Teaching Environmental Chemistry in a Service Context

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The e-book “Service Learning and Environmental Chemistry: Relevant Connection,” edited by Elizabeth S. Roberts-Kirchhoff, Matthew J. Mio, and Mark A. Benvenuto, offers a progressive look at how chemistry can be woven into an interdisciplinary teaching platform. The emphasis is on engaging students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in a new and refreshing way. The book provides examples of professors integrating service learning projects into their classrooms and formulating a learning environment rich in hands-on experiences and cross-disciplinary learning. Most of the projects are tailored to engaging freshman- or sophomore-level undergraduate students that are not majoring in STEM disciplines. The examples are detailed, providing graphs, data, and pertinent methodologies for developing or implementing these types of programs at other institutions. The text provides a great resource to university chemistry professors that are interested in enriching their programs with a contextual framework that draws from social, economic, and ethical issues.

In Chapter 2, Xavier University provides a stunning example of how environmental justice can be used to engage students directly with issues that affect local and regional communities. Xavier students partnered with a local non-profit organization called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) that provides educational and support resources to surrounding communities that have serious environmental health concerns due to pollution generated by local industrial practices. This program teaches core scientific concepts about air and water quality against the backdrop of environmental justice and pools local resources from the Louisiana Department of Water Quality for data analysis. Programs in Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 8 provide details about community partnerships engaging college students with service learning projects involving the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA, as well as partnerships with local area high schools. In Chapter 6, Daniel Lawson from the University of Michigan describes an intriguing program that accurately models zero-dimensional energy balance of the average global temperature with correlations to infrared (IR) active atmospheric gases. This simplistic model system was used to create a bridging program with Detroit high schools, connecting graduate students from the University of Michigan with high school teachers to implement the modeling program in high school computer science classrooms. In Chapter 8, educational outreach between the Milwaukee School of Engineering developed a similar program with local high schools engaging students around the societal effects of nanotechnology.

Other sections explore interdisciplinary programs within a campus community. Specifically, the University of Akron followed a modified SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) model that partnered faculty from different departments on campus to collectively teach a block of freshman core requirements to undergraduate students. To engage students in a collaborative environment, foster critical thinking in a group atmosphere, reduce student anxiety and foster relationships, cohorts of first-year students were registered into three core-level courses in English, Math, and Environmental Science and Engineering. Through this 15-week program, students were immersed in a structured learning community called GATE (Green Action Through Education) where they used water quality and testing as a focus to develop skills in science, mathematics, writing, and communication. Examples of water quality analysis assignments, mathematics activities, and writing assignments related to the project are included in a detailed appendix. Chapters 10 and 11 also use water quality as an approach to engage student interest and training, however, these programs target STEM majors enrolled in upper division coursework such as analytical or instrumental chemistry. Methodology describing detailed aspects of the course design is provided in addition to student assessment of learning gains during the course.

In Chapter 9, Steven Bachofer from the Department of Chemistry at St. Mary’s College enlisted environmental science students from the college to engage with a local community group that wanted to reclaim and repurpose lands previously used as a switching station for the railroad into a community garden. Students from the college developed EPA approved methodologies using portable XRF instrumentation to test soil samples collected from the area for contaminants such as copper, zinc, and lead. Results from the mini-study revealed that lead contamination in the area was as great as 200 ppm preventing the local families from establishing a community garden in this unsuitable location.

“Service Learning and Environmental Chemistry: Relevant Connections” offers a multitude of dynamic strategies to engage students in scientific learning that is connected to and serves the greater community. It provides a valuable reference to any STEM program for the development of service-learning projects connecting students with real-world applications of science and technology.

Patricia M. Flatt is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Western Oregon University.