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Getting to the STEM of Environmental Justice

Equity Causes Enrich Student Learning in Science Classrooms

The onset of COVID-19 accelerated technology use in our society to a whole new level—what was already integrated into the fabric of our modern life evolved to become the central component of our every activity. Schools were no exception; many science educators in particular found themselves scrambling to rethink what engagement meant in virtual classrooms when physical labs were no longer an option. As a chemistry teacher, this dilemma of meaningful engagement amidst a worldwide pandemic pushed me to step outside the boundaries of lab manuals and collaborate with my students on reimagining where, how, and to what purpose we could employ the scientific method. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, despite all its challenges, was a reminder that the great power that technology brings also comes with responsibility. Aside from enhancing communication, technology has expanded the breadth and depth of research through the types and sizes of data it has enabled us to collect. From satellites to ground-based sensors, as well as mobile networks of monitors, the availability of massive data sets has increased the need for educating students in data literacy in order to ensure their competency in the global market (Bluhm et al. 2020; Gibson and Mourad 2018).

In the case of my classroom, this meant introducing my students to the idea of citizen science and how they can use data they collect to become informed advocates of environmental justice. Previous efforts have already shed light on the value that investigating real-life phenomena brings to science classrooms in terms of upholding culturally responsive pedagogy. However, student feedback from these experiences noted that “[they] wished [they] could collect data in [their] own neighborhoods” to see how their communities compared to the readily available data (Nasr 2021).

Building on previous work, this article (a) contextualizes the importance of environmental justice with regards to recently unveiled findings about the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) presents student work in support of the value that collecting authentic data brings to science classrooms; and (c) introduces resources for overcoming funding challenges that teachers may face in providing their students with such opportunities. To demonstrate what this may look like in practice, I share how environmental justice enriches student learning not only by its relevance to the livelihood of our students, but also by the opportunity it provides students to collect and analyze messy, authentic data that makes them better critical thinkers who have a deeper understanding of scientific content knowledge (Kjelvik and Schultheis 2019).

Why environmental justice? 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as, “... the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” As public servants, teachers play a crucial role in shaping what meaningful involvement looks like in the K–12 setting. What makes projects centered around this topic particularly appealing is that students get a chance to explore their own communities and employ the scientific method to advocate for a cause relevant to them in an interdisciplinary manner. 

Take air pollution for example. In a 2018 Ted Talk, Romain Lacombe, the CEO and founder of Plume labs, identified air pollution as a “burning public health crisis” that causes 7,000,000 premature deaths every year and annually costs the world economy $5,000,000,000. According to Lacombe, more individuals die yearly from car exhaust (53,000) in the United States than road casualties (37,400). However, not all communities are equally impacted by air pollution. In an interview published by the Yale School of The Environment, Dr. Sacoby Wilson discusses how communities of color welcome industrial development in hopes of economic prosperity, yet pay disproportionate costs by compromising their health due to industrial waste disposal in their vicinity (Bagley 2020). A recent study done by Harvard University found a statistically significant relationship between long-term exposure to PM2.5 and increased mortality rates from COVID-19 (Wu et al. 2020).

A chemistry teacher could take air pollution as an opportunity to teach students about the composition of matter by discussing air as a mixture (see lesson overview in Figure 1 [Online Connections]). In the case of my students, we used air sensors to measure NO2, PM2.5, PM10, and VOC levels across various parts of our cities. Students worked in groups to discuss their assumptions about factors they perceived to have an impact on air pollution levels (e.g., affluence, traffic, and vegetation). Based on these assumptions, they chose various parts of the city to collect data and compare pollution levels to their own neighborhoods. Due to the virtual nature of our class, I collected the data samples for my students but allowed them to look at the numbers and draw conclusions themselves.

To my students’ surprise, they found that pollution in their city was much more dynamic and unpredictable than they had expected. They came to conclude that many other factors including the presence of wind, variability in temperature, and the day that samples are taken on can have a significant impact on results. Furthermore, many places that they thought would have lower levels of air pollution, such as parks and nature centers, turned out to be just as polluted as other parts of the city. By being given the chance to interact with data about places that mattered to them, my students experienced a newfound appreciation for data and how it can undermine many of our assumptions about our surroundings. This appreciation is evident in the enthusiasm my students brought to their assignment, producing original artwork to embellish the posters that they presented at a national symposium hosted by the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation (CELF) (see student work in Figure 2).

Figure 1
Figure 2 air pollution: assumptions and data

Getting to the STEM 

Environmental injustice has deeply embedded roots in racial and economic discrimination, but the structure that upholds such discriminatory practices stems from the lack of knowledge plaguing the affected communities. Affluent communities are better equipped to advocate for their communities in ways that underserved communities may not even understand. Going back to our air pollution example, Romain Lacombe reasoned that our inability to effectively combat air pollution is due to the information gap, which prevents us from understanding our exposure. This is why his company went about creating a personal handheld air quality sensor that tracks various types of pollution in the air. By equipping individuals with knowledge about the quality of air that they are breathing, Lacombe’s company aimed to empower individuals to minimize their own exposure while working toward more sustainable and long-term solutions. 

With the advent of consumer-grade technology, using STEM to educate students on environmental justice is now more feasible than ever. Science, technology, engineering, and math no longer have to be isolated subjects, but can go hand in hand to help spur creativity and a sense of responsibility in students, enriching their experience. From collecting data to analyzing it on platforms such as Google Sheets, JASP, or CODAP, students will have the chance to internalize content and engineer new possibilities based on their learnings (Rosenberg, Edwards, and Chen 2020). This process allows students to take ownership over their own education and to become inspired to share their experience with others. Their biggest asset is the trust relationship they naturally share with their community; students can educate and mobilize stakeholders more effectively than any external organization. 

Challenges and possibilities for equity-enriched learning

The beauty of STEM is that it is empowering beyond the scope of any textbook or isolated lab project. Within the context of promoting causes such as environmental justice, many possibilities surface as a result of emerging technologies. However, the cost of some of these devices must be taken into account in light of limited school budgets. Organizations such as the CELF may be good starting points for teachers seeking professional development and financial support to spearhead environmental projects in their classrooms.

If data-collecting devices are not a feasible purchase, many other data sets are readily available to the public through federal organizations, such as data.gov. EPA’s website also hosts an official open data catalog, which includes databases ranging from the location of wastewater treatment facilities to reatment facilities to sites on the National Priority List (NPL), which are hazardous waste sites targeted by the EPA for cleanup. It is important to note that while environmental justice is widespread, the types can vary from region to region. The EPA organizes these efforts by regions.

While navigating websites and collecting relevant data can be challenging, a good starting point is environmental justice efforts already happening locally. As students network and dig deeper to build their own constructs, find their own resources, and define their own variables, they learn to become comfortable with the unknown. As science teachers, acquainting our students with the world of authentic investigation by means of environmental science could be one of the greatest steps we take in putting the “public” back into education.

Online Connections

Figure 1. Lesson overview: https://bit.ly/3MjJdVp


Fatemeh Mirghassemi (fatemehmirghassemi@gmail.com) is doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Houston,

Houston, TX.

References

Bagley, K. 2020. Connecting the dots between environmental injustice and the  coronavirus. YaleEnvironment360. https://e360.yale.edu/features/connecting-the-dots-between-environmental-injustice-and-the-coronavirus.

Bluhm, R., P. Polonik, K. Hemes, L. Sanford, S.A. Benz, M.C. Levy, K. Ricke, and J. Burney. 2020. California’s COVID-19 economic shutdown reveals the fingerprint of systemic environmental racism. OSF Preprints. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/e86mh.

Financial Times. 2019. How can we breathe cleaner air? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFdb5fKY2LI .

Gibson, P., and T. Mourad. 2018. The growing importance of data literacy in life science education. American Journal of Botany 105 (12): 1953–1956. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajb2.1195.

Kjelvik, M.K., and E.H. Schultheis. 2019. Getting messy with authentic data: Exploring the potential of using data from scientific research to support student data literacy. CBE Life Sciences Education 18 (2). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-02-0023.

Nasr, N. 2021. Let’s Clear the Air: Promoting cultural responsiveness in the science classroom with a 5E lesson on air quality. The Science Teacher 88 (3): 52–58.

Rosenberg, J., A. Edwards, and B. Chen. 2020. Getting messy with data. The Science Teacher 87 (5): 30–34. https://doi.org/10.2505/4/tst20_087_05_30.

South Australia Environmental Protection Authority. 2004. Photochemical smog—What it means for us. https://www.epa.sa.gov.au/files/8238_info_photosmog.pdf.

Wu, X., R.C Nethery, M.B. Sabath, D. Braun, and F. Dominici. 2020. Air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: Strengths and limitations of an ecological regression analysis. Science Advances 6 (45). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abd4049.

Environmental Science STEM Teaching Strategies High School

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