Science and Society at Emma Willard School

Kaitlin Resler
As we grapple with the consequences of climate change, students at Emma Willard School are taking advantage of classes that ask questions like: “If access to clean water is a basic human need, why are all people not given this right?” Several offerings this fall examine the intersection of our environment and human choice, including a new course called Science and Society: Water Quality and Climate Change. 

The class finds its origins in science instructor Megan Labbate’s previous work at a school in Detroit studying water quality on Belle Isle (often called ‘the central park of Detroit,’ the surrounding Detroit River is open transportation that can affect the ecology of the water). That lens came with her to Emma Willard School, where she continued water quality research around the time the Flint, MI water crisis brought conversations of water quality to the forefront of national news, where an interest from students in environmentalism was burgeoning. Science Instructor Jon Calos launched an environmental science class and as plans for Fall 2020 began to form, other departments took on adjacent topics (History Department Chair Katie Holt is offering an Environmental Justice class as well). 

As the school started moving beyond AP classes, it became apparent that a class like Science and Society would fit into this new curriculum. Without the pressure of AP courses limiting what students felt they needed to have on their transcript, “they are starting to see that they can...have a rigorous experience but also dive into something that they're interested in or have constantly wondered about.” The intersection of student interest, academic shifts, and a personal passion for Labbate makes now the perfect moment for a class like this one.

“It’s something I’m passionate about, and I think when you get to
teach something you’re passionate about it changes the way a class runs,” she says, recognizing that while the current COVID-19 pandemic has made the inaugural class small (5-6 students), it’s a good place to start building. 

The class will feature varied methods of study: there will be a lab component, during which students will learn the techniques needed to measure and evaluate water quality alongside more discussion-based advocacy work and analyzing case studies. The main texts chosen for the class (Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink by Seth Siegel, and The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, by Jeff Goodell) serve as a guide for the two central themes while allowing students to explore areas that won’t be covered in the class (the problem of plastics and pharmaceuticals in water, for example) if they want to keep reading. 

Investigations into climate change will look at how sea-level rise affects human life: “What happens when your whole home disappears? What does that mean to your culture? What does that mean to having a feeling of home when the place you grew up is gone?” 

The class serves as an attempt to answer these big questions, while recognizing that there aren’t any clear answers to our current crises:

  • In what ways have humans impacted the quality of drinking water? How does this affect humans in return?
  • As the world’s climate changes, what impact does this have on water quality?
  • How does sea level rise affect human life?
  • Why do issues surrounding water quality disproportionately affect BIPOC and low-income communities?
And while these are questions the larger scientific and social justice communities are asking, it’s clear that at Emma Willard School, the students are helping to shape the conversation. 
“They care a lot about their communities, about the big issues that affect their lives directly, and I think climate change is one that is constantly on their minds,” says Labbate. Portions of the class will spend time looking at how the local Capital Region is not exempt from these issues. Hoosick Falls features as one of the case studies the class will be investigating, and Labbate is working to bring a panel of people who were involved in advocating for the area together (virtually) to speak to the students. At-home lab kits will also allow students to test the water near their own homes. 
“Being the faculty advisor to Emma Green, seeing what their class did with their Revels, and being one of the people who orchestrated going to the climate strike—I mean we started with three of us driving a few vans, and then was like: I need a bus! Oh I need TWO BUSSES! And it was huge! It was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had at Emma Willard School and to see [the Class of 2020’s] Revels be about climate change was a moment of: yes.”
By focusing on what matters most in learning—relevance, enduring understanding, and multidisciplinary connection—teachers and students are finding ways to meet the challenges of our time.
    • Members of Emma Green in Fall 2019.

    • Environmental Science class works on a project with apples from campus in Fall 2019.

    • Emma Willard School students at the Youth Climate Strike in March 2019.

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