The Course

A major priority in the design of this course is the engagement of students as scientists and citizens. This is accomplished through the variety of techniques described below.

Chemistry and Policy Syllabi (Acrobat (PDF) 170kB Jul11 08)

Course Format

In the Course Intersection Method, two courses interact for a three week period toward the end of the regular semester. Students get together at the beginning of the semester to decide on the project and to assign a division of labor which mixes student groups from both classes. Prior to the
beginning of the course intersection period, the Chemistry students will have learned about lead measurement through laboratory exercises emphasizing instrumentation, calibration and validation and will have worked with abridged EPA methods. They will be prepared to approach the project as analytical chemists. The Urban Studies students will have examined how cities reflect power hierarchies. They will have reviewed major questions in urban theory and looked at global and local variables influenced by consumption, production, distribution and exchange patterns, in terms of job possibilities, housing, education and health care, i.e. the background knowledge for policy making.

At the beginning of the course intersection period, we present the historical context of the primary commercial uses of lead that have led to its ubiquitous urban distribution, as well as epidemiological and toxicological studies of lead, including various sources of information spanning scientific primary literature, reviews, newspapers and government reports. Then, as integrated groups, Chemistry and Urban Studies students collect samples for lead analysis, and begin to discuss steps in policy making. The exercise has three culminating events: the Instrumental Analysis students present their results of sample analysis to the Urban Studies students, who, after consideration of the science, make a presentation of their policy options. Finally groups comprised of students from both courses discuss the recommendations, giving the experience of peer teaching the connections between science and policy making.

Timetable for Intersection PeriodInstrumental AnalysisUrban Studies
PreparationGroup assignments and project description, sample collectionGroup assignments and project description, sample collection
Week IRisk assessment/methods for lead measurement/Sample PreparationHistory of Pb use/Epidemiology and Toxicology/Sample Preparation
Week IISample analysisDebates on policy
Week IIIChemistry students present to Urban Studies audienceUrban Studies students present to Chemistry audience

During the pair of presentations, we give special attention to how social scientists and scientists collaborate and communicate with one another regarding policy recommendations with economic, political, and social considerations. Along with the policy recommendations, we ask the policy makers what additional information would benefit the policy decision process and challenge the scientists to propose new studies, again reflecting the interaction of the scientific community with the general public at an early stage (e.g. public hearings) of urban problem solving. This is intended to reflect the dialog that occurs when a municipality, interest group, etc. requests that the scientific community provide them with the results of a study. Special emphasis is placed on understanding how the experimental design limits (or extends) what can be said about the data, sources of error and uncertainty, and statistical analysis of data. We initiate a broader discussion of the roles of scientists and policy makers and we emphasize how effective communication demands understanding of both the audience and the issues, and that the civic responsibility of scientists and policy makers requires good communication between the two groups as well as with the public.

We have chosen lead poisoning as the focus topic for our course intersection due to the wide availability of published studies, accessibility of lead analysis in an undergraduate laboratory setting (Breslin, 2001; Markow, 1996), public awareness, and most importantly, the continuing salience of the lead poisoning problem. This is especially true in urban environments where minority groups are disproportionately exposed (English, 2001; Millstone, 1997; Warren, 2000).

Because of the prevalence of lead contamination, the choice of setting for the course intersection project can be drawn from old homes, playgrounds, residential neighborhoods, former industrial sites, or school buildings. We have also consulted with the College Institutional Review Board regarding issues pertaining to work involving human subjects.

The intersection period thus serves as a model for what happens in a democratic process. In such a process, an optimum solution might only be achievable if policy makers understand and appreciate all information, including the value of scientific data, in order to serve the public responsibly. Conversely the value of the input of such data might certainly be heightened if scientists are appreciative of the social context of the problem, and are prepared to participate in making policy as citizens. Bridging this gap in an academic setting provides our science and social science students with first hand experience questioning boundaries, and prepares them for the challenges of informed decision making as contributing citizens in a democracy.