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Another 600 Words for the Planet

November 07, 2011 By Kathryn Pratt, Fellow

Over the next several Mondays Minnesota 2020 will run a series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. This is part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

Even in this era of social media, there is no substitute for good persuasive writing. Perhaps that is why op-eds continue to be a hallmark of democratic debate even if they may lack the flashiness of a twitter feed or blog roll.

In an effort to engage students in current topics, I tasked my Environmental Politics and Policy students with writing a 600-800 word op-ed on an environmental policy they would like to see changed or implemented.

This is a little different than the typical college essay, which involves showing the professor that you can extensively analyze a topic. Here the goal was much different: convince the public that an environmental issue urgently needs our attention and make your case in just over a page of prose.

The craft of op-ed writing teaches students lessons at many levels. One of the first challenges is simply finding a topic that is timely and relevant beyond the walls of the classroom. Students are often drawn to my class because they are concerned about a wide variety of environmental issues. In writing an op-ed, they must evaluate the current political landscape and discern which issues deserve commentary and a call to action.

Once they have found a topic, students work on composing a concise, convincing, and clear argument. In typical academic writing there is ample space to develop ideas and support points with citations from outside references. In an op-ed, every word counts. Students are forced to cut away ambiguity and jargon and hone in on the most critical aspects of their case.

For most of the students, it was their first time writing an op-ed. Heightening the incentive for students with a passion for policy change, eight op-eds most relevant to Minnesota environmental policy were submitted to Minnesota 2020 for publishing consideration.

With Minnesota 2020 staff’s help, students worked on multiple drafts, revisions and fact checks. There was also a peer review session in which students gained greater experience with the editorial process and how to make scientific discovery and data accessible to a mass audience.

In the following weeks, Minnesota 2020 will feature the final products. The topics include some of the most pressing and controversial environmental issues we as Minnesotans face today—keeping our waters clean, toxins in our environment, and energy use, to name a few.

Some op-eds discuss less explored policy areas, such as how English-speaking Minnesota children tend to inform their non-English speaking parents about previously unknown daily environmental hazards in their new land.

One article provides practice landscaping and household maintenance tips for city and suburban dwellers to reduce water pollution.

The series also features a firsthand account of natural gas exploration and Hydrofracking’s impact on a Macalester student’s New York hometown, and warns Minnesota policymakers against digging for fracking sand in the state’s southeast corner.

Beyond the educational goals of this assignment, the real purpose of these op-eds is to inspire you, the reader, to take action. At the very least, a good op-ed will give pause, perhaps making you think for a moment about the resources we take for granted. We are lucky to live in a state that prides itself on environmental responsibility. But these op-eds remind us that we all play a role in keep our environment healthy in the years to come.

Katie Pratt is a geography instructor at Macalester College, currently teaching Environmental Politics and Policy. Her concentration of study is how nature, society and environmental policy interact.

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