Environmental chemistry course sees students assess climate change effects

A new Brock University course in environmental chemistry is teaching students how to measure the impact of human disturbances on ecosystems and what can be done to mitigate its effects.

Through a mixture of in-class lessons, laboratory analysis and fieldwork, students are learning to use chemistry-based instruments and techniques to detect and quantify contaminants in the environment and how they move through different environmental cycles.

During a recent field trip to Lake Moodie, students collected water samples and used a water probe instrument to detect parameters such as pH, conductivity, oxygen and turbidity. Students recorded their findings and were tasked with writing a lab report discussing the different water quality metrics and how they can be used as indicators for analyzing ecosystems. They then compared the data they collected with data from a different watershed to evaluate which one was more contaminated.

Several Brock University students gather around a professor wearing an orange and yellow safety vest. They are all standing on the grassy shoreline near a shallow area of a lake where they will be using a bucket, which the professor is holding, to collect water samples. They write information in their notebooks.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Vaughn Mangal explains a field assignment to students in his new Environmental Chemistry course, preparing them to collect water samples from Lake Moodie.

In addition to teaching students how to use tools to analyze the chemical composition of water, soil and air, the course also addresses how disturbances caused by climate change, such as forest fires, thawing permafrost and an increase in agricultural activities, are affecting environmental cycles and what advances humanity can make over the next few years to remedy some of these disturbances, said Vaughn Mangal, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, who created and teaches the course.

“Climate change is probably the biggest challenge these students will face in their lifetime. It’s important to train the next generation of scientists and enthusiasts how to develop new solutions and insights to this ongoing problem,” he said.

Mangal plans to expand the course next year to include the use of specialized and highly sensitive instruments, such as a suite of mass spectrometers at Brock, to identify and analyze samples for greenhouse gases, carbon, metals and pollutants.

The knowledge and experience working with chemical analysis tools in the classroom, lab and field are valuable for careers in environmental consulting, in environmental government labs and higher education, Mangal said.

Two Brock University students in a forest crouch low to the ground to look at a water sample in a clear filtration device being held by a teaching assistant wearing an orange and yellow safety vest. The students write down information in their notebooks about what the teaching assistant is saying.

A new Environmental Chemistry course has Brock University students learning in the field. PhD student and Teaching Assistant Chris Lagumen (left) demonstrates a portable vacuum water filtration technique used on a water sample General Sciences students Connor McCulloch (centre) and Taryn Petrovsky (right) collected from Lake Moodie during a recent field trip.

Connor McCulloch, a part-time General Math and Science student who works full time as a paramedic with Niagara Emergency Medical Services, has enjoyed the practical applications of the environmental chemistry course.

“It has been different from a lot of the other science-based courses that I’ve taken in the past. With the fieldwork in particular, it felt very natural and satisfying to relate the concepts we are learning in the classroom to real world issues,” he said.

“I grew up on Lake Erie, and eutrophication became a big problem. It’s interesting to learn about topics like this and some of the practical remediation steps that could be taken.”

The CHEM 2P43 Environmental Chemistry course is offered in collaboration by the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Earth Sciences. Although the course lists one of three science courses as a prerequisite, any student without a prerequisite can request permission from the instructor to take the course.

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