Danny Cunningham, Kristi Slaby, Susan Talkmitt
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


The BREAKTHROUGH is a lesson model aimed at helping students to evaluate the impact of technology on society. Using a discussion outline, students brainstorm to find the pros and cons of a current breakthrough in technology. (Examples: in vitro fertilization, transgenic animals, organ donors, animal rights, nuclear waste, or recycling.)


To relate a technological issue to society and to derive a view of its impact on society as a whole.

Intended Audience:

Grades 9 - 12


The students will be able to:
  1. derive positive and negative views of technology
  2. analyze the cost and benefits of technology
  3. evaluate the impact of technology on society
  4. justify their position to support their view regarding the technology
  5. apply a critical thinking approach to different situations


It is suggested that the class be broken up into groups of 4-5 students to brainstorm the breakthrough. This could also be done individually or with the class as a whole.


Assign a role to each group and have them work through the model using their role. Examples could be environmental activist, city or county council, concerned citizens, political groups, or other special interest groups.

The students will:

  1. Place the technological topic/issue in the center circle of the page.

  2. Brainstorm to develop as many pros and cons as they can for each societal area. Not all areas may apply and additional ones may be added.

  3. Analyze the data to derive a group consensus. The number of pros versus cons is not necessarily indicative of the group view. It may help the students if they prioritize the issues.

  4. Reconvene as a class for discussion. Each group will offer support derived from their breakthrough analysis.

Sample Questions:

  1. Does every societal area relate to your topic/issue? Were others needed?

  2. Does the number of pros and cons reflect your stand? Support your answer.

  3. Do all societal issues have equal value? If not, how should you rank them?

  4. How would differing values on societal issues affect your decision?

  5. If you were voting on this issue, which societal areas would most influence your decision?



( Technological Topic )






America's trash heaps are generating 180 million tons of solid waste per year. Recycling efforts are generally aimed at inorganic waste including metals, plastics, and glass. Yet these components constitute only 24% of the total weight of a landfill . Organic components comprise the bulk of landfill weight. Paper products alone account for nearly 40% of the weight, while food and yard waste add another 25%. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 65% of the solid waste is reusable organic material. The Solid Waste Composting Council (SWCC) is urging municipalities to produce salable compost to utilize these reusable organics.

Biotechnology is taking the idea of composting beyond the backyard pile to a national composting effort. Compost produced from the landfill components can be sold for land modification. The adding of sludge from the sewage treatment plants to the solid landfill waste speeds the decomposition efforts of the landfills and produces a compost richer in nutrients. Compost is produced from organic materials when microorganisms feed on the carbon, nitrogen, and water found in the waste. The microorganisms respire and produce carbon dioxide and heat as byproducts; as a result, the organic material shrinks into small bits and pieces. Sludge increases the nitrogen (nutrient) content of the waste and thereby increases the rate of decomposition. The heat produced in the reaction destroys pathogens. In addition, companies heat the products to 55 degrees Celsius, destroying human pathogens.


Preliminary studies in which solid waste compost was used as a soil modification prove to be promising. In a seven year study, pine trees growing in a forest were treated with 200 tons of compost/acre/year. They grew at a faster rate, and the density of the wood increased. No harmful effects were observed in the plants. Additional studies proved the usefulness of compost soil modifications. Papaya groves produced more fruit when treated with solid waste compost. The addition of sludge to solid waste compost produced an even higher yield. This can be seen in studies dealing with tomato fruit yields. Sludge alone, due to the high nitrogen content, encouraged the growth of the plant and not its fruiting. Lower amounts of sludge with solid waste compost increased the yield of the tomato beyond the expected yield of untreated plants. An additional benefit of the compost/ sludge was observed in green beans. The beans grown in the modified soil did not develop fungal diseases as readily as beans grown in untreated soil. In fact, diseases were almost eliminated with the compost/sludge applications. Besides lowering the fertilizer demands, the modifications increased the water holding capacity, thus lowering the rate of pesticide contaminated water runoff into underground aquifers. Although these studies with municipal compost/sludge applications are in the preliminary stages, the data offer a hopeful utilization of municipal waste products.

Consumer Concerns:

The yields of edible crops have increased with waste-derived products, but the consumer has a problem with fertilizing edibles with compost/sludge byproducts. "Waste-derived products have a stigma attached to them." Taste tests showed that consumers said they disliked the tomatoes grown in sludge. But in blind taste tests, consumers preferred the sludge tomatoes over all other tomatoes.

Another consumer concern, heavy metals in edibles, has sent up "a red flag." Current research is checking the heavy metal amounts in municipal solid waste. Nickel, zinc, and copper kill plants when present in high levels, plus, cadmium and lead cause health problems in humans. Metals can only be taken up by the plant in the ionic state . Studies show most metals in solid waste are in the combined state. Scientists are hopeful that continued research will lower consumer concerns.

If testing shows the use of municipal waste is economical and safe, recycling from our landfills and sewage plants will be promising. Recycling must include organics since targeting only inorganics will not adequately reduce the rate at which America is generating trash for landfills.


( Samples to use with Breakthrough )
  • The government officials from Megalopolis have approached the county council about using a large tract of sandy soil for sludge disposal. The materials shipped to the county land will be totally inert. Also, the county will receive a large sum of money monthly for the use of this land. The money will help lessen the overall tax burden for roads, schools and recreational purposes. The town obtains its water from an underground reservoir.

  • The site was rolling with standing water at the base of the hills except in late summer. Mosquitoes were so bad most of the year that you could not get near the area. Since no one was using the land, the city thought they would open it for a landfill. The closest landfill was 75 miles away. Several nearby towns and industries have expressed interest in using the site and paying a dumping fee.

  • ABT, a biotechnology company utilizing a bacteria, E. coli, is interested in purchasing the abandoned factory site on the outskirts of town. The site is close to a large lake that is used by the town for drinking water as well as for recreation. They will renovate the land and the factory to bring it up to code. The zoning board is meeting tonight to discuss the petition. All concerned citizens can speak and ask the officials of the company and the zoning board questions. The economic basis of the town has been strong but the unemployment rate has been increasing.


  1. Are there other questions you would like to ask the company and/or officials?

  2. Have you considered all sides of the issue?

  3. Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

  4. Are you comfortable with your decision? Why or why not?

  5. Can others "live" with your decision? Why or why not?

  6. What type of regulations would you apply to the situation?

  7. If you were an elected official, how would you vote on this issue?


Aquifers -
underground water reserves

Biotechnology -
any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify products

Combined State -
two or more elements together e.g. CuSO4

Compost -
process of breaking down organic materials into usable products

Edibles -
plants grown for food

governmental agency responsible for drafting regulations pertaining to the environment

Heavy Metals -
transitional metals found in the middle of the periodic table. They are not easily excreted or chemically changed by the body and tend to accumulate in living organisms. Common examples include lead, mercury, and cadmium.

Inorganic -
from nonliving sources

Ionic -
charged state either having lost or gained an electron-e.g. Na+

Landfill -
area in which municipal, commercial, and domestic waste is stored

Microorganisms -
very tiny organisms, usually microscopic in size e.g. bacteria

Organic -
from living sources

Pathogens -
anything that causes illness

Pesticide -
a product that kills unwanted organisms

Sewage -
liquid and solid waste products from animals

Sludge -
wet materials produced by sewage treatment

Solid Waste -
solid material from the landfill


"Battling Mt. Trashmore," McCalls, 118:79-82, April 1991.

"Burying Trash: Big Hole on the Balance Sheet," Business Week, 88-89, May 11, 1992.

"Cleaning Up Our Groundwater," Prevention, 42;30 March 1990.

"Desert Dilemma," Buzzworm, 4:22-23, January/ February 1992.

"Groundwater in Peril," Earth Science, 42:14-16, Winter 1989.

"How Can We Win the War Against Garbage," Popular Science , 137:157-162, October 1990.

"No One Wants to Shoot Snow White," Forbes, 148:40-2, October 14, 1991.

"Once and Future Landfills," National Geographic, 179:116-34, May 1991.

"Shrinking the Trash Heap," BioScience, 42:90-93, February 1992.

"This Land Is Our Land," Omni, 12:24, April 1990.

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