Battle of the Bands: Toxic Dust, Active Citizenship and Science Education

Larry Bencze, Chantal Pouliot


Humanity is facing many serious realized and predicted problems for the wellbeing of individuals, societies and environments associated with influences of powerful people and groups on fields of science and technology (and, likely, engineering and mathematics). While a plethora of problems are linked to fossil fuel uses, with particular concerns relating to climate change, excessive promotion of production and consumption is threatening a range of habitats and species and harmful substances in many manufactured goods — such as fats, sugars, salts, food colourings and preservatives in food products, combustion products in cigarettes and a range of untested chemicals in everyday household cleansers and hygiene products — are associated with various preventable diseases, like cardiovascular illnesses, diabetes and cancer. Given that many of these problems seem tied to global economic systems, which — in their neoliberal form — depend on cooperation of governments and transnational governing bodies and agreements, it seems clear that more citizens must take active roles in analyzing and evaluating products and services of fields of science and technology (and other related fields) and, where problems are identified, be prepared to take informed actions to bring about a better world. Given roles of fields of science and technology (and others) in contributing to harms like those identified above, a logical place for helping to develop more activist citizens is through school science and technology (and related subjects). To do so, however, it seems essential to base such education on authentic situations of citizen engagement in such socio-political controversies. In this paper, we describe an ongoing case of citizen data-informed actions to address what they perceived to be toxic metal dust pollution (including nickel, arsenic, lead, cadmium, cobalt, manganese and zinc) accumulating on objects in their community that they claim is emanating from the city’s inland ocean port. Our analyses suggest that rectifying responses from the city and, perhaps, resistance to such responses can be explained using Foucault’s concept of dispositif (an aggregate of actants serving certain purposes). A key to this conclusion was activists’ discovery of decades-old reports commissioned by the city that, if they had been made part of public discourse, may have increased levels of public consciousness to the point that earlier corrective actions might have been taken. With this case and analyses of it, we suggest that it could serve as an excellent model to be included in apprenticeships for helping students to develop expertise, confidence and motivation for self-directing research-informed actions to address socioscientific problems of their choice — including in terms of working to develop dispositifs to support their causes. Moreover, the dispositif concept could be used to help mobilize such approaches across numerous educational contexts — with, for example, educators working to initiate a network of cooperating stakeholders (e.g., governments, businesses, media outlets, teacher associations, school districts, etc.).

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