Turning Students into Researchers

RE: State: Lead found in schools’ water (September 21, 2018)


As reported in the Times-Argus, despite troubling news that elevated levels of lead have been found in the water of sixteen schools in Vermont, a report recently issued by a number of state agencies declares that the state lacks the capacity to do the extensive testing necessary to determine which schools require remediation.  Though Governor Scott has promised to find the funding to support a program of lead testing, there is a complementary solution that could not only assist in the efforts to document lead problems, but increase the civic engagement of Vermont’s youth as well.

I spent a number of years conducting educational research at the Tar Creek, Oklahoma Superfund site, declared by the EPA to be one of the most toxic areas in the United States due to extensive lead, cadmium, and zinc contamination.  The health effects and neurological damage to the children in that area were serious and widespread, as were other community health issues including cancers, kidney disease, miscarriages, and immune deficiency disorders.  But there was little public outcry or activism over these alarming issues until 1995, when students in a service learning club, under the supervision of a guidance counselor and a group of interested teachers, began investigating the environmental problems in their community. They explored the issues using the Internet, primary source documents, interviews with community members, and on-site analyses of water and soil.  From their research, the students began to identify causal connections between the contamination in their community, chronic (and in some cases terminal) illnesses in their families, and their own learning disabilities. These students, many of whom had been disengaged from school and learning, became informed, passionate activists.

I visited this site on multiple occasions and interviewed young people, their teachers and their families. I documented the ways that they acquired new skills and capacities working on various projects related to the Tar Creek hazardous waste site. They learned to carry out research in the public interest, and to share their new knowledge in useful and appropriate ways. In addition to the science and math concepts necessary to their understanding of the environmental problems, they learned a great deal about the structures of civic life: practical things like how to write to legislators, contact government officials, organize cultural events, circulate petitions, and engage in peaceful protest, advocacy, and public relations. Their writing skills were improved as they wrote for newspapers, magazines, and their own published book projects, and they had to hone their public speaking talents for their many public appearances on television, radio, at community meetings and at local, state, and national conferences.

In short, their engagement with the serious environmental problems in their community enabled them to carry out sophisticated inquiry-based learning, become engaged citizens, and learn about their rights and responsibilities in a functioning democracy. Isn’t this what we want from our educational system? Thank goodness, our environmental problems in Vermont are not as serious as those in Tar Creek.  But lead poisoning in school drinking water is a truly serious problem – scientists are now saying that no level of lead in the blood of young people is acceptable. Remediation and further testing should start immediately. Teachers and educational researchers know that problem-based learning is an important way to engage young people. So, why not tap into the interests and capacities of Vermont students in order to assist the state in carrying out these important investigations? Science teachers can be distributed water bottles, logs, labels and manifests to fill out for the samples taken in a school, saving costs. Teachers can train kids to take samples and fill out logs and labels. The appropriate state agency can pick these up and take them to a lab. Teachers can talk to classes about what goes on at the lab and perhaps the lab can offer tours to student groups that participate in sample taking to demonstrate the equipment used and explain how they do the analysis. This is a great study for kids and could inspire some students to build further environmental education opportunities into their personalized learning plans!

Interested teachers can contact Rebecca Jim at the LEAD (Local Environmental Action Demanded) Agency in Oklahoma (918-542-9399) for resources and sound advice on how to get young people involved in research on lead problems in their schools. There are opportunities to network with Oklahoma teachers who have done such projects in their schools. And the LEAD Agency is a great resource for information on the science and the effects of lead exposure.

If you want to know more about the Tar Creek research, this is a journal article published in English Education, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Jan., 1999), pp. 135-149.