F&ES Students Apply “Systems Thinking” To Flint Water Contamination Case
An F&ES course this semester tackled the Flint water crisis, allowing students to examine a crisis unfolding in real time, and to hear directly from community members.
By Timothy Brown
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
When it comes to environmental policy and regulation, science can be a toolkit and a roadmap for effective decision-making. But too often science is taught in a vacuum, isolated and disconnected from other social, political, and economic realities. That is changing thanks to courses like “Science to Solutions,” where students at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) have spent the fall semester studying the complex case of Flint, Mich., a city that has become the poster child for environmental injustice.
The city, where more than 40 percent of its mostly Black population live well below the poverty level, became a national story last year after lead was discovered in its drinking water.
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.
Zimmerman notes that despite the current regulations, a health-based standard would say no amount of lead is “safe.” “It’s not just science that comes into play,” she said.
In October 2015, Flint switched back to Detroit’s water system, which contains anti-corrosion chemicals, but the damage had been done. Today, those corroded pipes continue to leach lead, and Flint’s residents are still at risk for lead contamination, which impairs proper brain development in children leading to challenges in the education, social services, and healthcare systems. And despite the fact that the city is now required to provide bottled water and faucet filters to residents, education and access remain critical issues.
“It’s an incredibly compelling case; egregious,” Zimmerman said. “This is not just about contaminated drinking water. As environmental managers, everything you do is connected to all the other pieces of the system — the social, the economic. And in this case, those interactions and feedbacks were well-established.”
“I leave this class angry,” said Matt Moroney ’18 M.E.M., a first-year F&ESer who describes himself as a scientist by training and humanist by nature. “I think it’s intolerable that in the 21st century people are drinking contaminated water and then being lied to by their government.”
The course was divided into three broad sections. First, students learned about the theoretical approach of systems thinking and were introduced to the Flint case. After preparing briefing papers on various aspects of the case, students then used data visualization techniques to analyze the complex system. These visualizations helped students conceptualize the relationships between different — and often disparate — parts of the system, Anastas said. The course concludes with students drafting formal recommendations to ensure there are “no more Flints” in the future. There is even a possibility that these recommendations will be shared with the Flint community at a summit in March.
Zimmerman and Anastas also hosted nearly a dozen guest speakers, including Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor credited with bringing the case to light; Lori Mathieu, Connecticut’s Public Drinking Water Administrator; David Paulson, Senior Associate Director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism; and Amity Doolittle, F&ES senior lecturer and research scientist and an expert in environmental justice.
But students — as well as the professors — say it was hearing directly from the community members themselves, including Flint mayor Karen Weaver, that made the biggest impact.
“That’s something we struggle a lot with here at F&ES. We have so much knowledge, but too often we don’t have access to the people who are living this,” said Jessica Leung ’17 M.E.M., one of the two teaching fellows for the class.
“This experience is reminding me, you need to talk to people. You need to not be so siloed and just doing academic research,” she said. “Whenever possible, you should just talk to people and get their voices because these people are dying to be heard.”
“Personally, it’s been a learning process,” Zimmerman said. “Hearing these stories firsthand and interacting with these people has been an emotional journey.”
Ana Lambert ’17 M.E.M., also a teaching fellow for the course, says the class addressed topics related to water chemistry, but that was not the main focus. A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, with a background in engineering, Lambert says she is now thinking about solutions that better incorporate people into the political process.
“The way I was taught science as an undergraduate gives a false idea about how science works. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s so much more to it,” she said. “The science isn’t the main solution. It’s about the community and talking to each other and seeing what can be done.”
Both Anastas and Zimmerman served in the EPA and bring a wealth of practical experience to their teaching. And they insist that as awful as the Flint case is, it’s far from unique.
“Flint is visceral, tragic, complex, iconic — and it’s a compelling case for teaching,” said Anastas. “But this is not just about Flint; it’s about every wicked problem that we have in sustainability.”
The course is part of a growing trend at F&ES to use case studies to enhance student learning.
“This class gave participating students an amazing opportunity to do a deep dive into the many perspectives and challenges of Flint,” said Minna Brown ’15 M.E.M., Case Study Integration Manager at F&ES. “We want to make sure to spread these lessons throughout the curriculum by building out a robust, modular, online case study.”
It’s also hugely emotional.
“There are days when we’ve just gone into the class and put the desks in a circle and just talked about where [the students] are and what they heard from the speaker and what they’re thinking now,” Zimmerman said.
Both professors agree while they’ve taught great students and great classes over the years, the Flint class has been the highlight of their teaching careers.
“When you know [students] are going to come out of the class thinking profoundly differently — thinking, perceiving, feeling profoundly differently; being able to step out of the normal confines of the way we traditionally teach them — that is so rewarding,” Anastas said.
And these students are poised to use their education to make a difference in the world.
“Coming to graduate school, that’s always been my thesis,” Leung said. “I need to use this power that I have with this institution to help people that don’t have that at all.”