SENCER E-Newsletter, September 2004, Volume 4, Issue 1
Chemistry and Policy: A Course Intersection - By: Christopher Smart, Pinar Batur, and Stuart Belli of 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.