What's in the Water? Lesson 4: Drinking Water & Environmental Justice

Kelsey S. Bitting, Environmental Studies & Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning

Jessica Merricks, Biology

Elon University

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


In this lesson from the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit", students explore equity in drinking water across the U.S. For homework, students read segments of two recent reports about equity in drinking water access, cost, and safety in the U.S., and identify important quotes and data visualizations that helped to impact their thinking. In class, students work in groups to prepare a brief presentation about their segment and the figure they chose. The instructor facilitates students to analyze and further critique the strengths and drawbacks of the data representations as each group presents, then leads a larger integrative discussion after all groups have presented. The lesson closes with a written reflection asking students to consider how the topics discussed here relate to the unit as a whole and to their personal values and lived experience.

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This activity has been used in an introductory-level university course in environmental science that enrolls both majors and non-majors, as well as a summer intensive science course for high school students, both in North Carolina where the unit is set. It could easily be adapted to other locations where PFAS contamination is present, as well as to geology or biology courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should practice analyzing texts, figures, and datasets in groups prior to engaging in this lesson. Additionally, ground rules or community agreements for respectful discussion and disagreement should be in place in the learning community prior to this activity. Finally, prior knowledge and discussion of implicit bias and stereotypes (perhaps in the context of science as a whole or classroom interactions) will help equip students with an additional lens through which to interpret the content.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the fourth instructional lesson of the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit". Prior to this lesson, students will have been introduced to the unit-long community-engaged project, met the community partners to understand the local PFAS contamination situation and the community partner's needs, and completed the Benchmarking Activity to take stock of their prior knowledge of water and water contamination. In Lesson 1 they learned about the natural and urban water cycles, focusing on PFAS contamination and how it cycles through the environment. In Lesson 2, students compared and contrasted emerging and established contaminants, and learned about the PFAS family of chemicals and their history. Lesson 3 took students through an analysis of remediation options for the local water contamination crisis. This lesson "zooms out" on the US as a whole and examines environmental justice in the context of drinking water access and cost.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to explain national trends in drinking water access and contamination and their correspondence with race, poverty, and other demographic factors.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to explain and critique data visualizations.
  • Students will be able to summarize texts and identify impactful quotes.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to bring a spirit of curiosity to engage in respectful discourse about environmental justice and demographic disparities in the U.S.

Description and Teaching Materials

In this lesson, students "zoom out" to consider drinking water access, safety, and affordability across the U.S. through the lens of demographics. Specifically, the lesson addresses the following questions:

  • Where, and for whom, are Clean Water Act violations most frequent and longest in duration?
  • Where, and for whom, is drinking water most expensive?
  • Where, and for whom, are water shutoffs due to past-due bills most common and most quickly imposed? 

Depending on the student population and their personal and educational experiences, this lesson may serve as an introduction to the race and class disparities that frequently typify infrastructure in the U.S. as a whole. A secondary emphasis of the lesson is to help students learn to analyze data visualizations in more nuanced and deeper ways (what colors and labels represent, what the data do and do not show, what hypotheses or questions those data might suggest, etc.), helping to prepare them to select or craft more effective figures or images for their final project of the unit.

Pre-Class Homework
Before coming to class, each group is assigned one section of one of the two key reports (America's Secret Water Crisis and Watered Down Justice; links to both are in the resources section below). To hold students accountable for engaging at a meaningful level with the readings, students are asked to turn in a brief document including a key quote and why it seemed important to them, a figure, table, or other data visualization with an explanation of what it shows, and one question they have related to the reading. This homework assignment lays the groundwork for students to engage with their groups in Activity 1 in class.

Small Group Activity
After introducing the key questions and learning objectives above and reminding students of any ground rules or community agreements for discussion, the instructor assigns students to work in groups to develop one slide and a 2-3 minute presentation for the class about the section of the report they read. Groups have about 10 minutes to come to consensus on which figure is most important to share with the rest of the class, summarize the most important ideas from the reading, and build a single slide in a shared Google Slides deck to present to the class. Presentations go in sequential order, building the story of the two reports in full. In our experience, students focus simply on what numbers the data visualization includes; the instructor's role is to follow each group's presentation by asking questions about how color or text is used, why the data is organized in the way that it is, and even what the figure obscures or fails to explain adequately about the data. This process helps students develop a more critical eye and recognize that data can be represented in different ways to accomplish different goals.

After all groups have presented, the instructor should facilitate a discussion about the larger picture that emerges from the two reports. Are drinking water access, cost, and safety equitable in the U.S.? What populations suffer most and least from the burdens of high costs and contamination? It may be helpful to introduce concepts of implicit bias, structural racism, and environmental justice, and invite students to consider and make conjectures about how each of these concepts might apply to the topic at hand. If this unit is an introduction to environmental justice for students, much of the instructor's role in the closing discussion is helping students move from knee-jerk reactions of outrage or falling back on stereotypes to justify these trends to asking questions about why and how these trends might have come about and how we, as citizens, might play a role in shifting them. If time permits, providing information on the local context of PFAS contamination (which may or may not align with broader national trends) and inviting discussion connecting the two will help students integrate their learning across the unit.

Closing Reflection
If the preceding discussion has become heated or students have come into conflict with one another (which sometimes occurs when students are inexperienced in conversations about racism, classism, and other discrimination and inequities in our society), it may be useful to close the class session with a less specific reflective writing prompt like, ""What thoughts are coming up for you right now related to today's discussion?" Otherwise, the reflection prompts in the instructor slides attached below guide students to consider how the ideas they learned about in this class relate to the local PFAS contamination crisis, things they have heard in the news, heard about from family or friends, or experienced in their own lives. Finally, the last reflection prompt asks students to consider how what they learned relates to their individual values and their personal or professional life goals.
Lesson 4 Pre-Class Homework (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 8kB Dec9 21) 
Lesson 4 Class Plan and Timeline (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 8kB Dec9 21) 
Lesson 4 Instructor Slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 394kB Dec9 21) 

Teaching Notes and Tips

We found that students struggled to critically evaluate data visualization at first, and some take for granted that there is only one way to represent any given dataset. Useful questions to probe deeper thinking include:

  • What does this particular figure show well, and what does it show less well or obscure?
  • What are your key takeaways in the figure, and how does the figure make those points visually (color, shape, order, etc.)?
  • What questions do you have about what the figure means?
  • What other ways might the authors have chosen to represent this data? What might be useful or less useful about those options? 

Ultimately, the goal is for students to begin to understand that any dataset could be visualized in multiple ways with equal validity, but that a variety of strategies in creating a particular figure serve to direct the reader's attention in a particular direction.

We recommend considering how you might facilitate the discussion in ways that will help students interrogate their existing assumptions about race, class, and other demographic factors. While we found that students were upset by disparities and recognized the discrimination and systemic injustice they represented, this may vary depending on student identities and values, prior experience with discussions about discrimination, and even student development. If microaggressions occur, we recommend addressing them directly and openly in a way that both reinforces belonging for students of color, low-income backgrounds, or other marginalized groups, but also invites the possibility of growth and learning for the student who voiced the microaggression. See the resources section below for recommended readings.


Assessment within the lesson is formative. All groups present summaries of their sections aloud in the room, and the instructor facilitates deeper thinking for the whole class via supportive questioning. Whole-class discussion helps students integrate new ideas across the presentations by different groups, guiding them toward a nuanced understanding of environmental justice related to drinking water disparities in the U.S. The closing written reflection also provides an opportunity for the instructor to gain greater insight into how students are making meaning of what they read, discussed, and took in from the lesson, and what they might still be grappling with.

Ultimately, new or revised understandings from all lessons in the unit should be reflected by student answers to the Benchmarking Activity completed at the conclusion of the unit, which can be used for summative assessment purposes.

References and Resources

Readings for class:

Helpful instructor resources for facilitating conversations about race and class disparities in the classroom:

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