Addressing Global Problems A Case Study Approach to Independent Student Learning

Case studies

Have you heard about a global issue that has you concerned for the future? Do you want to do something about that problem? Are you looking for a way to improve the world, but you don’t have an issue in mind? Wherever you are with these questions, this case study will guide you to address a societal problem using science and then share your findings. This approach is modeled from a program called iCons (Integrated Concentration in Science) that is offered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can learn more about the program with the link below.

The case study approach has 5 steps:

  1. Inception: Get background information and connect with the topic.
  2. Engagement: Get a deeper understanding. Identify what you know and questions you still have.
  3. Research: Ask a research question. Develop and test a hypothesis. Draw conclusions from your data.
  4. Create: Create a product to communicate your new understanding.
  5. Reflect: Look back on your work and identify areas of strength and opportunities for growth.
"Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care" -Theodore Roosevelt


Welcome to inception. This is the step where you find an issue you are passionate about. Already have one? Use the "Inception Worksheet" link below to develop your idea. Need one? Here are some ways to look for one, and some ideas you might try.

Look at the news, whether online or on television or in a newspaper. Are there environmental issues that catch your attention? What about a public health crisis? Try to look at these problems from a scientific standpoint: is this an issue that could have a scientific solution? Pick a problem that really resonates with you.

Some topics that have been considered in the past:

  • Lack of environmental sustainability

Think paper bags are more eco-friendly? Think again!

  • Ocean Acidification

What would happen if shellfish in the ocean could not survive?

  • Spread of the Zika virus

Did you know that a single mosquito bite could cause harmful damage to the brain of an unborn child?

  • The great Pacific garbage patch

What if the plastic you got rid of ended up in the middle of the ocean?

  • Smog in Beijing

What if the air was so polluted, you could not walk outside without a face mask?

  • Antibiotic resistance

What if you got an infection that could not be cured by antibiotics?

  • Food deserts in cities

What if you struggled to find fresh produce in your neighborhood?

Have a topic? The worksheet below will help you make sure your topic has the important aspects of a good case study. You may have to look up a few facts to do this.

Move on to the Engagement step below!

"The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery." -Anais Nin


You are now in the Engagement step. Here you will find more information on your topic and decide what specific aspect of that topic you want to focus on for the rest of the case study.

Engagement question: Look up what someone has done to address your topic. Was this action effective? Why or why not? Do background research to support your claim.

Background Research: Watch some videos and read some articles so that you get a general understanding about your topic and about some possible solutions. If you want, look into how this affects your life and where you live, as well as how it impacts the rest of the world. TED talks are a great place to start, and you can find those and additional videos on YouTube.

While you are looking up information, make sure the websites and articles you are reading are reputable sources. Questions to ask yourself and things to keep in mind while reading are:

  • Is this a good website? (hint: wikipedia is NOT a citable website but a good place to start) .gov, .org, and .edu are usually indicators of a good website.
  • Peer-reviewed sources are the best kind of sources (usually these are scientific papers that have been published in a scientific journal).
  • Was the author biased?
  • If so, how could you confirm the information given by that source? Is there another source that supports or denies the information given by a biased source?

When you feel that you have done enough background research, explain your topic to another person. See if you can answer their questions. If there are basic questions that you cannot answer, find more information before you move on.

Diagram: Once you have enough background information, create a diagram exploring all parts of your topic. To show you what this could mean, we have two videos: one of us diagramming a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (a typical American lunch food) and one on community gardens. The purpose of this step is to recognize the scope of your topic and to identify questions you have.

Once you’ve made a diagram and found some questions on your topic, choose one to develop into a research question.

Revise your question so that it meets the following criteria:

  • Testable using science. This means it should have two variables, independent and dependent, that can be measured.
  • Specific--if your question is too broad, you will not be able to find concrete data.
  • Answer should be objective rather than subjective
  • Should address a gap in scientific knowledge
  • Avoid questions about a process because this should be addressed during background research. For example, "How does ocean acidification happen?" is not a good research question because it would lead to reporting well-known information rather than drawing original conclusions.
  • Answering the question must be feasible within the amount of time you want to dedicate to this case study

Below is a video demonstrating the process of refining a research question.

Think you have a good research question? Move on to this Variables Worksheet to double check that.

Below are example worksheets and a blank one for you to fill out.

Now form a Hypothesis!

A hypothesis is an educated guess that can take different forms. Sometimes the form can be “If (something happens with your independent variable), then (something else will happen with your dependent variable).” Other times, it is a prediction of what the outcome of a study will be, like “Option A will have a certain outcome that is greater than/less than option B” or “Manipulating the independent variable will/will not have an impact on the dependent variable.” By the end of the research step, you should have found information that either surprises you or supports your hypothesis. Both of these are equally valuable, so don’t just try to find information that agrees with your hypothesis.

You are now done with Engagement! Move on to Research below.

"Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice." -Anton chekhov


Welcome to the Research step! You will now design a study to answer your research question and draw original conclusions.

There are many ways to do research for a case study. Depending on your question, different types of research may be more appropriate than others.

Types of studies:

*A survey about garden use and location might be the best method of research if your question was “Where in my town would a community garden be most utilized?” Choose a population to study (ex. women, students, restaurants, etc.). Write questions for your participants that will inform your research question.

*A retrospective study might be a good idea if your question was “Do paper or plastic bags generate more greenhouse gases over their life cycle?” Look at other studies (reports, peer-reviewed papers, etc.) that have related questions and combine data from each to draw conclusions about your own question.

*An experiment might be the best option if your question was “How does pH level affect the rate of shell deterioration?” Get the proper materials to conduct an experiment. Set up different trials, changing the value or property of the independent variable. Measure the dependent variable in each trial.

*A cost-benefit analysis might be the best course of action if your question was “Is it more cost-effective to switch all our cities’ streetlights to LED bulbs immediately or as the current non-LED light bulbs burn out?” Compare the monetary, environmental, or social costs of each option by measuring all of your variables in a common unit. Analyze the options you are studying to identify the best one.

These are four common types of studies, but you may decide that none of these work for your research question. You should feel free to research other types of studies and/or design one that will work for you.

Now it is time to design a study to answer your question.

Use the Study Design Worksheet below to plan your research. We have included an example worksheet in the link "Example Variables and Study Design Worksheets" above and a blank one for you to fill out below.

Carry out your study and collect your data!

Now begin analyzing and interpreting your data.

You will need to organize the data you have collected and clearly show your results in order to draw conclusions. Your method of analysis will differ depending on the type of data you have collected. Graphs can be a really good tool to visually represent your findings so they are easier to interpret. Commonly used graphs are bar graphs, pie charts, and trend lines. Other analysis options include interpreting and tallying survey results, making a table to organize data, calculating statistics or percentages from your data, and observing patterns in your findings.

Look closely at the data you have analyzed. Does it make sense? Are you making any assumptions? Did you have a large enough sample size or data pool? Often, the first time you run a study, you will discover mistakes in your design. Studies typically need to be redesigned and repeated in order to be accurate. If you are not confident in your results, make changes to your study design and try it again!

Draw conclusions from your research. Use the information you found to answer your research question. Write a few sentences summarizing your findings, the process that led you to these findings, and what they mean.

Once you have your conclusions, move on to the Create Step.

"When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful" Malala yousafzai


You will now send out the findings of your research to an audience that you feel should know what you have learned. Depending on what you did for the research step, the audience and product for the create step will differ. For example, if you did a survey to answer the question “Where in my town would a community garden be most utilized?”, a letter to your mayor or town official may be the best course of action. If you feel the general public is the most important audience for your findings, a public service announcement on the radio or a letter to the editor in your newspaper may be the most effective option. These products are not hypothetical! You will send this out so your work can make an impact on the problem you chose to address. In your product, you should include:

  • Introduction to your problem/topic (whatever you chose: Environmental Sustainability, Ocean acidification, Zika, etc.)
  • Your findings and conclusions from your research
  • A message: a call to action, why the findings and conclusions matter, what impact the conclusions have on the societal problem

Keep in mind that the language should be suitable for the audience (a letter to a mayor should be formal, a public service announcement should avoid jargon).

Once you have sent out your create product, move on to the Reflection step!

"THe more I learn, THe more i learn that i need to learn more." Unknown


It is now time for you to reflect on the process of your case study. Reflection is an important step in which you recognize what you did well and what you can improve so that your future work can be even better and more effective.

Answer the questions on the worksheet below and reflect on your case study experience.


You have finished this case study! Be proud of the work you have done and continue to be curious.

This site was created by Dominique Kiki Carey, Rebecca Howard, Erica Light, Corrine Losch, and Stephanie Purington. We are members of the iCons community at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We believe student-centered, case study-based education is an extremely effective and engaging way to learn. We hope to prepare students to be leaders in solving the world's challenges through problem solving and critical thinking.

Recommended Citation:

Carey, Dominique Kiki, Corrine Losch, Rebecca Howard, Erica Light, and Stephanie Purington. "Learning to Address Global Problems." Adobe Spark, July 2016. Web. <>.

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