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Flint, Michigan — The water tower of the Flint Water Treatment plant.
Flint, Michigan — The water tower of the Flint Water Treatment plant. Credit: @ Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press via ZUMA Wire.

In January 2016, as tensions boiled over the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, I felt anger and frustration — and a twinge of excitement. Excitement? Over the toxic contamination of a city’s water distribution system? Yes, I was excited.

I couldn’t wait to bring what I was learning into my classroom.

My wheels churning, I considered how best to structure a unit on this topic in my analytical chemistry course. My experience designing and teaching this unit was a powerful reminder to me of why I teach what I teach and how I teach.

I teach at a small liberal arts college. My sector of higher education faces questions about our relevance, our values and whether we really help people prepare for the world beyond our campuses.

The Flint water crisis was a reminder to me of why the world needs students educated in the manner that my colleagues and I strive for.

The Flint water crisis began when the city switched its water source and neglected to introduce common corrosion control measures. This simple mistake set off a series of chemical events among the water itself, the pipes the water runs through, and added treatment chemicals. The resulting system was very complex.

“Engaging students in subjects that are messy and complicated and difficult is the essence of real teaching, of real education and of enduring social change.”

Most often, when I teach chemistry, I simplify it into a digestible form so that new concepts can be interpreted by students. But as my students learn at this level, I reveal to them the murk underneath, and I show them how to apply the simplified concepts to complex scenarios.

As I developed the Flint project, I thought about how I would teach students about the crisis. A simple lecture would be insufficient to encourage engagement. Instead, I designed a project that challenged students to understand the chemistry at play in Flint, using news coverage, popular science and textbook learning.

We started by relating chemical principles of equilibrium, solubility and redox to the events that transpired in Flint. Working in small groups, the students quickly learned that the chemical system in question was quite complicated.

One afternoon, a very bright student dropped by my office hours to discuss what he understood and what questions he still had, confessing that he preferred to study chemistry done in a flask — in a controlled environment where we have complete information.

I commiserated and then discussed with him the value of working to understand a complicated, ill-defined system despite being able to describe it only partially. I saw that day in my office a new realization in an outstanding student with the drive to effect change.

Together as a class, we also considered the social and societal implications of the crisis. After reading independently and engaging in fact gathering, the students discussed causes and implications of the crisis with their peers.

During these in-class discussions, students were challenged to form and defend opinions, which they later addressed individually in short papers. One student explored the relationship between Flint’s socioeconomic characteristics and the water crisis, writing, “The combination of a shrinking population, smaller tax base, and majority low-income residents provided an ideal scenario that led to devastating impacts from unsafe water. The same risk factors that made Flint residents so vulnerable are prevalent throughout the United States.”

How refreshing it was to encounter a student’s civic-mindedness in chemistry class! And he’s right. The availability of safe drinking water — a basic human right — is likely to be called into question again and again in communities across the country.

Allocation of federal spending to improve our water distribution infrastructure would help. But an even brighter prospect to hedge ourselves against future crises is our nation’s young scientists.

The Flint project reinforced for me why I teach. The people of Flint found themselves drinking and bathing in water that made them sick because chemistry was misunderstood, neglected and ignored. I teach because chemistry is present in our everyday lives and I believe that, armed with chemical knowledge, my students will better contribute to society.

Like most subjects taught in depth, chemistry is messy and complicated and difficult. It is also important and real and present. In Flint, real decisions made by real people had really negative effects. I hope and I trust that my students, having been supported to tackle hard problems in my classrooms, will use chemistry to effect positive change in the world around them.

Engaging students in subjects that are messy and complicated and difficult is the essence of real teaching, of real education and of enduring social change.

Ursula Williams is an assistant professor of chemistry at Juniata College in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Chemical Society.

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  1. Well done! Well said! Kudos, Professor Williams! Keep doing this kind of work! You’re making us all proud. Most sincerely, C.L. Hoeman, Class of 1968

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