an account to see entire cases. Each case begins with a cover page that provides an overview of the case, including its learning objectives and setting (Figure 1). Clicking on the table of contents takes the user into the case narrative, which describes a challenging sustainability problem faced by the case's protagonist. Individual narrative pages are divided into cards that break up text into digestible segments (Figure 2). The narrative is complemented by multimedia features called Edgenotes (Figure 2), and occasionally other media such as podcasts and videos. An engaged learning exercise also accompanies each case and can serve multiple potential functions such as providing a framework for analysis or teaching critical skills. Typically, the engaged learning exercise appears at the end of a case study (see Figure 1), though some cases embed exercises throughout the narrative. A teaching guide is available for each case upon request. Together, the case elements form a complete pedagogical package that can be deployed in a variety of educational settings. To see an example of a case without creating an account on Gala, readers can access and download the journal-published version of Biofuels: Beneficial or Bad? (Oliphant et al., 2018).

Commonly, faculty that we work with at MSC are new to teaching with cases and approach us for advice on how to get started. A complete discussion of how to teach with cases is beyond the scope of this paper, and interested readers are directed to the ample resources available on the web for more comprehensive information. One of those resources that may be familiar to In the Trenches readers appears on the SERC website (). Here, we briefly summarize the salient points to consider when teaching with a case study.

Perhaps the most important step in preparing to teach with a case is to articulate the learning objectives that the case will address. Decisions about how to integrate the case into the course syllabus, how to structure the lesson, and time management should emerge from the learning objectives. Importantly, many students will not have previous experience learning with case studies, and so they will need guidance in how to approach one. Some examples of how to prepare students to learn with case studies are also available on the above-referenced SERC website. Finally, instructors will need to give students motivation to engage with a case study, such as by requiring a product, and they may want to build in a reward (extra credit) or punishment (quiz) to ensure that work gets done (Herreid, 2007a; 2007b).

As an example of how to teach with a sustainability case, we will use "The Cost of Sustainable Palm Oil," (), which was piloted in an undergraduate environmental science and geology course at the University of Michigan by its student authors. Palm oil is a vegetable oil used in products ranging from biodiesel, to food commodities such as Oreos, to beauty products such as lipstick. One million metric tons of palm oil were consumed in the United States in 2016 (SPOTT, 2016), and 100% of that palm oil was imported, with just two countries — Malaysia and Indonesia — accounting for 85% of global production. These countries reap major economic rewards from the palm oil industry, but large amounts of forests are cut down annually for conversion into palm oil plantations. This juxtaposition is examined in this case study, and students are asked: How can we mitigate the negative impacts of palm oil while still enabling developing economies and individuals?

This case focuses on the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), one of the largest palm oil sustainability certification programs with 19% of the world's palm oil currently being RSPO certified (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2019). Historically, the RSPO found it very challenging to attract smallholder farmers to their certification scheme, and this case study examines whether an Indonesian smallholder should become RSPO certified. The case study was written to help students recognize the challenges inherent in sustainability measures and explores how they can be overcome. It also highlights how interconnected our world is today and how products purchased in one country can lead to environmental degradation halfway around the world. Additionally, the engaged learning exercise introduces students to stakeholder analysis.

Students were assigned to read the case study and view its supporting Edgenotes on Gala prior to class and told that they would take a quiz about the case content at the beginning of class. Following this quiz, the instructors used a 15-minute lecture to review the content of the case study and describe the process of making the case. (Materials for this exercise are available in the Additional Resources section of the online edition for this issue of ITT.) The remainder of the class was used to unpack the case study further by using the associated engaged learning exercise, designed as a small group role playing game.

The game assigns students to palm oil industry stakeholder roles and tasks them with deciding how to develop a plot of land in the heart of Indonesia's palm oil region. Through role play, students come to understand the complexity of environmental decision making—i.e. the importance of considering social, economic, and political factors in addition to scientific consensus—and the conflicts between stakeholders in the palm oil industry, as they arise organically from debates between players with different objectives.

"The Cost of Palm Oil" Engaged Learning Activity

For the activity, students break out into small groups of three to six. Within each group, a roughly equal number of students is assigned to each of the three stakeholder roles: smallholder farmer, palm oil company, and conservationist. Students assigned to the same stakeholder play as a team.

Each stakeholder has their own goal within the game. Smallholders and palm oil companies seek to maximize profits, while conservationists seek to minimize CO2 emissions. To win, students do not compete within their small group, but rather, within their stakeholder class. Thus, at the end of the activity, the class will reconvene and determine which smallholder earned the most money, which company earned the most money, and which conservationist had the least CO2 emissions. This structure incentivizes each student to pursue his or her stakeholder's objective within his or her small group.

The game is divided into three-minute rounds, with each round representing one year. The entire game takes approximately 40 minutes. For classes that meet for less than one hour, we advise instructors to introduce the case in one class meeting and then have students do the role play exercise during the next class. After the students divide into groups, they have five minutes to discuss strategy and clarify any uncertainty about game play. To play, students debate within their small groups about how to develop plots of land on the game map. Each available development type confers different costs and rewards to each stakeholder class, and students must strategize and negotiate with other stakeholder classes in order to achieve their respective goals. Each land plot development must be agreed upon by two of the three stakeholders before it can occur. Students may develop up to five plots of land each year. At the end of each year, students use the Annual Report sheet to calculate annual revenue and emissions based on the game map. Instructors may determine the number of game rounds appropriate for their class periods. We recommend that students play a minimum of five rounds to see the game play out, but as few as three rounds are okay if there are time limitations. After each round, the instructor should introduce a new game move, such as RSPO certification or a conservation campaign, and ask students to observe how the new element affects power dynamics and decision making.

At the conclusion of the game, the class reconvenes and the instructor leads a discussion. Potential topics include students' strategies, stakeholder power dynamics, game assumptions, and how the game is similar to and different from the case study they read prior to class. An extended list of example debriefing questions is included with the activity materials on the Gala platform.

Throughout the class period, students were visibly more engaged in the learning process compared to a lecture-only format. Additionally, having the case authors lead the teaching added value by further connecting the case material to the real world and by giving two junior scholars teaching practice. We recognize that such an arrangement is not always possible, though with some creative thinking, opportunities abound to utilize local resources—human and physical—and for case studies to travel and grow in geoscience and environmental education.

References cited:

Gala, 2018, Getting Started Authoring a Case: (accessed February 2019).

Herreid, C.F., 2007a, Return to Mars: How not to teach a case study, in Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science, p. 333–337.

Herreid, C.F., 2007b, The Boy Scouts said it best: Some advice on case-study teaching and student preparation: Journal of College Science Teaching, v. 37, p. 6–7.

Oliphant, E., Finlay, M., Simon, A.C., and Arbic, B.K., 2018, Biofuels: Beneficial or Bad? Should a Ghanaian Chief Sell His Land for Biofuel Crop Cultivation? Sustainability: The Journal of Record, v. 11, p. 16–23, doi:10.1089/sus.2018.29121.eo.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2019, About Us: (accessed February 2019).

SPOTT, 2016, Palm Oil in the Americas: (accessed February 2019).

World Growth, 2011, The Economic Benefit of Palm Oil to Indonesia: (accessed February 2019).