When environmental scientists are asked why they are engaged in research, almost all will reply that they want to improve the quality of the world in which they live. Yet, doing the research, making discoveries and understanding natural processes gets one only half-way toward realizing this goal. To have a real impact, new science must be transferred into a lifestyle change or regulatory infrastructures that will implement it.
Environmental issues are central to the social fabric of Montana. Montana is a resource-rich state with a small population base. Historically, it has drawn on mining, forestry, agriculture and the tourist industry for its economic base. Too often, communities become polarized between families whose heritage has harvested timber, mined ore or grazed cattle and families who have moved to Montana to enjoy its scenic splendor. A further complication is added by the presence of Native American communities who have been displaced from their original homelands to established reservations. Environmental debates in Montana typically involve four voices– industry, environmental advocacy groups, regulatory officials and Native American tribes (who enjoy regulatory sovereignty with regard to environmental laws on their reservation lands).
The University of Montana (UM) Department of Chemistry is offering a research experience for undergraduates summer program that will train students to not only do environmental chemistry, but to become civically engaged. Participants will come to understand the ethical ramifications of their work and practical means of transferring their new understanding and discoveries into social action. A cohort of students, similar in composition to the science policy-making bodies found in Montana, will be trained to work as an undergraduate “science policy community”. This will be accomplished by having REU participants: (1) perform meaningful environmental chemistry research with UM faculty mentors; (2) attend and participate in a multi-day ethics and social action seminar program and (3) attend public hearings on environmental policies. The underlying themes of the seminar will be: 1) the responsible conduct of scientific research, 2) an appreciation of cultural diversity among issue stakeholders, and 3) the role of ethics in science policy debates. As a capstone experience, all REU participants will be required to make a final presentation of their research findings at a professional meeting at the regional or national level.
The research component of this REU proposal is directed toward environmental chemistry, a specific research emphasis that the UM Chemistry Department has built through faculty recruitment over the past 15 years. The department chose to develop environmental chemistry as an emphasis because the academic setting amidst a host of National Parks and Wilderness Areas naturally attracts students with a strong interest in the outdoors. It is literally about 100 yards from the door of the Chemistry building to a trail leading up Mt. Sentinel at the edge of campus. Students can view elk grazing on winter range from the University Center dining facility.