The F&ES course, team-taught by professors Julie Zimmerman and Paul Anastas, trained as an engineer and chemist, respectively, is designed to challenge graduate students to apply scientific principles to real-world situations using a drinking water supply case study. Zimmerman, Professor of Green Engineering and the Deputy Director at the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale, created and for years has co-taught the Science to Solutions course. In previous years, the course has dealt with “closed” cases, giving students the benefit of hindsight as they define what they see as the problem and offer possible solutions. But this year’s course is unique — and in many ways more challenging — because the Flint case is still open and ongoing. And there are many more uncertainties about how to solve what is commonly described in the class as “wicked problems” — those that have no easy, or obvious, solutions.
It also featured nearly a dozen experts—as well as Flint residents—whose perspectives illustrated the complexity of addressing such a multi-layered challenge.
The class is rooted in systems thinking, an approach to problem-solving that explicitly examines interactions between various components of a system. In contrast to traditional scientific methods that reduce a system into smaller and smaller parts, systems thinking proceeds by identifying and investigating an ever-increasing number of interactions between the system parts. For example, in the case of Flint, a traditional approach might situate the problem as solely one of water contamination, and outline specific chemical or technical solutions. In contrast, a systems approach expands the investigation to include not just scientific, but also technological, regulatory, political, economic, and environmental aspects. It considers the role of the media; it examines issues of equity and justice. And critically, it often leads to very different conclusions from those generated through more traditional methods.
Anastas, the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry of the Environment and Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale, compares a lack of systems thinking approaches to the whack-a-mole game where every solution highlights — or causes — another problem. It is difficult to do systems thinking, he says, because students are often taught reductionist thinking.
“At the beginning of the semester, the students were saying, ‘We need to replace the pipes,’” he said. “And last week, they were saying, ‘It’s not just about the pipes.’”
The case of lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water has been widely reported and, on the surface, the case appears relatively straightforward: improperly treated water from the Flint River corroded outdated pipes resulting in elevated levels of lead contamination. The solution? Simply improve the drinking water infrastructure systems. But for the cash-strapped city, still reeling from the closing of several General Motors plants and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, that’s not as simple as it might sound.
In 2014, in an effort to cut costs, the city switched from Detroit’s water system — which uses water from Lake Huron — to the Flint River. That summer, fecal coliform bacteria began to appear in the city’s water. Officials moved to treat the contaminated water by pumping extra chlorine into the system. But chlorine, which is highly corrosive, began to leach lead from the water distribution pipes. Children began to show symptoms of lead poisoning and citizens began to complain. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires corrosion control for water pipes when lead concentrations reach 15 parts per billion; in some areas of Flint, water tests revealed lead concentrations more than twice that amount.