Summer Research Program for Science Teachers

Jeremy Szerlip

Scarsdale High School

Scarsdale, NY

2003

The Tragedy of the Commons

Course:     Living Environment (Biology)

Grade:            9th grade

Unit:               Ecology/Human Impact

Time:              1 class period (you could use two if you enrich the discussion using case studies)

Aim:                To introduce the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons and to have student understand how we as a society can put a stop to this tragedy.

Background:   In 1968, environmentalists coined a term or concept called the Tragedy of the Commons.  The tragedy being the notion that any resource that is open to everyone – such as the air or parts of the ocean – will eventually be destroyed because everyone can use the resource but no one is responsible for preserving it.  When people are not compelled to preserve resources for the welfare for future generations, the Tragedy of the Commons occurs.

Objective:       At tables of four, students will go through an activity that will help them better understand the Tragedy of the Commons.  The follow-up questions and the discussion will let students talk about the issues and help them to come to solutions for the societal dilemma.

Standards:      Standard 7: Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

Students will apply the knowledge and thinking skills of

mathematics, science, and technology to address real- life problems

and make informed decisions.

Standard 4: Science

Students will understand and apply scientific concepts, principles, and theories pertaining to the physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.

Methods:        Before the activity begins you must set-up the room so that four students can each sit around a table.  In the middle of the table you will put a dish (this represents the lake) containing 16 goldfish.  Please do not use real gold fish since this would be cruel.  Use the Pepperidge farms variety.  Place four sets of chopsticks (they represent the fishing apparatus) at the table.

1.      Read to the students: Each one of you represents the head of a family that is starving.  In order for your family to survive, you must catch enough fish for them to eat.  The only food source is a small local lake which can hold up to 16 fish.

Once a year you will get a chance to fish and each time you fish you may take 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 fish from the lake.  It is your choice how many fish you take, however, if you only take one fish, your family will starve.  If you take more than 2 fish, you can sell them for a profit.  The fish in your lake will reproduce once a year.  Keep the fish that you “catch” in front of you. (You will be able to eat them later)

2.      At the end of each year, you the teacher, must go around to each table and add more fish to the lake when they reproduce.  They simply double each year.  If any family has starved then they obviously cannot fish the next year.

3.      Tell students that they are not allowed to talk or communicate while fishing

4.      Have the student fish for 5 years and make sure that they fill in the Data Table for 1st game after each round. You should probably control each round telling them when to start and stop.  The activity works better when you control each round.

5.      After the first game have students answer questions 1 and 2 in the discussion questions.

6.      The students have still been unable to talk to each other during fishing so now you begin game #2.  Reminding them not to communicate with each other.

7.      When you are done have the students answer the discussion questions.

8.      I usually then have a class discussion focusing on the questions.  You can also extend this to have students look at how the U.S and other countries use common resources.

Student Data Sheets

fish data table

1st game

Name of Lake: ___________________

 Number of fish in the lake [after reproduction] Number of fish caught per person Number of fish caught per year [by everyone] YEAR ONE YEAR TWO YEAR THREE YEAR FOUR YEAR FIVE TOTAL

fish data table

2nd game

Name of Lake: ___________________

 Number of fish in the lake [after reproduction] Number of fish caught per person Number of fish caught per year [by everyone] YEAR ONE YEAR TWO YEAR THREE YEAR FOUR YEAR FIVE TOTAL

# Discussion Questions

1.       Did anyone in your group take too many fish?  How did that make you feel?  Did everyone try to take as many as possible?  Why or Why not?  Does society reward those with the “most”?

2.       Did anyone sacrifice the # of fish, for the good of the community?  Why or why not?  Does society ever reward that type of person?

3.       In Game two... how did your strategy change, if at all?  Does it make a difference to know what the rewards are?

4.   Is it possible to maximize the number of fish caught/person AND the number of fish remaining in the pond at the same time? Why or Why not?

5.   Think of a local commons that you are familiar with. [parking lots, dorm social rooms, bathrooms, bookstalls, etc.] Do similar situations arise? Explain. HOW might those problems be solved?

6.   What are some natural resources that are common resources?

7.       What are the global commons?  Are these being used wisely?  Why or why not?

8.   What can people do to use these resources most wisely?