Chemistry and Policy: A Course Intersection

Christopher Smart, Associate Professor and Chair of Chemistry, Vassar College;Pinar Batur, Associate Professor of Sociology and current Director of Urban Studies,Vassar College; Stuart Belli, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Director of Environmental Science, Vassar College

A 2004 SENCER Model

This Vassar Course Intersection brings two classes together, a Chemistry course in Instrumental Analysis, the other an Introduction to Urban Studies, around the single problem of lead exposure in urban environments. The class in Instrumental Analysis enrolls primarily Chemistry majors, while the Urban Studies class attracts students who are interested in public policy. For three weeks at the end of the semester, both groups must pool their knowledge and work collaboratively to study a real-world problem-the levels and effects of lead exposure in their own urban environment. The resulting collaboration provides students with an opportunity to put their academic learning in a wider social and political context, while demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary investigation.

The Instrumental Analysis course covers spectroscopy, chromatography, and electrochemistry. Due to the course intersection, there is an extra emphasis on the importance of sampling to the overall validity of any investigation. There is also an enhanced appreciation of calibration, validation, and measurement uncertainty because the experimental results are being used to formulate and propose policy. The urban studies students are given some background in the chemistry of Pb (lead) especially in regards to toxicology and epidemiology, exposure pathways and routes, dose response and analysis, impact of chronic and subchronic exposures, and Pb’s persistence in the environment. There is an emphasis on the challenges of assessing risk in the context of scientific uncertainty and on the importance of longitudinal and cross-sectional population exposure data. The course intersection has three culminating events: the Instrumental Analysis students present their results of sample analysis to the Urban Studies students, who, after consideration of the science, make a presentation of their policy options. Finally groups comprised of students from both courses discuss the recommendations, giving the experience of peer teaching the connections between science and policymaking.

Course Learning Goals

Instrumental Analysis Course

  • Learn instrument design
  • Open up the black boxes
  • Develop an understanding of what is happening in there
  • Maybe more important is fostering an attitude that we CAN know what is happening in there
  • Learn experimental design
  • This includes statistics and sampling
  • Learn the principles of the phenomena of nature that can be quantified and hence used for analysis

Teaching Goals and Philosophy

We believe teaching is not just a profession but a conviction about humanity, equality and freedom. A good teacher is always a good student, one who conceptualizes education as the practice of freedom and equality, revealing a fundamental belief in humanity. The key is to discover, rethink and learn, and engage in a dialogue with students as a student. In this context, education is not about “evolution of self” but a “revolution of self,” and it demands a voice that reflects the educator’s sense of self as a scholar and citizen. It is this voice that we strive for in our classrooms. We feel the challenge to offer classes that do not merely reproduce existing discourse, but seek new ways to question the past and present, and debate alternatives for the future. It is important for us that this discourse is not segregated from the everyday lives of educators, students, citizens and the world around them, but provides a discourse to advocate equality and freedom, and generates civic participation. This kind of liberating education requires a setting, and we believe Vassar as a liberal arts college is an ideal domain for students and educators to challenge and engage in a debate which requires a holistic comprehension that is critical and alternative seeking. For us, in this setting we can strive to be Paul Freire’s liberating and “problem posing educator,” and scholars and together with our students and colleagues inside and outside the classroom, to create the conditions for engaging freely in knowledge, discovery, teaching.

As teaching partners, we not only represent our disciplines, but also try to offer a syncretistic approach and a synthesis that defines the core of multidisciplinary  studies. The pedagogical question with which we are grappling has been how education can facilitate communication between scientists and non-scientists to understand and narrow the gap between scientists, policy makers and the public regarding urban complexities. As educators, two goals helped us to shape our project: first, opening new ways to integrate “two cultures,” science and nonscience, to extend the possibilities and promise of both in terms of their theory and practice; and second, fostering civic literacy, requiring a fusion of scientific literacy and policy literacy, which includes critical thinking about knowledge, ideas and values, and responsible participatory citizenship within democracy.

Linking Science and Social Issues

Why is the Chemistry and Policy Course a SENCER Model?

The Course Intersection Method is a model for collaboration between science and social science or humanities courses to facilitate teaching and learning the connection between science and policy making. This method intersects two courses for a limited portion of the semester without sacrificing the integrity or focus of the individual courses. As a pedagogical method, its application brings non-science into science courses, while bringing science into economic, political and cultural contexts. Its form allows crossing boundaries, while maintaining disciplinary integrity. Our model of teaching fits into SENCER ideals by fostering communication of knowledge and integration of methods across the disciplines. Besides its form, the content of the intersection, when organized around a social problem, defines its possibilities for civic engagement. When faculty and students from different disciplinary areas collaborate in their effort to define, explore and debate solutions to social problems, they enter a common ground. We believe that the longer they maintain the common ground, the more likely they will become engaged citizens. As a pedagogical method, this intersection teaches our students that their chosen field has civic responsibility and fosters the role of faculty as scholar-teacher citizens.

In order to achieve effective solutions to societal problems that involve science and technology, citizens need to be able to communicate with scientists and policy makers. We have explored new ways to integrate our efforts in education, extending the possibility and promise that different disciplines can contribute to each other in terms of theory and practice. The Course Intersection Method involves two classes coming together for about three weeks, creating a new context in which the material of each course can be taught. The students are expected to use knowledge and apply tools from their own disciplines, and learn ways to integrate each others’ contributions into the problem solving process.

In this specific application of our method we have chosen to study urban lead (Pb) exposure and have intersected Instrumental Analysis with Introduction to Urban Studies. The Chemistry students, who are mostly science majors, are the scientists on the project. As such they see that the usefulness of their contribution will depend on their knowledge of the problem and their understanding of the civic process that will use their results to shape public policy. In a complementary way, the urban studies students are the policymakers. The urban students are confronted with an urban policy problem: the evaluation of and response to lead (Pb) exposure in an urban environment. Part of the understanding of this problem relies on scientific studies in analytical chemistry, toxicology, and epidemiology in the context of economic and political conditions that set standards and limit the implementation of policy making. Through this joint project the policy makers and scientists must work together to study a real case of lead exposure in their own environment. As a result, students in both classes will see that their chosen field has civic responsibilities as they are exposed to the complexities of putting their knowledge in a wider social context. This intersection of the two courses fosters changes in attitudes and lowering of barriers to participation in the democratic process.

The project gives responsibility to educators, students and institutions for connecting science and civic engagement. It assigns to educators the role of facilitators to learning scientific knowledge, method and analysis, locating them within the dimensions of public issues. Students are expected to challenge themselves, to tangle with larger issues about scientific processes and methods, and to discover that they are also citizens, responsible for knowledge produced and disseminated. Educational institutions are also called upon to find ways to foster and accommodate scientists, who are exploring their voice in public policy. The SENCER project is designed to grow as our comprehension of its necessity in a democratic society grows; civic responsibility is not an addendum or a burden, but a necessity and a privilege to facilitate an egalitarian future
(SENCER Overview, 2002).

What are the capacious civic questions or problems addressed in the course?

Through our course we explore the following set of questions:

  1. How does science inform policy?
  2. How does the policy making process affect the interpretation and integration of scientific data?
  3. How do scientists and policy makers formulate questions and devise methods to explore them?
  4. How do scientists reveal their findings, reach conclusions, and communicate the implications of their work to policy makers and the general
  5. How do policy makers set standards, assess risk, and evaluate policy outcomes and communicate the implications of their work to scientists and the general public?

A major goal of higher education is to produce students prepared to integrate complex knowledge derived from science, social science and humanities intoeveryday life and to provide a balanced education for better preparation for citizenship in a participatory democracy. In this context, science literacy has been a critical issue for science educators, and a dominant concern of NSF, National Research Council, AAAS and Project 2061. While the challenge of science literacy has been to connect fundamental ideas in science with technology to foster critical thinking and independent decision making, we believe that the civic application of science requires policy literacy. Policy literacy is the ability to ask questions regarding the organizing principles of organizations, institutions and the state and to understand the process of change in these bodies so as to be able to participate in the policy making process. The separation of science and policy has lead to isolated knowledge and a disconnection between the public, scientists and policy makers in an advanced technological society. Through the Course Intersection Method, our educational goal is to generate civic literacy, to encourage students to seek innovative paths to the fusion of science and policy literacies, and to facilitate informed and responsive decision making in a democratic society. The key to our effort is to enable, support, and foster communication which would not take place ordinarily. By participating in the course intersection, our students develop collaborative approaches to solving complex, multifaceted scientific and social problems.

As disciplinary based scholars we, along with our students, hope to develop an understanding of the connection (and misconnection) between science and policy making through exploration of teaching and learning in disciplinary and multi-disciplinary settings. Our two disciplines, Chemistry and Urban Studies, are well suited to explore and implement a new method of teaching and learning to benefit science majors in terms of supporting their comprehension of the context in which knowledge is produced, as well as non-science majors’ understanding of the possibilities and limitations of science contributions to policy making. Within this overarching goal of fostering a multidisciplinary perspective, the students will also enrich their disciplinary commitment. Chemistry students will see that knowledge of the context in which the science will be used is necessary for formulating appropriate questions. The context will serve as the basis for selecting between multiple analytical methods and interpreting sometimes conflicting results. Another goal is to challenge them to convey scientific information to non-chemists, and explore ways to integrate scientific knowledge
into policy making. The Urban Studies students, in a complementary way, will gain direct experience with the methods and process of scientific inquiry, thus inspiring them to expand their knowledge of science and its applications. Urban Studies students are challenged to provide political and economic constraints and possibilities for policy making, policy implications and risk. This project also encourages productive, collaborative work between science and social science faculty, thus joining what C.P. Snow termed the “two cultures.”

What basic science is covered?

The science presented in the analytical chemistry class is standard for a chemistry major’s Instrumental Analysis course, including spectroscopy, chromatography, and electrochemistry (see course syllabus). As a result of the intersection, emphasis is given to the specific chemical form of the analyte measured by a given technique and the importance of sampling, especially in complex environmental problems, to the overall validity of the investigation. There is also an enhanced appreciation of calibration, validation and measurement uncertainty when the experimental results are being presented to the policy makers.

The urban students are given background chemistry of Pb (lead) especially in regards to methods and principles of toxicology and epidemiology, discussing exposure pathways and routes, dose response and analysis, impact of chronic and subchronic exposures, and Pb’s persistence in the environment. There is an emphasis on the assessment of risk in the context of scientific uncertainty. We explore the impact of changing exposure thresholds on policy making, along with the relevance of longitudinal and cross-sectional population exposure data.

It is important for students to learn not just the specific information but the process of scientific inquiry and its application to real issues. Through exploring the complexities of a chemical/urban environment/policy problem, students gain the tools and knowledge to work across fields while maintaining the integrity of the content. By utilizing scientific principles in problem solving, students develop the imagination to apply these principles in their approach to other problems.

The Course

A major priority in the design of this course is the engagement of students as scientists and citizens. This is accomplished through the variety of techniques described below.

Chemistry and Policy Syllabi

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Course Format

In the Course Intersection Method, two courses interact for a three week period toward the end of the regular semester. Students get together at the beginning of the semester to decide on the project and to assign a division of labor which mixes student groups from both classes. Prior to the
beginning of the course intersection period, the Chemistry students will have learned about lead measurement through laboratory exercises emphasizing instrumentation, calibration and validation and will have worked with abridged EPA methods. They will be prepared to approach the project as analytical chemists. The Urban Studies students will have examined how cities reflect power hierarchies. They will have reviewed major questions in urban theory and looked at global and local variables influenced by consumption, production, distribution and exchange patterns, in terms of job possibilities, housing, education and health care, i.e. the background knowledge for policy making.

At the beginning of the course intersection period, we present the historical context of the primary commercial uses of lead that have led to its ubiquitous urban distribution, as well as epidemiological and toxicological studies of lead, including various sources of information spanning scientific primary literature, reviews, newspapers and government reports. Then, as integrated groups, Chemistry and Urban Studies students collect samples for lead analysis, and begin to discuss steps in policy making. The exercise has three culminating events: the Instrumental Analysis students present their results of sample analysis to the Urban Studies students, who, after consideration of the science, make a presentation of their policy options. Finally groups comprised of students from both courses discuss the recommendations, giving the experience of peer teaching the connections between science and policy making.

Timetable for Intersection Period Instrumental Analysis Urban Studies
Preparation Group assignments and project description, sample collection Group assignments and project description, sample collection
Week I Risk assessment/methods for lead measurement/Sample Preparation History of Pb use/Epidemiology and Toxicology/Sample Preparation
Week II Sample analysis Debates on policy
Week III Chemistry students present to Urban Studies audience Urban Studies students present to Chemistry audience

During the pair of presentations, we give special attention to how social scientists and scientists collaborate and communicate with one another regarding policy recommendations with economic, political, and social considerations. Along with the policy recommendations, we ask the policy makers what additional information would benefit the policy decision process and challenge the scientists to propose new studies, again reflecting the interaction of the scientific community with the general public at an early stage (e.g. public hearings) of urban problem solving. This is intended to reflect the dialog that occurs when a municipality, interest group, etc. requests that the scientific community provide them with the results of a study. Special emphasis is placed on understanding how the experimental design limits (or extends) what can be said about the data, sources of error and uncertainty, and statistical analysis of data. We initiate a broader discussion of the roles of scientists and policy makers and we emphasize how effective communication demands understanding of both the audience and the issues, and that the civic responsibility of scientists and policy makers requires good communication between the two groups as well as with the public.

We have chosen lead poisoning as the focus topic for our course intersection due to the wide availability of published studies, accessibility of lead analysis in an undergraduate laboratory setting (Breslin, 2001; Markow, 1996), public awareness, and most importantly, the continuing salience of the lead poisoning problem. This is especially true in urban environments where minority groups are disproportionately exposed (English, 2001; Millstone, 1997; Warren, 2000).

Because of the prevalence of lead contamination, the choice of setting for the course intersection project can be drawn from old homes, playgrounds, residential neighborhoods, former industrial sites, or school buildings. We have also consulted with the College Institutional Review Board regarding issues pertaining to work involving human subjects.

The intersection period thus serves as a model for what happens in a democratic process. In such a process, an optimum solution might only be achievable if policy makers understand and appreciate all information, including the value of scientific data, in order to serve the public responsibly. Conversely the value of the input of such data might certainly be heightened if scientists are appreciative of the social context of the problem, and are prepared to participate in making policy as citizens. Bridging this gap in an academic setting provides our science and social science students with first hand experience questioning boundaries, and prepares them for the challenges of informed decision making as contributing citizens in a democracy.

Evaluating Learning

Course Evaluation

At Vassar College, we have employed the course intersection method a total of five times in the past four years, and in two different class settings. Our primary use of the method has been with the Instrumental Analysis and Introduction to Urban Studies classes, as described in this SENCER
model. We also used the method to intersect two special summer courses in the Summer of 2003. These courses were part of a Vassar summer
program called Exploring Transfer / Exploring Research (ET/ER).

The Exploring Transfer program has been a Vassar program for over 20 years. It is a five week college-credit program that brings community college students who has the interest and potential to pursue a four year degree to campus, for an intense classroom experience. Students from the community colleges, mostly from campuses in the urban or suburban New York City area, apply for the program in a competitive process. The courses taught in the ET summer program are often taught by teams of faculty from Vassar and the community colleges, and the subjects covered range across the curriculum, but do not specifically include a laboratory science experience. For the past four years, Vassar has been able to offer a parallel program, Exploring Research, where the same student audience is introduced to laboratory science courses at the level and pace they would find at a typical four-year institution.

In the summer of 2003, one of the ER courses, taught by Stuart Belli and Christopher Smart (both of the Department of Chemistry) was called “The
Molecular Nature of Nature” and served as an introduction to the chemical study of natural phenomena. A second course, taught in the ET program by Pinar Batur (Sociology and Urban Studies) and Christopher Roellke (Education and Urban Studies) was called “Inequality in the City: Perspectives on Education and Urban Policy.” These two courses were brought together for a two week period to study lead contamination in urban schools, in much the same way that the Instrumental Analysis and Introduction to Urban Studies classes were intersected as described in the preceding pages.

At the end of the 2003 ET/ER summer program, the students in both classes were asked to assess the intersection period specifically through a questionnaire that the four faculty members developed together for that purpose. The results are shown below.

Student Responses to Course Evaluation Questionnaire

Students rated the following on a scale of 1 (low effectiveness) to 5 (high effectiveness):

How effectively did the unit on lead poisoning expand your knowledge of how scientific research is conducted?

MEAN RESPONSES Lecture Readings Group Discussion Assignments
Policy Students (n=19) 4.42 4.26 4.21 4.63
Science Students (n=14) 3.86 3.86 4.07 4.0

How effectively did the unit on lead poisoning expand your knowledge of urban theory/policy?

MEAN RESPONSES Lecture Readings Group Discussion Assignments
Policy Students (n=19) 4.47 4.42 4.37 4.79
Science Students (n=14) 2.15 2.93 3.14 2.57

How effectively did the unit on lead poisoning broaden your understanding of how science and urban theory/policy interact?

Policy Students (n=19) 4.63
Science Students (n=14) 3.64[end tr]

Students rated the following on a scale of 1 (decreased a lot) to 5 (increased a lot):

MEAN RESPONSES Policy Students(n=19) Science Students (n=14)
As a result of the unit on lead poisoning, has
your interest in studying science increased or decreased?
3.95 4.50
As a result of the unit of lead poisoning has your interest in studying public policy increased or decreased? 4.74 3.36
As a result of the unit on lead poisoning, has your interest in studying how science and public policy interact increased or decreased? 4.42 3.71

Selected (and representative) Comments/ Suggestions (Policy Student Responses, n=19)

  • Need for more shared class time with science and policy students
  • Allow policy students to observe scientific data analysis more closely
  • More time for policy students to teach science students how policy works
  • Group activities and interactions highly effective; my favorite part of the program
  • Intellectually stimulating!

Selected (and representative) Comments/ Suggestions (Science Student Responses, n=14)

  • Scientific knowledge increased significantly by using ICP and XRF machines
  • Need for more and improved interaction and communication between science and policy students
  • Small group meetings were some of the best academic discussions at Vassar
  • Never thought chemistry could be fun!

When the course intersection method was used during the regular academic year at Vassar, in the Instrumental Analysis and Introduction to Urban Studies courses, the intersection period was not assessed separately from the course as a whole. Assessment of each course by the college’s standard course evaluation questionnaires yielded a range of comments. But for the future, we are planning to introduce 5 level system of evaluation.

Evaluation and Assessment Plan

The evaluation efforts will be coordinated by Vassar’s Department of Education  and will include external review. Our evaluation and assessment plan consists of five integrated and overlapping components, which are consistent with the types of mixed-method evaluations outlined in the NSF Evaluation Handbook (NSF97- 153, 1997) and the current literature (Atkin, 2001; Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, 1999; Pellegrino, 2001; Towne, 2001).

Faculty Focus Groups: Formative and Summative Assessment.

Monthly focus can be important tools prior to, during, during, and following the implementation of a pilot program (Krueger, 1994). In addition to soliciting formative and summative faculty assessment regarding strengths and weaknesses of course design and implementation, focus group facilitators will inquire about both short-term and long-term institutional support that may be required to sustain and strengthen the program. Periodically, focus groups will include additional faculty members from the Chemistry and Urban Studies departments (or other faculty involved in multidisciplinary programs) to discuss pedagogy, curricular alignment within majors.

Faculty Assessment of Student Learning.

The expected academic outcomes of these courses require a combination of quantitative and qualitative student assessment tools. In addition to more traditional essays and exams, students will be expected to demonstrate their scientific literacy and understanding of urban policy through performance assessments. These “authentic” measures of student learning will include the conducting of field experiments, data analysis, reporting of results, role-play simulations, and debating of “real-life” case study scenarios.

Student Formative Assessment: Quality Circles.

Quality circles will be conducted periodically throughout the semester. Quality circles will be conducted with small groups of students and will be facilitated by teaching interns in Urban Studies and Chemistry. The purposes of the quality circles are two-fold: 1) to provide students with an opportunity to reflect critically on the readings and instructional strategies utilized in the Chemistry 362 and Urban Studies 100 courses; 2) to provide the instructors with constructive formative feedback for course improvement. Student feedback on instruction and course design is typically solicited at the end of the semester in the form of standardized course evaluation questionnaires. These quality circles, on the other hand, give students the opportunity to initiate possible curricular adjustments during the course itself. We view students as partners in curriculum change and “shared course ownership” is a guiding principle of these quality circles. Another specific purpose of the quality circles is for students to provide a form of “peer assessment” of their colleagues across courses. That is, urban studies students can provide constructive feedback to the analytic chemistry students on their presentation of scientific findings. Similarly, analytic chemistry students can assess the quality of the policy proposals put forth by their colleagues in urban studies.

Student Summative Course Assessment: CEQ’s, Exit Questionnaire,SALG.

Standard course evaluation questionnaires will be administered by Vassar’s Office of the Registrar. Students will provide quantitative ratings on course organization, readings, assignments, exams and laboratory components. In addition, an exit questionnaire, designed and administered by our external reviewer (see below), will allow student feedback on course components that are idiosyncratic to Chemistry 362 and Urban Studies 100 (the cross course collaborations, cooperative learning strategies, performance assessments, role-play simulations, case study scenarios, etc.). SENCER’s Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG), or some adaptation of it, would be a useful, externally designed assessment tool.

External Review.

We envision an external reviewer with expertise in SENCER approaches to undergraduate curriculum reform. The external reviewer will have access to focus group findings, student formative and summative assessments, and curricular materials associated with the project. We have identified a number of experienced SENCER faculty who would be excellent candidates for this type of external review.

Assessment of Students

In both of the two settings in which we used the course intersection method, the students were assessed by similar means. The science students were graded on the lab work involved in generating data for the lead studies that the students designed (i.e. determination and interpretation of lead levels in the samples collected). They were also assessed on the presentation that they made to the “policy makers,” including their handling of questions and discussion. The students in the Urban Studies classes were assessed on policy presentations that they made based on the lead level results, and their handling of questions and discussion at those presentations. They were also assigned an opinion paper on the topic of lead contamination; an example of this assignment can be found in the Urban Studies course syllabus. Regardless of our efforts to assess student learning, we acknowledge that we do not know the long term effects of this experience on our students; we only hope that it helps them become more effective citizens.

Grading – Instrumental Analysis

Exams (3 plus final) –> 45%

Laboratory–> 45%
Lab Notebook

Homework–> 10%

Grading – Introduction to Urban Studies

In Class Midterm–> 25%

Take-home Midterm (Observation Report) –> 20%

Short opinion papers–>20%

Final Exam–> 25%

Class Participation–>10%

Laboratory – Instrumental Analysis

The laboratory will have two components; short exercises designed to acquaint you with the operation of a specific instrument and longer experiments and/or investigations of much less structure intending to give you practice in adapting, designing, and applying analytical methods
to real problems. To avoid wasting your time waiting for instruments and equipment, there will be several experiments running simultaneously which you can rotate through. The exercises will have you collecting data and evaluating the effects of various instrument parameters. You will receive detailed procedures and the write-ups will also be closely scripted. For the investigations we will broaden our attention from the measurement itself to the complete analysis; everything from defining the question to devising a method and evaluating our results. I would like to give as much flexibility on the investigations as possible to allow each of you to explore your interests.

Exams and Quizzes – Introduction to Urban Studies

The first mid-term examination will be a closed book, in class exam, combining short answer and essay questions. It usually consists of 5 or 6 short answer questions and 2 essays.

The second mid-term examination (Observation Report) will be a challenge to encourage you to see and understand and to interpret the urban conundrum. For your Observation Report, you are expected to choose a location, such as downtown, or Main Street, or the neighboring K-Mart, or perhaps a soup kitchen. You are expected to report on what you see, and by giving examples, demonstrate how your readings and discussions in the class have improved the sharpness of your vision. In your take-home exam, you will be expected to write a theoretical discussion on what you observed. Even though it resembles torture, this exam is meant to be a learning experience. You will be allowed to discuss the assignment with other students and with me, and you may conduct additional research in the library in support of your essay. It is acceptable to ask for assistance in finding data or reference works, and even editorial advice. But the take-home exam cannot be written in collaboration with another person. In your essay you will be expected to cite sources you use, and to make proper use of references and quotations. The objective is to encourage you to utilize class material to analyze the “urban” in abstract and everyday life.

The comprehensive final examination will be given according to the college final exam schedule. It will consist of 5 or 6 short answer questions, and 2 essay questions.

Writing Assignments – Introduction to Urban Studies

A five page Opinion Paper is due after each section of the class, to tie each section’s discussion to the others. The four short Opinion Papers (actually, there are five of them, but one of them will be given as an essay question at mid-term.) will become a guide to disciplinary diversity in Urban Studies.

Background and Context

Instrumental Analysis and Introduction to Urban Studies, two courses meeting at Vassar College.
Christopher Smart, Associate Professor and Chair of Chemistry,Pinar Batur, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Urban Studies, and
Stuart Belli, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Director of Environmental Science.

Role in the Undergraduate Curriculum

Vassar College’s curricular requirement has five components: each student must fulfill the Freshman Course requirement, the quantitative course
requirement, the foreign language requirement, major requirements, and a divisional distribution. The divisional distribution is to facilitate a balanced
learning experience between science, social science and humanities. In Freshman Courses, small groups of first-year Vassar students and a professor examine special topics and stress the effective expression of ideas in both written and oral work. By the end of the sophomore year, Vassar students expect to take at least one course that demands a significant amount of quantitative analysis, such as offered by Mathematics, Computer Science, the natural sciences and/or social sciences. Vassar also expects students to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. Vassar students declare their majors by the end of the sophomore year. Students have a choice of four paths to the bachelor’s degree: concentration in (1) a department; (2) an interdepartmental program such as Biopsychology or Geography/Anthropology; (3) a multidisciplinary program such as Urban Studies, American culture,or Cognitive Science; or (4) an individually tailored course of study in the independent program. Within the major field, requirements range from 10 to 17 courses. Our respective courses, Introduction to Urban Studies and Instrumental Analysis are required courses for the major, but are attended by non-majors as well. Because of our approach to bridging across disciplines, our course also serves to foster the balance encompassed by the divisional distribution requirement at Vassar College.

The Chemistry Department at Vassar College consists of 8 full-time Ph.D.- holding tenure track faculty with 3 full-time M.S.-holding lecturers. Housed in the Seely G. Mudd Chemistry Building, the department maintains a full array of modern instrumentation, including 300 MHz NMR, GC/MS, FTIR, MALDITOF/ MS, ICP/AES, UV/Vis/NIR Spectrophotometer, EDXRF, several HPLCs and capillary GCs with an assortment of detectors, and potentiostats for electrochemical measurements. The department graduates between 5 and 12 Chemistry majors a year and about the same number of Biochemistry majors. A majority of our graduates go on to graduate school in Chemistry. Instrumental Analysis is an intermediate level course normally taken in the junior year. The course is taught by Stuart Belli primarily for chemistry majors but is open to and has been populated by Biochemistry, Biology, Environmental Studies, Art History, Anthropology, and Biopsychology majors. It is a course for learning modern instrumentation for chemical analysis. The course consists of lecture and laboratory; the lectures focus on analytical methods and instrument design, the laboratory is designed to give experience with the instruments and illustrate methods of analysis. About half of the lab time is devoted to individual projects focused on real samples, such as analysis for pesticides in local honey or the measurement of heavy metals, PCBs and PAHs in a local stream.

At present, the College offers ten fully developed multidisciplinary programs, each of which concentrates on a single problem or series of problems that cannot be approached by one discipline alone. The integration and coherence of each multidisciplinary program are achieved through work at ascending levels of complexity. Urban Studies is a multidisciplinary program at Vassar, approved by the faculty in 1970s. The Urban Studies program involves about 40 faculty, representing nearly every department on the campus, and fosters dialogue between disciplines, the sciences, social sciences and humanities, to examine the urban context. It has 45 majors and offers approximately 20 courses each year. Through faculty seminars, guest speakers, as well as curricular developments, the program is a facilitator for exploring how to bridge the gap defined by C.P. Snow between the disciplines. Snow argued that “we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative experience, both in arts and in science, not ignorant either of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once they are seen, cannot be denied.” Within this sprit, Urban Studies offers several courses that are co-taught by scholars of different disciplines. For example, the 100 level course, “Introduction to Urban Studies” is designed to survey theory and research on the process of urbanization along with changing urban policy, and to explore the variables that influence the connection between the science and policy making regarding the urban past and future. This course is coordinated by one instructor, but co-taught by five members of Urban Studies program, including by professors of Chemistry and Sociology, Chris Smart and Pinar Batur.

How does the course advance or engage institution wide initiatives or objectives?

We feel that our method of teaching fits well with our college objectives:

“Vassar’s statement of academic purpose, adopted by faculty and trustees, is a definition of the qualities it seeks to develop in its students:

  • Achievement of depth and range of knowledge in a single discipline or in a subject approached through several disciplines. The quality sought is not only the mastery of a body of facts, but the attainment of skill in the conduct of inquiry and the satisfaction of having gained knowledge.
  • Recognition of the different kinds of knowledge and their scope and relevance to one another. It is necessary for an educated person to understand the relationships between the past, the present, and the future as well as those between people and their social and physical environment.
  • Immediate experience of creative ideas, works of art, and scientific discoveries.
  • Development of the powers of reason and imagination through the processes of analysis and synthesis and the use of all our human resources – to speculate, to feel, to inquire boldly, to enjoy, to change, to create, and to communicate effectively.
  • Increased knowledge of oneself, a humane concern for society, and a commitment to an examined and evolving set of values.

To achieve these purposes, Vassar offers a curriculum that honors the values of liberal learning as it challenges us to lead energetic and purposeful lives. We aim, therefore, to support a faculty dedicated to teaching, scholarship, and artistic endeavor; to educate-in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences-distinguished, diverse students motivated toward intellectual risk; to promote clear thinking and articulate expression; to stimulate integrative learning through multidisciplinary studies that communicate across cultural and curricular perspectives; and to commit both students and teachers to coherent and cohesive approaches to learning.

In the largest sense, Vassar seeks to educate the individual imagination to see into the lives of others. As such, its academic mission cannot be separated from its definition as a residential community composed of diverse interests and perspectives. The differences among us are real and challenging. Contemporary life requires more than ever the skills and wisdom that liberal education has always promoted: the exercise of informed opinion and sound critical judgment; a willingness to engage in ethical debate in a spirit of reasonable compromise; the achievement of balance between emotional engagement and intellectual detachment; the actions of personal integrity and respect for others; independent thought and an attendant resistance to irresponsible authority. It is our mission to meet the challenges of a complex world responsibly, actively, and imaginatively.”
Taken from the Vassar Catalogue, (2004).

Resulting Projects and Research


We have begun the process of communicating the utility of the course intersection method in the literature and professional society meetings of our respective disciplines, Chemistry and Sociology, as well as in other appropriate venues. The following is a list of presentations that we have contributed:

  • In September of 2003 we gave an oral presentation at the 226th American Chemical Society National Meeting, entitled “Analytical Chemistry in the Context of Urban Policy Making: Crossing the Lawn with C.P. Snow.” The talk was part of a session hosted by the Division of Chemical Education which was entitled “Science and Society: Linking Chemistry with Service Learning and Public Policy Issues.”
  • In January of 2004, we participated in a roundtable discussion and poster presentation at the annual meeting of the AAC&U: PRACTICING LIBERAL EDUCATION: Deepening Knowledge, Pursuing Justice, Taking Action. Our poster was entitled “Crossing The Lawn with C.P. Snow: a ‘Course- Intersection’ Approach to Teaching the Relationship of Science and Public Policy.”
  • In February of 2004, we gave a workshop at the first meeting of the Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges and Universities. Our workshop was entitled “Linking Disciplines” and in it we discussed with workshop participants the challenges and rewards of teaching across disciplinary boundaries.
  • In January of 2004, we were the recipients of a grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation as part of the Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences. The proposed work is for the study of mercury poisoning by atomic fluorescence spectroscopy, and the use of that data in a course intersection with an existing Environmental Studies course at Vassar. In the grant application, we heavily referenced our experience with the intersection method in teaching the lead poisoning module described in this SENCER model.

Prospective View

The four years of experience that we have with using the course intersection method in the Instrumental Analysis and Introduction to Urban Studies classes has resulted in several year-to-year influences that are worthy of comment, and which also guide us in seeing how the lead module might continue to change in the future. Specifically, we started out by sampling for lead by collecting vacuum cleaner bags from the janitorial staff of the various campus buildings under study. Dust obtained from the bags was then measured for lead content using a standard EPA method for analysis of lead in solid samples. While these results were interesting for the purpose of comparing one building with another, and even in comparing the results of one year to another, our students were quick to realize that the results could not be compared to any external study, because a standard protocol for the collection of dust was not used. This in turn lead to interesting discussions about the use of data, both by experts and non-experts. The end result was that we have incorporated standard protocols for dust sample collection into the experimental procedure.

Each year, we have encouraged the students who participated in the lead project to suggest changes or extensions to the project, to be used as possible experiments for the following year’s students. This is intended to extend the “real world science” aspect of the project, namely that the thing that is the initial goal of the experimental work often leads on to other, refined goals which are potentially even more relevant or interesting. One thing that has been a common point of discussion in considering how to extend the experimental work has been to think of other places to look for lead in the environment. A partial list of possible sample types or sample sites includes the following:

  • Playground dirt
  • Other soil samples (to monitor the shedding of lead by external paint)
  • Roadside soil (to monitor for residue left from leaded gasoline)
  • Private residential housing
  • Public housing
  • Water
  • Samples from the vicinity of possible industrial sources of lead, such as battery manufacture, incinerators, smelters, etc.

Students have also expressed interest in looking for other potential environmental contaminants, such as arsenic, in samples such as schools and playground dirt. Along these same lines we have worked as a team to introduce the course intersection method into a different course, Issues in Environmental Studies, by studying environmental mercury contamination in conjunction with the Instrumental Analysis course. Our receipt of the Dreyfus Foundation grant will help us to realize that goal.

Through SENCER, we hope that our approach will become a useful model that can be adapted by other science and humanities faculty to explore new topics for which we believe there are many opportunities to bring science and policy into courses that do not currently have a science and policy component. Such adaptations utilizing the course intersection method will benefit both science and non-science students. For students we expect this to be a valuable experience in terms of crossing boundaries, challenging the limits of disciplines and understanding the limitlessness of knowledge. Science literacy and policy literacy are essential tools for their future not only as students but also as citizens. For the faculty, we expect this to be integral to our growth and development as academics, widening our contribution and our knowledge of our own and each other’s disciplines, strengthening the connection between our scholarship and citizenship. We also hope this will bring a challenge to our institution, as educational institutions change and grow. Overall, we hope that our work will contribute to opening the doors to democracy further. As Linus Pauling argued, “the world in modern times has continued to move toward the ideal democratic system, in which all important decisions are made by the people as a whole. In order for this system to operate correctly the citizen must have knowledge enough of the world to make the right decisions; and in the modern world this means that the citizen must have a significant understanding of science.”

Related Resources

We would like to thank our project collaborators Dr. Susan Kuyper of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Christopher Roellke of Vassar College and our project evaluators Dr. Trace Jordon at New York University and Dr. Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh.

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Warren, Christian (2001). Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.