New York Times Learning Network

New York Times Learning Network

We have a new favorite site! The Learning Network is part of the New York Times website and features activities by subject that come straight from Times content, making it easier to connect classroom activities with current events. We found this lesson plan about the palm oil industry and the effect on the rainforest that is perfect for middle and high school environmental science classes.

The website has more than just activities too, there is news and discussions about education reform, student opinion articles, resources and more. Check it out and let us know what you think!

Overview | In this lesson, students read about the palm oil industry and about how some of this industry’s practices destroy rainforest habitats and threaten endangered species. They explore the use of palm oil in foods and personal care products, investigate the topic of sustainability in other food industries, and consider their own personal shopping and eating habits.

Materials | Computers with Internet access, product labels from foods and personal items that contain palm oil.

Warm-Up | Bring to class labels from a few food products, like crackers, cookies or candy bars, that list palm oil as an ingredient. If you have soaps, lotions or other personal care products that list vitamin A or retinyl palmitate as an ingredient, bring those to class as well. You also might ask students to bring in these products a day ahead of class.

Before students arrive, arrange the food products on a table in front of the room. Tell students to work in pairs to identify common ingredients they notice and jot these in their notebooks.

Then, ask students if any of them have ever heard of palm oil. What is it? What does it come from, and where might it be grown? Which items include either isopropyl or retinyl (sometimes called vitamin A) palmitate? What might these ingredients have to do with palm oil? Have they heard of any concerns related to palm oil production?

Allow time for students to volunteer answers. You may need to explain that palm oil is an oil extracted from the fruit of a type of palm tree, the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Despite that name, most palm oil today comes from tree farms, or plantations, on the Indonesian islands Sumatra and Borneo, as well as in Malaysia.

Note, too, that palm oil is widely used in food products, and materials derived from palm oil, like retinyl and isopropyl palmitate, are commonly found in beauty products. You might have students browse this list, then return to the collection of personal care products so they may document how many items include palm oil derivatives.

Then, briefly explain that increasing global demand for palm oil in foods and personal care products has led to widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, a practice that destroys the rainforest habitat of endangered orangutans and other wildlife species.

Tell students that this has led to a growing consumer backlash against palm oil, then ask: What’s your initial response to hearing about the situation regarding palm oil? What are the responsibilities of companies and governments when faced with this kind of issue? How should companies balance factors like costs, profits and quality with habitat concerns and consumer demands? Write student ideas on the board.

Finally, explain that you will now read an article about a pair of high school students taking action against the use of palm oil in Girl Scout cookies.

Related | In the Green blog post “Palm Oil and Scout Cookies: The Battle Drags On,” Hillary Rosner reports on the efforts led by a pair of high school students to encourage the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. to stop using palm oil in its cookies:

Two high school juniors from Michigan have won the first-ever United Nations Forest Heroes Award for leading a campaign to remove palm oil from Girl Scout cookies.

Inspired by the work of Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, Madison Vorva and her friend Rhiannon Tomtishen, now 16, set out a few years ago to research the charismatic and endangered orangutan. They learned that the ape, which lives only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, was losing its forest habitat as a result of the global demand for palm oil.

Palm oil companies burn down the rainforest to plant fields of uniform trees. Some workers kill adult orangutans and sell the babies as pets. Those that survive often have no forest to return to.

“We had to take an issue we were passionate about, and raise awareness in our community,” Ms. Vorva said.

Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.

Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:

  1. What is palm oil?
  2. Why are Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen leading a campaign to remove this ingredient from Girl Scout cookies?
  3. Have Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. made any concessions in light of this campaign?
  4. What are Green Palm certificates? Why do some people criticize this certification program as “greenwashing”? What does that mean?
  5. In the article, Ms. Vorva says, “If you see something with palm oil, instead of saying, ‘I’m going to buy an alternative,’ say, ‘I’m going to write a letter.’ ” To whom does she suggest people write letters, and why does she make this suggestion?

 

 

Activity | Explain to students that they will hold a forum on sustainable food choices in which they discuss ways to minimize the environmental impact of some of the foods in their diets and make suggestions for improving the sustainability of foods offered in the school cafeteria.

Begin by exploring what sustainability means and reviewing the relationship among its three main spheres: economy, society and environment.

Divide the class into three groups, and assign each group to one of the following topics under the broad umbrella of sustainability, with the associated questions to guide their research and forum preparation.

Note that each topic is an example of a different sustainability challenge and approach. You may wish to have more groups and add other food, personal and home products.

Ensure that groups are also investigating the compelling economic and social issues and interests associated with the environmental concerns related to their topic, like jobs associated with palm oil production, so that they are considering a complete picture and delving fully into the topic of sustainability.

Group 1: Palm Oil and RSPO

Group 2: Seafood

Group 3: Livestock and Confined Animal Feeding Operations

When the groups are prepared, reconvene and hold the sustainability forum. Begin by having each group present its findings.

Questions and issues to discuss during the forum include the following:

  • How can you, as a consumer, know whether an item was grown, harvested or developed in a sustainable manner?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages to foods and products that are sourced in a sustainable manner?
  • Did you learn anything today that surprised you?
  • Before today, were you aware of how your food and consumer choices affected the environment?
  • How does knowing this affect your thoughts about the foods you choose to eat and products you choose to use?
  • In what ways might you change your eating or shopping habits? What trade-offs would you have to make when opting for sustainable choices?

Going Further | Students adopt a food-related sustainability cause to advance. They may take on one of the issues they researched and discussed in class, or another one they feel strongly about. They might consider the kinds of action consumers and others have taken to encourage corporations to use more sustainable practices, like the Girl Scout Cookie petition or a similar petition meant to encourage Wal-Mart to adopt a corporate policy minimizing the use of palm oil in processed foods like cookies and crackers, or the drive to partner conservation organizations with seafood retailers. Encourage them to come up with creative ways to get the word out about their cause.

Alternatively or additionally, students might create a set of general sustainable living tips and create a campaign around promoting them in their community.

Standards | This lesson is correlated to McREL’s national standards (it can also be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards):

Geography
14. Understands how human actions modify the physical environment.
18. Understands global development and environmental issues.

Science
6. Understands relationships among organisms and their physical environment.
11. Understands the nature of scientific knowledge.
12. Understands the nature of scientific inquiry.
13. Understands the scientific enterprise.

Language Arts
1. Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Life Skills: Life Work
2. Uses various information sources, including those of a technical nature, to accomplish specific tasks.

Life Skills: Working with Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group.
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills.

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