What's in the Water? A community-engaged inquiry unit exploring PFAS contamination in North Carolina

Jessica Merricks, Biology

Kelsey S. Bitting, Environmental Studies and Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL)

Elon University


This unit was designed to engage central NC college students in a local investigation of ongoing drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals. This is a stand-alone unit (six 80-minute lessons) that can be incorporated at any time in the semester or term, or could be deployed on its own as a short course during a shorter-duration winter or summer term.

Using an active, inquiry-oriented approach, students discover:

  • how water and contaminants move through the global, local, and urban water cycles;
  • how regulated and established contaminants differ from emerging ones;
  • how animal and human health studies and their inherent ambiguities are leveraged in conversations about water quality regulation at various levels of government; and
  • how race, class, and media attention play critical roles as leaders grapple with if, when, and how to take action.

The unit culminates in a Community-Engaged Project in which students create publicity materials for a local advocacy organization. The unit materials also include a pre- and post-unit Benchmarking assessment instrument which students and instructors can use to gauge student understanding and beliefs related to unit topics.

Course URL: []
Course Size:


Course Format:

Lecture only

Institution Type:

Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

The unit was designed for introductory-level college environmental science and biology courses, but could easily be adapted to a high-school context. This place-based unit is localized to central North Carolina and could be easily adopted by instructors in this region. However, PFAS contamination is widespread across the U.S., and we recommend adapting the unit to other locations by seeking out local data and community partner organizations.

The unit was developed and piloted at Elon University, a mid-sized national university currently ranked #1 in Undergraduate Teaching by the US News and World Report. Roughly 25% of the student population comes from North Carolina, with a substantial contingent from the Northeastern US. This unit was piloted as part of the Introduction to Environmental Science course, which is required for all Environmental Studies majors but is most heavily populated by students seeking to fulfill their general education science lab requirement. The course requires concurrent enrollment in a lab section that is currently taught completely separately from the lecture section, which focuses on analytical methods to understand water quality in the three water retention ponds on campus.

Course Content:

This unit introduces concepts from geology and environmental science, including the natural and urban water cycle, watersheds, and point-source and non-point-source contamination, and contaminant migration through a watershed. Students practice reading scientific abstracts and discuss the challenges posed and insights gained via animal vs. human studies of chemical contaminants and their effects. Next, students engage in a conversation about social justice issues of race and class related to water contamination and drinking water access in the United States. Finally, the unit explores cost-benefit tradeoffs for contaminant mitigation at the water treatment plant and the process and challenges associated with industrial contaminant regulation by the EPA, state, and local governments.

Course Goals:

Students completing the course will be able to:

  • Explain the scientific process and engage in that process by analyzing and exploring various forms of data.
  • Describe and illustrate the cycling of matter and energy in earth systems over space and time, and explain how humans engage these cycles.
  • Understand and use basic environmental science vocabulary and effectively explain key terms and concepts to non-specialists.
    Identify their personal values and goals, and describe how this course was meaningful in helping them live into or achieve them.

Course Features:

Each lesson (see Teaching Materials below) includes multiple small-group activities in which students actively grapple with ideas and data and share their findings with the larger group. Lecture occurs in brief 5-10 minute segments to frame activities and to help students make sense of their findings and put them in a larger context of the unit. Readings and homework activities assigned before class help prepare students to engage more deeply with related ideas during in-class work. The pre-post Benchmarking Activity (assessment) helps students track what they learn from the unit and how their own values or ideas may have shifted along the way. Finally, the end-of-unit Community-Engaged Project integrates all the learning outcomes and allows students to make a meaningful contribution to society and create a tangible product for a portfolio or resume.

Course Philosophy:

This unit was designed with principles of active, collaborative learning, inquiry, place-based learning, and community-engaged learning in mind, and utilizes alternative assessment approaches.

Active and collaborative learning approaches are extensively supported by the STEM teaching literature, and foster outcomes such as deeper understanding and more durable retention of content, greater critical thinking ability, and more equitable outcomes (Freeman et al., 2014; Theobald et al., 2020; Springer et al., 1999). Similarly, guided inquiry approaches respect students' agency as learners who are able to independently engage in authentic scientific tasks like forming questions or hypotheses, analyzing data, and determining the best ways of presenting their findings, helping them develop their STEM identity and sense of belonging in the course and field (Gormally et al., 2009; Grissom et al., 2015; Furtak et al., 2012). Place-based learning helps students foster a personal connection and association with their local community and landscape, and is associated with greater concern for environmental sustainability (e.g., Semken et al., 2017; Gosselin et al., 2015). Community engaged approaches offer many similar benefits as those previously mentioned, but also offer students an opportunity to interact with real-world stakeholders and work toward meaningful solutions to their community's environmental problems (Jacoby, 2015).

Finally, alternative assessments that engage students in the process of reflecting on and articulating their learning, as well as creating real-world products, reduce stress, tap into more authentic sources of motivation, and help students prepare for future interviews or other contexts in which they might need to articulate their learning and skills. They also provide additional scaffolding to help students build metacognitive skills (see the Benchmarking Activity as an example) and thereby self-efficacy and science identity, making alternative assessment models ideal for efforts to enhance diversity and equity in STEM education.


Students complete the unit Benchmarking Activity twice, once at the start of the unit and again at the end. For more information about how to deploy the Benchmarking Activity and help students process the contrast between their pre- and post-unit answers, visit that activity description . Students also complete a Community-Engaged Project in which they communicate ideas about PFAS water contamination in infographics, posters, and other multimedia formats for local citizens. Success can be determined by whether the community partner adopts those materials. For materials, guidelines, and a rubric for the Community-Engaged Projects, visit the Community-Engaged Project activity page.


Teaching Materials

What's in the Water? Benchmarking Activity: This short (15-25 min) writing activity asks students to respond to a series of prompts related to the content knowledge and societal issues explored in the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit. Students complete the activity twice- once before the start of the 7-lesson unit, and again at the end, to track their learning.

What's in the Water? Community Engagement Project: In the culminating activity, students partner 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.

What's in the Water? Lesson 1: Water Cycle and Watersheds: In this lesson, students collaboratively explore water and contaminant cycling through the natural environment. They identify pathways each may follow, driven by solar energy and gravity, and consider the distinction between point source and nonpoint source contamination. Students use these ideas to guide their observations and hypotheses about PFAS contamination sources and pathways in a local town plagued by drinking water contamination.

What's in the Water? Lesson 2: Introduction to Emerging Contaminants: This lesson begins with a reading of a letter sent by the City of Pittsboro, NC to their residents. It reveals the presence of unregulated contaminants in their drinking water, including the emerging contaminant PFAS. After sharing their reactions and raising questions in class discussion, the students work in small groups to explore some common industrial contaminants in order to understand how/why certain compounds are regulated and others are not. After a brief lecture/introduction to the PFAS family of chemicals, the students will work in groups to explore the most common sources and pathways of PFAS chemicals in order to make predictions about origins and movement of PFAS around Pittsboro. At the end of the lesson, students reflect on the types of information they will need in order to help the residents of Pittsboro decide how to handle the issue.

What's in the Water? Lesson 3: The Economic Challenges of Clean Water: In the third lesson of the "What's in the Water" unit, students review several primary sources to learn more about PFAS water contamination in the local context. They reflect on the patterns presented in the data regarding the location and makeup of PFAS in the Haw River, and draw conclusions about the level of risk to local residents. In class, students explore and discuss presentations by the private engineering firm charged with assessing potential remediation efforts at the town's municipal drinking water facility. Groups will work together to evaluate the firms' claims based on data provided in their Lesson 3 Data packet, then draft a list of questions that may help the town decide which option to choose. The lesson closes with an open discussion in which the students consider the logistical and financial challenges associated with local remediation of emerging contaminants.

What's in the Water? Lesson 4: Drinking Water & Environmental Justice: In this lesson, 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.

What's in the Water? Lesson 5: The Health Effects of PFAS: Lesson 5 of the "What's in the Water?" Unit addresses the crucial question of what we know about how PFAS impacts our health, and how that information can (or cannot) be used in the regulatory process via the U.S. EPA. Students explore abstracts from primary literature, and practice crafting PECO statements that could be used to effectively aggregate results across multiple studies. They compare and contrast animal studies (which can establish more reliable causal relationships between exposures and outcomes, but only for those animals) and human studies (which are, by ethical necessity, correlational only), and consider how those studies relate to the EPA's environmental public health paradigm (which requires many different linkages to be well-established).

What's in the Water? Lesson 6: Drinking Water Quality Regulation in the U.S.: In the sixth lesson of the "What's in the Water?" unit, students learn about how drinking water quality and PFAS are regulated at the federal and state levels in the U.S. and within the E.U. to explore different approaches to the question of regulation. Using their knowledge from all the prior lessons in the unit, students will discuss benefits and challenges of PFAS regulation at different levels of the government, and contrast the likely outcomes of proactive vs. retroactive regulatory approaches. Finally, student groups take on the roles of various constituencies, and evaluate the current regulatory paradigm through the lens of that population.

References and Notes:


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.Proceedings of the national academy of sciences,111(23), 8410-8415.

Furtak, E. M., Seidel, T., Iverson, H., & Briggs, D. C. (2012). Experimental and quasi-experimental studies of inquiry-based science teaching: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research82(3), 300-329.

Gormally, C., Brickman, P., Hallar, B., & Armstrong, N. (2009). Effects of inquiry-based learning on students' science literacy skills and confidence. International journal for the scholarship of teaching and learning3(2), n2.

Gosselin, D., Burian, S., Lutz, T., & Maxson, J. (2016). Integrating geoscience into undergraduate education about environment, society, and sustainability using place-based learning: three examples. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences6(3), 531-540.

Grissom, A. N., Czajka, C. D., & McConnell, D. A. (2015). Revisions of physical geology laboratory courses to increase the level of inquiry: Implications for teaching and learning. Journal of Geoscience Education63(4), 285-296.

Jacoby, B. (2015). Service-learning essentials: Questions, answers, and lessons learned. John Wiley & Sons.

Semken, S., Ward, E. G., Moosavi, S., & Chinn, P. W. (2017). Place-based education in geoscience: Theory, research, practice, and assessment. Journal of Geoscience Education65(4), 542-562.

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research69(1), 21-51.

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., ... & Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(12), 6476-6483.