Investigating issues of social justice is crucial to helping our students navigate an increasingly complex world, and to preparing them to identify and address such issues as educated citizens. However, incorporating themes of social justice can be a challenge in the chemistry classroom. I attempt to do this through a chemistry classroom project that uses a tangible example of structural racism and incorporates authentic exploration and problem solving. In this project, students apply concepts including solution chemistry, stoichiometry, and electrochemistry to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In the process, they also learn about both the science and the societal impact of this issue.

Project overview

Unlike typical projects that are confined to a particular unit or topic, our class engages with the Flint water crisis over the course of nearly a full semester, revisiting the project as needed to apply new chemistry concepts to it. The project consists of five parts, each taking one or two 60-minute class periods. The topics and activities are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Summary of topics covered and time needed for each part of the project.
Title Topics/Skills Timing

Part 1

Understanding the Problem

  • Reading about and discussing current events
  • Understanding key terms related to structural racism

Homework assignment + one 60-minute class period

Part 2

Concentration and Solubility

  • Comparing concentration units
  • Interpreting box and whisker plots
  • Calculating concentration
  • Comparing solubilities

1.5 60-minute class periods (1 period to complete worksheet and another ½ period to discuss findings)

Part 3

Corrosion and Precipitation

  • Metal reactivity
  • Redox reactions
  • Precipitation
  • Net ionic equations

1.5 60-minute class periods (1 period to complete worksheet and another ½ period to discuss findings)

Part 4

Gravimetric Analysis of “Lead” in Contaminated Water

  • Precipitation reactions
  • Gravimetric analysis
  • Stoichiometry

Pre-Lab homework assignment + one 60-minute class period

Part 5

Update on the Situation

  • Reading and responding to current events

Homework assignment + one 60-minute class period

As an introduction, I give students a homework assignment (Part 1: Understanding the Problem) where they must learn about the crisis in Flint by reading at least one article and watching one video, which they can choose from a menu of options. These resources are primarily drawn from news coverage of the crisis as it was unfolding in 2016-17. I then ask students to write a discussion board post on our LMS responding to the prompt, “What was one thing that surprised you about what you read/watched?” (See Figure 2 below for sample responses).

Figure 2. Example of a student discussion board post and three colleagues’ responses.

I also ask students to read and respond to two other posts. The purpose of this assignment is to prime students for the in-person discussion that will take place in the subsequent class. During our in-class discussion, I introduce students to terms such as “structural racism” and “environmental racism.”

Figure 3. The author has used this slide from the Slow Factory Foundation to introduce students to key terms that arise in discussions of the Flint water crisis.

While my students tend to be familiar with these terms, I’ve found that the graphic shown in Figure 3 is helpful in providing a foundational understanding of key terms and their relationship to one another. We briefly discuss the graphic, and I ask students to give some non-Flint-related examples of structural racism to show they understand the term. We go on to discuss the definition of “Environmental Racism” as “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color,” again discussing and providing some non-Flint-related examples.

We then discuss as a class the ways in which the Flint water crisis could be an example of structural and/or environmental racism. I challenge students to defend their claims with evidence from what they read. I also invite them to use internet resources to uncover additional information that may be helpful to our discussion, such as demographic data from Flint and historical population information.

Students quickly discover that Flint’s population consists predominantly of residents of color, and that approximately 40% of all Flint residents live below the poverty line — leading most to conclude that these events are a prime example of structural/environmental racism. During the discussion, students often begin to speculate about whether similar events could occur in more affluent areas or areas with different racial compositions. As students begin to generate new questions about the crisis, we record them in a class Google Doc to be addressed immediately or in future discussions. Common questions include, Were any government officials held responsible?, Did residents leave the city during the crisis?, Did medical insurance cover the health effects for residents?, and How safe is the water in neighboring towns?

As a chemistry teacher, I have not had much opportunity to develop skills in leading student discussions about sensitive topics. Therefore, these discussions regularly push me out of my comfort zone. Over the years, I’ve leaned heavily on colleagues for best practices and support. I’ve found that my colleagues who teach History and English are particularly helpful in this regard. In addition, I’ve learned from directors of diversity at both my current and previous schools. Among other things, they trained me to preface these discussions by sharing a set of norms, such as assume good intent on the part of the speaker and speak from the I perspective. I’ve also found it helpful to let students generate these norms, as they are often more practiced in these types of discussions than I am.

After this initial discussion, we dive into the science! Students first apply their growing understanding of solubility and solution concentration to the topic (Part 2: Concentration and Solubility), using news articles and EPA publications to compare Federal drinking water regulations to the concentrations found in Flint. I introduce students to the unit parts per billion (ppb) and ask them to conceptually and mathematically compare units of ppb to molarity, which we have been focusing on. During a group work session, I ask students questions and challenge them to use the Flint data we’ve reviewed to compare the solubility of various lead salts and perform solubility calculations.

Ongoing connections and insights

Students revisit the Flint water crisis a few weeks later, during our study of types of reactions (Part 3: Corrosion and Precipitation). I provide students with yet more news articles, this time from science publications, and then ask, “How did the lead get into Flint’s drinking water?” Students explore such concepts as corrosion and redox reactions. They also circle back to solubility and connect it to the newly-introduced concept of precipitation reactions in order to understand how corrosion control is used to prevent lead from contaminating a drinking water supply.

At this point, it’s time to apply some new lab skills to the issue. As we enter our stoichiometry unit, students perform a gravimetric analysis of simulated contaminated water (Part 4: Gravimetric Analysis of “Lead” in Contaminated Water). In order to eliminate the risks of working with lead in the classroom, and yet provide students with a measurable mass of solid product, I “contaminate” the water samples we’re using in the classroom with calcium ions, which the students precipitate out using sodium carbonate solution. I also ask them to calculate the concentration of “lead” in their samples and compare that value to those found in Flint.

We wrap up the project with another series of homework readings students that select from a menu of choices (Part 5: Update on the Situation). This time, options include additional recent articles about the accountability of local leaders and the ongoing challenges in Flint. Similar to the homework assignment that began this project, I ask students to make and respond to discussion board posts based on the prompt, What is one development that you read about that you find encouraging and what further actions do you think need to be taken with regard to the water crisis?

In class, we spend some time discussing the homework articles in person and adding to our list of unanswered questions. Next, we revisit all the questions we’ve asked during this and previous discussions. I place students into groups of three, and assign each group one or two questions from our list to research and briefly report on to the class. This year I also plan to have students spend an additional class period doing some reading and having a discussion about water contamination in our local school district, as recent reports have shown dangerous lead levels in a large percentage of city school buildings.

Beyond the project

Figure 4. One of the author’s chemistry students with his presentation board for the community event.

Since this project spans so many topics and is revisited over the course of several months, I think it is crucial to have a culminating activity. Over the years, this activity has taken several forms, though in each case the primary goal has been to provide an educational experience for our larger community. I’ve found that focusing on community education helps students feel like they are taking action regarding a problem that they have come to care deeply about. Additionally, community education events provide an authentic audience for students, allowing them to showcase their expertise by engaging in conversation with peers, teachers, and parents.

In some previous years, we hosted community education events where parents and younger students were invited to learn more about the Flint water crisis. Student groups selected aspects of the issue and created presentation boards and hands-on activities for community members to engage with. Attendees moved from station to station and learned from our class experts about the science and the social justice implications of the water crisis.

During hybrid-learning, the class worked together to create a website detailing each aspect of the situation we studied. The website was then shared with our school community as an educational resource. Recently, students presented projects related to the Flint water crisis at our annual science night, giving families a chance to engage with students about issues of social justice and its intersections with the chemistry we study.

An expanding audience

While I have used this project mostly with Honors and non-Honors 10th grade chemistry classes, there are plenty of opportunities to expand the audience for this activity. At the AP level, for example, I’ve had students apply their understanding of oxidation-reduction and electrochemistry to corrosion and corrosion control. This approach has served as a nice extension for students who first encountered the issue in 10th grade, and are now armed with more sophisticated concepts they can bring to bear on the topic.

For lower grades, an age-appropriate exploration of the water crisis could be coupled with an exploration of concentration as it relates to ratios. During our culminating activity, I also invite students to explore topics that have not been directly covered in our study. In the past, students have researched and presented on such topics as the health effects of lead, lead paint regulations, and local water regulations. A particularly ambitious group of students even interviewed peers from local schools that had water contamination issues to learn about their experiences.


This project has provided me, in my role as a teacher, with an authentic “way in” for talking about issues of social justice in a way that directly relates to the concepts covered in a typical high school chemistry class.

In the past, I’ve felt like my attempts at exploring “real-world” problems were too separated from our daily lessons and curriculum. This project, in contrast, presents a situation that can be revisited over and over as we learn new concepts and skills, making it feel more connected to our curriculum. It also grounds our study of solution chemistry in an ongoing event that students may hear about in the news and come to care deeply about. Since the concepts covered are already included in most first-year chemistry courses, I was able to bring in social justice issues without sacrificing any of the core chemistry content I usually teach. This project serves as a model for incorporating social justice issues in a way that is intimately connected to the topics we already cover.

While this project has been an exciting opportunity for my students to engage with challenging issues in the context of science, perhaps the most rewarding aspect has been that it has helped some struggling students find relevance and meaning in chemistry. Each year we have done this project, at least one or two of my students who have struggled to fully engage with the class material suddenly find a new interest in the subject.

One particular example stands out for me. I had a student in my regular chemistry class who had a challenging relationship with school for much of her time in high school. She was frequently absent and failed to complete much homework. This project, however, tapped into a topic she cared deeply about. Suddenly, she was not only completing work, but she was reading beyond the required material and even taking a leadership role during class discussions. As a student passionate about social justice, she came to see how science can be used in service to her goal of helping others.

My experience and continued hope is that this project is an opportunity for students to find new kinds of relevance and meaning in chemistry.