What's in the Water? Community Engagement Project

Jessica Merricks, Elon University

Kelsey S. Bitting, Elon University

Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: January 31, 2022 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


In the culminating activity from "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit" A community-engaged inquiry unit exploring PFAS contamination in North Carolina [link coming soon], students partnered with a local grassroots advocacy organization to design public-facing materials to educate local residents about the drinking water crisis in Pittsboro, NC. By integrating information from interviews with local stakeholders, teams developed digital and print materials to educate residents about the medical, economic, and political challenges associated with high levels of emerging contaminants in their drinking water. Students are introduced to this project at the beginning of the unit and are working on it throughout the unit, giving them an opportunity to integrate content knowledge from the classroom lessons along the way.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This activity has been used in an introductory-level university course in environmental science that enrolls both majors and non-majors. It is also appropriate for upper-level high school students. The unit as a whole positions students to learn about emerging contaminants in drinking water and their impact on human health and the environment. This unit is focused on one group of emerging contaminants, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (henceforth referred to as "PFAS"), which has been documented in drinking water systems around the nation. While this project is focused on the drinking water in Pittsboro, NC, it could easily be adapted toother locations where PFAS contamination is present, as well as to geology or biology courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students begin this activity at the start of the unit, and pick up the requisite content knowledge as they go through the lessons comprising the unit as "just-in-time" information that they can then integrate into their capstone projects by the end. Some prior experience working in groups and reflecting on that process is likely to be particularly helpful.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is conducted throughout the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit", with the final product due at the end of the unit.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Goals vary based on the group's project focus, but should address both of the following goals from"What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit,": 

  • Explain the scientific process and engage in that process by analyzing and exploring various forms of data.
  • Understand and use basic environmental science vocabulary and effectively explain key terms and concepts to non-specialists

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Synthesize information from various sources
  • Create an informational product that is accessible to a general audience

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Learn about best-practices for community engagement (e.g., embracing an asset-based perspective, respecting personal and professional boundaries, humility, and engaging in reflection)
  • Develop teamwork skills (organization, time management, communication, compromise)
  • Offer constructive feedback to peers

Description and Teaching Materials

This group project focuses on engaging with a current, ongoing environmental crisis happening near the student's home/campus. PFAS are a class of over 10,000 substances created by industries for a myriad of heat-, grease-, and water-resistance purposes. Since their initial production in the 1970's, PFAS chemicals have made their way into the bodies of 97% of Americans. There are several common routes of exposure, but this unit focuses specifically on communities being exposed through their drinking water, a growing area of concern for scientists. As PFAS and other emerging contaminants draw attention nation-wide, many exposed communities are grappling with the complex challenge of understanding and addressing the issues. 

This project offers students an opportunity to take action in their local community by helping to inform the community about the issue of clean drinking water. In order to ground the students' work in the local context, they will partner with a local environmental group or organization to help produce educational content for the local community. In addition, the students will connect to local stakeholders (local scientists, residents, government leaders, etc.) in order to learn more about the health, economic, and political challenges associated with drinking water contamination. Through this experience, students will learn about best-practices for community engagement, such as embracing an asset-based perspective, developing respectful personal and professional boundaries, practicing humility, and engaging in reflection throughout the process (Jacoby 2004). Their final product is flexible, and can be modified to suit the needs of the organization/community. 

Some examples of final products could include: 

  • Short interview series with researchers, city counselors, citizens, and others with close knowledge of the PFAS problem, either in the form of videos or newspaper-article-style blog posts
  • Infographics, or even series of individual images with captions, that help explain related concepts to the public.
  • Brochures or other easily-digestible handouts that could be printed and distributed at city council meetings or handed out at local area businesses.
  • Short PSA/informational video for the community partner's social media platforms

At the end of the Unit, the students will share their final products with the partner organization (who can then disseminate them as they wish) as well as with their peers and instructor. Assessment is based on the usability of the product, and students are given the opportunity to revise their products according to feedback from the partner organization as well as peers in the course. Instructors may also opt to formally evaluate the group's project using the grading rubric attached to this activity. 

What's in the Water: Capstone Project Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 9kB Sep29 21)
What's in the Water Capstone Project Guidelines Template (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 9kB Sep29 21)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The capstone project can be modified to be more or less structured based on available resources, specific course goals, and students' needs. Below are some suggestions to help you secure community partners and manage student groups throughout the process.

Adapting the project to local contexts: As the scientific community continues to shed light on the pervasiveness of PFAS in the environment, and the EPA and other regulatory bodies work to monitor and track PFAS in the environment, more communities will face similar circumstances. For instructors hoping to adapt this project to the local area, we encourage them to start with the Environmental Working Group's website. The website provides an interactive map showing locations with known PFAS contamination, including areas whose drinking water is impacted. 

Securing Community Partners: Engagement with their local community has been shown to promote students' sense of place and environmental agency (Semken et al 2017). If PFAS is a known drinking water contaminant in surface or well water in your area, there are likely researchers in both academia, city/state management offices, nonprofits, and/or private companies who are monitoring and reporting relevant data. 

  • Many city/state environmental quality departments also staff outreach offices with personnel available to assist in educational activities. 
  • College and university research scientists and graduate students housed in environmental studies, public health, or related departments may be interested in sharing their knowledge and research with the community. 
  • There are also non-profit and grassroots organizations working towards raising awareness and combating the issues associated with access to clean drinking water. Search for your area's local riverkeeper (in North Carolina, for example, you can find contact information for the Riverkeeper assigned to each county at https://www.ncdoi.com/osfm/safekids/Documents/Riverkeepers.pdf.). Search social media for pages/profiles of local community organizers. 

Give yourself plenty of time to establish a list of several community partners for groups to choose from. Finally, consider these additional tips to maximize your community partners' engagement:

  • Allow the community partners to assist in creating a framework for the projects. Rather than dictating what students will do or create, encourage them to suggest ways in which students can contribute to their outreach efforts.
  • Share the learning goals with the community partners and ask for their input on concepts that are most relevant for your local area. Adjust your lessons to fit within their frameworks, if necessary.
  • Allow ample time for the community partners to meet and interact with the student groups. 
  • Encourage, but do not require, community partners to be an active participant during the project. They might keep a running email correspondence with student groups, make a classroom visit, or invite the students to visit and see them in action. 

Supporting students through their community engagement: Service learning can offer wonderful opportunities for students to apply classroom principles to real-world problems, but careful planning is needed to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes for both students and their community partners. It is important to convey students' roles as partners in the process, rather than as the primary drivers of change in a community. On a elated note, instructors should teach students to employ an asset-minded approach to their partnerships, focusing on the knowledge and skills of the impacted community and how those assets can be leveraged within the partnership. Finally, instructors should build in opportunities for critical reflection throughout the experience. By prompting students to consider the complexities of the problem and challenge their prior conceptions, students may gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for their work. For more information, see Jacoby 2014, Karasik 2004, and guidance provided by the Science Education Resource Center of Carleton College (SERC)

Structuring and Management of Student Groups: To maximize participation and engagement throughout the project, it is recommended that students have clear roles and responsibilities and that they establish a timeline to accomplish their objectives. Whether groups are assigned or self-selected, establishing roles within each group promotes co-dependency and students' sense of responsibility (Lendvay 2014). For this project roles such as "Team Leader'', "Process Manager", "Note-taker", and "Editor" provide an opportunity for students to take ownership over one managerial task of the project while also keeping them engaged with the development of the project materials. Once the group roles are established, it may be helpful for students to establish a timeline in which they outline the major deliverables for each stage of the project. This should include regular meeting times for group members, interview dates, planned editing/reviewing sessions, etc. For more details on group structure and management, see the Project guidelines template

Addressing student pitfalls: One of the biggest challenges we encounter with this project is that, when left to their own devices, some groups wait until the week before the projects are due to get started, making it difficult to connect with a community member to interview and to synthesize ideas well. To mitigate this issue, we've begun asking teams to send a one-paragraph project proposal and timeline by the end of the first week of the unit, after Lesson 2 (we share this with the community partners for feedback, which also helps ensure that students are producing something of value for them). Similarly, doing an in-person check-in with every group or requiring them to send a progress report by the end of week 2 or beginning of week 3 (between Lesson 4 and 5) helps hold them accountable for not waiting until the last minute and provides an opportunity to troubleshoot team "hitchhikers and couch potatoes."


The main objective of this project is for students to produce public-facing informational materials for the local community. The most important evaluation will come from peers and the local partner organization.

Peer Review can take many different formats. For a simple online option, for example, groups can post their projects on a discussion forum in the course online management system. Peers can then view the projects and offer feedback. Below are some prompts to guide peer feedback:

  • What do you think is the greatest strength of this project?
  • How did the group achieve that particular characteristic?
  • What impact do you imagine that this strength will have on its intended audience?
  • Where do you think the greatest room for improvement exists in this group's project?
  • What would it look like in practice if the group were to improve this aspect of the project?
  • How do you anticipate that this change might help the group achieve their desired impact on their audience?
  • What did you learn (about content and/or communication) from reviewing this project?
  • In what future contexts do you imagine you might apply what you learned, and how?

Community Partner Feedback is crucial for the success of the project. Depending on the goals and resources of the organization, seek out guidance from the organization's contact person or liaison. The true assessment is the ultimate usability of the product to effectively reach the intended community members.

For instructors seeking a more traditional or structured grading option, please see the What's in the Water Capstone Project Rubric, linked above.

References and Resources

Lendvay, G. C. (2014) Structured Learning Teams: Reimagining Student Group Work, Kappa Delta Pi Record, 50:4, 185-189, DOI: 10.1080/00228958.2014.960345

Semken, S., Ward, E.G., Moosavi, S., and Chinn, P. W. U. (2017) Place-Based Education in Geoscience: Theory, Research, Practice, and Assessment, Journal of Geoscience Education, 65:4, 542-562, DOI: 10.5408/17-276.1

Other materials in the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit":