Making Science Accessible to Environmental Advocates

By Ethan Contini-Field, M.Ed.
Martha Merson, M.S.

Tennie White of the Coalition of Communities for Environmental Justice shows Hattiesburg residents bottles of contaminated groundwater in October 2011. Image Credit: Martha Merson.

Tennie White of the Coalition of Communities for Environmental Justice shows Hattiesburg residents bottles of contaminated groundwater in October 2011. Image Credit: Martha Merson.

It seems obvious that environmental organizers who assist local groups in environmental advocacy would want to rely on science and scientists to help increase awareness of threats to environmental and community health. However, due to often dry and dense presentation of scientific facts, many environmental organizers are wary of doing so. Some deliberately avoid a scientific angle and pursue opinion-driven, political stances instead. Scientists who sympathize with a community’s cause may be mystified about why organizers and local residents rely on inflammatory rhetoric, instead of data and sound science, to support their arguments. A good first step toward public environmental awareness is for scientists to be aware of the differences between their motivations and learning styles, and those of their audience.

A scientist wants to see a lot of data, to show the evidence overwhelmingly leads to one interpretation. However, for non-scientists, an overwhelming amount of data is just that – overwhelming. They don’t see the advantage for their campaign, either: A summary of 20 peer-reviewed journal articles won’t fit on the flyer they’ll hand out in the grocery store parking lot. A hundred tables of environmental test results won’t help them know what to do with the 20 seconds they get in front of a local TV news camera.

The Statistics for Action (SfA) project at TERC provides new opportunities for engaging the community with science. TERC is a not-for-profit educational research organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specializing in math and science learning. Grounded in educational research, SfA partners with environmental advocacy organizations to bridge the gap between the worlds of science, advocacy, and education. SfA has designed practices, materials, and resources to make data and science more accessible and relevant to communities concerned about their local environment.

Below are two stories illustrating SfA’s approach. We’ll look at the obstacles each community faced, opportunities for deeper understanding, and tips anyone can use for providing this kind of engagement in their own community.

Toxic Sites in Hattiesburg, Mississippi: It’s a waste of time. We’ll never understand it.

Hattiesburg resident Sherri Jones was frustrated after yet another meeting in September 2011, in which U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff presented the results of groundwater tests. One of the many industrial sites in town is contaminated with hazardous by-products of a former creosote producer. The state is monitoring the contamination, hoping levels will go down with time.

“You just wasted all these people’s time, because they didn’t get a thing from what you just said,” Jones complained.

The EPA meeting involved long, technical PowerPoint presentations with endless data and lengthy handouts. But residents often aren’t practiced at reading long documents. Sitting quietly in the dark for an hour-long slideshow doesn’t help them understand the data any better. Presenters often rush through presentations to cover the data comprehensively, and don’t leave time for people to ask questions, or explore a particular issue more deeply.

One of the most serious contaminants in Hattiesburg is toluene. The state standard for toluene is 1,000 micrograms per liter (µg/L). A state investigation of groundwater near the Hercules Inc. chemical manufacturing plant in Hattiesburg showed toluene levels in some monitoring wells in the 3,000-4,000 µg/L range – three or four times the standard.

The Hercules Inc. chemical plant in Hattiesburg. Image Credit: Martha Merson.

The Hercules Inc. chemical plant in Hattiesburg. Image Credit: Martha Merson.

In October 2011, Statistics for Action Principal Investigator Martha Merson attended a community meeting in Hattiesburg. She put up a single sheet of paper on the wall with the Hercules toluene data, just a few numbers. She asked participants to look at the data, to see what they noticed. A few participants could calculate that the toluene levels were three times the remediation goal. Merson then asked participants how they might say or show the idea of “three times the goal” in another way. She modeled by drawing one drop of toluene to represent the standard, and three drops to represent what was found in the monitoring well. Hattiesburg residents drew their own graphs and representations. Then they showed each other what they’d done, and asked each other questions about it.

Workshop participant Marie Hibbler was shocked. It felt to her like the information about contamination had been kept hidden from residents. Even though it had been publicly available, its complicated format had made it inaccessible to community understanding and gave her the same feelings as if it had been deliberately hidden.

“Some of the information is what we’re just now receiving,” Hibbler said. “This information has been out for years, but we did not know this information. I know I’m one that did not know the information.”

In the months after the activity, environmental organizer Tennie White continued working with the Hattiesburg group, through the Forrest County Environmental Support Team, as they learned more about local environmental problems. Hibbler attended these meetings and began speaking out about what she had learned:

“I have spoken out about […] [this] information we should have known about. […] I share [this information] with my neighborhood association, my family and friends as well as my church group because they need to be aware of what is going on in the city of Hattiesburg.”

Advocating for Site Remediation, Boston, Massachusetts: “Science is not always your friend!”

“Science is not always your friend!” That’s how then-organizer Sylvia Broude started a conversation about using science and math in her environmental organizing work at Toxics Action Center. When first meeting with the Statistics for Action project team in January 2009, she explained:

“Cleanup is expensive, and political pressures are high to find temporary, inadequate solutions. Politics can affect what levels are defined as ‘safe,’ what cleanup solutions are safe, the timeframe for emissions, what is actually tested and where the sample is taken, and who pays the scientist doing the research. It’s especially hard when the violation is not egregious, because it opens you to claims that there’s no causative relationship between the pollution and the health effects.”

Toxics Action Center organizer Taryn Hallweaver reviews environmental testing data.  Image Credit: Ethan Contini-Field.

Toxics Action Center organizer Taryn Hallweaver reviews environmental testing data. Image Credit: Ethan Contini-Field.

After being burned several times by just such political pressures, Toxics Action Center staff were hesitant to advise environmentally-impacted communities to rely on math or science as their strategy. Broude was worried that “those sorts of fact and figures – we don’t really want to tell those in our story, people don’t understand them, we don’t have the tools to understand them. I rely on experts to come up with the relevant facts we need to get our message across.”

However, attitudes shifted when organizers and groups saw it wasn’t an all-or-nothing situation. SfA showed them how expert advice is still important for the big picture, but organizers and community members also can find compelling, representative facts that align well with their campaign, without needing to incorporate every detail.

Toxics Action Center Organizer Taryn Hallweaver describes a similar experience using SfA materials with a group from Billerica, Massachusetts:

“I had taken two data sets from their documents. […] The task was to decide together: What’s the most compelling fact to focus our message on? Everyone was talking, comparing notes. The group narrowed [data] down to contaminants that were around 30 times the [state standard].

“Then they narrowed the focus to chemicals people know are bad: PCBs, lead, arsenic, and benzene… they really succeeded in pulling out the key facts from a huge stack of data.”

A group member summarized the next step: “Take the example of lead. Find out how many gallons of lead paint would contain this amount. Would it be enough to paint every house in Billerica? Or figure out how much [vehicle engine] idling this amount of benzene represents. Is it like 30 dump trucks idling in your neighborhood for 10 years? Figure it out!”

Lessons Learned

In all these communities, reviewing scientific data was initially seen as a distraction, but eventually became an integral part of their advocacy. What helped people make that transition?

• Instead of acting as presenter, analyzing everything in advance and deciding alone what was most important, the professional leading the activity acted as a facilitator, providing a structured activity for the group to explore the data on their own. The facilitator was willing to learn and explore with the group, trusting the group’s interests and priorities, and helping verify conclusions at the end. Instead of being a “sage on the stage,” the facilitator was a “guide on the side.”
• The facilitator allowed the task to be framed by the community’s priorities (understanding a few key facts to communicate to decision-makers and the public) instead of a scientist’s priorities (a comprehensive, air-tight understanding).
• Instead of deluging participants with data, the facilitator focused on a few numbers and proportions, and allowed participants to find and decide on their own which facts were most striking and compelling.
• The facilitator modeled different ways of showing those facts and then encouraged participants to come up with their own representations – graphically, physically, verbally – in a way that made sense to them, using analogies to familiar ideas, objects, and places. Then participants had the chance to share their representations with others, and answer questions about them.

These strategies are not unique to these communities. Environmental professionals and advocates can use them in many situations. Doing so not only increases the likelihood that communities will engage with the science instead of ignoring it; it can increase the depth of their understanding of the data, and their sense of agency in the process.

Ethan Contini-Field, M.Ed. is a researcher and curriculum developer with the Statistics for Action project at TERC. Ethan has done the primary field research with SfA partner organizations like the Toxics Action Center, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, and Coalition of Communities for Environmental Justice. Statistics for Action is funded by the National Science Foundation (grant DRL-0812954).

Martha Merson, M.Sc. is principal investigator of Statistics for Action at TERC. For more than a decade, she has worked on formative research and curriculum design related to promoting understanding of real-world math concepts. Merson was one of the main authors of EMPower: Extending Mathematical Power, a math curriculum produced by TERC for adult basic education settings. To foster informal math learning, she has developed training modules, supported library and after-school partners, and contributed to materials design in the Mixing in Math and Math off the Shelf projects. She has developed training modules, supported library and after-school partners, and contributed to materials design in the Mixing in Math and Math off the Shelf projects.