Investigating contaminant transport and environmental justice issues in a local watershed through service learning projects with Sierra Club

Jennifer Houghton
Environmental Science Program, Rhodes College
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Initial Publication Date: February 18, 2010 | Reviewed: October 22, 2012


Students will be applying hydrogeology concepts and methods in the lab and the field and conducting interviews as part of a coherent characterization of water quality issues and potential risks in local low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods. Strengths: activities engage students to relate course material to community needs and challenges, as well as benefit community partners working for change in these communities.

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Undergraduate environmental science/geology course for non-major, but can be used in an upper-level geology course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must have an understanding of the water cycle and have been exposed to basic GIS mapping methods earlier in the semester prior to beginning this project

How the activity is situated in the course

The project described is a set of activities that take place over a series of labs or outside class and are part of a semester-long service learning project in conjunction with Sierra Club. We also work with a group of students at Douglass High School in a nearby low-income neighborhood during the semester so there will be references to that component of the course when we include the high school students in our interviewing and field data collection.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Grain size analysis and hydraulic conductivity,
  • Infiltration rates vs. runoff,
  • Mapping field data using GIS,
  • Recognizing environmental justice issues (is there a problem in Memphis?),
  • Understanding that anthropogenic activity, particularly land use change, has an impact on water quality.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Analyzing field data for hydrogeologic properties,
  • Evaluating potential contaminant transport by synthesizing several datasets,
  • Formulation of hypotheses based on GIS mapping of community responses.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Use of a Wiki to share information between collaborators, written and oral presentations to the community

Description of the activity/assignment

The Sierra Club has defined an issue that the Environmental Hydrogeology class will help address in this project: most of the surface waters in Memphis are under fish advisories and yet a portion of the population still subsistence fishes from these waters. Our main product we will produce for Sierra Club is a map of fishing sightings based on survey data we collect during the semester and a proposed sampling strategy to assess potential pollutants based on the knowledge the students gain in field and lab activities. We will also provide information on the percentage of survey participants that are aware of pollution issues in the local waterways and percentage that would be detered from fishing if they saw a sign. At the end of the semester, the students will hold an art contest to design better fish advisory signs, and designs will be made available to Sierra Club and the TN Dept. of Environment and Conservation.

Prior to beginning these activities, the students will have created a base map of Memphis in GIS during a previous lab and used it to consider questions of pollutant runoff from various urban spaces such as golf courses, roads, shopping centers, and City parks. (The instructions for this activity are included in the other materials section below under Creating a Base Map in GIS (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Feb7 10).) The base map will be used throughout the activities as field data and information from interviews/surveys are collected and added to the map for subsequent consideration of possible environmental justice issues.

The lab activities outlined require the students to conduct grain size analyses using samples that community members provide to them, calculate hydraulic conductivity, measure infiltration rates in the community, estimate impervious surfaces within the community, and subsequently model the transport of water within that community. Results of their work will be conveyed back to the community both through personal contact and via the Wiki page the students produce. Students will base their sampling recommendations by generalizing the concepts learned from these activities (and others during the semester) to apply the course material to the service project. The final map of sighting and recommendations for Sierra Club requires the students to apply concepts from previous activities and will be completed during the lab activity: Mapping survey results.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Lab reports posted to the Wiki:
  • evaluate students' mastery of concepts
Regular written reflection exercises (Example of reflection after survey day: Survey day reflection (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 10kB Feb8 10))
  • assess understanding of concepts and observational skills
  • can also have a self-evaluation component to identify potential problems in groups
  • guide students in making connections between classroom learning and the service learning activities
The final public Wiki page with summary of project results
  • evaluated by instructor for scientific rigor and quality of presentation
  • evaluated by the community partners at the end of the project to assess to what degree the project met the needs and/or expectations of the community.
Exit survey
  • to supplement the traditional course evaluations to assess whether the service learning component of the course increased students' awareness of environmental issues related to water quality challenging this community.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials