[LS4-6] Simulating Human Damage Mitigation
This standard focuses on taking action to counteract human impacts on biodiversity. More specifically, the standard explores how engineering design practices can be used to repair or mitigate environmental damage.
Resources for this Standard:
Here’s the Actual Standard:
Create or revise a simulation to test a solution to mitigate adverse impacts of human activity on biodiversity.
First, let’s look at the impacts of human activity on biodiversity. Then, we’ll look at how we can use engineering design practices to test and refine solutions.
Human Impacts on Biodiversity.
There is a massive and unprecedented number of environmental issues that can be explored in this standard. This makes it easy to allow students to pick a unique topic that is related to their specific interests. Solutions to environmental problems do not need to be mechanical devices – they can be methods of getting people to support an environmental issue (a TikTok dance move that explains recycling), a landscaping technique that reduces water use, or a local campaign at the grocery store to try and get people to use less plastic bags.
While there are many more environmental issues than this, here are a few of the biggest and most common environmental threats that we face.
Many large ecosystems around the globe are under threat from a wide variety of environmental issues. Good examples of this are clear-cutting rainforest to raise cattle, urbanization and human expansion into wild areas, and oil spills in the ocean. All of these actions can be traced directly to human actions, and designs can be created at both the local and global scale.
Global Warming and Climate Change
Global warming – the well-documented trend of rising global temperatures – brings with it a number of consequences, including large-scale changes in global climate patterns. While the fossil record and ice cores from glaciers show that the Earth does experience natural cycles of heating and cooling, the cycle we’re in is accelerating faster than expected. This is largely due to human emissions of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide from vehicle and factory emissions, although methane from agriculture has been found to be another large source of greenhouse gases. With the changing climate come problems of forest fires, rising sea levels, death of marine ecosystems, and a number of other consequences to biodiversity that also need solutions.
This pollutant falls into its own category because it is a massive, global issue. Plastics, though incredibly useful, are becoming incredibly destructive to environments. Almost every seabird on the planet has ingested plastic waste, mistaking it for food. Many of these birds die, but the birds are just the tip of the iceberg. Almost all marine creatures – from turtles to whales – have been found dead, having ingested impassable amounts of plastic. Plus, as plastic degrade into microscopic pieces, they enter every level of the food chain – potentially poisoning food stocks for human consumption. More than that, this issue is a level that is affecting all levels of biodiversity.
Smokey the Bear has been warning the public for decades, but the problem of forest fires has only gotten worse. As humans urbanize further and further into the environment, they become more exposed to the natural wildfires that seem to periodically occur in wild places. To make this matter worse, climate changes is bringing very dry conditions to areas that previously received more water. This creates an enormous fuel load – spread over millions and millions of acres. While raking these fuel loads up is not an option due to the massive amount of manpower that would be required – there are many other potential solutions including prescribed burns, forest management, and establishing safe boundaries around human structures. Forest firest – especially in the Amazon and other tropical forests – can lead to massive biodiversity declines.
Water pollution may become the world’s largest issue in the next decade. Water is absolutely necessary for life, which is why it is such a shame that our waterways are not better protected. All over the globe, freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams are being polluted by a number of contaminants. From ‘forever chemicals’ leaching out of industrial plastic plants, to oil and heavy metal runoff from the energy sector, to lead and chemicals in the pipes leading to our houses, water issues are everywhere. Another great topic is fertilizer runoff from farms that leads to massive, deadly algal blooms in the ocean.
Engineering Design Process
The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineers commonly take when designing a new device, creating a mechanical solution to an industrial solution, and even creating large-scale solutions for environmental problems.
To begin, the problem must first be identified. The identified problem is observed and documented in every reasonable aspect during the research portion of the design. Many possible solutions should be considered, and only the best and most practical solution should be chosen. Then, the potential solution is designed into an actual, testable prototype model. This original design is likely to have many unforeseen issues, even if the engineer observed the issue extensively.
The next steps all focus on improving the prototype. The prototype must first be evaluated, which is specifically what this standard is asking students to do. After a simulation is created and carried out, students must be able to communicate how the simulation showed the success and failure of their prototype. During the final step, redesign, students are expected to make changes to their prototype that will solve the failures they identified in their prototype.
In practice, the engineering design process is continual. After a revised prototype is placed into service, new problems with the device or solution are continually monitored. This allows engineers to keep their products working even in changing environmental conditions as new problems emerge.
A little clarification:
The standard contains this clarification statement:
Emphasis is on designing solutions for a proposed problem related to threatened or endangered species, or to genetic variation of organisms for multiple species.
Let’s look at this clarification a little closer:
Threatened or Endangered Species
Most species that are threatened or endangered became threatened or endangered based almost entirely on human interactions with their ecosystems. Part of identifying the problem is researching how and why biodiversity is being decreased in the first place. At a fundamental level, evolution is about how an organism’s DNA reacts to the environment. For example, if the environment is filled with plastic – a material never before encountered by living organisms – most organisms will not have the genetic material necessary to deal with this new substance. Many eat it and die, while others are poisoned by new chemicals in the plastic that can interact with their biochemical pathways (think BPA).
In large-scale cases such as these, genetic variation for many organisms is being wiped out because the scale and size of the problem is so massive that it is wiping out entire swaths of organisms – there is no genetic variation that is able to survive large amounts of plastic ingestion. Other environmental issues may target certain species more specifically. For instance, DDT (a pesticide) is very efficient at killing mosquitoes. However, it also interacts with bird biology, creating very fragile eggs. Thus, bird populations (especially raptors like the bald eagle) were massively reduced until DDT use was banned in the U.S.