ALAMEDA -- In teaching his urban environmental issues class at Saint Mary's College, chemistry professor Steve Bachofer wants his students to experience firsthand the link between knowledge and action, taking instruction out of the classroom into real-world issues.
Partnering with Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) has provided Bachofer's class with in-the-field experience to assess risk and make informed decisions on a personal and citywide basis.
The class is assisting the city of Alameda make a decision regarding land use on the Alameda Belt Line, a 22-acre abandoned railway property. APC has been hired to run a feasibility study on the suitability of using an acre plot as an urban farm to grow food for the food bank. Results from soil samples the students have screened for the presence of lead will be part of the study.
Targeting nonscience majors, Bachofer developed the class through his work with SENCER, Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities.
"SENCER works to have students see that their science education and knowledge can help them make better informed choices in their own community," Bachofer said. "Not only do they get the information but then they have the responsibility to convey it back through channels to the public."
The SENCER mission fits well with that of the APC and land use on the Alameda Belt Line. As its name implies, APC has worked mainly on Alameda Point, where it transformed vacant military barrack units into housing stock for the homeless and set up its own nursery and community garden.
"Steve Bachofer's focus has been on helping us look at the physical environment," said Doug Biggs, APC executive director. "He's brought students out here on a regular basis to do soil testing and present information on the environment."
APC was Alameda's choice for the feasibility study because of its experience with production farming. Because of the site's history as a railroad property, the presence of lead and creosote from railroad ties is fairly certain. The question that remains is how much and how widespread.
"We needed to find out what the soil was like and what would have to be done to make it safe for growing plants," Biggs said. "Any type of farming will most likely need to use raised beds. What the testing is really looking at is whether additional soil removal will be needed."
Following Environmental Protection Agency protocol to establish lead content, Bachofer's students set up a grid on the plot and used a field-portable X-ray fluorescence instrument (XRF) to take four measurements at each location. Bachofer also had students pull several soil cores to test subsurface samples.
"The XRF shoots a small beam of X-rays into the soil; they come back to the detector and give quantitative measurements of the amount of lead." Bachofer said. "That way we'll know if lead is prevalent or not and if it's only in certain areas."
Field work completed, Bachofer will put together a report for the APC combining his analysis with class lab reports.
"I've told my students that we've screened for lead but that in their conclusions they need to take into account other organics or industrial compounds that weren't screened for and that we have to be responsible about how we convey this information back to the community," he said.
Alameda Point Collaborative will use the results as part of their report, along with other research they are conducting regarding the needs of the food bank and the types of produce they would like to have available. "We'll turn our findings over to the Recreation and Park Department who are responsible for planning for the whole Belt Line property," Biggs said.
As the final step of the Urban Environmental Issues format, Bachofer encourages students to attend public meetings to learn how civic decisions are made and how important public input can be. Having nonscience majors participate in field work and engage in these issues helps pave the way for more informed solutions in the future.
"I think this class makes students more knowledgeable and makes them stop and realize they shouldn't take something for granted," Bachofer said. "When they see an issue that's important to them in their community they'll decide to go to a public meeting and voice their opinions."