Not Your Average Chemistry Lab

By Mike McAlpin
Photography by Allyson Wiley '02

Urban environmental issues class studies at former military base...

Steve Bachofer works with students. The class used the former Alameda Naval Air Station as a lab.

Samantha Levine '09 says she was never afraid of taking science courses, but she admits she didn't rush to sign up for them either.

In spring 2007, when the then-20-year-old signed up for chemistry professor Steve Bachofer's "Urban Environmental Issues" class, she did it to satisfy a science requirement. She didn't expect to get turned on to chemistry.

"Chemistry is about how to fit equations into real-life situations, and I've never been able to do that, but Bachofer had us in the field, using the equations," Levine says. "He's so excited about science that even someone who really doesn't like science could get excited too. He gives you hope that even you could learn it."

Levine is among more than 40 students who have taken the "Urban Environmental Issues" course that Bachofer began six years ago. Unlike other chemistry classes, it's a collaborative educational offering that has been linked with courses in liberal and civic studies and sociology. Students worked in an unlikely location — a Superfund site at the old Alameda Naval Air Station.

Superfund sites are designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as highly contaminated areas that present health risks either to humans or all sorts of organisms in an ecosystem, including plants, small rodents, fish and invertebrates.

The EPA says the naval air station's Superfund site covers 1,600 acres of dry land and 1,000 acres of submerged land on the island of Alameda. The base was one of approximately 100 domestic military installations closed by the federal government in the 1980s and '90s; the Alameda station was closed in 1997 after nearly 60 years of providing support for naval aviation activities that began shortly before World War II.

Two years after the base was shuttered, the EPA added the location to its inventory of Superfund hazardous waste sites. Contamination ranges from remnants of spilled jet fuel, radioactive waste from radium paints used to illuminate aircraft dials and a host of other chemical threats, including carcinogens such as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.

Combining Interests

X-ray flourescense gun.

Bachofer's long-standing concern about environmental issues sparked his interest in the Alameda site. The lanky scientist grew up in the Southern California city of Ventura, and his childhood included camping that fostered his appreciation for the environment. He had an early interest in science, which partly stemmed from his fascination with NASA and his father's work as a mechanical hydraulics engineer in the aerospace industry.

"I grew up in the era when science was pretty cool, because we were going to the moon," he says. "And being a boy scout at about that time, we had started thinking about taking care of the planet."

So Bachofer witnessed with great interest the series of base closures that occurred across California and, in particular, in the Bay Area, and he devised a class for students at Saint Mary's around the phenomenon.

"I started teaching a couple of Jan Term classes to explore the economic consequences of the loss of more than 17,000 defense industry jobs in Alameda alone," Bachofer recalls.

Those classes led to a course examining how former military bases — especially those with significant contamination — could be redeveloped for civilian use. He collaborated with sociology professor Phylis Martinelli.

"One of the conflicts that Steve became aware of was ‘how clean is clean on a Superfund site?' " Martinelli notes.

In 2003, Bachofer and Martinelli formed an urban environmental issues course called "Renewable Environments: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods." The class linked chemistry and urban sociology and used the Alameda site as Saint Mary's first out-of-the-classroom learning community — a term used in higher education for linked courses.

"I think his idea was to have all the students, whether they are science majors or not, think about science in a different way," Martinelli says. "So those who were science majors were encouraged to see the bigger picture of — not science in the lab — but science affecting the community and science as bringing about positive social change.

"Those who weren't science majors would understand the responsibility of scientists to people living in communities that might be toxic, what they can do about it and how to determine which chemicals are safe and which chemicals are not."

Concerns Over Lead

Students set up and perform air testing of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide.

Bachofer uses the example of lead-based paint, which "came up because we started to interact with folks at Alameda, and they were talking about homeless service providers being allowed onto the site."

Federal law requires that parts of closed military bases should be considered for housing the homeless. But since the barracks and officers quarters on the naval base were constructed during World War II and throughout the early 1960s, most of the housing stock had had lead-based paints that have proven dangerous to young children.

"Ingestion of lead during one's early years can have a whole host of detrimental effects, including neurological damage. If you go to high enough concentrations of lead, there are acute toxicity effects. It can kill you," Bachofer points out.

If, however, the housing properties were cleaned and completely covered with paint that is not lead-based paint, it is considered safe for occupancy if it remains in good condition. This was done by the Alameda Point Collaborative — the homeless service provider that moved onto the base.

Even so, Bachofer was surprised at the initial outrage the paint issue generated from some students, which he says was mostly driven by chemical phobias.

"They thought it was morally wrong to put the homeless in a house that had lead-based paint in it," Bachofer recalls. "So there was an interesting dialogue with students of, ‘Isn't it better that we bring people in off the street?' And yet students were so afraid of just the thought of lead."

It was the first of many teachable moments for the learning community.

Interdisciplinary Techniques

The class of about a dozen students determined what was safe and what wasn't by screening for lead levels in soil around the Alameda Point Collaborative, which provides 200 housing units and job-training programs and health services. It also operates a community garden with raised planted beds and a commercial nursery.

Bachofer outlines how he had students sample for lead content: "You clear a selected sampling location, which is 100 centimeters by 100 centimeters, make a nearly flat surface soil, and then literally you can do the analysis with an X-ray fluorescence gun. You point it down on the soil and actually X-ray it." The resulting analysis reveals lead levels in the soil.

During the course, students covered concepts in toxicology and environmental risk assessments and performed soil and air chemistry analysis.

From a sociological lens, they also chronicled environmental risks within social and economic contexts on the East Bay community's diverse populations and explored the long-term redevelopment plan of the Superfund site and the possible consequences and benefits for the area.

A Vital Contribution

Douglas Biggs, the collaborative's executive director, says Bachofer's class made important contributions to the community at the former naval base.

"It has provided us with valuable data and information that corroborated our findings that the raised gardens around the housing units were safe and the area was acceptable for our residents and an excellent use of the property," he says.

Biggs also notes other benefits from the SMC learning community.

"We have 280 formerly homeless children living here and some of them got to interact with college kids, and that is a wonderful thing too, because role models are important."

Martinelli says the course helped to make chemistry readily accessible for her social science majors.

"On a practical level, field testing is something you may have to do," she says. "If you were to go into urban planning as a career, you don't know when you might have to review reports about soil samples and determine if it's feasible for a developer who wants to come in and develop a marshy area of your city."

Samantha Levine agrees. She says after field work in Bachofer's class, she was less intimidated by the hard sciences.

"I strongly regret that high school made me really science-phobic and that I was scared of maybe taking that leap in college," she says. "I found out how much interest I had in science once I took Bachofer's course. And it made me wonder if maybe I should have been a med student if I'm this interested."

A Model Course

Levine's reaction is what members of the national science education organization SENCER hope to duplicate in other students through similar course offerings. Short for Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, SENCER focuses on improving undergraduate science, technology,

engineering and mathematics education by connecting students' learning experiences to critical civic concerns.

In April 2008, Bachofer participated in a poster presentation at a SENCER symposium on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., showcasing the civic engagement by his SMC students through their course work in evaluating the environmental risks associated with redeveloping the Alameda Superfund site.

At that time, SENCER announced it was launching five nationwide Centers for Innovation designed to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Bachofer was named co-director of the western regional center.

"His class at the former Alameda Naval Air Station was selected as a model course for SENCER," says David Burns, who leads the organization. "He's also just a terrific guy, very modest, creative and effective. He's a good collaborator and has been very helpful with other professors, providing insight on how to adopt similar civic engagement-related courses in their science curriculum."

Burns says SENCER's basic premise is teaching science by addressing everyday problems, and, "Steve's course dealing with environmental concerns facing the Alameda Point community illustrates that perfectly."

While Bachofer doesn't have an "Urban Environmental Issues" course this academic year, he plans to return to the former naval base in the future to continue fostering interest in science with similar out-of-the-classroom experiences.

"This does play a significant role in making science more approachable because it invites students to contemplate ‘maybe this is something that I really am interested in.' They do see that it really does have relevance."