Elizabeth Moore

Elizabeth Moore Headshot

Elizabeth Moore is an Adjunct Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and a Golisano Institute for Sustainability PhD Candidate.  This month, she shares with us how critical thinking can be used to impact learning outcomes for diverse student populations.  “I let students know that their involvement is imperative. This class won’t work well if everyone sits quiet and doesn’t share their knowledge, experience, and thought process. I have worked hard to make the classroom a safe, welcoming environment where there are no wrong answers and all ideas are encouraged to be shared and respected.”  Read her answers to a few critical questions here:

1. How Do You Teach Applied Critical Thinking?

It has been important for me to recognize that everyone, especially given RIT’s diverse student population, learns differently. During the first few weeks of class I ask challenging questions and wait patiently for a response from the students rather than bailing them out by answering my own questions during the awkward silence.  I let students know that their involvement is imperative. This class won’t work well if everyone sits quiet and doesn’t share their knowledge, experience, and thought process. I have worked hard to make the classroom a safe, welcoming environment where there are no wrong answers and all ideas are encouraged to be shared and respected. We have classes on ‘hard’ topics such as poverty, inequality, food security, and access to education. In these classes, I challenge the students to respectfully challenge each other and ask “why?” or “how come?” We also have writing and presentation assignments where I challenge students to try on different hats and challenge the borders that may exist in their major programs (scientist, policy-maker, entrepreneur, engineer, economic, psychologist, and more). For instance, one of my favorite discussions from this course centers on the TOMS shoe company. TOMs popularized social entrepreneurship by donating one pair of shoes to children in developing countries for each pair of TOMs sold. To encourage critical thinking, I ask the students to think about if this has been a helpful business model especially in the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Once we dig deeper as a class, we learn that it is important to ask people what they need instead of assuming that those in poverty need shoes. The students ultimately discover that the buy one give one model has disrupted the local economy in those countries and it has been found that many people already had shoes but needed more essential items to live such as potable water.

I am also a firm believer in experience-oriented learning as opposed to exams and quizzes. This allows for creativity and questioning to come into play rather than rigid, right or wrong answers. The final project in my class is to work together as a full class (sometimes up to 32 students) to solve a local sustainability problem that they identify together. They must work with their peers, RIT faculty, and community leaders to gain knowledge, identify a need, and create a solution that addresses the four pillars of sustainability: economy, environment, social factors, and good governance. Through this Sustainable Development class, my ultimate goal is to empower the students with knowledge. I hope that this gives them the confidence to challenge the status quo as they go out into the world and solve global challenges that are constantly evolving. Learning never ends—it is a life-long process.

2. Why Do You Think Applied Critical Thinking is Important in Your Domain?

In sustainability, researchers and practitioners must use critical thinking in order to arrive at novel solutions for global challenges like climate change, resilient cities, and the growing inequality gap. Solutions in sustainability will never be one size fits all because the solutions vary by geography, culture, economy, etc. Thus, we must be able to assess the situation and think critically about how the solution will work for a given place or group of people. When researching emerging technologies such as renewable energy systems or nanotechnologies, the approach has historically been to get the technology out on the market and deal with consequences as they are presented. However, using critical thinking at the start of the design phase, we can be proactive and ask hard questions that will lessen consequences overall. The very first day of my doctorate program in sustainability, we learned that sometimes the best answer to a question is “it depends.” For example, are electric vehicles actually cleaner than the incumbent gasoline-powered vehicles? If someone answered this question just yes or no, they would be wrong. It depends on where the vehicle is charging because it depends on how clean the electricity grid is in an area.

3. Can You Share a Story Where Quality Applied Critical Thinking Was Key to Your Success?

My research focus at RIT is understanding and informing the risks and benefits of integrating carbonaceous nanomaterials (materials 1,000X smaller than a piece of your hair) into clean energy technologies. When trying to model both the risks and benefits, I use critical thinking to determine unique methods of applying these novel materials. Rather than focusing on how researchers have assessed risks and benefits separately, I thought it was more meaningful to assess both simultaneously. I researched other disciplines where risks and benefits are analyzed together and stumbled upon portfolio optimization, which is traditionally used   to model investment portfolios to maximize return on investment while minimizing risk or variance of the portfolio. The method was applied to determining the optimal portfolio of carbonaceous nanomaterials to be used in clean energy applications based on maximizing beneficial factors (performance) while minimizing potential risks (cost, energy used to make the material). Our results showed that for lithium-ion batteries, graphite (the incumbent material) was still the optimal material to use. However, my co-authors and I asked ourselves what if this material became unavailable? Digging a little deeper we found that there is a possibility of graphite becoming a scarce, critical material in the long-term. Through thinking outside of the box and asking why, how come, who cares, we were able to inform which materials should be adopted for solar cells and lithium-ion batteries while considering different scenarios. The insights in this work led to a journal article published in Environmental Science and Technology.  

4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking in Other Areas of Your Life Outside of RIT?

I started volunteering with Kids Miracle Making Club in Penfield, NY last year, which is a club with the goal of bringing children of all abilities together to learn and work with one another. I noticed that most of the children involved were males and was determined to increase female participation. As an all-star cheerleading coach in Rochester, I realized that a local special needs cheerleading team in western Rochester did not exist and thought it would be a great opportunity to start one at the gym I work at. Along with another PhD student, Jennifer Russell, we recruited a project team of cheerleaders at the gym ages 5-18. We identified the problem, brought in some experts, and utilized our own expertise to manage the project. We developed the team, recruited athletes through advertisements, fundraised, and trained both our helpers and adaptive athletes in the program. We practiced once a week for several months with 8 total members ages 5-19 years old. We competed for the first time in Rochester this past month and achieved our goal of bringing a total of 28 athletes of all abilities and ages together. After using critical thinking to make this goal a reality, we are ready to start on our second season. See their performance here.

5. Any Last Critical Thoughts?

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” -Albert Einstein