published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, October 2004, Volume 4, Issue 2

Progress Report: Saint Mary's College of California

Steven J. Bachofer, Professor of Chemistry, and Phyllis Martinelli, Professor of Anthropology - Saint Mary's College of California

RETUrN (Renewable Environments: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods) Learning Community at Saint Mary's College

Concerns about living in an urban area where skyrocketing housing prices encourage individuals to live further out from the urban centers, which contributes to longer commutes and the loss of greenfield sites in adjacent rural areas, led a chemistry professor and a sociology professor to collaboratively educate our students on redevelopment of urban neighborhoods. In the Fall of 2001, faculty members at Saint Mary's College began planning some integrative curriculum that would also fulfill the institution's commitment to outreach to the less fortunate members of society in the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area. The RETUrN Learning Community, a Saint Mary's College SENCER project, is one of the most successful integrated curriculum projects. Professors Steve Bachofer and Phylis Martinelli team taught in the Fall of 2003 a pair of courses: Urban Environmental Issues, a new general science education class and Urban Studies, an existing course that was substantially modified. The focus of these two courses was the redevelopment of Alameda Point (formerly Alameda Naval Air Station), a Superfund site. As a closed military base, Alameda Point represents an area with a vast potential however it also has numerous sites of environmental contamination which require remediation before redevelopment will occur. The former base has scenic views of the San Francisco skyline and a nesting colony of endangered sea birds. A social experiment is underway as formerly homeless people are housed next to upscale rentals and planned market rate housing. Following protocols of the base closure housing act, a homeless service provider, the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) has also received housing and additional buildings to provide a continuum of care.

Professors Bachofer and Martinelli were fortunate in forming partnerships with community leaders, nonprofit organizations, and regional EPA personnel. Following learning community format presented by Professor Ellen Goldey (Wofford College and SENCER faculty), two terrific upper division students were recruited to be student preceptors (Nikul Shah, a sociology major, and Breeanne Jackson, an environmental science major) for this pilot learning community in 2003. These two students were role model learners for the students enrolled in the courses, liaisons to the faculty who were teaching the course, and extra contact people when the LC went to Alameda Point, numerous times throughout the semester. These two students developed from co-learners to essentially co-instructors for the two courses.

The RETUrN learning community curriculum used the former Alameda Naval Air Station as our field site with a thematic focus on environmental and sociological risks. This site has ongoing environmental cleanup issues including time critical removal actions (TCRA) and various redevelopment activities. The courses were enhanced by field trips, speakers from public and non-profit agencies, and paired assignments. A video component was integrated into both courses as an instructional tool for the students in studying the community redevelopment. This video component was supported by an additional faculty member, Ed Tywoniak (Communications Department). A formal civic engagement component of the RETUrN LC was providing an educational afternoon, including a lab experiment for children living in the housing managed by the APC.

One lab involved soil sampling for hazardous metals on the site (using a field portable X-ray Fluorescence instrument) that is planned to become a plant nursery. Students researched different aspects of the redevelopment and shared their results with the College and the Alameda Point community by having two final poster presentations. The poster sessions and the collection of video material documenting the community's perspective on the various different redevelopment projects at Alameda Point were additional major civic engagement components of the two courses in the learning community.

The outcomes from this pilot project have gone well beyond expectations in many respects. The students gained a much greater understanding of time and commitment needed by citizens to see a community redeveloped to their benefit. The students became more aware of the environmental and sociological risks that are accepted in our society. Since the students had two field sampling lab experiences, the students have greater understanding of the limitations of science and difficulties that toxicologists have to deal with when they compile an environmental risk assessment. Nikul Shah wrote his senior thesis on the Alameda Point site and has presented his research. Since the ending of the course, one LC student decided to sign up for an independent study working with the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) and a number of LC students presented their research project posters at a sociological undergraduate symposium (April 2004). A Bonner leader student has also begun working with the APC, too. Plus, an additional Saint Mary's College politics class performed a class project with APC (Spring 2004).

The collaborative effort to educate all students in the class was a transformative experience for the two student preceptors and the faculty members. Professors Steve Bachofer and Phylis Martinelli were invigorated and challenged by teaching this learning community. Both have given presentations on various aspects of the RETUrN learning community. The SENCER general science education course was highlighted in a successful grant to the Dreyfus Foundation to purchase a new field portable XRF instrument to more easily infuse civic engagement aspects throughout the science curriculum at Saint Mary's College.

As Phylis and Steve prepare to teach the RETUrN LC again, new materials on the development of the site and their experience working with community members should facilitate a richer educational experience for more students in the Fall of 2005. The final video is nearing completion and copies will be provided to the community, which open more opportunities for the upcoming learning community. This video will give voice to the Alameda Point community that is developing and will be used as a recruiting tool to gain another group of engaged young energetic learners.

We are always interested to hear about the progress of our SENCER colleagues, especially news of grant support for increased SENCER work. We are happy to help support your efforts in any way that we can. Please let us know of developments in your work and we will share your news with the SENCER community. You may e-mail Patti Simon at with your reports and requests.