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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1996

Reviewing a high-school book in environmental science

Holt Environmental Science
1996. 432 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-03-003133-8.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1120 South Capital of Texas
Highway, Austin, Texas 78746. (This company is a subsidiary of
Harcourt Brace & Company, which is a part of General Cinema Corporation.)

This Gaudy Book Can Be
a Boon to Slow Students

Max G. Rodel

Holt Environmental Science is directed, I believe, at high-school students who have had no previous exposure to science. It appears to be most suitable for students who aren't interested in science and who, if they had their choice, would not look at science books at all. It isn't appropriate for students who really want to study science, and it isn't suitable for use in college-prep courses.

My initial impression of Holt Environmental Science was negative. At first I found it difficult to look at this book for more than ten minutes without tiring. The pages are confusing, almost chaotic, visual displays loaded with images, headings, boxes, logotypes, blurbs and other distractions, and the text is obscured by a head-spinning barrage of sidebars, feature articles, section reviews, "Eco-Fact" notes and "Field Activity" items. As far as design is concerned, Holt Environmental Science is an offspring of fast video games and flashy television commercials.

As I continued to browse, however, I began to warm to this book. Youngsters whose motivation and capacities are limited will love Holt Environmental Science, I believe, and I venture to say that some of them may be inspired to take some real science courses.

The book has fourteen chapters: "Environmental Science," "Living Things in Ecosystems," "How Ecosystems Work," "Kinds of Ecosystems," "Water," "Air," "Atmosphere and Climate," "Land," "Food," "Biodiversity," "Energy," "Waste," "Population Growth" and "Toward a Sustainable Future."

The introductory account of scientific methods, on pages 13 through 19, is commendable. Here we find a concise passage about the difference between pure science and applied science, followed by explanations of how scientists make observations, devise hypotheses, conduct experiments, interpret data, and share their results. I also like the way in which the writers have used, in each chapter, a pedagogic device titled the "EcoLog." The "EcoLog" is a box that presents a few questions for the student to answer, and it appears twice: The student must answer the questions before he begins the chapter, and he must answer them again when he reaches the chapter's end. In revising his answers, he applies some of the things that he has learned.

Good Activities

Every chapter offers an "Investigation" activity that requires students to make field observations or perform experiments that expand on information presented in the chapter. Many of these "Investigations" are impressive because they involve simple and often clever illustrations of scientific or technological ideas. Examples include the procedures for testing the effects of acid rain on plants (page 168), for measuring "global warming" in a jar (page 192) and for making a model of a passive solar dwelling (page 298). My favorite is the activity "Mining for Peanuts" (page 222). The operation of the "peanut mine" teaches some terrific lessons in environmental economics.

Many of the sidebars that have been sprinkled onto the text pages are labeled "Case Study" or "Making a Difference" or "Points of View." The "Case Study" articles offer glimpses of many different things, e.g., the Love Canal debacle ("a toxic nightmare"), the restoration of Lake Washington ("an environmental success story"), the abuse of the Ogallala aquifer, and the International Whaling Commission's wobbly efforts to control commercial whaling. The "Making a Difference" pieces introduce some individuals who supposedly have done significant work that has environmental implications. The "Points of View" pieces deal with public-policy questions that involve environmental affairs.

There are other articles as well, placed at the back of the book. These include some "Environmental Careers" sketches and a collection of "EcoSkills" pieces that provide instructions for projects. The projects -- such as making a compost heap, planting a wildlife garden, or constructing a bat house -- are reminiscent of a child's fun-with-nature guide rather than a science text, but they are entertaining and, in their own simple way, instructive.

Serious Difficulties

The good elements of Holt Environmental Science are offset by some serious difficulties. Because the pages are so heavily loaded up with pictures, sidebars and ornaments, the coverage of scientific topics seldom achieves any depth. Most matters are handled superficially, and some of the material smacks of alarmism.

A note "To the Student," at the front of the book, promises that the student "will learn about the complex issues facing our environment," will encounter various points of view and differing opinions, and will acquire a growing ability to draw his own conclusions. It is true that the book presents different points of view about solutions to environmental problems, but -- in my judgment -- the presentations are not always even-handed. Overall, it seems to me, an activist and liberal predilection prevails.

On page 146, as an example, a laboratory exercise is introduced by the headline "How Safe Is Our Groundwater?" I like the exercise, in which the student filters dirty water through soil, but I notice that it does nothing to answer the question posed in the headline. The headline doesn't seem to have any function except to suggest some kind of threat. The exercise doesn't present any information about natural groundwater, and it doesn't provide any basis for assessing the safety of groundwater supplies.

On page 202 there is the customary and politically correct plug for urban mass transit: "Mass transit is an economical, efficient alternative to the automobile," the writers say. But for most people in the United States, mass transit is neither economical nor efficient, and that is why so many people continue to use private automobiles. Holt's book does not consider this important matter in any realistic way.

Another lopsided passage is the short section, on page 282, titled "Dwindling Supplies of Fossil Fuels." Here the writers state that "Fossil fuel supplies are limited, and we are using these resources much faster than they can be replaced by nature." That intuitive statement is not supported by facts, and we have no understanding of the rate at which nature may be creating new stocks of, say, petroleum or natural gas. The known reserves of fossil fuels increase every year, as more stocks are discovered, yet Holt's book tells the student that fossil-fuel supplies are "dwindling."

Alarmism and distortion aside, some of the material in Holt Environmental Science is so superficial that it contains no science and can be misleading. An example is the feature article on pages 148 and 149, titled "High School Chemist." A high-school girl supposedly has discovered that she can remove "toxic trace metals" (lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium) from tap water by treating the water with living yeast cells. This so-called breakthrough allegedly developed from her speculation that "there was probably some sort of living organism that could remove heavy metals." The breakthrough, however, may be imaginary. We don't see any data to show that heavy-metal concentrations really decline when the water is treated, and we are asked to accept on faith the claim that the girl's technique depends upon "living organisms." To me, the illustration accompanying the text suggests that her procedure merely involves the adsorption of metals onto the surfaces of yeast cells -- cells that probably are dead. (Such adsorption is a well known phenomenon, discovered long ago.) The article doesn't qualify as an exposition of science, and it can only mislead idealistic youngsters.

Even with its flaws, however, Holt Environmental Science can be a boon to some students, i.e., those who are poorly motivated and poorly prepared to study science. I think that such students will like this primer for environmental activists, will enjoy its splashy style, and will respond to its emphasis on matters that are relevant to daily life. The book is light on real, hard-core science, but it is generally effective in demonstrating scientific methods, and it may help the students to see that science can be fun. For this reason, it may be useful not only in certain high-school classes but in some middle-school classes as well.

This Isn't a Science Book,
but It Has Good Pictures

William J. Bennetta

It is conceivable, though unlikely, that Bart Simpson will someday be promoted beyond the fourth grade. It is even possible -- just barely possible -- that he will reach high school. That remote possibility occurred to me as I worked my way through Holt Environmental Science, and it led me to see that this book has some value. Holt Environmental Science isn't a real science textbook, but it may be useful for imparting a little science to high-school kids who wouldn't (or couldn't) read a real textbook even if their lives depended on it.

Holt Environmental Science is a garish and tacky creation, and my first tour through its pages left me disgusted. Let me explain this by summarizing my initial observations and judgments:

Those were my initial opinions, and I still hold them. I think that Holt Environmental Science is schlock and is unfit for use in a real science class.

In looking through it again, however, I have come to think that it may be helpful in a less rigorous setting: This flashy picture-book seems suitable for putting a modicum of science (or at least some awareness of natural processes) into the heads of those students who have been so badly damaged by television that they cannot handle much reading. To be sure, Holt Environmental Science has its share of pictures that are merely decorative, but it also has plenty of pictures that can convey meaningful facts and ideas to poor students. In fact, I judge that the book's illustrations, all in all, are noticeably more reliable and more useful than the text. I would rather see slow high-school students using Holt Environmental Science than using some middle-school book that has no merit whatsoever.


Max G. Rodel is an environmental chemist, a registered environmental assessor in California, and a senior scientist with Environmental Science Associates, a consulting firm in San Francisco.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter.

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