Colleges and universities can be great partners for community scientists looking to test their environment for any toxin or contamination.
These partnerships could take different forms with different levels of sophistication:
- The relationship could be free or require some money.
- Sample collecting may be entirely up to the community, with the college only providing testing and analysis. Or the college / university may want to be more heavily involved by providing training and/or bottles to help ensure proper samples are collected properly.
- The college / university may offer to do the collecting themselves. Sometimes students, particularly those at the graduate or post-doc level, can incorporate this community engagement into their thesis work. (This is not too common but is possible.)
- College and Universities are sometimes looking for ways to partner with High Schools, after-school programs, and other organizations that work with youth and are wanting to incorporate environmental testing into their curriculum.
These partnerships may be particularly useful for the testing of certain contaminants. Let's take, as an example: Lead.
The equipment required to test water, paint, soil, or anything else for lead can be expensive and require a level of professional training in order to operate.
If we take the lead example: ICP-MS machines needed for testing water run over $100,000 and require a fairly rigorous study to learn how to operate and analyze the results. (The P in ICP-MS stands for Plasma, so... yeah that's advanced stuff there.) Analyzing surfaces including paint, soil, and toys, could utilize a handheld XRF analyzer which can run over $20,000 new or ~7,000 used, considerably less than the ICP-MS machines but still way above the price point that a typical person can pay. At the same time, there exist very few, if any, low-cost options that are sufficiently reliable to trust . (See this research note for a list of methods for lead testing and monitoring.)
This is where the partnership opportunity presents itself:
Local colleges and universities have these machines! They are common lab instruments used within chemistry, environmental sciences, and other departments on campus. Professors, of course, use these, but also students in advanced undergraduate courses, doing graduate-level work, and those working on their post-doc are trained to use these machines and incorporate them into their research.
An Example: SFSU-Oakland HS partnership for the screening of lead
San Francisco State University (SFSU) cultivated a partnership with a High School in east Oakland, CA. An AP Science teacher at the High School had her students gather samples from their environment (the school, their homes, playgrounds, etc); they then took a field trip to SFSU where graduate students analyzed these samples.
This, to me, is a really beautiful model, but it's not a common one. This one happened thanks to a few non-typical factors:
- Supportive leadership and culture. SFSU is a university that promotes engagement with its community. The student body tends to be more local. The leadership of the Chemistry Department and an entity called the Health Equity Institute housed within SFSU support, encourage, and actively pursue this type of community-based work. (This is different from most colleges and universities that tend to stay on campus and keep "learning" to a merely cerebral activity.)
- Individuals taking bold steps. The particular individuals that made this all happen did so not because they were directed to by anyone or any funded project, but because they felt it was important. It required extra work to make happen. Fortuitous relationships. The professional relationship with the AP Science teacher happened to already exist from personal connections. (This highlights the importance of having and cultivating relationships across communities.)
- Aligning funding streams. Part of the funding for this work comes from a the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Initiative. SFSU was one of 10 institutions funded by NIH BUILD in it's first round. With that said, this particular lead-analysis partnership was not -- at least initially -- directly funded; it was a passion-project for those involved. The SFSU team is currently working to solidify additional funds that would allow this effort to be institutionalized and allowed to grow.
Importantly, the SFSU team is quick to state that their model and the initial engagement with the Oakland High School was not "perfect". Many of the samples collected by the high school students had some issues with them (there are particular methods that even professionals get wrong sometimes). And because they did sample collection in the Spring, the high school students were on summer break and so didn't get the results.
Still, that first pilot of the idea demonstrated significant value:
It was a learning opportunity for all involved. Most "learning" occurs through theoretical data on theoretical problems affecting theoretical people. But science in the real world is messy! This was real learning where not just knowledge but wisdom is cultivated.
The results -- which included findings of lead contamination -- provided a starting place for additional research activities: The positive results served as hotspots around which further environmental testing could be done by the graduate students and potentially future students.
The effort also generated a number of local news stories. This story gave STEM important attention. It validated to the students the importance of the work. It informed the community of lead as an issue. And fed more broadly into an important public health and environmental justice conversation already locally occurring. (Local news loves these kinds of stories. This can be an effective media strategy to bring attention to a topic.)
It's a passion project held together by the will and resolve of the individuals involved. But In the coming months they hope to bring in more funding, strengthen their relationships with local high schools, and just generally build on their past work to further institutionalize the work.
But this example illustrates a model of what's possible when different parts of a community do the hard work of working together.
Concluding thoughts + What can you do?
This post highlights the opportunities that partnerships between colleges / universities and community scientists / local organizations can offer.
If you're in the community: Find a local college or university and reach out to their chemistry department. If needed, just email or call a professor out of they blue and see what happens. You might be surprised! Recognize that they have a way of doing things and that this may be new, they may not have worked with a local organization before. But see if they'd be up for trying out a one-time partnership.
If you're within a college or university: Cultivate conversations with local organizations that may be interested in partnering. To implement this work, hire from within the communities you want to work with (that makes the relationship building much easier). Be open to challenging the more traditional, cleaner didactic model for this messier real-world experience.
If you're a funder: Respond this post! (Or email Read at read [at ] publiclab [dot ] org). We're currently seeking funders who want to further test this model of community engagement, experiential learning, and environmental science in a handful of communities across the country.
If you're reading this and have any related stories to share, do post them below. Thanks!