Working for social justice really makes Kimberly Gray’s heart sing.
But Keith Harley, director of the Chicago Environmental Law Clinic, didn’t know that until nearly a decade ago when he asked the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science for help on the technical aspects of his complex legal cases.
“The chance to help people just resonated inside of her,” says Harley, who has taught classes at the McCormick School and the School of Law. “Kim seized on this opportunity for students to learn while working in the public interest. The kind of work they do is invaluable.”
Gray, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, quickly saw the value in having students work on real projects, providing assistance to low-income people and communities facing environmental problems. She put together a two-quarter community-based design course for undergraduates, which has been going strong since 1997. Now a similar course is offered to graduate students who also work with Harley and other nonprofit organizations.
“The students’ work is just superb. They are working on problems that have no answers, and they are responsible for others,” says Gray, who doesn’t believe this kind of service learning is common in engineering schools. “We once shut down a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when they planned to solve one environmental problem and start another — by dumping contaminants near a school. They hadn’t considered the children’s health. The [Northwestern] students give a passionate and informed voice to clients.”
One of the first projects Gray and her students worked on was a case involving a cluster of eight hazardous waste sites known as the Calumet Cluster because it is located near Lake Calumet on Chicago’s southeast side. The Chicago Environmental Law Clinic launched an initiative to get local, state and federal officials to remediate the sites, which are surrounded by wetlands. This involved analyzing a lot of technical data to determine what remediation efforts to use. Gray recognized the power of the wetlands could be used for remediation purposes.
“Kim has been there every step of the process,” says Harley. “Many of the sites have been remediated, and others are on the way.”
One of Gray’s former undergraduate students, Christina Hemphill (McC00) worked on a project about contaminated boat slips on the Calumet River. Hemphill had to learn about Chicago’s industrial development (the slips had belonged to a steel company) and use graduate-level knowledge to calculate the human and ecological health risk the slips posed. After analyzing data, Hemphill’s recommendation was to dredge the first few feet of sediment to remove some of the heavy metals present there.
The community-based design course stood out for Hemphill. “It was a very interesting class and wonderful experience because we got to work on a real project to better the community,” says Hemphill. “Plus, I was in charge of my own project, with support from Professor Gray. This helped give me the confidence and experience I needed to do environmental consulting after I graduated.” Hemphill is now enrolled in the master of science in environmental health program at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Gray’s other student projects over the years have ranged from writing a handbook on pollution prevention practices for metal finishing to working with the Chicago Housing Authority to develop a phytoremediation strategy for removing lead from contaminated soil.
“We are championing causes for poor communities,” says Gray, who knows her students are making a huge difference. “I am absolutely an advocate.” — M.F.