SAN FRANCISCO - Some Oakland teenagers are doing a science project that could have a big impact on their neighborhood -- and in the search for important answers, they took a field trip to a chemistry lab at San Francisco State University.
"This machine is called a microwave plasma atomic emission spectroscopy machine," explained SF State graduate student Chase Benson to a group of teens wearing white lab coats.
The machine's name is a mouthful, but for the students from Oakland's Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, it's what the machine can do that's exciting.
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"This is drawing fluid into this line right here," Benson explained as the machine emitted a purple glow, and a small spinning pump began to pull bubbles through a clear plastic tube.
The fluids are samples the students prepared themselves -- of tap water, dust, soil and paint chips from around their own homes in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood.
"Right here, you can see that right at 405.781 nanometers, we've got a sharp spike," Benson said, pointing to a graph on a computer screen. "That shows that we've got lead in the sample."
The study began last year here at SF State.
"We are assessing lead exposure in the community," said chemistry professor Pete Palmer, who's also a science advisor to the US Food and Drug Administration. "These aren't just made up, unknown samples for them to analyze -- these are samples from people's home."
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Life Academy was the perfect partner to help obtain those samples, Palmer said. For students there, it was an equally teachable moment.
"We were learning about pollution and how air and water pollution impact the body," said Angelica Corral, who teaches environmental science at Life Academy.
On their field trip across the bay, the students learned how SF State undergraduate students are analyzing the samples they send in, using machines like the one Benson demonstrated.
"It's pretty important to see how everything works, because it's not just collecting it, it's a whole process," said Life Academy senior Rosario Diaz.
The research study teaches important science skills to both the high school and the college students, but their teachers say it also goes beyond that, to where science intersects with history and politics.
"My essential question for my senior project is: 'Why are higher levels of lead mainly introduced in low income communities?'" said Life Academy senior Yaquelin Zaragoza. "Because in Flint, Michigan, there was a lot of lead, and they were low income too in that community."
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The students' research has already shown lead above EPA limits in nearly three-quarters of the Fruitvale tap water samples. But for soil, dust and paint, many more samples will be needed.
"We want our data to be more accurate, so we have to take more samples," Diaz said.
One sealed glass jar at a time, the samples could paint a bigger picture of where the students live and play.
"I think that it's important for our students to use science as a lens to understand their community," Corral said.
And possibly, said Palmer, to affect change in their community.
"Ultimately, it's for the public good, and that puts a big smile on my face," he said.
Click here to learn more about Life Academy of Health and Bioscience.