Lesson Plans

Back to lesson plans archive
April 8, 2014

Toxic trial: taking responsibility for environmental problems – Lesson Plan

By Katie Gould, PBS NewsHour Teacher Resource Producer 


This lesson plan and student contest were created to accompany a story from The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Guardian about toxic waste in the U.S. In part one, students will participate in a mock trial designed to help them process the story and recognize an important takeaway message: everyone is responsible to some degree for the problem of toxic waste and everyone can be part of the solution.

In part two, students will be asked to develop a plan of action that could include becoming involved in a community project to improve the environment. Students who wish to share their work can post 15 second videos on Instagram about their project, their progress and the outcome from March 10 up to April 16. NewsHour Extra, CIR and the Guardian will choose the best entries.

The winners will receive CIR student memberships and the opportunity for their class to Skype with the journalists who reported the story.  The winning entries will be featured in PBS NewsHour Extra’s Earth Day coverage.

In reality, these questions are often already settled by laws and investigations. But the lesson plan calls for a mock trial, with the CIR/Guardian story as the inspiration.

The basic idea:

This case is being tried to determine if the defendants are responsible for creating the problem of toxic waste. The jury will also decide who is responsible for solving the problem moving forward.

The four groups that are on trial are:
  1. Average people living in the U.S. who purchase cell phones, computers, etc. that produce byproducts of toxic waste.
  2. The Environmental Protection Agency – the government agency responsible for creating the Superfund program and carrying it out.
  3. Two of the technology companies that caused the toxic waste damage in the 60’s that we are still cleaning up today – Intel Corp. and Fairchild Semiconductor Corp.
  4. The companies that run the waste treatment plants that have received repeated fines for not disposing of toxic waste properly – Calgon in Catlettsburg, Ky., and the Environmental Quality Company in Belleville, Mich.
The goal of the trial is to decide:
  1. How responsible is each group for the toxic waste problem?
  2. How responsible should each group be for solving the toxic waste problem?
The “jury” (each person in the class is on the jury and will have one vote) will render a verdict by assigning each group:
  1. A percentage of the responsibility for causing the problem of toxic waste
  2. A percentage of responsibility they should have in solving the problem moving forward

Please see the example below

Responsibility for the problem

Group 1 (EPA) – I have awarded the EPA 25 percent responsibility because cleanup efforts are insufficient …and so on.


The verdict process

The judge (the teacher) will collect the students’ responses and calculate the average response for both verdicts to present the following class. Immediately after the teacher has collected the responses they will take a quick vote to see if all students found each group at least 1 percent (or more) responsible. Then the judge should take a quick vote to see if students found each group at least 1 percent (or more) responsible for helping solve the problem of toxic waste.

Before the next class the teacher should calculate the average percentage each student assigned to the four groups and that will be the verdict. For example, Group 1 has been found to be responsible for 25 percent of the problem of toxic waste.

After the trial, students will consider environmental responsibility within their own community and may compete in the Instagram contest for the best project if they wish.


Science, social justice, English language arts

Estimated time

  1. 20 minutes during the prior class to explain the simulation and assign roles to students
  2. 45 minutes for students to read their profiles, practice and collaborate in groups to prepare for the trial (this can be done in class or for homework)
  3. One 90-minute class period for the mock trial and explaining the environmental project to students

Grade level

Middle and high school


  • List of roles (for teacher)
  • Character profiles (individualized for each student’s role)
  • Lawyer’s guidelines and questions (for lawyers)
  • Judge’s guidelines (for the teacher)
  • One-page synopsis of article (for all students)
  • Superfund-Basic information page (for all students)
  • Glossary (for all students)
  • List of witnesses and evidence in order (for all students and the teacher)
  • Trial note shell and verdict (for all students)
  • Project page(for all students)

Day 1: The class before the trial (20 minutes)

Warm up activity

Out of sight out of mind

  1. Ask students to answer the following questions by raising their hands.

“How many of you use a cell phone? How many of you use a computer?”

Then ask, “If you knew that building the microchips inside of those products creates toxic waste that can and has resulted in injury, birth defects and even death, would you feel differently about them?” Take a vote.

  1. Pass out the “Glossary” to students and ask them what a Superfund site is.

Then ask, “How many of you think you live near a toxic waste (Superfund) site?”

Show students the map of Superfund sites on the board and enter in their ZIP code (B. Map showing all the Superfund sites in the country. You can search for them using ZIP code and type.)

  1. Now explain to students that they are going to learn about environmental responsibility in the U.S. by putting different groups on trial. They will also decide who should be responsible for cleaning up toxic waste.
  2. Pass out the “Basic Information for students” and read through it with them.
  3. Next, you will want to assign each student a role (lawyer or witness) and provide them with the materials they need to be successful on the day of the trial.

You will want to provide every student:

  • 1 page synopsis of CIR/Guardian article
  • Superfund-Basic information page
  • Glossary
  • List of witnesses and evidence in order
  • Trial note shell and verdict page

The groups that will testify (two witnesses at a time) are:

  • Average people living in the U.S. (4 witnesses): Two neighbors from the Love Canal disaster and two “average” U.S. teenagers
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (4 witnesses): A Superfund expert, a “Pump and treat” expert  and two chemical specialists (one on carbon and one on TCE and Dioxins)
  • Technology sector  those who caused the damage in the 60’s: One spokesperson from Intel and one spokesperson from Fairchild
  • Waste disposal management (2 witnesses): A manager from the Calgon’s carbon regeneration facility in Catlettsburg, Ky., and a manager from the Michigan Disposal Waste Treatment Plant in Belleville, Mich., run by the Environmental Quality Company.

There will be two or four students (see above) assigned for each group of witnesses (12 total) and pairs will testify together. You should provide each witness his or her “Character profile” that includes their background story, any evidence they should be ready to explain to the jury and their role in the creation and solution of the toxic waste in the United States.

You should instruct each witness to practice his or her role and be prepared to answer questions from lawyers on both the prosecution and the defense. They should dress, talk and behave in character during the trial.

  • A prosecution and defense lawyer for people living in the U.S.
  • A prosecution and defense lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency
  • A prosecution and defense lawyer for the technology sector – those who caused the damage in the 60s
  • A prosecution and defense lawyer for the waste disposal management

There will be at least two lawyers (prosecution and defense) for each group.  Depending on your class size you may want to double up and have two lawyers for the defense and prosecution in some groups.

You should provide each lawyer with the same “Character profiles” provided to the witnesses that they will be questioning on the stand. You should also provide the lawyers with their “Lawyer’s guidelines and questions”.

You should instruct each lawyer to be prepared to give an opening statement (1 minute), question the witnesses from their group (~2 minutes) and make a closing statement (1 minute).  They should dress, speak and behave like a lawyer during the trial.


On the day of the trial, the judge (teacher) will have a list of the order the witnesses will be called and evidence in order to be shown. They will be responsible for moving the trial along, getting the evidence (CIR/Guardian interactives and images) up on the board (either a computer with a projector or a hard copy for the class to look at if technology is not available), and releasing the verdict to the class.

Suggestions for students:

  • Witnesses are encouraged to work together to prepare for the trial as they will take the stand together and are able to answer questions as a team.
  • Encourage students to dress up and take on the role of their character during the trial (bonus points perhaps)
  • At this point you can allow students to prepare for the trial or you can assign the preparation for homework.

Day 2: Part I – Toxic waste trial & Part II – Introduction to student project

Main activities

Part I: The trial

Suggestions: Before class, set up the room so that there is a place for the judge to sit (facing the class at the front of the room), the lawyers (facing the judge like in a regular court room) and a “witness stand” that can accommodate two students (two desks pushed together facing the crowd/jury).

Pass out “Trial note shell and verdict page” and instruct students to take notes during the trial (mention that you will be collecting their notes at the end of class.) Give students a few minutes to prepare and then promptly start the trial.

The judge (teacher) should read out the instructions and script from the Judge’s guidelines. The entire script, roles and trial process is described in detail in the Judge’s guidelines.  What follows here is a less substantive walk through the process. Ask the first set of lawyers to take their seats and allow lawyers  one minute to make their opening statement as to why the first group of clients are guilty or not guilty (prosecution first and then defense).

The judge will call the first group of witnesses to the stand and lawyers for the prosecution will start by asking the first questions (max two minutes for questioning) Witnesses will briefly respond to questions and explain any evidence they need to share with the “jury”. Then the defense will have an opportunity to question the witnesses (max two minutes for questioning).

Once the first group of witnesses has been questioned by both prosecution and defense the judge will call the next group of lawyers and witnesses to the stand and they will repeat the process.

NOTE: Lawyers for the group “average citizens” will need to question both the “Love Canal neighbors” and the “average teenager living in the U.S.” one after the other. Similarly, the lawyers for the EPA will question both the “Environmental Protection Agency – Superfund expert and “Pump and treat” expert and the “Environmental Protection Agency – Chemical specialists”.

Follow the schedule and once all witnesses and lawyers have gone ask the lawyers to come to the front of the class (one group at a time) and make their closing remarks (1 minute each).

Once they have finished, students should decide the verdict (on page two of their note shell) for each group on the following questions:

  1. How much of the toxic waste problem is each group responsible for?
  2. To what extent should each group be responsible for solving the problem?

Each student should use the empty pie charts to assign responsibility for the toxic waste problem and for responsibility for the solution. Students should decide what percentage of responsibility for the problem and solution each group has by divvying up the pie chart. They should write a one sentence explanation for why they awarded each group what they did.

Pass out the “Project Page” for students to start reading while the others are finishing.

Once students have finished, the judge (teacher) will collect the verdicts (pie chart answers.) Let students know that you will find the average percentage of responsibility the class gave to each group by next class at the latest, but for now you want to poll the class for some immediate feedback.

Note: the averages may not add up perfectly with the pie charts, but the teacher should reveal what percentage the class held each group responsible anyway.

The judge will now ask the class the following questions and ask students to answer by a show of hands:

Responsibility for causing the problem
  • How many of you gave the Environmental Protection Agency more than 1 percent of the responsibility for the toxic waste?
  • How many of you gave the technology companies – Intel and Fairchild more than 1 percent of the responsibility for the toxic waste?
  • How many of you gave the waste disposal management companies more than 1 percent of the responsibility for the toxic waste mess?
  • How many of you gave the average people living in the U.S. more than 1 percent of the responsibility for the toxic waste?
Responsibility for solving the problem
  • How many of you gave the Environmental Protection Agency more than 1 percent of the responsibility to solve the toxic waste?
  • How many of you gave the technology companies – Intel and Fairchild more than 1 percent of the responsibility to solve the toxic waste?
  • How many of you gave the waste disposal management companies more than 1 percent of the responsibility to solve the toxic waste?
  • How many of you gave the average people living in the U.S. more than 1 percent of the responsibility to solve the toxic waste?

Now explain to students what their answers meant:

>> Any group that had at least one percent of the responsibility is considered to be part of the problem and any group that had at least one percent responsibility of the solution should therefore act.

Part II: Introduction to student project

Once the complexity of the situation is revealed (everyone is found guilty to some degree and everyone should be involved in helping) the teacher should explain to students that there are things that they can do right in their own community to make a difference.

To catch students attention show the PBS NewsHour video “Intro Video for Environment Lesson Plan”.

Pass out the “Project page” to students and briefly go through it helping them understand the many options they have to act locally. Make sure to show them the resource page “Inspire, Inform, Act” so they know where they can go for help with all the steps of their project.

Next, explain to them that CIR, the Guardian and PBS NewsHour Extra want to know what you could do to make a difference in your community and is holding a contest for the best project.  All they have to do is send in their idea on Instagram and use the hashtag #toxictrail.

CIR, the Guardian and PBS NewsHour Extra will be following your project through Instagram, so report back with updates often. The contest will be open March 10 – April 16.

The winning students will win a student membership to CIR, have their project featured on NewsHour Extra for Earth Day and get an opportunity to Skype with the reporters and from CIR and the Guardian. Answer any questions the students may have and encourage them to make a difference.

You may decide to give students time in class to start their projects or assign it for homework.

Throughout the next month encourage students to work on their projects and share their progress on Instagram. If you have any questions about the contest please contact us at

  • kgould [at] newshour.org
  • kchen [at] cironline.org
  • katie.rogers [at] theguardian.com

Allison McCartney, Elizabeth Jones and Thaisi Da Silva assisted with this lesson

PBS NewsHour Extra – Using the standards and resources of PBS’s NewsHour, PBS NewsHour Extra provides students and teachers with quality educational resources based on current issues and events.

Center for Investigative Reporting – An award-winning nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Guardian US – The Guardian US is the Guardian’s New York-based newsroom that covers American and international news for an online, global audience. Guardian US merges the innovation and energy of a startup with independent, groundbreaking, award-winning journalism and backing of the Guardian brand.

  • Tags:

  • Related Stories

    Tooltip of related stories

    More Lesson Plans

    Tooltip of more video block

    RSS Content

    Tooltip of RSS content 3