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Overcoming Affective and Cognitive Chemistry Challenges in an Introductory Environmental Engineering Course Using a Flint Water Crisis Case Study

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Innovative Approaches to Improving Student Learning

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

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Paper Authors


Matthew James Scarborough University of Vermont Orcid 16x16

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Matthew Scarborough is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Vermont where he teaches courses related to water and wastewater treatment. Dr. Scarborough's research focuses on understanding and controlling microbiomes that protect the environment and public health. Matthew earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2019 where he also completed a certificate program in the integration of research, teaching, and learning.

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Katherine D. McMahon University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Katherine (Trina) McMahon is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department where she has taught introductory environmental engineering courses since 2003. She is the faculty co-director for the UW-Madison Delta Program whose mission is to prepare future faculty to be effective teachers. She was Dr. Scarborough's mentor for the Delta internship that spawned this paper. Trina co-chaired the Education Innovation Committee for the UW-Madison College of Engineering for two years. Her research interests include water quality, microbiology, and limnology.

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An understanding of chemistry is critical for many engineering disciplines. Students taking an introductory environmental engineering course at the University of Wisconsin- Madison (with a typical cohort of 100 undergraduate students) have historically struggled to overcome cognitive and affective challenges related to chemistry. Analysis of historical data confirmed that many students were not able to master certain key chemistry concepts during the course. To improve attitudes towards chemistry and student performance on chemistry problems, we implemented a week-long case study on the Flint Water Crisis. The case study included short on-line videos related to the history of Flint, MI, and the chemistry of lead in distribution systems. The unit also included two lectures: one covering the chemistry and another telling the story of the crisis that unfolded after the water source was switched in Flint. Students used classroom response systems, concept maps, and minute-papers to engage with the material during lectures. We dedicated a 2-hour problem solving session for students to answer quantitative questions designed to assess learning gains. Students also completed a writing assignment to describe the chemistry behind the Flint water crisis and to suggest ways for preventing another “Flint” from occurring.

Based on student assessments of their learning gains (SALG), 98% of students reported good or great gains in their understanding of the Flint Water Crisis. Additionally, 78% of students reported that their understanding of chemistry improved (a fair amount or a great deal) and 75% of students reported that their attitudes towards chemistry improved (a fair amount or a great deal) because of the Flint Water Crisis Case Study. Student writing assignments demonstrated that they met learning outcomes related to the Flint Water Crisis and 91% of students responded that the writing assignment was beneficial to their learning (a fair amount or a great deal). We also compared the performance of the cohort that included the Flint Water Crisis Case Study to a cohort that did not include the case study. On final exam questions, students who were taught the Flint Water Crisis performed significantly better on an acid-base chemistry problem (p < 0.05). While the change in mean performance on a redox chemistry question was not significantly different, the number of students who performed poorly on the question decreased. Students also identified the components of the case study that they found to be most beneficial. Based on these results, we propose several modifications for teaching the Flint Water Crisis to future cohorts.

This study demonstrates that high-impact case studies can improve learning outcomes for engineering students. In our study, both cognitive and affective learning outcomes improved for chemistry-related outcomes in an introductory environmental engineering course. Furthermore, this study demonstrates that including writing assignments with case studies can benefit student learning. Case studies may be especially beneficial for motivating students to engage with and learn material that could otherwise be deemed as unimportant for their chosen field of study.

Scarborough, M. J., & McMahon, K. D. (2020, June), Overcoming Affective and Cognitive Chemistry Challenges in an Introductory Environmental Engineering Course Using a Flint Water Crisis Case Study Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35024

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