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How does a community decide the location of a sewage treatment facility? Who’s consulted on the decision? Does it require draining a natural body of water and rezoning the property?
These types of questions future scientists and engineers should learn to ask, according to Learning for Justice and The Smithsonian Science Education Center.
Earlier this month, I attended “Justice in the Science Classroom,” a virtual presentation hosted by the two organizations. The interactive session emphasized connections between social justice and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, or “STEM.” (An “A” for “arts” could easily be added to the content, making it “STEAM.”)
Presenters focused on tools for environmental education and advocacy, outlining a transdisciplinary approach to complex problems. Much of the session was interactive, and we discussed how social justice impacts decision-making, socioeconomics and more.
Their overarching message is that environmental “social justice” is a broad topic with multiple intersections. It includes expected elements, such as responsible land stewardship, sustainability efforts and renewable resources. It also should address things like income, exclusion and access.
This sort of education extends beyond teachers and students. The principles discussed in the session impact all of us.
One example is the application of STEAM and social justice principles in our workplaces. Technology connects us in ways we hadn’t previously imagined. How can we use such tools to expand our available resources? How does technology allow us to optimize access and accountability?
The same could strengthen our communities.
A STEAM and social justice approach could create support for natural infrastructure solutions to flooding. According to the Iowa Environmental Council, flooding carries “hidden” financial and social costs.
Traditional flood control and prevention structures are expensive; require costly maintenance; and incur pricey damage with each new flood event. Take the 2019 flood damage: IEC estimates Iowa sustained $2 billion in damages to homes, businesses, roads and livelihoods.
Natural infrastructure mitigation tools are cheaper, because things like flood plain reconnection, levee setbacks and wetland restoration dramatically reduce severity of floods.
Because the majority of Iowa land is farms, agricultural runoff pollution is our biggest problem, according to IEC.
To combat the issue, IEC recommends educational campaigns, independent evaluation and regulation of water testing for nutrients.
Pollution comes from other contaminants, too.
Earlier this week, Central City made headlines when a well tested at 60 parts per trillion for polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); the federal health threshold of 70 parts per trillion.
On the surface, it shows the community’s drinking water is potentially contaminated. However, a closer look reveals deeper concerns about everything from overall water quality to traditional stewardship and land use.
The Conservation Law Foundation calls PFAS “forever chemicals,” because this group of several thousand human-made chemicals are used to stain- and/or waterproof things like food packaging, clothing, carpet and non-stick pans. PFAS are toxic, and they move through soil without degrading. Filtration can decrease but not completely eliminate the seepage of PFAS.
When viewed next to inadequate PFAS disposal regulation and reports of contamination in other parts of the United States, all Iowans should hear alarm bells.
Karris Golden is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com