Leading the Way

A chemist's ambitious educational program leaves a legacy of community engagement

In 2006, after a year of field and lab work, Hal Van Ryswyk, John Stauffer Professor of Chemistry, and the entire class of first-year chemistry lab students made one last trip to their off-campus collection site to present their findings to the community. The students had been participating in The Lead Project, a unique research and educational program developed by Van Ryswyk and the Department of Chemistry to test lead levels in soil at local elementary schools.

Over two semesters, the HMC students traveled regularly by van to Vista del Valle Elementary School, where they led lessons on math and science, collected soil samples with the elementary students and helped interpret the test results. Back on campus, they tested their samples, often under the eye of a webcam they’d set up so the Vista students could watch online.

As his students prepared to field final questions from the community at Vista del Valle, Van Ryswyk had one more lesson. He recalls saying, “You’ve done all this science. Think about what it means and how you can explain it, bring it down to English.” In the end, he says, “That was the most valuable lesson for many of our kids. Through this project, every Harvey Mudd College student came faceto- face with questions regarding the impact of their technical work upon society while simultaneously developing tools to examine this relationship.”

The successful program lasted six years, until curriculum changes and logistical challenges made it untenable. “We experienced such growth,” Van Ryswyk says. “We reached out into the community. The Vista kids loved the hands-on science. Our students learned a lot—if nothing else, that their fourth grade teacher must have been a saint— and we learned about our students. They really blossomed.”

“It was a group effort,” Van Ryswyk says. “Many people were involved, and it led to direct benefits for HMC and the elementary students.” The Lead Project turned out to be a gateway to a more formal HMC community engagement program with a full-time staff member, Gabriela Gamiz. “Right after the Vista project began, the Science Bus was formed. People saw the possibilities of such programs,” says Van Ryswyk. Science Bus is a student run, volunteer organization at The Claremont Colleges, in which 5C students teach science to local fourth and fifth grade students.

Van Ryswyk still considers community engagement to be a significant part of his work. As department chair, part of his job is to support community engagement among faculty, like biology and chemistry professor Karl Haushalter, who teaches Inside-Out courses, attended by both 5C “outside” and incarcerated “inside” students at local prisons.

Over the years, Van Ryswyk’s research interests have shifted. “Now I’m a little farther out on the material science side of things. My research is in solar energy conversion, and I see the value of that science and talking about where that fits into the larger societal picture,” he says.

Recently, a group of students interested in finding solutions to the problem of climate change invited Van Ryswyk and some of his chemistry and computer science colleagues to lunch. “They wanted to talk about how they could protect the planet both as students and in their careers,” he says. “Talking about how to incorporate this into their education brings up the Harvey Mudd Emphasis in Environmental Analysis, which came out of The Lead Project as a way to institutionalize ways to think about environmental issues in your education regardless of major.”

Students choosing the Emphasis in Environmental Analysis follow a coordinated program of study that allows them to address environmental issues from a range of perspectives in order to better understand the impact of their work.

Societal impact and effective community engagement is a running theme in Van Ryswyk’s teaching, perhaps now more than ever. “When I talk to our first-year class, a lot of the units we’re doing are energy-related—where to get renewable energy, how to store it and the chemistry behind that. So it can sound like, ‘Oh, if I just invent this silver bullet, everything will be fine,’ but that may not be the case. There’s a lot of science and engineering around climate change worth doing, but we also want students to think about the humanities and the arts, because even if you do have the silver bullet, you have to understand the psychology and politics and how to get society to bend in that direction.” Science isn’t the entire question, says Van Ryswyk, and maybe not even the biggest part of the question. “How do we change human behavior? How do you get people to confront a train that you can see 30 or 40 years down the track and do something about it now?,” he asks. “I want to get people to start thinking about using all the tools they have to take on the complicated issues.”