In 2012, I started in a new position at the University of Illinois and was introduced to the issue of pharmaceuticals and personal care product (PPCP) pollution. I thought it was fascinating and realized that past instructions to flush medicine down the toilet probably weren't based on research.
I was interested even then in developing a curriculum on this emerging issue, but it wasn’t until I joined IISG that an opportunity materialized. It was then that I came to learn about the compendium of lessons known as The Medicine Chest that includes wonderful place-based stewardship lessons. I felt I could enhance the content by emphasizing the “Why should I care?” factor. I was asked that exact question by suburban high school student about 10 years ago while teaching a lesson on isotopes. It was the best question I ever received. And from that point on, all the materials I have created have been based on that pivotal query.
For The Medicine Chest, I wanted to approach the issue from a number of different perspectives. The updated curriculum connects ideas that aren’t really thought of as connected. For instance, nobody really thinks about items that are flushed down the toilet after the handle has been pushed, so why not explore wastewater treatment plants to see what they can filter and what products pass through the system and out to waterways? The lesson named “Wastewater treatment 101: What happens to PPCPs?” does just that. I have also created a lesson using recent research on how PPCPs are changing the normal functionality of aquatic ecosystems. Once the problems are laid out, the curriculum moves on to show how individuals can help reduce the impacts of PPCPs. Finally, as sort of an interesting twist, we look back into the not-so-distant past—turn of the 20th century—to see what kinds of products were used to cure illness and create beauty and how they compare to today’s standards.
I decided to incorporate new teaching techniques into the curriculum. First, the curriculum gives teachers the option to teach each lesson in the conventional way—information gathered in class and followed up by homework—or through a technique called “flipped classrooms.” This model asks students to learn the information, with guidance, the night before and be ready to discuss the topic in class for more in-depth exploration. Second, I applied meta-cognitive thinking to the vocabulary. Third, I abandoned the standard method of testing in favor of essay responses. This technique pairs well with metacognitive thinking and true knowledge because it allows students to express in their own words what they know about the questions being asked. Finally, I aligned the lessons with the Next Generation Science Standards. These new lessons can all be used to lead into the many stewardship-based projects already provided in The Medicine Chest.
One of the challenging aspects of writing curriculum on any emerging topic is that the research is still very new and ever evolving. Once the research is located, many times there are gaps of information about the issue. Then, of course, you have to make the information accessible to different audiences. That is often the most challenging aspect of the work, but it’s all worth it. It’s pleasure to write about emerging issues, and I already have my sights on another topic. I’m excited for the possibilities.