Chemistry and Policy: A Course Intersection

Christopher Smart, Associate Professor and Chair of Chemistry, Vassar College; Pinar Batur, Associate Professor of Sociology and current Director of Urban Studies, Vassar College; Stuart Belli, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Director of Environmental Science, Vassar College.

This Vassar Course Intersection brings two classes together, a Chemistry course in Instrumental Analysis, the other an Introduction to Urban Studies, around the single problem of lead exposure in urban environments. The class in Instrumental Analysis enrolls primarily Chemistry majors, while the Urban Studies class attracts students who are interested in public policy. For three weeks at the end of the semester, both groups must pool their knowledge and work collaboratively to study a real-world problem-the levels and effects of lead exposure in their own urban environment. The resulting collaboration provides students with an opportunity to put their academic learning in a wider social and political context, while demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary investigation.

The Instrumental Analysis course covers spectroscopy, chromatography, and electrochemistry. Due to the course intersection, there is an extra emphasis on the importance of sampling to the overall validity of any investigation. There is also an enhanced appreciation of calibration, validation, and measurement uncertainty because the experimental results are being used to formulate and propose policy. The urban studies students are given some background in the chemistry of Pb (lead) especially in regards to toxicology and epidemiology, exposure pathways and routes, dose response and analysis, impact of chronic and subchronic exposures, and Pb's persistence in the environment. There is an emphasis on the challenges of assessing risk in the context of scientific uncertainty and on the importance of longitudinal and cross-sectional population exposure data. The course intersection 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 policymaking.

Course Learning Goals

Instrumental Analysis Course

  • Learn instrument design
  • Open up the black boxes
  • Develop an understanding of what is happening in there
  • Maybe more important is fostering an attitude that we CAN know what is happening in there
  • Learn experimental design
  • This includes statistics and sampling
  • Learn the principles of the phenomena of nature that can be quantified and hence used for analysis

Teaching Goals and Philosophy

We believe teaching is not just a profession but a conviction about humanity, equality and freedom. A good teacher is always a good student, one who conceptualizes education as the practice of freedom and equality, revealing a fundamental belief in humanity. The key is to discover, rethink and learn, and engage in a dialogue with students as a student. In this context, education is not about "evolution of self" but a "revolution of self," and it demands a voice that reflects the educator's sense of self as a scholar and citizen. It is this voice that we strive for in our classrooms. We feel the challenge to offer classes that do not merely reproduce existing discourse, but seek new ways to question the past and present, and debate alternatives for the future. It is important for us that this discourse is not segregated from the everyday lives of educators, students, citizens and the world around them, but provides a discourse to advocate equality and freedom, and generates civic participation. This kind of liberating education requires a setting, and we believe Vassar as a liberal arts college is an ideal domain for students and educators to challenge and engage in a debate which requires a holistic comprehension that is critical and alternative seeking. For us, in this setting we can strive to be Paul Freire's liberating and "problem posing educator," and scholars and together with our students and colleagues inside and outside the classroom, to create the conditions for engaging freely in knowledge, discovery, teaching.

As teaching partners, we not only represent our disciplines, but also try to offer a syncretistic approach and a synthesis that defines the core of multidisciplinary  studies. The pedagogical question with which we are grappling has been how education can facilitate communication between scientists and non-scientists to understand and narrow the gap between scientists, policy makers and the public regarding urban complexities. As educators, two goals helped us to shape our project: first, opening new ways to integrate "two cultures," science and nonscience, to extend the possibilities and promise of both in terms of their theory and practice; and second, fostering civic literacy, requiring a fusion of scientific literacy and policy literacy, which includes critical thinking about knowledge, ideas and values, and responsible participatory citizenship within democracy.