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I started teaching 10th-grade chemistry at East Side Community High School in New York City eight years ago. I quickly found that my idealistic goals of integrating environmental themes into my curriculum were challenged by the day-to-day demands of teaching. I loved my graduate school class about environmental literacy and was determined to weave those ideas into my chemistry class. But in the first two years, all I ended up with was an unimaginative and easy-to-copy assignment about the unique properties of water. Even though I thought it was an interesting idea, students found the report to be a boring task that required no creativity. It was so easy to “research” online that most student work lacked authenticity.

Pulling from several resources and leveraging the expertise of the literacy and tech expert, the school librarian, I reframed the unit and added a culminating project addressing water sustainability. Now, it is the longest, richest, and most meaningful unit I teach. The water unit has evolved to include a water treatment lab, a wastewater treatment challenge, and a clean water fundraiser, and it culminates in students creating short public service announcement (PSA) videos about a water sustainability issue of their choice.

Water sustainability overview

How the unit goes

During the water treatment lab, students study types of water contamination and methods of treatment. Behind the scenes, I prepare the contaminated water by adding soil (for suspended solids), FeCl3, Mg(NO3)2, and NaCl to contaminate the batch beyond acceptable EPA standards. Students use filtration, acid–base treatment, and distillation to clean their water. Usually I invite our principal to test their clean water, which always provides some drama towards the end of the lab.Along the way, engineering concepts are introduced: delimiting the problem; defining success, scale, limitations, and constraints; and optimization. These ideas are reinforced in the wastewater treatment challenge, which is essentially a one-day extension of the water treatment lab. The wastewater treatment challenge incorporates a bit more inquiry-based strategies that build upon the background knowledge students have built in the fairly teacher-directed water treatment lab.

I have been collaborating with a local chemical engineering professor for about six years. We coteach a lesson about how engineers approach a problem like wastewater treatment, which is really a scaled-up version of the water treatment lab. As “wastewater engineers,” students investigate the use of a flocculating agent, which they test on another sample of dirty water, and optimize (on paper in a “letter” to the New York City Council) a combination column distillation, reverse osmosis, and large-scale filtration based on effectiveness, cost, and environmental impacts.

Last year, I finally reached a personal instructional goal and the project was an act of social justice. I partnered with a water charity to fundraise through bake sales. We raised $300, which was enough to build a clean water tap in a small community in Cameroon. This fundraiser was a great addition to the unit because previously we had discussed both advanced and low-cost alternative water treatment options. But actually helping one to become a reality was much more meaningful to the students. It was amazing to see them enthusiastically own the fundraising and recognize it as immediately worthwhile. Juxtaposing their access to clean water against the miles-long journey to get dirty water—the reality for many people around the world—was motivating and inspiring.

Bottled vs. Tap Water PSA

Tap bottle

Fracking PSA

Fracking

The culminating video project of the unit each year requires students to research and create a short three- or four-minute PSA, which includes a water sustainability issue, impacts on the 3 Es (environment, economy, social equity), a chemistry concept, and a call to action. This is where students are required to really bring the social ideas together with traditional chemistry topics they have learned about in the unit (polarity, solubility, specific heat, and more) or throughout the entire year (oxidation, precipitation, bonding, molecular geometry, and more). Along the way, environmental and engineering concepts are naturally incorporated that align with the Next Generation Science Standards.

Students are guided into and through the research needed to storyboard and script their videos using a research wiki page built in collaboration with my school’s librarian. From the first iteration of the project, we knew we wanted to provide students with not only a great deal of choice in their topics but also some structure to the types of sources that would lead to successful PSAs. The wiki contains successively nested webpages full of print, digital, video, and infographic-based resources. Creating, maintaining, and updating the pages each year is one of the most time-intensive pieces of the planning for the project, but the trade-off is well worth it. The effort put into creating a rich and thoughtful world of digital resources pays dividends in the amount of authentic coaching and student work that results.

The videos are awarded “Chemmy’s” by sixth graders who visit on the PSA Movie Screening Day. From the beginning of the PSA project, the 10th graders know they will have an authentic audience for their videos. We make popcorn and vote on the best video. The sixth graders have to answer questions using clickers about each video developed by the 10th graders. The 10th graders are judged partially on how well the sixth graders answer the question, and I approve the questions so they are rigorous but reasonable for sixth graders.

Well-educated students

The unit works really well with students because it revolves around an essential resource to which everyone can relate. I introduce and weave throughout the unit the concept of sustainability using many videos that highlight our local NYC water, water infrastructure, the bottled versus tap water debate, and the global water crisis. By the time I do this project in the spring, my general chemistry students have studied most basic chemistry topics except kinetics, thermodynamics, and detailed acid-base chemistry. Though I sacrifice some traditional chemistry content in the 30–35 days devoted to this unit, I do manage to cover a breadth of chemistry concepts. And, despite the loss of some traditional textbook curriculum, I find the results of the chemistry I teach rewarding because students can see how a basic level of chemistry knowledge allows them access to issues that directly affect their lives.

I’m transparent with students about knowing that not all of them will become chemists. After jokingly forgiving them for that, I do more seriously tell them that it is their responsibility to make their communities, both locally and globally, better places to live and that knowing a little chemistry can be powerful.

I’ve come to accept that much of the chemistry content we as teachers teach will be forgotten by students. Except for advanced chemistry classes in high schools that prepare students for AP exams, I think our primary goal as secondary chemistry educators is to make students fall in love with science. If we do that, they will learn all of the content they need for college. The benefit of focusing the unit around the theme of water sustainability is that students see science in the context of social justice. They start to own environmental stewardship as something personal that affects their lives and see that knowing a little chemistry is essential to being scientifically literate citizens. 

Reflection

In preparation to present this unit at the upcoming National Science Teachers Association conference in Chicago, I asked a fairly recent alumnus what she remembered from my class about water. She ended up reflecting on the PSA video she made about bottled water companies and water privatization. Here’s a condensed version of what she said:

Science was never my favorite subject, and I wasn’t very good at it either. However, Joe made science bearable and connected it to things that I was interested in. In chemistry we learned about water, where our water comes from, our water systems, and how to filter water. We also conducted different experiments to determine cheap and fast ways to filter water for developing countries. We learned that we are exploited by bottled water companies; the majority of bottled water is the same as filtered water. Also, the plastic water bottles that we end up throwing out go to landfills in developing countries, which affect their water supply even more. The water unit made me more socially aware, and I changed my habits. For example, I don't carry plastic bottles anymore; I use a steel water bottle. I realized that science connects to so many things in the world and science can help us find solutions for all these problems we have. Chemistry definitely challenged me by making me think critically and practically. It was by far my favorite science class in high school and even now that I am in college.

Developing curricula and units like this are essential for educators as we continue to move nationally towards project-based instruction, because it makes whatever content we teach serve some larger educational goals. I believe we are short-changing students if we teach our content devoid of application and social relevance. I think the challenge we must accept as educators is finding authentic, dynamic, and non-routine ways for students to demonstrate their understanding. Finally, we want students who feel empowered by their science knowledge to be better citizens and community members, both locally and globally. These water sustainability PSA videos are my attempt to bring these goals together into one project. Students buy into the importance of water sustainability, are engaged by creating videos that show of their learning, and walk away with a greater sense of environmental stewardship.


About East Side Community High School

To graduate at East Side Community High School, students collect and defend their best work rather than take standardized tests in various subjects. It is a portfolio-based curriculum, thus students are used to project-based instruction. Their science portfolio is a collection of their best work from sixth to 12th grade, and roundtables, which require students to present their work each semester to outside evaluators, are like mini-Ph.D. defenses. The evaluators are a diverse group of anyone other than the student’s teacher, but are people with some science background. It is always special to watch students share what they’ve learned about sustainability at the roundtables. In some years, I’ve asked students to share each other’s videos. Other years, I give them a live video-based sustainability issue to deconstruct and discuss with their evaluator. This is when I get to see and hear how much of the sustainability and the 3 Es they’ve internalized. They discuss and defend why their video is a great piece of work for their portfolio or analyze a new sustainability issue on the spot. Other project-based activities students complete in chemistry include learning a variety of traditional chemistry concepts (double-replacement reactions, oxidation and reduction, and metallic bonding) through the lens of chemistry in art. They create a piece of artwork using chemistry techniques (an adaptation of Active Chemistry’s “Chemist as Artist” unit).