April 15, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 14

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    [david archer & jon abbatt] by jason smith
    David Archer, Associate Professor in Geophysical Sciences (left to right), and Jon Abbatt, Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences, work with third-year Noel Heim in the lab designed for a new Environmental Chemistry course. The lab is equipped with state-of-the-art instruments for measuring pesticides and other pollutants.

    Newest course in chemistry will expand environmental education

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Students enrolled in the University’s new Environmental Chemistry course are learning that the residue of pollution is as near at hand as the hair on their heads, the apples in their shopping bags or the soil beneath their feet.

    From concentrations of lead in paint to traces of pesticides on fresh fruit, students are measuring the pollutants themselves with the type of advanced instruments used by the Environmental Protection Agency and other scientific labs.

    “Other universities have analytical chemistry courses where students do instrumental analysis. This teaching laboratory is unusual in that it is dedicated to environmental science,” said Jonathan Abbatt, Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences. “I haven’t heard of anything else like it.”

    The course, offered for the first time this Spring Quarter, focuses on the science underlying the formation and fate of chemicals in the Chicagoland environment. Designed for science majors and others with an interest beyond general education, the course is cross-listed in the Chemistry Department.

    The new course is part of an effort to expand environmental education at Chicago, said Theodore Steck, Chairman of the Environmental Studies Program. The University has initiated a six-course, two-year sequence in environmental science, effective next Fall Quarter, that will fulfill Common Core requirements for nonscience majors.

    “We think that environmental education should contribute to everybody’s world-view,” said Steck. “The sequence is designed to reach students who aren’t science majors and who might not otherwise particularly have the opportunity to educate themselves in environmental affairs.”

    Coteaching Environmental Chemistry with Abbatt, an atmospheric chemist, is David Archer, an Associate Professor in Geophysical Sciences who specializes in chemical oceanography.

    Archer already teaches another course––on global warming with Geophysical Sciences Professor Ray Pierrehumbert––that will become part of the environmental science Core sequence. Next Fall Quarter, Abbatt and John Frederick, Professor in Geophysical Sciences, will add yet another course to the sequence, Atmospheric Chemistry and Air Quality.

    The other three courses in the sequence consist of The Biosphere, Organisms and Ecosystems in the Environment; Analysis of Environmental Data; and Environmental Policy.

    The sequence will offer a rigorous series of courses accessible to all students, regardless of their majors, Steck said. In the lab section of Environmental Chemistry, for example, students will learn how to use an impressive array of instruments.

    They will measure pesticides and other pollutants with a new, $60,000 gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. The gas chromatograph separates all the individual chemicals in a sample, while the mass spectrometer breaks them down into fragments, identifies their chemical natures and measures their concentrations. With measurements in hand, students can then compare their results against a software library that contains data on 10,000 compounds.

    One exercise with the instrument will involve testing organically grown fruit against fruit grown with pesticides. “Does it really matter if you wash it? I’ve always wondered about that,” Archer said.

    With a $37,000 atomic absorption spectrometer, students are analyzing materials for heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium. Tiny amounts of lead actually accumulate in human hair. Some of the Environmental Chemistry students are seeing this for themselves in the lab, while others are measuring lead in paint.

    To evaluate water quality, students will use a $6,000 ultraviolet visible spectrophotometer and an ion chromatograph from Abbatt’s research lab. With these instruments, students can asses whether it is worth buying bottled water and can study what pollutants contribute to the acidity of rain and snow in Chicago.

    Abbatt and Steck said they expect the lab to eventually serve a wide variety of students in addition to those enrolled in Environmental Chemistry. They could range from undergraduates working on relevant senior thesis research to graduate students in the new master’s degree program in Environmental Science and Policy jointly offered by the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and the Physical Sciences Division. An epidemiologist at the Pritzker School of Medicine has even expressed interest in incorporating the lab into an undergraduate course on environmental health, Steck said.

    Most of the funding for the $185,000 environmental chemistry teaching laboratory came from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The institute provided $160,000 for equipment as part of a broader $1.8 million educational innovation grant to the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division. The University kicked in $25,000 to renovate the space from research into a teaching lab.

    “These really are nice, state-of-the-art instruments,” Abbatt said.