Linking Chemistry and Social Issues

Why is Chemistry & Ethnicity a SENCER model?

What capacious civic questions or problems are addressed in the course?

In 2002, Environmental Chemistry & Ethnicity (3 credits) was created as a new course in the Department of Chemistry. The course title was deliberately left broad enough to allow instructors to select a wide range of topics. In both 2003 and 2004, the course was taught with the topic of "Uranium and American Indians."

Uranium and American Indians explores the connections between uranium and the peoples of the Southwest who lived (and still are living) on the land where the uranium was extracted. Two key issues are addressed:

  1. how policies (public health, occupational safety, environmental protection & cleanup) are established when national security, corporate interests and the needs of a community come into conflict, and
  2. how indigenous groups in the United States faced and continue to face
    challenges with respect to both their land and their culture.
In one sense, Environmental Chemistry & Ethnicity could be characterized as an "environmental justice" course in that it examines inequities that have arisen from U.S. environmental policies. However, as evident from the description above, the course is more broadly based in that other types of public policy are relevant as well.

This course was the first in the Department to meet the Ethnic Studies Requirement, part of the General Education requirements at UW-Madison. Section 5 of this document, ("What is the Course's Role in the Undergraduate Curriculum?") describes this requirement more fully.

What basic science is covered?

This chart lists the scientific topics and the cultural topics. Although listed in separate columns, the topics were woven together to the greatest extent possible. The corresponding issues of public policy (also woven with the topics) are shown as well.

Scientific Topics Cultural Topics Public Policy Issues
Natural occurrence
Oxidation states
Composition of ores
Naturally occurring isotopes
Four Corners Area
The land and the people

The Navajo
Culture, history, spirituality, and the significance of the land
Indian Affairs
Past and present policies by the U.S. Federal Government

National security needs and the Cold War
The uranium industry
Types of mines
Milling processes
Tailings & waste
Navajo uranium miners and the land on which they live Environmental Protection
Site clean-up and remediation
Radioactive decay
Natural abundances

Radium and radon
Radioactive decay series
Physiological pathways

Ionizing radiation
Biological effects
Dose-response curves
Radiation and cancer
Cancer and its effects on people and their communities
The radium dial painters
The uranium miners
Health care options, especially on the reservation
Public Health
Exposure standards for radioisotopes and how these are set

Occupation Health & Safety
Identification of an occupational hazard and compensation of the victims
Nuclear fission/fusion
Nuclear fuel cycle
Enriched uranium
Depleted uranium
Atomic bombs
Hydrogen bombs
Indigenous people
Who they are
Issues that affect them
Examples from around the world
Policies relating to weapons testing and the Nuclear Test-ban Treaty