Lead Paint Project Transforms Science Students

January 17, 2017

Students’ hands-on testing of lead paint chips on older Fort Wayne homes, working with the Vector Control Division of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, has not only led to an enrollment explosion in the environmental course but also to USF graduates working in various environmental fields.

Geyer, chemistry department chair, received funding for the project from a 2012 Indiana Campus Compact grant. In a Fort Wayne neighborhood adjacent to USF, students surveyed 350-500 households each year, asking to analyze exterior paint for lead. Evidence of lead was found in 38 percent, 80 percent and 51 percent, respectively, of households tested in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Lead poisoning can cause permanent brain damage, attention deficit disorder, development issues or push a learning delayed child into the learning disabled bracket. The high lead content of drinking water in Flint, Mich. last year underscored the national problem. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that at least 13,400 Indiana children had lead poisoning.

The project provides important education, testing and data. “It increases awareness and fills a great need for the department of health because it is a major primary prevention program for lead poisoning,” Geyer said. “The department of health legitimizes the campaign working hand in hand with the students.”

The hands-on learning has inspired several students to take jobs dealing with environmental issues impacting public health. “Students learn to test here just as they would in a certified lab,” Geyer said. “This course has traditionally been taken by environmental science and chemistry majors, but has expanded to include biology and pre-medical students, who see science and health come together, and it’s a new experience. The course has tripled in size this fall. Students are excited about an opportunity that brings meaning to their lab work.”

USF environmental science major Teresa Marion graduated and joined the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health in 2014. Now an environmental health specialist with the Vector Control Division, she works for the same division with which she collaborated on the lead paint project.
“In my junior year I started the lead survey in tandem with the health department, which gave me real-world science and the ability to see what’s out there,” she said. “My favorite job is to teach about lead paint, insect problems and creating healthy living conditions. In terms of USF, it was really nice to do labs in the field. Dr. Geyer had us putting real-world problems into our lab, so it meant a lot to us in terms of impact.”

USF grad Shane Swygart, an environmental specialist with Omnisource, a scrap metals recycler, completed a BA in environmental science in 2013 and will complete an MBA in sustainability studies in 2017.

“The lead paint project was a great opportunity for students to get involved with the community and get some hands-on application of classwork,” Swygart said. “My role now with Omnisource places the two together. I’m working with storm water monitoring and how our actions affect the future. Monitoring ensures the company stays below benchmark levels established for the safety of rainwater runoff. I am continually working to lower it even further and strengthen our impact. Anytime you can give back to your community, it is highly valued.”

Jordan Heim earned a degree with double majors in forensic and bio-chemistry in 2013. Now a hazardous waste analysis chemist with Systech in Paulding, Ohio, she works with the global company to intake hazardous materials from pharmaceutical, paint and refinery companies, mix it and burn it in kilns to make cement. “The lead paint project was interesting because it took all we did in the lab and applied it to the real world,” she said. “Lots of the chemistry used instrumentation similar to what I use now, and some of the principles are the same,” she said. “I like working for an environmentally-conscious company that deals with useless leftover waste.”

“We want them living their education, reaching out beyond the classroom walls and doing something that affects someone else,” Dr. Geyer said. “This is project-based learning. It’s not just a class, it’s reality.”