Renewable Environment: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods

Steven Bachofer and Phylis Cancilla Martinelli, St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California

Abstract

This SENCER model uses the complex civic problem of reclaiming a Superfund site in an urban area (an abandoned military base in Alameda, California) as the focus of a learning community. A federal mandate requires that such sites negotiate with Homeless Service Providers (HSP’s) to explore their potential as a source of new housing. As a result, such sites present real and immediate civic challenges that demand both scientific knowledge and a broader understanding of how environmental science is bound up with ethics, history, culture, politics, and economics.

The learning community consists of two integrated courses: Urban Environmental Issues, a general-education science course with a laboratory component, and Urban Studies, a 100-level course in Anthropology/Sociology. The science content covered includes the fundamentals of toxicology and environmental risk assessment, reaction chemistry, soil and air chemistry and analysis, spectroscopic method, and other quantification tools related to chemistry, In the sociological component of the course students examine environmental risk in a social and economic context by exploring the community’s history and attitudes, including its educational and recreational patterns and its racial and economic composition. Site visits, interviews, document and archival research, and presentations to the community bolster information-gathering and communication skills as they help students place their scientific learning in a broader context.

This model features a range of innovative pedagogies. It is explicitly inter- and multidisciplinary and is team taught by a Chemist and a Sociologist. It is both field- and problem-based and involves collaborations with community leaders, government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, non-profit entities like the Alameda Point Collaborative (a homeless service provider), as well as other St. Mary’s faculty who share their expertise. In the most recent iteration, two upper division students, an environmental science major and a sociology major, have been recruited as preceptors for the learning community, serving as co-instructors and field assistants. Among the notable course outcomes has been the presentation of student research at an undergraduate sociology symposium, the ongoing engagement of students with the work of the Alameda Point Collaborative, and the adoption of the Superfund site as the focus of class projects in other courses.

Alameda Point

Learning Goals

Learning Objectives of the RETUrn Learning Community linked to public policies and Civic Engagement

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RAB Newsletter

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How Renewable Environment Links Science and Civic Issues

The US has numerous Superfund sites, which by definition contain highly toxic materials to reclaim yet, often those sites are in desirable locations for housing and other development. Exploring how Superfund sites will be redeveloped is an important question to use to educate students on the sciences (physical and social). Given the complexity of the problem, two linked courses were ideal to study the question and a suitable site, Alameda Point (Alameda NAS) is located in our region (or community). A sociology course and an environmental science course addressed issues such as providing housing for the homeless, developing market rate housing, and remediating the former Navy industrial site, along with planning new uses for the land. Students were stimulated to understand basic chemistry, toxicology, and urban, medical and environmental sociology. Students gained ethical research skills, learned how to understand official documents and then thought about the Superfund process policy issues to redevelop these sites.

Superfund Sites and Policy (link to US EPA www.epa.gov/superfund/index.html)

Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC – reference texts and general information of numerous NAVY BRAC bases at the new web site www.navybracpmo.org)

Urban Renewal Policy U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development This site includes the entire range of government housing planning, including issues of homelessness. http://www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/mfh/exp/guide/s8guide.cfm

Public Health Policy US Department of Health and Human Services
http://www.hhs.gov/

The redevelopment of a Superfund site can be developed by other faculty interested in SENCER formatted courses since Superfund sites have myriad of environmental problems to solve requiring expertise from Biology, Chemistry, Geology, along with Sociology, Political Science, Communications, and other disciplines. Unfortunately, there are numerous sites on the NPL throughout the country and students along with the public need to be further educated on how these sites will be restored to become productive places in our communities. The lead regulatory agency, U.S. EPA has also created a video on the redevelopment of some selected Superfund sites, so students can be provided some positive examples. In our model learning community, considerable support from the regulatory agencies was easily obtained since most of these agencies (U.S. EPA and CAL-EPA) also have public outreach mandates as a part of their mission. It seems likely that other college educators could request assistance from personnel at various regulatory agencies, as well as social service, community and advocacy agencies and groups concerned with redevelopment sites in their neighboring communities.

In this learning community, both faculty found many avenues to integrate the two courses. The students’ exposure to the community/study site facilitated their ability to go out into the community and learn more outside of class to fulfill their project work.

Air Force Jet

STEM/Civic Issues Table

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Science concepts presented in context

The students were always learning about various aspects of environmental risk assessment from the first day to the end of the Urban Environmental Issues course. There was also considerable overlap with the paired Urban Studies course where the calculus of risk was a central concept. The students’ questions on risk (What would they be exposed to going to a Superfund site?; When they performed experiments, what chemicals were considered safe or unsafe?, etc.) were utilized to explore and learn what a community may readily accept or challenge in terms of their risks. The Devra Davis’s text1 gave the students a historical context and demonstrated that society can be in denial with respect to environmental problems especially if compelling economic factors are in play.

Students learned the basics of toxicology through reading government educational documents and lecture/discussion session with an EPA toxicologist. To begin to grasp the community’s concern about exposure to various chemicals and elements the students were introduced to basic aspects of atomic and molecular structure, which lead more insight on chemical reactivity. After some experiments on chemical reactivity, the students were also directed to read some lead in paints papers which were very challenging, but became aware of a problem that unfortunately as a society we think that this problem has gone away since it has been banned from new paint. Again, there was a nice tie-in to the sociology course that our society’s commitment to reduce lead exposure went into a muted phase after removal of lead from automotive fuels with the misunderstanding that problem was solved. Our students were also made more aware that while their government can be forthright and protect them if questions and challenges are not raised then at times government will not always fulfill these responsibilities. Furthermore, at times the lack of clear evidence can be utilized to misconstrue what knowledge is available and in this way, the students also became aware of the limitations of what scientists can claim.

Our students became more keenly aware of the lack of clear evidence after performing a few instructional experiments in the lab and then performing two field experiments. The class’s soil sampling experiment where a planned nursery site screened for various heavy metals using a field portable X-ray fluorescence (FP-XRF) instrument. This experiment was essentially an internal risk assessment instruction experience since it involved using a rented FP-XRF with a radioisotope source. In order to make an informed choice, our students were provided educational materials not only on how to safely operate the instrument but also on their general radiation exposure which they routinely gain in their everyday lives (See ALARA worksheet – attached pdf). The students were applying the spectroscopic method to quantify the elements and learning how challenging it can be to survey a site. The resulting data set was evaluated in a discussion/reflection period with the EPA toxicologist present and providing critique.

The second field experiment monitoring the ambient levels of NO2 gas was another application of the spectroscopic method in addition the students became aware that certain sampling method could be affected by the weather. The class also worked to prepare to share an experiment with children from the community were basic principles of chemistry were demonstrated.

In a complimentary fashion, for the sociology course students tackled relevant social issues at Alameda Point. They went to city offices, community groups, and other sites to make observations and collect interviews, and other direct sources including primary data such as government documents, newspaper clippings, maps and historical information. Use a sociological focus and insight student teams examined education, recreation, the formerly homeless and low-income housing, and the legacy of the Naval base as key issues. This research results in papers that were the basis for the team poster boards and videos in the linked science course.

EPA document: Community Involvement Activities at NPL Sites

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The Course

Syllabus for Anthropology/Sociology 114

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Syllabus for Natural Science 60 (and lab 61)

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Course Format

The two courses were taught back-to-back on Tu/Thurs which allowed us to have 3 hour block. The two courses shared speakers from public and non-profits agencies (including the EPA toxicologist for this site) and the larger time period gave us some flexibility when we invited people to our classes. The associated lab was taught on Thursday afternoons giving us one day on any given week that we could devote to field trips to Alameda Point (AP). Our aims in linking these seemingly different courses was to give students a holistic view of a changing urban setting and to enhance their appreciation of the scientific research capabilities of both disciplines, as well as foster a sense of civic engagement. One formal civic engagement component of the LC was providing an educational afternoon, including a lab experiment, for children of the formerly homeless now living in on the closed base. Two other civic engagement components were poster presentations at our community partners’ site and the collection of video materials to document the community’s perspective on various different redevelopment issues at AP.

Our field trips to Alameda were an integral part of the linked class experience. The initial trip provided a window into the world we would be exploring. Most of the students had not been to this part of the Bay Area and the orientation was critical. In addition, a shared meal time (lunch once we arrived) as well as the ride out and back provided a bonding experience. The history of the area came alive on our tour of the historic Naval ship, the U.S.S. Hornet, while a meeting at the Alameda City Hall Annex provided insights in the current reality. During this field trip, the class was escorted to areas, which are typically off-limits, by former Navy personnel now working for the master developer. The students also visited the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) to gain some first hand knowledge of the issues facing individuals living on this site as it is being redeveloped. Two field laboratory experiments were conducted, with permission, at Alameda Point. Students were encouraged as the course progressed to visit Alameda Point for their research.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

This LC did not formally employ an immersion methodology however the numerous linkages between the two courses to the Alameda Point community site may appear to parallels some features of an immersion methodology. This LC was team taught at Christian Brothers college. Both instructors worked to integrate the civic engagement and social justice aspects throughout the LC since this aligned the learning community’s curriculum closer to the College’s mission. The two instructors shared instructional speakers from various agencies including (U.S. EPA, Cal-EPA, the City of Alameda Redevelopment Department, Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) staff members, etc.). There were numerous field trips, two field sampling experiments on site, our formal community event (where children from the APC were invited to campus and performed and experiment), and finally the final poster session, which was held twice (on campus and Alameda Point). The two courses of the learning community were also linked in the use of video camera technology as an instructional tool for student project work.

The collaborative efforts of the City of Alameda Redevelopment Department staff and Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) staff members provided the students and faculty access to resources in addition to their time. The learning community grew through this interaction. For APC, a partnership was established which is mutually beneficial to both the College and APC. The support of the regulatory agencies (U.S.EPA and Cal-EPA) were also very effective and it allowed the faculty to tie reading materials to discussions on the clean up activities at Alameda Point. To further enhance the student learning experience, student preceptors were an integral part of the Saint Mary’s College instructional team and the two student preceptors assisted in the learning community in many ways however, possibly the most important was in the role of co-learner/instructor.

Saint Mary’s College as a Christian Brothers school has a mission to support outreach to the underprivileged, derived from the order’s founder John Baptiste De Lasalle, who educated street youth. While not all readers will share the Catholic and Lasallian orientation, the scope of these tenets is broad enough to encompass many instructors interested in using the model. The third tenent of the college is Liberal Arts. Critical thinking is an essential part of the Liberal Arts tradition; our students learned to examine the various plans for the area with an analytical eye. They looked carefully at documents and projections, for example, asking themselves, if AP was their home would they be satisfied with the information they received regarding clean up activities. From a sociological perspective they were asked to look at power and stratification differences between the main participants who are designing plans for the future. The educational connection to the Alameda Point Collaborative which serves individuals who are transitioning from homeless was tremendous and supported both linked courses. Since the APC’s land has had numerous Time Critical Removal Action (TCRA’s) and people living adjacent to these actions to protect human health and the sociological questions of placing individuals on a Superfund site was also significant.

Special Features: Living Lab

We employed the urban sociology concept, from the Chicago School, of using the city as a “living lab.” As students learned new conceptual tools in the class they took those to AP, to apply them right away. The site became a classroom without walls. Students were able to

  • Identify AP symbolic landmarks, critical to community identity (e.g. Navy fighter jet)
  • Compare the “ideal type” community they had developed in class to the site, noting, for example, the lack of commercial services at AP
  • Partner with the community members, experiencing, through attending meetings, observation and conversations the need for public engagement and voice in urban change
  • Learn of the need to connect fragmented information sources currently available
  • Critique existing reports and give meaningful suggestions for improvement (e.g. Seaplane Lagoon)
  • Recognize a potential hazard and assess the remediation (e.g. Middle School soil contaminants capped by asphalt)
  • Recognize new ways to do research (e.g. Taking the bus route used by lowest-income residents, to view it from their perspective)

Pedagogical Methodologies

Field Trips and Research Projects:

The learning community utilized a field trip to introduce the students to Alameda Point and the research project work gave the students additional opportunities during class periods to learn more about this community in transition. The formal community engagement event where the learning community hosted a small group of middle school children from APC on campus also gave the students insight on how easily the learning community could give back to the community. Since the student research project involved interviewing individuals connected with the redevelopment, the students visited Alameda on numerous occasions outside of class to complete their projects. To provide closure at the end of the semester, the learning community hosted a poster session out at the Alameda Point Collaborative to share what they had learned throughout the semester.

Use of Outside Experts:

The support of the city development department, private firms, non-profits, and the state and federal regulatory agencies gave this learning community a rich introduction to being active citizens of a community accepting the challenges of redevelopment. The students gained insight pondering the different perspectives presented to them. With classroom discussions, the students became aware that the public can at times be the community’s memory on agreements and understandings that lead to projects that benefit the whole community. In particular, Dr. Sophia Serda of the U.S. EPA provided expertise in toxicology. She assisted us on two different occasions providing the basics of toxicology and environmental risk assessment. Her critical review of our simple soil sampling experiment gave the students considerable insight on the level of detail that regulators expect to begin to educated decisions with regard to human environmental risks.

Seminar Discussions:

Formal lectures were kept to a minimum and when feasible a seminar discussion, perfect for small groups, was used. The sociology texts and Davis’s book were well suited for this format. Students, preceptors and faculty developed the investigative questions used.

Use of preceptors:

Following Dr. Ellen Goldey’s model from Wofford College, a salaried position for the preceptors was negotiated with the administration. Providing a salary gave a clear message to the preceptors that they would be valued as collaborators in this enterprise. This is also in keeping with the use of preceptors on other campuses where they may receive both compensation and earn academic credit. (Richard Fluck)

Recruitment

The faculty team agreed on the fundamental criteria for a preceptor. The student should be a Senior or Junior, have had several courses in the respective disciplines, have an above average GPA, work well with their faculty mentor and be considered mature and reliable. For sociology Nikul Shah chosen and he fulfilled all these requirements. He had had several courses including Urban Studies. He was a member of Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society, had also interacted with the faculty as my advisee, and was considered an outstanding student by several faculty members. In addition, he wanted to do a Senior Thesis in sociology, which he decided to do during his semester as preceptor. This allowed him to personally benefit from the preceptor role in addition to his salary as a preceptor. Care was taken to insure that the course scheduling for the preceptors fit the LC block and allowed some free time for additional assignments. For the Natural Science, Breeanne Jackson was selected and she also fulfilled the requirements. She had previously taken the Environmental Chemistry course from Professor Bachofer. Breeanne was a senior Environmental Science major and she had a summer internship project which involved establishing a collaborative effort of a community to assist a state agency in monitoring a watershed for various pollutants. Breezy enrolled in an independent study and provided detailed feedback on the Natural Science course. We as faculty were fortunate to find such outstanding students for our first try in developing a learning community. The success enjoyed by our learning community (LC) was definitely due in part to the preceptors.

Alameda Point

Understanding context: Special features

Living Lab
We employed the urban sociology concept, from the Chicago School, of using the city as a “living lab.” As students learned new conceptual tools in the class they took those to AP, to apply them right away. The site became a classroom without walls. Students were able to

  • Identify AP symbolic landmarks, critical to community identity (e.g. Navy fighter jet)
  • Compare the “ideal type” community they had developed in class to the site, noting, for example, the lack of commercial services at AP
  • Partner with the community members, experiencing, through attending meetings, observation and conversations the need for public engagement and voice in urban change
  • Learn of the need to connect fragmented information sources currently available
  • Critique existing reports and give meaningful suggestions for improvement (e.g. Seaplane Lagoon)
  • Recognize a potential hazard and assess the remediation (e.g. Middle School soil contaminants capped by asphalt)
  • Recognize new ways to do research (e.g. Taking the bus route used by lowest-income residents, to view it from their perspective)

Diversity
Diversity can be addressed in two ways. First, our students, especially given our predominantly white campus, showed diversity; three of the eleven were students of color, as was one preceptor. These students brought valuable insights into many of our discussions. Second, we looked at the demographics of AP; students learned that due to the low-income housing AP had a much higher percentage of African Americans than did the city of Alameda. Also, Native Americans, veterans, and those with behavioral health problems were over-represented at AP, due to BRAC stipulations.

When, as part of our social justice initiative, the AP community students arrived on campus they were all African American; our students were able to interact very well with them, particularly the students of color, leading to a highly successful visit.

Evaluating Learning

RETUrN Handout: Student Paper Guide

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Evaluation and Assessment

We assessed the student’s learning progress at two points during the semester. The SALG instrument was used since it is very flexible and we were each able to tailor the instrument to assess our planned learning outcomes yet at the same time, was also great because both of us were asking rather similar questions. The answers were entered by students directly onto the computer and analysis was done right away. Since we gave class time to use the nearby computer lab there was no excuse for students to not get it done. The drawback was the small class size 11 made any statistical analysis impossible. Acknowledging the small class size, each SALG data set showed an increase in civic responsibility as an outcome of the learning community.

The student’s final papers and essays reflect that they were able to successfully do original research on Alameda. Students definitely went beyond the bounds of the normal upper division research project. Everyone incorporated at least one personal interview into their research. They were able to do research using archival material at the Alameda Main Library and Naval documents a well as internet sites, newspaper articles, and integrate these findings with the main concepts from the class.

Additional Outcomes of the 2003 Learning Community

  • The compiled research papers from the class will be deposited in the library archives, as well as the senior thesis related to AP, to give our research results back to the community.
  • The students gained a much greater understanding of time and commitment needed by citizens to see a community redeveloped to their benefit.
  • The SENCER general science education course was highlighted in a successful grant to the Dreyfus Foundation to purchase a new field portable XRF instrument to more easily infuse civic engagement aspects throughout the science curriculum at Saint Mary’s College.
  • one LC student decided to sign up for an independent study working with the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC)
  • The students have greater understanding of the limitations of science and difficulties that toxicologists have to deal with when they compile an environmental risk assessment.
  • Both faculty members have given presentations at conferences on various aspects of the RETUrN learning community.
  • Both faculty have served as a resource to the development of additional learning communities through workshops and consultations.
  • Two LC students presented their research project posters at a sociological undergraduate symposium (April 2004).
  • Both preceptors contributed to a conference paper presented by Phylis
  • Both preceptors have gone onto graduate school, in part related to the LC experience
  • Community contact continues in numerous ways especially with the nonprofit HSP, the Alameda Point Collaborative:
    • A Saint Mary’s College politics class performed a class project with APC (Spring 2004)
    • The APC is now a student outreach service site with many ongoing activities each coordinated by the CILSA office.
    • A Bonner leader student has also begun working with APC.
    • Another general science course shared an experiment with children in the APC after-school program (Spring 2005)
  • The final video is nearing completion and copies will be provided to the community, which opens more opportunities for the upcoming learning community.

SENCER Course Development Template

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Community Event

Final Reflections/Plans for Future

Professors Steve Bachofer and Phylis Martinelli were invigorated and challenged by teaching this learning community. In the Spring 2006 learning community, the students will be required to be in the laboratory and both faculty have decided to link to lower division courses. This will be done to encourage higher enrollment. The Natural Science course will basically remain the same, but the sociology component will be taught as a Social Problems class. The SP class will focus on research methods, urban studies, poverty, racism, and health, and will fulfill either an area “C” general education requirement or a course for sociology majors. This decision will be quite likely require that the students may need more guidance in compiling their research projects, however the faculty feel that the project work can still be accomplished, especially because they will continue to use student preceptors. As Phylis and Steve prepare to teach the RETUrN LC again, new materials on the development of the site and their experience working with community members should facilitate a richer educational experience for more students in the Fall of 2005.

Background and Context

Who created the Learning Community?

The linked teaching experience began with an interim session called a January term course in which faculty are encouraged to teach different courses which can be more experiential. Steve Bachofer found himself passionately concerned, as an involved citizen, with what was going to happen with land, often contaminated, left by the military’s closure of numerous bases in the San Francisco Bay Area. Steve came to Phylis, as the resident expert in sociology, to ask for reading material and ideas about his course. The next time she taught Urban Sociology he talked about these urban sites. A faculty group came together and began formulating how linked courses focusing on redevelopment could work on our campus (including History, Politics, Communications, etc.) Steve next became involved in SENCER (Science Education for a New Civic Engagement and Responsibilities) was inspired to develop a learning community to study these sites from the perspectives of physical and social sciences. In 2003, a full team attended the SENCER Summer Institute to formulate two different SENCER formatted learning experiences.

Where was the course taught?

Saint Mary’s College of California is a Christian Brothers college, which was established in 1863. As noted in the College catalog:

“The College’s reputation for excellence, innovation, and responsiveness in education comes from its heritage as a Catholic, Lasallian, Liberal Arts institution. This heritage creates a unique, personalized, student-centered learning environment.

The Catholic tradition fosters a Christian understanding of the whole person and defends the goodness, dignity, and freedom of each individual in a community that values diversity of perspective, background, and culture.

The Lasallian tradition, rooted in the Christian Brothers’ commitment to teaching and learning, supports education that is truly transformative, not only for the individual but also for that person as a member of society at large.

The Liberal Arts tradition ensures that students develop habits of critical thinking, an understanding of and respect for different way s of knowing, and a desire for lifelong learning.”

How does this learning community advance or engage institution-wide initiatives or objectives?

  • Each course fulfills a requirement toward graduation, in either Science (Area B) or Social Science (Area C) as well as courses for specific majors.
  • The courses connect to the main tenets of the college
  • The Learning Community supports the integration of Social Justice issues into the curriculum and our effort was highlighted in the institution’s WASC self-study
  • The courses emphasized writing skills, research skills, and reading skills, which are stressed at SMC
  • The courses utilized seminar discussions, a hallmark at SMC
  • The courses pioneered the linked course pedagogy, which the college is now embracing
  • The courses involved teaching across specific disciplines and colleges, which the college is encouraging.

Poster Session

Resulting Projects and Research

Publication

The compiled research papers from the class will be deposited in the library archives, as well as the senior thesis related to AP, to give our research results back to the community.

Presentations

  • Both faculty members have given presentations at conferences on various aspects of the RETUrN learning community.
  • Two LC students presented their research project posters at a sociological undergraduate symposium (April 2004).

Projects

  • Both faculty have served as a resource to the development of additional learning communities through workshops and consultations.
  • A Saint Mary’s College politics class performed a class project with APC (Spring 2004)
  • Another general science course shared an experiment with children in the APC after-school program (Spring 2005)
  • The APC is now a student outreach service site with many ongoing activities each coordinated by the CILSA office.

Related Resources

E-Newsletters

March 2005

“Research that matters” by Wm. David Burns, pp. 6-8

April 2005

“Learning chemistry…” by Matt Fisher, Trace Jordan & Andreas Bauer, pp. 7-8

Jun 2005

“Model of the month …” p. 3

July 2005

SENCER Summer Institute (SSI) p. 7

September 2005

“Seeing the forest and the trees I” by Wm. David Burns, pp. 9-11

Outside resources

Wofford Learning Community: Dr. Goldey

City of Alameda and Alameda Point reuse documents

Environmental information