Mini Case 2: Case Study Learning in Cohorts

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The Michigan Sustainability Cases initiative grew partly from faculty experience in teaching and learning with case studies. That experience led to the insight that cases need not be confined to the classroom, and in 2013, a case study was used for the first time at new student orientation at the formerly named School of Natural Resources and Environment (now School for the Environment and Sustainability, SEAS). In 2016, MSC adapted the case for its online learning platform and journeyed to the University of Michigan Biological Station to observe case deployment. The mini-case below tells the story of that trip and MSC’s collaboration with the SEAS Office of Academic Programs as they grapple together with the question “Can a case study build relationships among students at orientation?”

The bus was quiet. The new master’s students beginning their studies at the School for Environment and Sustainability, or SEAS, had all nodded off one by one. They were returning from two days of orientation at the University of Michigan Biological Station, capped by a late-night bonfire the night before. Jung Koral, the Associate Director of Enrollment Services, rubbed his forehead and closed his eyes. It had been an intense couple of days, and he was ready for a break. Months of work had gone into preparing for orientation, and now all that remained was to deliver the students safely home. Jung wanted nothing more than to join the students in a well-deserved nap. But his mind would not cooperate, racing as he fretted over whether orientation had achieved its goals this year. It was unusual for a school to put so much effort into taking new students on a field trip to northern Michigan, and equally unusual to run them through the exercise of a case study. But he, his colleagues, and the faculty at SEAS were counting on the experience providing a crucial introduction to the state of Michigan and to SEAS, and helping to foster the strong sense of community that existed within the school. Had they planted the seeds of new relationships that would grow into professional collaborations? How had students responded to the case study, where they were asked to decide whether Michigan should authorize a wolf hunt? And if they had achieved all they set out to do, would they have the data to know? The hum of the bus rolling steadily toward Ann Arbor began to overcome Jung’s worries, and he finally drifted off to sleep.

Rebecca piloting Wolf Wars case in her ANTHRCUL 256 class in W16The School for Environment and Sustainability launched in July 2017 and welcomed its first cohort of master’s students the following month. Since 1995, its predecessor, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, had been taking its new master’s students to the Biological Station for hands-on orientation activities, and SEAS enthusiastically committed to continuing the tradition. Moreover, for the past four years, the students had worked through a case study called “Wolf Wars” (Yaffee et al., 2016), about the controversy surrounding a wolf hunt in Michigan. ‘Wolf Wars’ served both as a vehicle for introducing students to one another and as an introduction to a current issue in Michigan. The outlines of the case study had been written by two student authors, David Wang and Sheena Vanleuven. Subsequent writing from Professor Steven Yaffee and Professor Julia Wondolleck--who both had extensive experience in writing and teaching with cases--had transformed the student authors’ work into a complex and engaging teaching tool. Professor Yaffee, a highly regarded professor at SEAS, now led the new students through the case over a two-day period.

Jung’s previous experience with orientation suggested that the case study was highly effective in meeting both objectives, but he was itching to gather some formal data to support the anecdotal evidence he currently had. This year, he had partnered with an upstart initiative in SEAS, Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSC), that had adapted “Wolf Wars” for its online learning platform ( and was collecting assessment data about its case studies. So far, the arrangement was working well: Jung was able to help MSC randomize the students for the purposes of deploying a survey, and the data MSC collected would offer him some insight into how the students experienced the case study at orientation. He had reservations about asking the students to participate in an experiment so early in their tenure at SEAS; however, he felt the potential disruption was worth it to improve the experience for future students, and SEAS wanted to support MSC in its efforts. 

One morning in late August 2017, with one day of orientation already under their belts, the students arrived at the Dana building laden with sleeping bags, overnight bags, and pillows, still drowsily drinking their coffee from travel mugs. Jung rushed around Ford Commons, checking last-minute details with his colleagues in the Office of Academic Programs. Did the students have their name tags, with their bus and survey group assignments? Check. Did everyone have a printed copy of the “Wolf Wars” case study? Check. Had everyone read the case study, in preparation for the stakeholder role play exercise at the Biological Station? Not quite. It was, however, a four-hour drive to Pellston, more than enough time for everyone to finish reading and for half the students to take the pre-survey. Jung took a deep breath as he led the students to the waiting buses. They were off.

That evening, the students packed into the auditorium at the Biological Station for their first introduction to the case and to Professor Yaffee. After some brief welcoming remarks and instructions, the students were released to enjoy the rest of their evening. The case study typically unfolded over the course of the next day, interspersed with additional hands-on learning activities with SEAS faculty and some good, old-fashioned fun. At this juncture, the faculty had a well-organized plan for leading the students through the stakeholder role-playing activity. The role-play allowed students to dig into the scientific, ethical, environmental, and social issues raised by the case, and as such it represented most of the students’ engagement with the case. Students had been assigned to one of six stakeholder groups: anti-hunting groups, environmental groups, hunting and fishing groups, Native American tribes, scientists and managers, and Upper Peninsula residents and livestock interests. For the first stage of the role-play, students broke off into their stakeholder groups for a guided discussion led by a faculty member about their group’s concerns and position. Typically, Jung visited several rooms where discussions were taking place; he enjoyed watching the students apply and hone their perspective-taking and critical thinking skills right out of the gate. 

Later in the day, the students reconvened in policy groups consisting of one representative from each stakeholder group, to arrive at a final decision: Should we hunt gray wolves in Michigan? Yes or no? This part of the role play usually involved heated discussion, but by dinner time, policy group members always somehow managed to achieve consensus. They even managed to do so with enough free time for a swim in the lake, a hike, or a game of giant Jenga. For the final stage of the role-playing exercise, everyone gathered in the Biological Station’s auditorium to vote. Professor Yaffee stood at the front, microphone in hand. He had led this debate many times before and knew precisely how to stir up emotions. That was his point, really, whether students knew it or not: These issues were complex, and their resolutions depended not only on rational science but also on human values and emotions. Many students had difficulty separating their own feelings about the wolf hunt from the decision of their policy group. 

After an hour, the students had still not arrived at a mutually satisfactory answer. Probably they never would, but Jung hoped that everyone would carry this experience with them throughout their time at SEAS. With luck, the debate over the wolf hunt had also forged some new friendships, rather than dividing people; individual students responded differently to the exercise. Yet Jung felt an overriding sense of pride as he observed how a group of strangers had become a cohort with a shared passion for conservation, environmentalism, and sustainability. Now, the Wolf Wars case study had concluded for another year at orientation. Jung and the students headed to the boat well to enjoy each other’s company amid the glow of a bonfire. It was hard to feel too worried in this beautiful place, surrounded by tall, swaying trees and the Milky Way stretched out above him. Tomorrow they would return to reality as they all boarded the buses to head home. 

By late fall, everyone had settled into their routines, and orientation had become a distant memory for most people--but not for Jung. He was constantly working to improve the student experience, and before long it would be time to start planning next year’s orientation activities. MSC had shared with him some preliminary results from their collaborative work at the Biological Station, and Jung was curious to see what they had found. On the bus ride home, MSC had given the other half of the students a post-survey, identical to the pre-survey, to measure what effect the role-playing activity had had on the students’ knowledge about wolves in Michigan, and students’ perceived learning and satisfaction with the case. After returning to campus, MSC had also conducted focus groups to get more fine-grained detail about what the students thought of doing a case study at orientation, for the purpose of improving the case and its implementation. The two data sets offered complementary information, but how could they use each one to assess whether and how the case study had helped to build new relationships?

Resolution: The first data set he received was from the survey. Happily, most students (84%) reported they were satisfied with the case overall. As Jung scanned the data, it became clear that little measurable change had occurred between the pre- and post-survey groups (Figure 2). Perhaps that was to be expected, because the exercise had taken place over only a couple of days. Students wouldn’t yet have had a chance to digest the more nuanced aspects of the case. But he was able to start forming a picture of what the students had taken away from the case study. Mostly, the students were able to correctly answer some basic content-related questions, and they felt that their understanding of the social and political implications of the wolf hunt had increased following the role-playing exercise. Unsurprisingly, most students reported that they would not support a wolf hunt--either before or after the exercise. Jung turned to the focus group data.

Figure 2. Student responses to the survey item: “Please rate your understanding of the following concepts.” 1= very poor; 3 = average; 5 = very good.

Figure 2. Student responses to the survey item: “Please rate your understanding of the following concepts.” 1= very poor; 3 = average; 5 = very good.


For some students, the case provided a useful introduction to Michigan and to SEAS. One student remarked, “A lot of us are not from Michigan, and so having that context to say, this is a little bit about the ecology … and history and cultures of the state was … really valuable, especially for people who’ve never been to the United States before.” Curiously, some students reported that they didn’t know the wolf hunt was a real issue until other students from Michigan had told them it was. That would need to be addressed in the future. Other students appreciated that SEAS set high standards for conversation and engagement, as well as the in-depth orientation to interdisciplinary studies. One takeaway from the case the students mentioned was that issues such as the wolf hunt were complex, and that they required examination from multiple perspectives. On the other hand, students agreed that the role play, and especially the discussion surrounding the final vote about whether Michigan should authorize a wolf hunt, went on for too long, and the students had grown restless. More concerningly, students felt uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Native American perspective and with being asked to take on that role if they were not from that community.

Jung sat back in his chair. SEAS had clearly met some of its goals, but not others, and in some instances the data were insufficient to draw a conclusion. Answering his questions about orientation was a challenge and would probably take several years’ worth of data. But it was a start, and he was happy to have supported MSC and to have been involved in adding an engaging element to the SEAS orientation. He was definitely looking forward to next year.

Back to The Michigan Sustainability Cases Initiative