How Renewable Environment Links Science and Civic Issues

The US has numerous Superfund sites, which by definition contain highly toxic materials to reclaim yet, often those sites are in desirable locations for housing and other development. Exploring how Superfund sites will be redeveloped is an important question to use to educate students on the sciences (physical and social). Given the complexity of the problem, two linked courses were ideal to study the question and a suitable site, Alameda Point (Alameda NAS) is located in our region (or community). A sociology course and an environmental science course addressed issues such as providing housing for the homeless, developing market rate housing, and remediating the former Navy industrial site, along with planning new uses for the land. Students were stimulated to understand basic chemistry, toxicology, and urban, medical and environmental sociology. Students gained ethical research skills, learned how to understand official documents and then thought about the Superfund process policy issues to redevelop these sites.

Superfund Sites and Policy (link to US EPA

Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC - reference texts and general information of numerous NAVY BRAC bases at the new web site

Urban Renewal Policy U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development This site includes the entire range of government housing planning, including issues of homelessness.

Public Health Policy US Department of Health and Human Services

The redevelopment of a Superfund site can be developed by other faculty interested in SENCER formatted courses since Superfund sites have myriad of environmental problems to solve requiring expertise from Biology, Chemistry, Geology, along with Sociology, Political Science, Communications, and other disciplines. Unfortunately, there are numerous sites on the NPL throughout the country and students along with the public need to be further educated on how these sites will be restored to become productive places in our communities. The lead regulatory agency, U.S. EPA has also created a video on the redevelopment of some selected Superfund sites, so students can be provided some positive examples. In our model learning community, considerable support from the regulatory agencies was easily obtained since most of these agencies (U.S. EPA and CAL-EPA) also have public outreach mandates as a part of their mission. It seems likely that other college educators could request assistance from personnel at various regulatory agencies, as well as social service, community and advocacy agencies and groups concerned with redevelopment sites in their neighboring communities.

In this learning community, both faculty found many avenues to integrate the two courses. The students' exposure to the community/study site facilitated their ability to go out into the community and learn more outside of class to fulfill their project work.

Air Force Jet

STEM/Civic Issues Table (Acrobat (PDF) 84kB Aug5 08)

Science concepts presented in context

The students were always learning about various aspects of environmental risk assessment from the first day to the end of the Urban Environmental Issues course. There was also considerable overlap with the paired Urban Studies course where the calculus of risk was a central concept. The students' questions on risk (What would they be exposed to going to a Superfund site?; When they performed experiments, what chemicals were considered safe or unsafe?, etc.) were utilized to explore and learn what a community may readily accept or challenge in terms of their risks. The Devra Davis's text1 gave the students a historical context and demonstrated that society can be in denial with respect to environmental problems especially if compelling economic factors are in play.

Students learned the basics of toxicology through reading government educational documents and lecture/discussion session with an EPA toxicologist. To begin to grasp the community's concern about exposure to various chemicals and elements the students were introduced to basic aspects of atomic and molecular structure, which lead more insight on chemical reactivity. After some experiments on chemical reactivity, the students were also directed to read some lead in paints papers which were very challenging, but became aware of a problem that unfortunately as a society we think that this problem has gone away since it has been banned from new paint. Again, there was a nice tie-in to the sociology course that our society's commitment to reduce lead exposure went into a muted phase after removal of lead from automotive fuels with the misunderstanding that problem was solved. Our students were also made more aware that while their government can be forthright and protect them if questions and challenges are not raised then at times government will not always fulfill these responsibilities. Furthermore, at times the lack of clear evidence can be utilized to misconstrue what knowledge is available and in this way, the students also became aware of the limitations of what scientists can claim.

Our students became more keenly aware of the lack of clear evidence after performing a few instructional experiments in the lab and then performing two field experiments. The class's soil sampling experiment where a planned nursery site screened for various heavy metals using a field portable X-ray fluorescence (FP-XRF) instrument. This experiment was essentially an internal risk assessment instruction experience since it involved using a rented FP-XRF with a radioisotope source. In order to make an informed choice, our students were provided educational materials not only on how to safely operate the instrument but also on their general radiation exposure which they routinely gain in their everyday lives (See ALARA worksheet – attached pdf). The students were applying the spectroscopic method to quantify the elements and learning how challenging it can be to survey a site. The resulting data set was evaluated in a discussion/reflection period with the EPA toxicologist present and providing critique.

The second field experiment monitoring the ambient levels of NO2 gas was another application of the spectroscopic method in addition the students became aware that certain sampling method could be affected by the weather. The class also worked to prepare to share an experiment with children from the community were basic principles of chemistry were demonstrated.

In a complimentary fashion, for the sociology course students tackled relevant social issues at Alameda Point. They went to city offices, community groups, and other sites to make observations and collect interviews, and other direct sources including primary data such as government documents, newspaper clippings, maps and historical information. Use a sociological focus and insight student teams examined education, recreation, the formerly homeless and low-income housing, and the legacy of the Naval base as key issues. This research results in papers that were the basis for the team poster boards and videos in the linked science course.

EPA document: Community Involvement Activities at NPL Sites (Acrobat (PDF) 128kB Aug5 08)