Sharing Superfund Data and Lessons with Quarantined Science Students

By Dr. Andrew Hawkey, Postdoctoral Researcher, Levin Lab

As news of the COVID-19 epidemic spread and governments responded, high school students across North Carolina had to adjust to peculiar and unprecedented situations for continuing their schoolwork. I felt a similar sense of chaos as I had to reimagine my detailed plans for the coming months, both for my research at Duke and in my role as an adjunct professor at nearby Elon University.

Dr. Andrew Hawkey teaching high schoolers from his living room

Around this same time, I reconnected with a teacher at the NC School of Science and Math (NCSSM). We had planned to implement a Superfund/environmental health-related lab activity for her AP Environmental Science classroom. With the students (and everyone, actually) at home, those plans were not possible, but we decided to try out a virtual lesson for the students. Using the e-conferencing application Zoom, I shared slides, stories, and lessons on environmental problems and research using the Elizabeth River Superfund site as an example. I also connected with the AP Environmental Science and AP Biology teachers at Durham School of the Arts (DSA) and made plans to serve as a guest speaker using the same format. Here are some of my reflections on the experience.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics

A reality of teaching broad, survey-style courses in science is that many topics need to be covered in a short period of time. That crunch often limits the level of depth and engagement students can get from the course. For that reason, students can often feel somewhat removed from the real-world issues they study. Case studies are great ways to address this problem, as they showcase how a multitude of causes, effects, problems and solutions all play out in a single location. A Superfund site like the Elizabeth River exemplifies an array of topics discussed in science classrooms, from environmental fate of chemicals, toxic algae blooms, and bacterial water contamination, to primary topics in animal physiology, development, genetics and ecology.

Some of the slides from Dr. Hawkey’s lesson

Through the presentation, the students saw how conditions and work in the field connect back to basic and applied research going on at the Duke Superfund Research Center. They saw examples of how researchers can use fish embryos to predict how different pollutants affect fish health and development. They heard the recent history of a river, which encapsulates the environmental fate of rural and urban runoff, heavy metals, creosote and PCBs. They heard about a fascinating experiment showing heart defects and behavioral changes in killifish exposed to an Elizabeth River Sediment Extract (ERSE), and surprising evidence of how certain populations of killifish have evolved to resist those problems. They saw examples of soil and wetland restoration projects and heard about our research efforts to use soil amendments and biofilms to immobilize and break down harmful contaminants. Finally, they heard updates on how water quality parameters and biodiversity have improved following these restoration activities. In the end, we discussed the need for continued work over the coming years and decades.

Even in this time of social distancing, there are opportunities for us all to help our communities. This includes our youngest engaged citizens, who can begin to understand the past mistakes and current realities that make environmental health work so important for the future of our region’s health, prosperity and biodiversity. I hope these lessons provide some useful applied reference material for the students while they prepare for their upcoming AP exams, as well as a growing understanding and appreciation for environmental health and toxicology in general.