Global Public Health is a course that allows students to learn about the complexity of communicable and non-communicable diseases, determinants of health, and delivery of health services.The Global Public Health course partnered with the Center for International Students to co-host International Education Week in November 2017.Specifically, the course held a “global successes” poster presentation event highlighting various initiatives including disease reduction, cash transfer programs, health system comparisons, and emergency preparedness. The project encouraged a dissection of the biological aspects while also focusing on the socioeconomic contexts, geo-political partners, and advocacy efforts to determine the factors that played into successful health initiatives.Quantitative and qualitative data were collected to assess project outcomes.The reach of the event was with the campus and local communities.Students reported that the project allowed them to develop an appreciation for the vastness of global health, while also identifying the importance of sustainability.
Global health courses offer excellent opportunities for students to learn about issues outside of their local, state, and national communities. By developing projects that allow them to transcend their texts and engage with the content, they can begin to step out of their local contexts and apply their learned global knowledge.Along with learning about global health issues, students often feel disengaged to such “wicked” or massive global problems that exist.Wicked problems, including climate change, gender inequality, famine, human trafficking, and complex humanitarian issues, are defined as such because there are many stakeholders with differing opinions, and ultimately, “each attempt to create a solution changes the problem” (Kreuter, De Rosa, Howze, and Baldwin, 2004, p. 443).Focusing on a massive problem like climate change, studies have demonstrated that students are disengaged with the science regardless of their knowledge about the topic, because they lack action and self-awareness about their roles with the issue (Wilson and Henson, 1993; Cordero and Abellera, 2008; Feldmann, Nisbet, Leiserowitz, and Maibach, 2010; Wachholz, Artz, and Chene, 2014; Pfautsch and Gray, 2017).According to Reimers (2017), leaders in multiple fields including business, diplomacy, and military science were interviewed regarding their views on student readiness to address challenges with a global mindset. It was consistently reported that gaps among students exist for awareness of global issues (National Research Council, 2007; Reimers, 2017).Using case studies in the classroom has been demonstrated to assist students in identifying the “solutions for real-world scenarios . . . to raise self-awareness and improve sustainability literacy” (Pfautsch and Gray, 2017, p.1168; see also Remington-Doucette and Musgrove, 2015).
Although global challenges exist, successes in addressing these issues are evident as maternal and child mortality have continued to decrease along with a more pronounced focus on diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2011; Jacobsen, 2014; Merson, 2014; Glassman and Temin, 2016).New medications are being developed along with lifesaving technologies and vaccinations, and via enhanced surveillance and reporting efforts, preparedness for global threats continues to be strengthened (CDC, 2011; Jacobsen, 2014).By highlighting that achievements are possible, we can assist future generations in identifying how to harness their knowledge and incorporate moral and ethical reasoning to enhance their competency in addressing issues that need sustainable solutions (Pfautsch and Gray, 2017).
Identified in the texts, Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health (Levine and Kinder, 2004) and Millions Saved: New Cases of Proven Success in Global Health (Glassman and Temin, 2016), are over 35 different examples of interventions that have lasting health education and promotion effects.Using these case studies, college students can embark on an educational journey to better identify the roots of disease, disability, and death from a global perspective.In the Global Public Health course, students were challenged to find a global health endeavor that was “successful” and define, using multiple lenses, what “success” means.Students had to go beyond reading a case study and dissect the topic to gain a better understanding of factors such as the physiology of disease and the impacts of economic policies on effective health measures.
Six student groups, ranging from two to four students per group, researched case studies including neglected tropical diseases and successes of the Deworm the World Initiative (https://www.evidenceaction.org/dewormtheworld), global vaccination perspectives in Cameroon and Southern Ethiopia, and behavior modification to eradicate guinea worm.Incorporating an interdisciplinary approach to understanding their chosen case studies, students identified underlying causes of disease (or health issues) using an agent, host, environment model to better explain how the interventions and/or successes broke the chain of causation.Specifically, students focused on disciplines including public health, health education, epidemiology, and biology.To display their case study outcomes, students developed professional 3×4 posters. In a partnership to co-host International Education Week with the Center for International Students (November 2017), students in the Global Public Health course held a poster presentation focusing on global health successes. The event was the kick-off feature, and all of campus and the local community was invited.Goals of the event were to invite discussion about pertinent global health issues that transcend national borders.To encourage attendee participation, international coffee, tea, and food items were served. All materials and supplies were purchased with funds from the Missouri Campus Compact mini-grant.For project assessment, student groups were evaluated on the guiding research questions developed for their topic, the historical and health background, elements for success (including impact, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness), the organizations involved with continued efforts, policies in place to address the issue, and finally, ways for individuals to get involved locally. To evaluate the poster event, attendees completed a short survey with 5-point Likert-scale questions from strongly agree to strongly disagree regarding the presenter knowledge, enthusiasm, professionalism, and preparation.An open-ended question was added to seek what attendees learned from attending the poster event.At the end of the course, student feedback was obtained via a short survey with a 5-point Likert-scale regarding their development of the poster content, impacts of the project on their learning, and three open-ended reflection questions. Open-ended questions were analyzed using a content-analysis procedure for patterns and themes (Altheide, 1987; Merriam, 2009), and quantitative data were analyzed using IBM SPSS 25.IRB approval was obtained in Fall 2017 before any data were collected.
Six different posters were presented. Student presenters interacted with attendees (n=~40) including members of campus administration, faculty, staff, and students from various majors.Overall, feedback from presentation attendees (n=20) was positive, with 90% strongly agreeing that presenters were prepared and knowledgeable about the material.Regarding enthusiasm and professionalism, over 95% of attendees either agreed or strongly agreed that students were excited to present and were credible regarding the content.Attendees’ comments for learning outcomes were positive and varied about what they gained from the experience. Themes from those outcomes included being unaware (n=9), identifying keys to health successes (n=8), and that successes have global outcomes (n=1). A sample of quotations for each theme is available in Table 1.
For project impacts for students in the course, 100% of students who completed an evaluation agreed or strongly agreed that focusing on global health successes was important, and over 90% agreed or strongly agreed that providing service-learning opportunities in global health was important.Overarching themes students reported focused on their surprise for the vastness of global health successes (n=5), different ways to measure success (n=4), personal gains acquired from the project (n=1), and that we are all global citizens (n=1) (Table 2).
Discussion and Suggestions for Future Practice
By engaging with the broader campus community, students participated in open discourse to identify the importance of partnership, science, sustainability, and global citizenship to address the issues.To promote the events of International Education Week, a local news station also attended the poster presentation to learn more about the topic and provide awareness.As previously stated, students may be disengaged in the classroom if lectures and assignments lack an action or self-awareness component (Wilson and Henson, 1993; Cordero and Abellera, 2008; Feldmann et al., 2010; Wachholz, Artz, and Chene, 2014; Pfautsch and Gray, 2017). This course project was an attempt to combine students’ awareness for these massive problems and research the failures and successes of the efforts to address these real-world issues. An additional component for the case study was to suggest ways in which we can advocate for these topics. Students developed ideas including identifying NGOs that are continuing to work on the issues, specifying ongoing research studies and ideas for further research, and ways in which we can expand community-based programs.
With the knowledge gained from implementing this project, instructors should build in more class time for posters to be developed and for students to reflect and to determine their questions as they navigate the research process.Students should also engage in peer review frequently throughout the semester. Peer review only occurred one time, at the mid-point of the project, and everyone would have benefitted from hearing regularly about each other’s topics, challenges, and strengths. Another interesting learning outcome would be to prepare students on how to present at a formal poster event and explain who might be in attendance.According to one student, “I was caught a little off guard when [the Vice President] and [Department Chair] showed up.”
To broaden this type of project, as Merson (2014) demonstrates, universities can engage in global health endeavors by acting as springboards for interdisciplinary collaboration of faculty and students from various institutions.Next steps for more transformative student experiences and value-added projects would be to build existing projects by partnering with different disciplines and other institutions (domestic and international).According to Ehrlich (2000), civic engagement is defined as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our common unities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference” (p. vi).As this project started in the classroom and expanded to the campus and surrounding community, this definition of civic engagement was followed, demonstrating that global successes are evident and that we should celebrate them.
About the Author
Alicia Wodika is currently an assistant professor in Health Sciences at Illinois State University. She currently teaches Program Planning and Evaluation and Introduction to Public Health. Previously, she taught Global Public Health, Research Methods for Health Sciences, Program Planning, and Environmental Health at Truman State University.
Cordero, T.E., & Abellera, D. 2008. “Climate Change Education and the Ecological Footprint.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 89(6): 865-872.
Ehrlich, T. (2000). Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Westport, CT: The American Council on Education and The Oryx Press.
Feldmann, L., Nisbet, M.C., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. 2010. “The Climate Change Generation? Survey Analysis of the Perceptions and Beliefs of Young Americans.” Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, p. 23.
Glassman, A. & Temin, M. 2016. Millions Saved: New Cases of Proven Success in Global Health. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development.
National Research Council. 2007. International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing Americas Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Jacobsen, K.H. 2014. Introduction to Global Health. 2nd ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett publishers.
Kreuter, M.W., De Rosa, C., Howze, E.H., & Baldwin, G.T. (2004). “Understanding Wicked Problems: A Key to Advancing Environmental Health Promotion.” Health Education and Behavior, 31(4), 441-454.
Levine, R. & Kinder, M. 2007. Case Studies in Global Health: Millions Saved. MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Merson, M.H. 2014. “University Engagement in Global Health.” New England Journal of Medicine, 370(18): 1676-1678.
Merriam, S.B. 2009. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Pfautsch, S. & Gray, T. 2017. “Low Factual Understanding and High Anxiety About Climate Warming Impedes University Students to Become Sustainability Stewards: An Australian Case Study.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(7): 1157-1175.
Remington-Doucette, S. & Musgrove, S. 2015. “Variation in sustainability competency development according to age, gender, and disciplinary affiliation,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 16(4): 523-536.
Wachholz, S., Artz., N. & Chene, D. 2014. “Warming to the Idea: University Student’s Knowledge and Attitudes about Climate Change.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 14(2): 128-141.
Wilson, & Henson. 1993. “Learning about Global Warming: A Study of Students and Journalists.” National Center for Atmospheric Research. Boulder, CO.
This paper describes the development and implementation of engaging and supportive experiences to promote student engagement, persistence, and success at a commuter, open enrollment, public, minority-serving institution. Project components included faculty development at the SENCER Summer Institute (SSI) 2016, attended by a team comprised of an academic administrator, full-time faculty from English and math, and part-time faculty in chemistry; creation of a virtual learning community of freshmen enrolled in chemistry, English, and math, linked by the specific theme of the environmental impacts of de-icing roads with salt and the overarching theme of the impacts of human activities on the environment; and peer mentoring in chemistry. Faculty reflections and grade distributions indicate this is a promising approach and suggest strategies for overcoming challenges.
This project was designed to use evidence-based interdisciplinary tactics to support a student population that is underrepresented in STEM. New York City College of Technology (City Tech) is a minority-serving institution, enrolling 17,279 full- and part-time students (Fall 2017). Over a third of our students were born in any one of 110 countries other than the United States, and nearly three-quarters (73%) report that a language other than English is spoken in their homes. Students self-report as 33% Hispanic, 30% Black (non-Hispanic), 20% Asian and 11% White; 61% report household income less than $30,000 (2017–2018 Fact Sheet).
Participating math, English, and chemistry faculty and an administrator worked together, and with colleagues at other institutions with a similar charge of developing an interdisciplinary intervention, to develop this project. Team activities were formally launched through participation at the SENCER Summer Institute (SSI) 2016, in Chicago, Illinois. In addition to an opportunity for faculty professional development, we hoped that the shared experience of participating in SSI 2016 would help the team form a sense of community, similar to the one anticipated for the students. This was the first SSI for two faculty members and an introduction to the concept of integrating civic engagement into the curriculum and the resources available through SENCER, and it was one faculty member’s first exposure to the idea of structuring a learning community. By attending several lectures on the subject, she was able to reflect on just how important this could be for our students, especially concerning the construction of a sense of belonging to a community. During project development, we continued to meet with other similar teams at other institutions to learn about their experiences and to share ideas.
Project components included an early intervention modeled on the successes of learning communities and integrated by a shared focus on civic engagement with peer mentoring for academic support. While our college has several resources in place to support such a project, including an interdisciplinary culture, an established Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) program, and an administration that supports curricular innovation, our project nonetheless met with some logistical challenges. As explained below, we used an extant technological resource, City Tech’s OpenLab, to help us overcome these obstacles. We achieved several successful outcomes.
Why These Courses?
The three courses participating in the project represent foundational courses in their disciplines. English Composition I is the first semester of a two-semester composition requirement. It is the only class required of all students at City Tech. Its goals include ethical research methods and uses of source material, awareness of audience and of generic conventions, and the process of academic writing itself (drafting, peer review, revising). These skills are critical to success in STEM disciplines. English professor Rebecca Mazumdar chose to participate in this learning community, because she wanted students to see the importance of effective communication and the joy of curiosity. While this course is designed to deliver the former message, the latter is sometimes more of a stretch, especially since so many students do not self-identify as strong writers.
College Algebra and Trigonometry is part of the College’s required STEM math sequence. Strong analytical skills are a must for success in STEM disciplines. Project participant Professor Nadia Benakli reported that students struggle to grasp algebra concepts and often fail to see the practical purpose of learning these concepts. They also have significant difficulties with trigonometry. While many of the students taking this course are STEM majors, they often do poorly on exams, with one-third of registered students typically not passing the course. Because this course acts as a gatekeeper of sorts, including it in this project potentially offered a greater likelihood of impact on student success.
General Chemistry I is an introduction to the principles of general chemistry for STEM majors. This course includes lecture and lab and has a pre- or co-requisite of College Algebra and Trigonometry or higher. Some of the enrolled chemistry students had already taken these English and Math classes in previous semesters. For this project, an adjunct instructor, Prof. Medialdea, taught the chemistry lecture and lab.
All three courses contribute important components to a successful college education. Moreover, all three often pose difficulties forstudents as shown by Fall 2017 pass rates (D or better).
Why a Learning Community?
Research has demonstrated that learning communities are one of several high impact strategies that improve student success (Kuh, 2008). Participation in learning communities is positively linked to increased engagement, stronger relationships with instructors and peers, self-reported gains in academic skills and interpersonal development, higher grades, increased persistence, and overall satisfaction with the college, even at commuter campuses (Zhao and Kuh, 2004; MDRC, 2012). Learning communities can be used to target the problematic parts of the curriculum that act as gatekeepers for student progress (Lardner, 2005).While many models of learning communities exist, common features include co-enrolling students in two or more courses to promote community through shared intellectual activities (Zhao and Kuh, 2004; Tinto, 2003; MDRC, 2012; Ratcliff et al., 1995; Rao, n.d.). This model encourages students to connect ideas from diverse perspectives and different disciplines. Learning communities often include a common theme. Successful learning communities may also include additional academic and counseling support for students. Other common attributes include faculty professional development on effective pedagogical strategies that allow the development of assignments utilizing group work and joint or overlapping assignments. Because of their demonstrated success, learning communities often target at-risk groups with identified low persistence and low graduation rates (Zhao and Kuh, 2004; Tinto, 2003; MDRC, 2012; Ratcliff, 1995; Smith, 2001; Rao, n.d.).
Challenges to implementing successful learning communities include increased cost, staffing, and support structure needs (Smith, 2001). It may be difficult to recruit students willing to agree to block programming, particularly if they have family, employment, or other commitments. Sections with low enrollment risk cancellation. Enrollment Management may not want to link dual enrollment in courses with different class size limits, particularly at campuses where space is an issue, as the linked enrollment reduces the number of available seats in the larger class. Another challenge is that without deliberate faculty professional development to enhance the learning environment, learning communities can devolve into little more than block programming. Even at campuses with established learning communities there is also the challenge of sustaining them as initial champions move on or as resources become scarcer (MDRC, 2012; Smith, 2001).
Why Peer Mentoring?
We incorporated peer mentoring in chemistry. Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) is a national model of student support where more advanced, successful undergraduate students are trained as peer leaders to facilitate small group learning (Dreyfuss, 2013) Peer leaders do not provide answers, but instead ask leading questions to encourage students to work together to solve problems that are structured to help the students develop conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills. PLTL has been demonstrated to lead to increased student success, particularly among minority students (Snyder, Sloane, Dunk, and Wiles, 2016). We chose to include PLTL as an additional social and academic support structure to again promote social interactions and a community of learners. Peer meetings occurred during the chemistry lab sections after hands-on work was completed. Thus, students were already physically present, optimizing the opportunity for impact. We were able to take advantage of a peer mentor training course already established on campus: MEDU 2901 Peer Leader Training in Mathematics (MEDU 2901, 2019).
Using Technology to Overcome Initial Obstacles
City Tech has a long-standing robust learning community program for first-year students, and Professor Mazumdar in English had participated in those linked-enrollment learning communities for several years. We planned to link enrollment of the sections participating in the learning communities; however, student recruitment was difficult and the low enrollment resulted in cancellation of the LC. The Fall 2016 implementation of our project was thus delayed by a semester. The enrollment challenges motivated our decision to create a virtual online community, using the College’s OpenLab, a “digital platform where students, faculty and staff can meet to learn, work, and share their ideas. Its goals are to support teaching and learning, enable connection and collaboration, and strengthen the intellectual and social life of the college community” (OpenLab, 2018). These sections would meet in person like traditional classes but would include a virtual learning component for students in all three courses, providing asynchronous social and intellectual connections. The delay allowed us to hone the civic focus of our learning community; inspired by the winter weather, we decided to focus on the environmental effects of the salt used to de-ice snowy roads. Students in each course would work on projects related to this theme.
Our learning community was launched in Spring 2017. It was unique because it would not be a shared-enrollment LC; our three distinct classes would need to find ways to interact through OpenLab, a digital shared space in which our students could share their work and ideas with each other, while still fulfilling the goals of each course.
Before the semester began, we agreed that we would make OpenLab participation 5% of our students’ semester grades. We included the same instructions in all three syllabi. Students were provided with a step-by-step explanation of how to set up their OpenLab accounts and join the project; they also received an explanation of what was expected of them. These expectations are quoted at length here:
Here’s what’s expected of you:
1. Each week, you’ll comment on a post to the blog.These blog posts will be authored by the professors participating in the project (Prof. Devers [now Prof. Mazumdar], Prof. Benakli, and Prof. Medialdea), and occasionally by the students enrolled in those professors’ classes.To receive credit for a comment, the comment must be around 100 words, and should be a thoughtful response to the ideas, issues, or problem contained within the original post.You can also respond thoughtfully to the comments other students have posted to the original item.By the end of the semester, you should have at least 13 comments, at least one a week.Multiple comments in a single week will be considered 1 comment. (In other words, don’t leave all 13 for the final week of the semester!)
“Thoughtful responses” include specific academic maneuvers, like the following:
comparing/contrasting the ideas in the blog post
to the ideas you’re discussing in class;
offering a solution to a potential problem;
identifying complications to potential solutions;
selecting a quotation from the original text with which you agree or disagree, and using interpretation and analysis to defend your position;
providing a solution to a problem and explaining your work; and
applying the ideas in the reading to a real world problem
2. Once this semester, you’ll be asked to post to the blog yourself, so that others can comment on your post.Your post could be an article you’ve found in recent news media, or a problem you’d like help solving.Your professor can help you brainstorm the types of material that would be appropriate for a blog post.
3. A word about online etiquette:write as though you’re face-to-face with other students and faculty.Present your ideas with confidence, while maintaining respect for the ideas of others.Check your work for grammar and typos before posting it.And have fun!This project will allow us to discuss big issues with students in multiple classes across disciplinary boundaries.
We began with most posts coming from the instructors, with the hope that students would begin to post on their own. As the learning community started in the winter, the first OpenLab posts were about the chemistry of snow, ice control methods, and the impact of these methods on the environment such as manhole explosions due to road salt corroding electric wires. Students discussed eco-friendly ice melt alternatives such as beet juice. The students then moved to examine a broader theme, “the degree and nature of humans’ impact on the environment.” They shared posts on air pollution, plastic pollution, and climate change. They discussed possible solutions such as wind energy. In the math class, they solved problems with applications related to the themes discussed on OpenLab. By the end of the semester, there were 77 published posts, and 523 comments. The project site had 69 members (plus the three administrators); 33 members posted at least once.
In English Composition I, an assignment asked students to perform light research to locate a recent news article about a topic related to human impact on the environment. They were to post a summary and a link to the article on our project blog on OpenLab. Since the blog allows for comments on posts, students were also assigned to comment on other students’ articles, to begin to make connections. The assignment allowed them to practice essential skills important to composition (synthesis of ideas, clear communication, reading comprehension) and to participate in a community of learners discussing common ideas. The collection of articles on OpenLab also became a shared library of relevant sources for students’ research projects.
Below, the grade distributions of students in the virtual learning community are compared to all students taking the course in Spring 2017. There is some evidence that the goal of promoting persistence was achieved, as the withdrawal rate in all three learning community courses was lower than the overall withdrawal rate for the course. The higher chemistry grades of students receiving PLTL in lab suggest this support did help students succeed (no separate lab grade is given—there is just a grade in lecture with 25% of the grade based on the lab). There were significant improvements in College Algebra and Trigonometry grades in the LC section compared to all students, suggesting that incorporating civic engagement and interdisciplinarity was particularly effective here.
Observations Successes and Challenges
English professor Mazumdar, who has worked with linked-enrollment Learning Communities before, compares this one to previous ones. In linked-enrollment LCs, students form peer bonds or cliques. Sometimes, that can hinder their ability to pay attention in class, but the benefits are that they have the chance to form supportive friendships with classmates. This can be hard to do on a non-residential campus where students are often present only for the duration of classes. However, she did not see that cross-course bonding happening this semester. Students could respond to each other on OpenLab, but they likely never saw those screen names IRL or in-real-life. As the project continues, she would like all three classes to meet, perhaps for some ice-breaker/meet-and-greet activities, and to give the three instructors the opportunity to deliver essential information about the project. She hopes that this would encourage OpenLab participation, since they would be interacting with recognizable peers.
Math professor Benakli noted that initially, many students expressed unwillingness to participate in the project. Some of them were not happy that they had to “write” in a math class. Others complained that writing was not something they “do in other classes.” With some encouragement, and a reminder that 5% of their grades depended on their participation in the blog, Professor Benakli had almost 100% participation. Many students did enjoy sharing and having someone else (other than a friend) read, listen, and comment on their posts. Several students submitted more comments than the required weekly contributions. The end of the year feedback was very positive.
Professor Benakli also observed another benefit of the project. Sometimes, she and her students would spend the first five minutes in class discussing one of the recent posts. Using the blog as a “warm up” activity helped the students to feel relaxed (which is unusual in a math class) and mentally prepare to focus on the lesson. Professor Benakli notes that she found herself enjoying teaching this section more than previous ones, and that students did much better on their exams. She admits that perhaps this had nothing to do with the virtual learning community, but it speaks to the benefit to both students and faculty of linking classroom activities to larger issues in the community. In the future, she hopes to recruit other colleagues to participate in such a virtual learning community.
Chemistry professor Medialdea was pleased that her students expressed a strong interest in learning more about the environmental impacts of human activities, which seemed to enhance their interest in chemistry. She also noted that several students commented on an increased appreciation for the value of learning math and English as well as enrolling in additional chemistry courses.
Responding to Challenges
Recommendations and Future Plans
Several aspects of the project showed promise and will be retained as we repeat the project in a future semester. The use of OpenLab was one of the project’s successes. Students found confidence in the blog, as a safe environment for contributing to discussions and as a source of like-minded peers. Furthermore, the project’s common thread (road salts and their environmental impact) expanded to the broader topic of human impact on the environment, which enhanced student interest in it. The OpenLab site allowed the project to be flexible enough to respond to this student interest. Several topics like climate change involve multiple academic disciplines and would work well with this type of shared learning environment. Future permutations of this project face no limitations on the possible civic issues that such an interdisciplinary approach can address.
The team looks forward to implementing the project again, and to revising some elements of the intervention. In our self-reflections on the project, team members have considered the possibility that a different math class, like statistics, may be better suited for the project, as well as the possibility that students in a more advanced chemistry class, General Chemistry II, may have a better grasp of basic concepts and may therefore be better prepared to engage with larger themes. A benefit of this virtual learning community model is that the shared class blog sidesteps logistical challenges presented in linked-enrollment situations. Participating classes aren’t restricted by prerequisites.
One significant change we want to make moving forward is the implementation of a single, overarching project. We didn’t have one in place when the semester began, and it proved impossible to establish it as the semester progressed. We believe a “traveling” project could fit nicely with this type of learning community. Students in chemistry could collect data through lab work, send those data to students in math who can determine the implications of the data and how best to present them. Then, that information can be sent to the English students who use it to write persuasive pieces to local community leaders. To complete the circle, students in chemistry could then act as peer reviewers to help the writers refine and edit their formal assignments. The success of such a project relies on starting the first step, data collection, early enough in the semester so that each student group will have ample time with the information and can produce discipline-specific work in response to it. Professor Mazumdar would like the students to meet each other in person in order to develop a sense of community and shared experience; this would also mean that students would have a better sense of whom they were accountable to when passing data and information along to the next class.
Related to that sense of community, participating faculty learned that it also invites some interesting pedagogical questions. Specifically, the OpenLab site, which operates like a blog on which students can publish both original posts and comments, became a venue for discussions that were not relevant to course content. One student in particular used it to advertise his band’s events. This activity raised issues concerning the policing of this virtual world, one which we admittedly had hoped would be a safe and welcoming community space where students could create the sort of learning environment that can be so elusive on a commuter campus. To address this, the next iteration of the project will include a social page where students can share and comment on extracurricular topics. This will keep the academic blog focused on class topics but allow the overall project site to remain amenable to the community building that supports student retention.
To get a better sense of our impact, assessment of future iterations of the project could take place at both the beginning and end of the term, and—if possible—perhaps a year or more after students take the class. Students could answer questions or submit a writing sample on the first day of the semester, so that instructors can gauge their knowledge and skill levels. The same assessment instrument could then be used at the end of the term to collect comparative data (pre/post knowledge checks). Outcomes related to other items, such as critical thinking, abilities to integrate course content with real-world scenarios, and collaboration/teamwork improvements could also be evaluated. To compare this project with other sections of the same courses, the same assessment procedure would need to be used in those sections as well. Instructors can also use the SENCER-SALG to assess students’ interest in STEM courses as well as in the larger project theme: human impact on the environment. Another option is adoption of reflection exercises that unify course goals, where students could write in a journal (or other medium) to demonstrate their thinking, learning, and personal growth. Instructors could also qualitatively code the student responses, and identify emergent themes within their responses as well as evidence of intellectual growth as the semester progressed; additional quantitative assessment of the blog posts could include the average number of posts per student and the overall percentage of student participation.
Longer-term assessment could be one or both of the following: another follow-up SALG to determine persistence of interest in STEM classes or themes, or the collection of retention and graduation rates for enrolled students (compared with those of students in other comparable sections, for example).
One of the biggest advantages of this form of learning community is scale-up; therefore, part of our continuing work on the project will include recruiting other faculty to participate.
By using OpenLab, or another platform such as BlackBoard, instructors of different courses across the campus can establish a virtual learning community without the logistical challenges of linked enrollment. This can even be expanded to cross-campus collaborations.
About the Authors
Rebecca Mazumdar, PhD,is Associate Professor of English at New York City College of Technology, as well as a Co-Coordinator for Writing Across the Curriculum. She earned her PhD at the University of Connecticut in 2010. Her research focuses on fictional domestic spaces in Cold War American literature and popular culture. At City Tech, she teaches courses in English composition, fiction, law through literature, and graphic novels.
Nadia Benakli, PhD, is Associate Professor of Mathematics at New York City College of Technology, the designated college of technology of the City University of New York (CUNY). She received her doctorate in Geometric Group Theory from Paris-Sud University in France. Her thesis advisor was M. Gromov. Before coming to City Tech, she taught at Columbia University and Princeton University. She was also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mathematical Sciences and Research Institute (MSRI), Berkeley. She organized the Group Theory Seminar, and the Trees and Related Topics Seminar at Columbia University, 1998. She was also the organizer of the Topology Seminar at Princeton University, 1993–1994. Benakli is the Quantitative Reasoning course coordinator, the Quantitative Reasoning Fellow program coordinator, and the Applied Mathematics and Computer Science internship programs coordinator. She has also participated in the READ, SENCER, and Learning Community programs. Benakli’s research interests are in geometric group theory, graph theory, and in pedagogical issues in mathematics.
Pamela Brown, PhD, PE, is Associate Provost at New York City College of Technology of The City University of New York, a position she has held since 2012. Before assuming this position, Dr. Brown served for six years as dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and was a Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011-2012. She is a chemical engineer by training.
This work was made possible through funding from the Helmsley Foundation. We are very thankful for the work of Victoria Medialdea, whose insights during project development and instruction in the chemistry arm of the intervention were instrumental in getting this project off the ground. We gratefully acknowledge the support and inspiration of Wm. David Burns, Executive Director Emeritus of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, who was instrumental in developing this concept, obtaining funding, and guiding the project over the inevitable hurdles. To say David was amazing does not do justice to his contributions. We are also grateful to John Meyer, project coordinator, for his tireless support and to the participants at other campuses, who initiated a parallel project through Helmsley Foundation funding, and who provided insights and valuable suggestions. Specifically, we thank Candice Foley from Suffolk County Community College, Duncan Quarless from SUNY Old Westbury, Brett Branco from Brooklyn College, Anna Rozenboym form Kingsborough Community College, and David Ferguson from Stony Brook University.Lastly, we thank the reviewers, whose insights improved this article.
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This project report details a pilot venture that paired two undergraduate courses at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater: (a) Environmental Geology, an upper-division general education science course, and (b) College Writing in English as a Second Language (ESL), a first-year composition course for international students whose second language is North American English. Students enrolled in these two courses collaborated in writing blog posts on scientific topics with societal repercussions as part of the Do Now U project, a joint initiative between the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement (NCSCE) and the education division of KQED Public Media. Collaborating in this project enabled students to use the discourse of science in authentic communication with an identified audience while conducting a group project. Evaluation shows that students enjoyed this self-directed learning experience, using digital media to communicate and to create a digital document on a scientific and social issue.
NCSCE sent a call for participation to college educators in fall semester 2016. In early January 2017, interested participants attended a webinar on project participation guidelines. Instructors also selected a date for submitting their posts during spring semester 2017. They then formed student teams, each of which proposed and decided on a topic, formulated a discussion question, and ultimately composed a blog post for the KQED Do Now U website. KQED furnished a template for blog posts, which required background information and explanation of both positive and negative implications of the topic at issue. Posts also included links to relevant videos, images, and other reliable online resources. KQED education staff selected one blog post per participating institution. Once published to the web, the posts were open for public discussion and comments.
Collaborating on a Do Now U Post at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Naturally, Environmental Geology and College Writing in ESL, although both undergraduate courses, differed in several ways. The two sections of Environmental Geology, taught by Bhattacharyya, each enrolled 24 students and met twice a week in 75-minute blocks. The course follows the SENCER approach to inquiry, encouraging students to investigate unsolved problems relevant to today’s society, so that they not only develop content knowledge, but also improve critical thinking skills (Burns, 2002). Environmental Geology is a hands-on, experiential course, required for environmental science majors with an emphasis in the geosciences, but open as an elective to non-majors. Therefore, the students enrolled in the course represented a variety of academic backgrounds and interests. The course is thematically organized to inspire further exploration of topics chosen by students.
College Writing in ESL, team-taught by Huss-Lederman and Deering, enrolled 13 students and met four days a week in 75-minute blocks. The majority of the students who enroll in this course are international students, new to the United States and to university study. They represent a broad range of English proficiency and, like most first-year college students, are novice academic writers.Typically, this writing course has been organized thematically, often with human rights or social responsibility as broad topics, and so developing a semester-long environmental theme for the course was a natural fit. One goal of this composition course is to be an onramp to academic success at the university. Largely, this means providing opportunities for students to improve academic English proficiency, while simultaneously helping students to access programs that position them for success. Participating in this project enabled international students to interact with native English speakers; both groups completed an academic research project, using the SENCER approach to inquiry to enhance college-level, academic literacy in English. By the end of the project, Deering and Huss-Lederman had become advocates for the SENCER approach, continuing to develop project-based learning opportunities for their students throughout the semester even after the collaborative project ended.
In each course, the Do Now U project served a different purpose. In Environmental Geology, the assignment took on a minor role. Participation gave students the opportunity to engage in both writing to learn and writing for an audience beyond their teacher through a novel, small-stakes assignment. It also simulated an increasingly common professional situation—asynchronous collaborative writing in a medium less commonly used in a course assignment, an academic blog post to a website external to the university. Students were placed in groups based on their topic of interest, so students from both sections were required to work together, and in some cases with international students from the writing course. Students developed blog posts outside of class, but incorporated their research into class discussions. Geology students received feedback on topics along with possible questions from Bhattacharyya as comments on homework, and they were free to contact any instructor with questions concerning the posting assignments.
Since the college composition course is devoted to argumentative writing that synthesizes information from external sources, the Do Now U project took on a major role because it required international students to practice these academic skills. Reference librarians offered students a weeklong seminar in identifying and evaluating web-based resources.Students read and wrote short essays, utilizing cause and effect and problem/solution structures. Reading assignments also emphasized summarizing, paraphrasing, and identifying and interpreting quotations—all skills essential to academic writing. Generally, two international students were assigned to Do Now U project groups of two or three geology students, although international students with stronger English proficiency or a more autonomous learning style could decide not to have a composition classmate as a partner. However, for many international students, having a classmate as a partner in this project gave them confidence in the research and collaborative writing process. In fact, the international students continued to develop their English academic writing skills after this project was finished, either by continuing with their original ideas or examining a related environmental topic, which they then presented as posters during the campus Sustainability Day in April.
Although the goals of the geology and English courses were not the same and incorporated the Do Now U project differently, courses had to follow the same timeline for preparing posts. To facilitate the online writing process, instructors also assigned students roles, such as background writer, pro argument or con argument writer, editor, and media finder. Three common collaborative face-to-face sessions were held for students to complete the post together. Ultimately, UW-Whitewater submitted 16 blog posts for consideration. On March 15, 2017 the entry, “Do the Benefits of Aquaculture Outweigh Its Negative Impacts?” was posted.
Evaluating the Project
An online evaluation with questions targeted to each course was sent to all students in March, 2017. There was nearly a 100% response rate by geology students. Thirteen students were enrolled in English 162 when the project started, but only eleven completed the course, and six completed the survey. The findings are summarized below.
In the environmental geology course, collaborating on a blog post for a public media outlet was a novel experience, from determining a topic and refining a discussion question to writing a backgrounder that included links to further information.
95% indicated that they had learned something new about an environmental topic that they had chosen and researched themselves, with some commenting that they had come to understand new perspectives and to identify their own biases.
Many students indicated that working in a group offered them new perspectives on how to work with others; those who worked with international students appreciated the opportunity to do so.
Students enjoyed working with multimedia resources and developing a blog post, as opposed to writing a traditional research paper.
Some students found group work to be frustrating when group members did not contribute to the team effort.
Collaborating to write a blog post for a public media outlet was also a novel experience for the international students. The emphasis in this assignment, as well as in others in the course, was to develop and strengthen collegiate writing proficiency in English. Students were asked to reflect on their development.
On a scale of “not confident” to “very confident,” international students were asked to reflect on their growth as academic writers in English. All students indicated that they felt “somewhat” to “very confident” in their ability to locate appropriate academic resources and to evaluate their reliability.
On a scale of “not confident” to “very confident,” students indicated that they felt confident providing academic summaries of resources and preparing counterarguments.
All students reported that their academic vocabulary had improved.
None of the students indicated disappointment if their team’s work was not chosen for publication. Overall, the experience was positive for students enrolled in both courses.
What the Instructors Learned
This pilot was the first time that these three instructors collaborated on a public writing project, let alone one that paired upper-level students with novice academic writers who communicate through ESL. Observations of students throughout the project, as well as student survey results, led to the following conclusions:
Using the template provided by KQED and reviewing past posts to understand how to complete the assignment from the beginning focused the writing process for all students and made assigning writing roles to students easier. Furthermore, the template’s structural guidelines freed students to focus on refining their questions and finding relevant resources instead of wondering how to organize the information.
Making the theme of the English course environmental sustainability and registering for a blog posting date mid-semester gave the first-year international students time to build background knowledge in order to be strong partners to the geology students. All students ultimately shared common content knowledge, which leveled the playing field for the assignment.
Assigning international students to write the negative position on a topic helped them to conceptualize counterarguments, an important skill in argumentative writing.
Geology students in groups with international students enjoyed the opportunity to meet and work with students from other countries.
All students appreciated the chance to share information with a broader audience outside of their courses.
Although many students liked building a document by communicating online, they also appreciated the face-to-face work. Face-to-face meeting in the university library allowed all students to review work together.
Changes for Future Projects
Overall this pilot worked well; however, certain modifications would improve the structure of future collaborative writing projects. For example, scheduling the English course and the geology courses at the same time of day would allow for more convenient face-to-face collaboration among all students as a learning community. Although most students enjoyed this assignment, some were frustrated when not all group members pulled their weight. Because this also happens in the workplace, students need to know how to manage such situations and how to take responsibility for their specific roles on a team project. Restructuring the course assignments to emphasize individual accountability to the group would help students to develop this skill. Students would benefit from reflecting on the experience of working in groups and learning how individual actions affect the team.
Both collaboration and open-ended research-based projects are high-impact practices (HIPs), noted for promoting strong learning outcomes in higher education that translate to participation in a globalizing society (Kuh, 2008). Indeed, an analysis by Kilgo, Sheets, and Pascarella on the effectiveness of HIPs on the goals of liberal arts education indicates that these two practices are “. . . significant, positive predictors for a variety of liberal arts learning outcomes” (2015, p. 522). Students participating in the Do Now U project worked together to research issues in which society affects the environment. Such learning practices fall within the domains of cognitive and interpersonal competence, integral to 21st-century skills (National Research Council, 2012).Project-based learning is also a natural fit in the SENCER paradigm, as it promotes student-centered, self-directed, deep examination of issues.
Additionally, students participating in groups composed of both U.S. and international students experienced working with individuals from a culture other than their own, an important component of intercultural competence (Kuh, 2008). Although students enrolled in Environmental Geology would have been able to carry out this project on their own, sharing the project with first-year international students enabled all students to improve intercultural competence within an international academic community. The ability to work as a team, not only face-to-face but also online, is an important competency in the global workforce (Moore, 2016).
In the English course, working with unsimplified, authentic texts and communicating with native speakers in English allowed students to conduct research and to write for a specific purpose and audience far beyond their ESL class. Such practice helped them to focus on the intellectual purpose of researched writing rather than on the mechanical aspects of citation and reference, which, although important, should not occupy the forefront of writing to learn (Howard and Jamieson, 2014). Collaborating with students in the geology course on this project required ESL students to become knowledgeable about an environmental concern and to communicate with others using both academically and socially appropriate language in speech and writing. Furthermore, project-based learning naturally promotes the use and development of the four language skills (speaking, reading, writing, and listening) and subskills (vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation) in an integrated way and fosters learner autonomy (Beckett and Slater, 2005). The sustained opportunity to use academic language beyond the English composition classroom in a scientific theme put these international students on track for academic language development and learning that would serve them in courses beyond this one. Such educational practices may become increasingly important as the number of ESL students enrolled in English-medium institutions of higher education around the world grows (Fenton-Smith, Humphreys, Walkinshaw, Michael, and Lobo, 2017).
For the geology students, the experience of asynchronous, collaborative writing was a gateway into an increasingly common mode of professional communication in both academia and the workplace. Students were also placed in the novel situation of sharing information that they had learned independently with a wider audience. Although the project was a low-stakes assignment in terms of the effect on the course grade, students engaged in several HIPs—collaborative group work, working across cultures, and a writing-intensive assignment, while engaging in self-identified, open-ended questions where science and social responsibility came together.
A SENCER course in the sciences is different from a composition course that uses science topics as a springboard to academic writing, yet the opportunity to communicate about science can reach beyond science courses. Collaborating on Do Now U demonstrated how this type of bridge worked—bringing group writing to a science course and introducing SENCER practices into a composition course for international students. Further, it exemplifies how collaboration between the humanities and natural sciences, using a SENCER approach, benefitted students at different stages of university education.
Special thanks to Andrea Aust, Director of Science Education at KQED Public Media, and her team for guidance and editing support for our students, and to the anonymous reviewers of this manuscript for helpful suggestions.
About the Authors
Prajukti (Juk) Bhattacharyya is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Geology, and Environmental Science at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She received her PhD from the University of Minnesota in 2000.Her background is in Hard Rock Geology and Geoscience Education.She teaches courses on volcanoes, structural geology, rocks and minerals, plate tectonics, and environmental geology.Her research interests range from geochemical analyses of igneous and metamorphic rocks to volcanic activities.She is also involved in STEM education research, especially on ways to help students learn and on the assessment of student learning.
Susan Huss-Lederman is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she has taught since 1995.Susan has taught ESL for 30 years and has expertise in professional development of pre-service and practicing teachers, as well as in ESL curriculum development. For 13 years, Susan co-directed several federally funded professional development projects for teachers of English language learners in Wisconsin. She has also trained English teachers in Mexico and Ecuador. Currently, under the auspices of the Galápagos Conservancy and the Scalesia Foundation, Susan leads a team of educators offering ongoing professional development in English education for sustainability in the schools of the Galápagos. In 2016, Susan received a Teaching Excellence Award given by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.
Brianna Deering is a Lecturer in the English Language Academy at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.Educating students has been her passion for the last 25 years. She began her teaching career in elementary education and transitioned to adult education, with the last five years being at the college level. She has taught a variety of ESL courses, from introductory to advanced English, as well as English for business communication and the healthcare system.She has organized conversation groups, service learning projects, and community outreach programs as ways to expand the cultural knowledge of her international students.
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A greenhouse program in a community garden in Brooklyn, New York, is developed for year-round urban farming. The program exercises technical skills to design and build the greenhouse, and also exercises community democracy skills to address interpersonal issues such as land usage in over-crowded spaces and volunteer organization operations. We describe here the planning and construction of the greenhouse and also the process of community group discussion, debate, and voting in a volunteer run community garden.
The urban environment of New York City (NYC) offers an endless supply of sensory and cultural experiences, but it does not offer much by way of open green spaces, and even less access to healthy, locally sourced food. Community gardens are green spaces in which the residents enjoy, steward, and cultivate a small plot of soil in the city. There are more than 900 community gardens across the five boroughs (Design for Public Space 2014), each one with a unique governance and farming mission. Organic farming for food production and education is vital, especially in urban environments where the availability and desire for whole food based diets are rare.
The community garden discussed in this report is located in Northern Brooklyn and occupies the land of three adjoining building lots. The garden has nearly one hundred members, operates a public compost collection system, and has over 1300 square feet of organic vegetable growing space. Until recently, the winter all but stopped our farming activities except for the use of small cold frames to grow greens and seedlings through the colder months. The next step in the garden’s mission to grow food and educate the community was to establish a year-round gardening program in a greenhouse. This project report describes the obvious and non-obvious parts of the project that were important to ensure a successful outcome, including grant writing, technical design and construction, and, most importantly, community democracy.
The greenhouse development was funded by a generous grant from Citizens Committee of New York City. The grant mission statement was to develop a year-round farming space so that seedlings could be grown in the early spring for farm use and public sale, and to offer an educational and public laboratory space for anyone interested in greenhouse growing. The grant was written by three garden members during the winter of 2016 and notice of the $2300 award was given in the spring of 2017.
It is becoming increasingly important, especially in NYC, to justify the use of land space and grant money. There are many groups developing new metrics to understand and measure the impact of their community projects (Design for Public Space 2014). The metrics to measure the outcomes of the greenhouse are
1. Count of seedlings grown that are distributed to the farm
2. Revenue from greenhouse-grown seedlings at public plant sales
3. Record of crop yields from greenhouse-grown plants
4. Record of events and number of garden members working in the greenhouse.
The grant application included a proposed location of the greenhouse with adequate sun in the winter months, since a greenhouse relies on the sun for passive heating. From an aesthetic viewpoint, it is important to place the greenhouse in a position that does not obtrude on the visual experience of the garden. To accommodate these requirements, a south-facing space was chosen on the edge of the farm area, which is visually buffered by surrounding trees to the north. The greenhouse construction must also follow all zoning laws. This type of greenhouse would be considered a noncommercial greenhouse (Rules of the City of New York).In addition, the construction must follow building codes, including the roof loads for snow (Department of Buildings, New York City).
The average price per square foot of Brooklyn real estate is approximately $750 (www.trulia.com). This expense creates a huge pressure on the utilization of open spaces. Allocating eight square feet (worth approximately $48,000) for a greenhouse is thus a difficult decision. Even though the dollar value is not an actual cost, it does reflect the challenges confronted when proposing to use shared open space.
Our community garden is a democratic organization comprised of community volunteers, and the deliberations to build the greenhouse presented a very valuable and in-depth exercise of community democracy. The ages of the participants ranged from children to senior citizens, and the team was comprised of architects, scientists, lawyers, artists, teachers, and corporate workers with varying skill levels specific to greenhouse construction. Some members supported the construction of the greenhouse, whereas other members were opposed to the project. Ideally, a rational and scientific approach can be a valuable strategy for moving forward while acknowledging the input of all members.
The primary question to address was whether or not to add an additional structure in the garden, because the surrounding urban environment is made of human made structures with small amounts of green space. To address this concern, the design of the greenhouse was modified to minimize the total vertical height by making a gable roof instead of a simpler shed roof.A slope is needed for snow and rain runoff, and an angled roof also provides increased light transmission. Additionally, we noted that a Spiraea shrub on the east side and overarching trees on the north of the greenhouse will visually buffer the structure in the summer months. Garden members stressed that a greenhouse structure is visually transparent, and that it is also a natural garden structure with visual vegetation inside.
Aside from the overall visual design of the garden space, we needed to consider sunlight exposure of the greenhouse and the shadows that it casts. A suggestion was made to place the greenhouse in a corner of the garden, but it was not clear how much sunshine the greenhouse would receive during the winter. The greenhouse requires direct sunlight in the winter months, so a suitable location must be far from tall fences or neighboring buildings. The sun’s angle in the winter sky was an important detail to consider when locating the greenhouse. Areas receiving sun in the summer or fall months may not be illuminated in the winter due to neighboring buildings. To address these questions, a sun study was performed to determine the shadows cast by neighboring buildings in the winter months. The results of this study showed that the greenhouse would be in the winter shade if it were located in the back corner of the garden, because of the adjacent buildings and fences. It was also questioned if the greenhouse itself would cast shade on any plants behind the structure. However, this issue is not a serious concern, because the greenhouse is constructed with transparent polycarbonate panels that are 80% transmissive, which means that 64% of incident light can pass through two walls to the plants behind the structure. The final site was chosen as far from southern buildings as possible, and in a position with trees behind so that it would not cast shade on small plants.
Another concern raised was the potential effects of a non-natural structure on pollinating insects. This is a very important issue, because pollinating insects are critical to the natural cycles of a plant ecosystem.We were fortunate that our grant coordinator from Citizens Committee had firsthand knowledge about pollinating insects in urban environments, and she informed us that pollinating insects navigate by sunlight, shade patterns, and color. The transparent panels are expected to have minimal effect on their natural pollinating courses in the warmer months.
Finally, since a greenhouse creates an ideal environment for the growth of plants, it is also conducive to the growth of fungi, pests, and plant pathogens. The interior of the greenhouse remains constantly moist and stays warm. Without electrical fans, the air is stagnant and promotes fungal and bacterial growth.A modern technology solution to this problem is temperature activated vents that mitigate the problem of overheating and can provide air current channels through the structure. These automatic vents do not require electricity and are passively operated by temperature-sensitive wax-filled pistons attached to the windows.It is also necessary to remove any dead plant material as soon as possible to minimize fungal growth. In addition, there are several organic essential oils such as neem, cedar, and citrus that are being tried as fungal deterrents. It is important to address this issue because a disease or pest that grows in the greenhouse might spread into the farm. The community farm is crowded, just like the rest of the city, so plant or airborne diseases and pests can spread quickly. It is critical that the greenhouse be operated with the best scientific practices possible to ensure the well-being of the rest of the communal farm space.
There were three meetings of the general membership, each lasting an hour, to discuss the greenhouse. The garden organization has chosen to operate with a loose interpretation of Robert’s Rules of Order. At the second meeting of discussions, a motion was made to implement the greenhouse.Among the 26 members present, the votes cast were 13 ayes, 10 nays, and 3 abstentions.According to our implementation of Robert’s Rules, any decision is based on the majority of voters present and not on a simple majority of votes. Consequently, the motion did not pass because 14 aye votes were requited for a majority of voters present (abstention votes act as a nay when a majority is defined in this way). The close count of the vote prompted advocates of the greenhouse to propose a revised plan that was scaled down in size as a concession to the opposition concerned with land usage. A new motion was presented the following month and the votes cast were 17 aye and 10 nay with no abstentions. This vote passed the motion so that the greenhouse project could be implemented.
Splitting a community is problematic, both emotionally and politically. Most projects in these types of organizations are of smaller scale with smaller impact, and they move forward with near unanimous support. Overall, the fundamental challenge is to separate the science-based concerns versus emotional concerns and address each appropriately. Emotional resistance can sometimes be overcome by providing a scientific explanation. In other cases, science-based criticisms can lead to very constructive discussions; we can use science to support our ideas but must acknowledge that science can also oppose them. For example, some who were opposed to the project identified specific plant pathogens and microclimate issues that occur in a greenhouse, and this was one of the most important issues to address.Also, the concern to minimize the visual impact while maximizing sunlight exposure led us to a very informative sun study of our garden. This respect for science and rational discussion is critical in our current society, and forward progress can be made by focusing on tangible and rational methods.
All the work described above generated an 8-ft square greenhouse. The future work requires designing the interior space to be most space efficient and to the liking of the members. Initial ideas are to run multiple levels of shelving around the walls to maintain the maximum possible floor space for mobility. However, plants along the south-facing wall will block the sun, and so the density of shelves and plants on the south wall should be carefully considered. An irrigation system is being planned that will take roof runoff into gutters that feed directly into drip irrigation for plants in the greenhouse. The greenhouse will require regular maintenance throughout the year to keep plants watered and to deter infections. Other programs in the garden have been successful in sustaining a group of dedicated workers and a publicly available sign-up schedule, and we hope to replicate the successful model already in place in our garden. Also in progress is a process to plan and coordinate volunteer work. We intend to use the space for projects, instead of allocating space to individual members.as is the case in the rest of the garden.We hope that this will be a more equitable method of sharing the space.
An 8-ft square polycarbonate greenhouse was constructed in a community garden in Brooklyn, NY. This process was completely developed and executed by community volunteers. We have detailed the democratic discussions and scientific arguments needed to move forward through a system of community democracy to achieve success. We found that discussions among a large group of emotionally invested community members can be navigated by applying specific scientific principles in a democratic and objective manner. We hope that this project report can be of use to other community groups looking to undertake complex projects in a diverse community.
The author wishes to thank Citizens Committee for New York City for the generous grant and the entire garden membership of Prospect Heights Community Farm for working through this complex project to a successful completion.
About the Author
Jeff Secor has been a resident of Brooklyn for 10 years and a member of PHCF for nine of those years. He was a freelance gardener around Brooklyn during his graduate studies at the City College of New York. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from CUNY with a specialty in spectroscopy, photosynthesis, and carbon quantum dots. He currently teaches physics at a private school in New York City and teaches workshops on winter gardening structures such as cold frames and greenhouses.
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Rules of the City of New York. Noncommercial Greenhouses Accessory to Residential Uses as a Permitted Obstruction in Required Rear Yards or Rear Yard Equivalents, Chapter 23-0.
Construction Details for the Greenhouse
The materials for constructing the greenhouse are listed in Table 1. The greenhouse framing material was chosen to be cedar wood since it is an excellent exterior wood for greenhouse framing. It lasts through years of weather exposure and acts as its own insect repellent. Cedar wood is also locally available and within the budget of the greenhouse. The transparent covering is made of 6 mm-thick twin wall polycarbonate (PC) greenhouse panels. PC greenhouse panels are a relatively new material. The insulating R value of 1.54 for polycarbonate compares very well to the R value of 1.72 for a ¼-in. spaced double pane window. It is lightweight (a few pounds per 4 ft ×8 ft panel) and has no risk of breaking into sharp pieces as glass could. It should be noted that the PC panels have a slight blurring effect and are not as visually clear as glass. The PC panels are specified to pass 80% of the sun spectrum that is useful for photosynthesis (400–700 nm).
Local building codes were consulted to ensure compliance with applicable laws. The building codes in NYC are available online through the Department of Buildings. In NYC, this type of greenhouse would be considered a noncommercial greenhouse (Rules of the City of New York). This ordinance requires that the greenhouse be more 3 ft from the lot line. The roof was designed to conform to roof load specifications of 30 lb per square foot of horizontal extent (Department of Buildings, New York City). In general, the square foot of horizontal extent is 1 square foot multiplied by the cosine of the roof pitch. Finally, the PC manufacturer’s specifications determined the required roof framing spacing to support the necessary roof load and resulted in roof purlins spaced 24 in. apart.
The greenhouse will be a warm and moist space in the winter, and the surrounding urban environment contains rodents. Galvanized wire mesh should be placed on the subground as a barrier to prevent rodents burrowing into the greenhouse. During the summer the greenhouse can easily rise above 100 °F. The windows for the greenhouse are fitted with automatic wax hinges which actuate according to the interior temperature to prevent excessive heating and promote air circulation in the warmer months. Two vents are placed on the roof panels, and one vent is placed closer to the ground to achieve a chimney effect.
The greenhouse construction was completed in three phases: (a) site preparation, (b) framing construction, and (c) installation of the PC panels. Site preparation is the most physically intensive phase. The existing plants and garden soil were removed in order to level the foundation soil and to make room for the 6 in. x 6 in. foundation timbers. The area was compacted with a 10-in. hand tamper. We chose not to pour a concrete foundation in order to minimize the impact on the natural area and to minimize the eventual work of removing the greenhouse. Once the timbers were leveled in an 8 ft x 8 ft square arrangement, they were bolted together in the corners with 10-in. galvanized lag bolts, and each timber was anchored in place with two rebar “L” shapes inserted 3 ft below ground level. This part of the project took approximately three days over two weekends.
The second phase was constructing the framing. The wall panels were built first using 3-in. coated decking screws. A group of a dozen members, including a 12-year-old boy, assembled the wall panels, thereby gaining first-hand experience with framing squares, drill bits, circular saws, and with creating a level work space in a community garden. Afterwards, another group of members templated the roof boards using a speed square and a circular saw. In order to provide additional support, stainless steel rafter ties connect the wall framing to the roof boards. (Stainless steel does not interact with cedar wood.) The frame was attached to the foundation using 4½-inch stainless steel screws and washers. The entirety of the framing work required five days over three weekends.
Finally, the double walled PC panels were installed. The PC panels can be cut by an electric circular saw.A saw blade with fine teeth must be used when cutting the PC to prevent plastic shrapnel and rough edges. The tops of the PC were sealed with metal foil tape to prevent water from entering the channels. The PC panels were attached directly to the cedar framing using 1 ½- in. dip coated screws with 1-in. neoprene washers. The neoprene washers are common applications where a soft washer is needed in order to prevent cracks and punctures in the panels. It is important not to use galvanized screws as they will cause rust bleeding with the cedar. The framing geometry is made so that all of the panels end on a cedar framing stud. This makes for a more stable structure and also reduces thermal leakage. A door was cut from one of the wall panels and hung on zinc plated hinges. The hinges were installed on the outside of the panel, not in contact with the framing, so there is no danger of galvanic interaction between zinc and cedar.
The targeting of elementary school students early in their education with exposure to the different Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields will provide them future access to college offerings and career possibilities. Faculty and students from New York City College of Technology worked with young students at a local elementary school, creating and implementing programs that will help to strengthen the nation’s STEM workforce and to prepare students to be productive citizens with a strong sense of self.
The New York City College of Technology (informally known as “City Tech”) partnership with P.S. 307 Daniel Hale Williams School began in 2014. The partnership aimed to promote A Better Educated City; an investment in STEM, and our nation’s future.New York City College of Technology is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Daniel Hale Williams is an elementary school serving students in Pre-K through Grade 5, which became a science and technology-themed magnet school for STEM Studies after being a recipient of a grant from the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program. For the 2017-2018 academic year, 373 students are enrolled at Daniel Hale, where 57% are male students and 43% female students.The race/ethnicity reported by the school includes a 56% Black and 27% Hispanic student population. With a similar male to female ratio of undergraduate students, City Tech reports 30% Black and 33% Hispanic (New York City College of Technology 2017).The large underrepresented population at both schools made the partnership an ideal fit.Initially, college students were hired as interns through the CUNY Service Corps program. The CUNY Service Corps organizes students and faculty across the institution to work on projects that benefit the residents and communities of New York City.These projects aim to advance the “civic, economic and environmental sustainability” of the city (City University of New York [CUNY] 2018). At the core of the Service Corps, launched in 2013 as a response to Hurricane Sandy, is civic-engagement, which aligns with the values of SENCER. Students are paid as interns to work in civic-related jobs in community organizations (CUNY 2018). During the 2014–2015 academic year, two CUNY students worked to develop and implement an Educational Outreach Program that provided students in grades 1–5 with exposure to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in their elementary school classrooms. To sustain the program beyond the 2014–2015 academic year, the Black Male Initiative, Emerging Scholars, and Perkins Peer Advisement programs at City Tech continued to support the outreach project. Since the program’s inception, a number of City Tech undergraduate students have served as mentors to the elementary school students and have worked with faculty at City Tech and key staff at the local elementary school. The goal of this collaboration, which has spanned a number of years, was to engage college students, elementary school students, college faculty, elementary teachers, and the families of the elementary students in a STEM outreach initiative.
Why is it important to integrate STEM education into the elementary school curriculum?
Many recent studies indicate that the gap in the STEM workforce will continue to widen unless more students decide to enter the STEM fields (Brophy et al. 2008; Brown 2012; Johnson 2013). According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17%, while others are growing at 9.8% (Langdon et al. 2011). To succeed in society today, we should encourage students to solve problems, develop their capabilities in STEM, and become tomorrow’s scientists, inventors, and leaders (Science Pioneers 2017). Exposure to STEM careers at the elementary school level enhances student learning, encourages creativity, and entices curiosity. The National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council list some benefits of incorporating engineering in K–12 schools: improved achievement in mathematics and science, increased awareness of engineering, understanding and being able to do engineering design, and increased technological literacy (Katehi, Pearson, & Feder 2009). With these studies as a rationale, we developed a multitier approach to integrate STEM into a Pre-K–5 (elementary) school.
The awareness of STEM-related careers was presented to the participating staff, students and families through in-class lesson plans, afterschool programs, and family workshops. Most of the projects centered on science and civil engineering to draw from the strength of the faculty involved.The engineering design process was included in the activities.Students were encouraged to (a) identify the problem, (b) brainstorm solutions, (c) try a design, (d) test, (e) identify strengths and weaknesses, and (f) try again.In order to promote skills associated with a well-rounded scientist and engineer, the activities integrated concepts of cost, schedule, and communication. The majority of the activities (in-class lessons, afterschool program and family workshops) were held at the local elementary school.College students and faculty met and communicated regularly with the staff at the elementary school to plan all activities.We present below the project design of this multitier approach to the community.
The in-class lessons centered on the NYC Scope and Sequence for Science and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).The science focus included the following two topics: The Five Dancing Spheres (biosphere, lithosphere, geosphere, cryosphere, and hydrosphere) and Weathering and Erosion. In each unit, students in grades 3 and 4 explored these science fields and created models to represent and display their learning.The civil engineering focus included the following in-class lesson topics: What is Engineering, Types of Engineering, Structures and Functions, Teams behind Construction, Construction Drawings, and Sustainability.The goal of the in-class lessons was to enhance the existing science curriculum with real-world applications and hands-on projects to help the students better understand the science curriculum. The commitment and participation of teachers from the elementary school were critical to the success of the program.The teachers and undergraduate students met regularly to plan, reflect, and ensure a smooth link between the NGSS curriculum and the in-class lesson topics.The teachers provided insight on teaching techniques for elementary school-age children and diverse learning styles.The undergraduate students worked closely with the teachers and tailored their lessons and activities to the children in the classroom.
The lesson plans for The Five Dancing Spheres curriculum (Figures 1 and 2) at the elementary school is only one example of the approach that we implemented.Each lesson included a visual aspect (examples), vocabulary activity, homework, and a hands-on activity.
The afterschool programs reflected the model used in two local design competitions: West Point Bridge Design and Future City. These competitions are aimed at middle school students to promote interest in civil engineering careers.These projects required students to model the Engineering Design Process. Students used software programs to design their projects, create physical models, and prepare oral presentations.Even though students did not participate in the competitions, they were encouraged to be problem solvers and engineers.Students were encouraged to design, test, and revise their ideas. This provided a great opportunity for students to use their math, science, and technology skills while working with the engineering design process to come up with various solutions.
Engineering concepts such as force and equilibrium were incorporated through the Bridge Design project.Students used the Bridge Design software to design their bridges and simulate the testing of the bridge. Bridge Designer is a zero-cost educational software intended to provide middle school and high school students with a real-world overview of engineering through the design of a steel highway bridge (Ressler 2013).
These elementary students were introduced to concepts of tensile and compressive force.Students created a virtual bridge and a
replica model of their virtual bridge usingbalsa wood (Figure 3). Each material had a cost assigned to it, and students worked to make the strongest and most affordable bridge.
Similarly, concepts such as city planning and sustainable design were taught through the city design project. Future City is a project-based learning program where students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade imagine, research, design, and build cities of the future (National Engineers Week Future City Competition 2017). Our afterschool partnership brought this project to the elementary students at P.S. 307, and they successfully created their own virtual city using the Sim City software.Students made blueprints of their cities and created a replica model showing a block of their cities using all recyclable materials. In preparing a blueprint, students visualize and sketch their design. Transferring the design from paper to three dimensions helped the students make a connection from 2-D to 3-D, promoting spatial thinking.Spatial thinking has been identified as an important trait for STEM careers (Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow 2009).“Fostering spatial thinking and mathematics learning in elementary school could contribute to a downstream ripple effect, improving students’ interest and success in STEM subjects throughout their education and into their careers” (Burte et al. 2017).
The process of calculating total cost introduced the idea of budgets and the importance of adhering to a budget. Students also had to adhere to a schedule, as they were limited in the amount of time they could work on each portion of the project. Students presented their projects at the end of each program.
Family STEM Workshops
Recognizing the importance of family involvement in a child’s success, the program included interactive STEM workshops and field trips for families that increased their awareness of STEM-related careers. Survey and program assessment data informed planning for the next project year.Topics in the family STEM workshops included, but were not limited to Civil Engineering, Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, Architectural Engineering, and Computer Systems Technology.One local field trip included the SONY Wonder Technology Lab in New York City.
Some of the activities that were introduced at the workshops were (a) Spooky Materials Testing experiment which included a Mechanical Engineering focus; (b) building a home for turkeys with a Civil Engineering focus; (c) dissolving M&Ms and making slime with Chemistry; (d) learning coding with puzzles with a Computer Engineering focus; and (e) the design and creation of an architectural building model with Architectural Engineering as the focus.
The Spooky Materials Testing experiment (Schooling a Monkey 2018) introduced stress concepts to the elementary students by applying the different types of stresses (tensile, compressive, shear) to different types of candy and comparing the results of the tests on each candy. Students then made connections as to which type of candy, based on the stress concept, would be best for building.
Building a home for a turkey (Preschool STEAM n.d.) introduced the structural concepts and material cost to the students. The goal was to contain the holiday turkeys in a structurally sound and cost-efficient space. There were time limits and cost constraints that the students had to comply with. Students were also given a range of materials, each with a certain cost assigned.
Dissolving M&Ms (American Chemical Society 2018) and making slime (STEAM Powered Family 2018) introduced the concept of chemical experimentation and observation. In both activities, students were able to combine substances and observe the outcomes, which were colorful, fun, and thought provoking. With the help of parents, the students poured rubbing alcohol, water, and oil onto a plate of M&Ms and saw the dissolving effects the different solutions had on the M&Ms.The slime-making activity reinforced the concept of how observations are important in chemical processes.
Learning coding with puzzles introduced the algorithmic concept of coding patterns to the students (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 2018). This was accomplished through a brief introduction of how to follow steps using “coding language” and a visual puzzle activity that involved critical thinking. The students were then encouraged to “walk out” their coded steps on a large grid that closely followed the worksheet they worked on. As a next step, students and their families applied the skills they had learned to the online software in code.org.
By designing and creating an architectural building model, students were able to see the problem-solving and aesthetic skills it takes to become an architect. Students were given a laser-cut bendable paper set to create 3D models of their structure. Each student received the same pieces, but each individual was able to create entirely different structures by arranging the structure to their liking.
Results and Discussion
The faculty at New York City College of Technology recruited undergraduate students enrolled in the departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Civil Engineering Technology to serve as mentors, which included a pool of about 750 students. Throughout the years, several programs have provided support to the college students involved in this endeavor.These included the CUNY Service Corps, Emerging Scholars, Perkins Peer Advisement, and the Black Male Initiative programs, all of which have recognized the value of the STEM Outreach program. The success of the partnership and the collaboration of college faculty and students at City Tech has opened the eyes, minds, and future career potential of the elementary students at P.S. 307 Daniel Hale Williams School. It reinforced the need for STEM education in underrepresented learners. The partnership has increased exposure at the elementary school to STEM topics and courses taught at the college level.The outcomes as shown have been favorable and shared with the community at large via showcase presentations, school displays, and conference presentations, and at the college’s annual poster session.
Our success included presenting activities seen as academically challenging (geared only to junior high, high school, or college students) to the elementary school students at P.S. 307, in a way that led to both success and enjoyment for the students. Furthermore, these students were able to figure out what STEM topics they enjoyed by trying many different discipline-oriented workshops. By including the parents in our workshops, we were able to inform them about various fields of engineering, next step school options for their elementary child, and career opportunities.Elementary school students were able to successfully implement the information they were learning through interactive hands-on STEM activities.
Impact on Undergraduate Students
There is a large body of evidence of the positive impact of undergraduate research on college students (Lopatto 2010; Russell, Hancock, & McCullough 2007).George Kuh (2008) also points to high-impact practices such as engagement beyond classroom (internships) and community-based learning that promote student engagement.The STEM outreach that we have described demonstrates that working with community partners such as the elementary school represents a valuable community-based project.The CUNY Service Corps indicate that undergraduates gain “workplace skills and abilities; personal development; civic engagement and social issues awareness” (CUNY 2017).The undergraduate students developed the curriculum under the guidance of the faculty and elementary school teachers.Additionally, the students gained valuable experience for the real world, including organization and communication and presentation skills.
This work brings to the forefront a collaboration that engaged faculty, undergraduates and elementary school students and teachers in a STEM outreach project.The project, which aimed to promote A Better Educated City, has increased awareness of STEM careers among families at the elementary school. Students were engaged in hands-on activities while learning elementary concepts related to STEM. Exposing elementary school students to science and engineering concepts can motivate them to solve various problems more effectively. “Quality STEM education is vital for the future success of students. Integrated STEM education is one way to make learning more connected and relevant for students” (Stohlmann, Moore, & Roehrig 2012, 28). Engineering is traditionally not a subject that is taught in elementary schools. However, it is a powerful method of teaching and motivating students in STEM-related fields. “Research indicates that using an interdisciplinary or integrated curriculum provides opportunities for more relevant, less fragmented, and more stimulating experiences for learners” (Furner & Kumar 2007, 186).Adding science, and more importantly, engineering as a part of the elementary school curriculum can be an effective way for students to strengthen their science, mathematics, and technological skills.
Professors Samaroo and Villatoro thank the following programs for supporting the various undergraduate students involved in this project over the years: Perkins Peer Advisement, Black Male Initiative and Emerging Scholars programs at New York City College of Technology, and the CUNY Service Corps.The authors thank the principals and teachers at Daniel Hale Williams School for opening their classrooms to this project throughout the years. We also acknowledge the faculty from the City Tech who participated in the Family STEM Workshops and the following undergraduates who have contributed to this project: Ramon Romero, Ngima Sherpa, Joyce Tam, Abigail Doris, Dante Francis and Jesam Usani.
About the Authors
Areeba Iqbal earned her Associate in Applied Science in Civil Engineering from New York City College of Technology.She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from
Kayla Natal is currently a student at New York City College of Technology, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.She also works as a Coordinator for the Peer Advisement Program. Kayla hopes to further her education and pursue a career in Industrial Design.
Servena Narine is a licensed and certified NYC Board of Education teacher. She currently works at Daniel Hale Williams Public School 307 Magnet School for STEM Studies. She has been an educator at P.S. 307 for 22 years. Over the course of her career, she has served as a classroom teacher (Grades Pre-K, 1, 2 and 3), mathematics coach, technology teacher, magnet resource specialist, and mentor. No matter the position, role or duties, she enjoys each, in addition to working with staff, students, parents, and partnerships. She brings to her work a focused and organized structure which has benefited her and the school over the years.
Melanie Villatoro is an assistant professor in the Department of Construction Management and Civil Engineering Technology.She teaches a variety of courses in the civil engineering major including statics, strength of materials, concrete, steel, soil mechanics, and foundations.Prof. Villatoro’s approach to teaching builds on developing rapport with her students.She is highly effective in the classroom and as an advisor and mentor.She is passionate about student retention and performance, as well as STEM Outreach from the elementary to the high school level.
Diana Samaroo is an associate professor and chair of Chemistry Department at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, New York. Her pedagogical research is in the area of peer-led team learning in Chemistry and integrating research into the curriculum.With a background in biochemistry, her research interests are in the area of drug discovery, therapeutics, and nanomaterials. She has successfully mentored students through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation and the Black Male Initiative and serves on the college’s Undergraduate Research Committee.
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City University of New York. (2018). CUNY Service Corps. Retrieved February 5, 2018 fromhttp://www1.cuny.edu/sites/servicecorps/.
Furner, M. J., & Kumar, . (2007). The mathematics and science integration argument: A stand for teacher education. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education,3(3), 185–189.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. (2018) Try Engineering. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from http://tryengineering.org.
Johnson, C. C. 2013. Conceptualizing integrated STEM education. School Science and Mathematics, 113(8), 367–368.
Katehi, L., Pearson, G., & Feder, M. (2009). The status and nature of K-12 engineering education in the United States. The Bridge on K-12 Engineering Education, 39(3). Retrieved February 5, 2018 from https://www.nae.edu/19582/Bridge/16145/16161.aspx.
Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Beede, D., Khan, B, & Doms, M.(2011). STEM: Good jobs now and for the future. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/stemfinalyjuly14_1.pdf.
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Russell S. H., Hancock , & McCullough, J. (2007). The pipeline. Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science, 316(5824), 548–549.
Schooling a Monkey. (2018). Hands-on teaching ideas. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from http://www.schoolingamonkey.com/engineering-activities-for-kids/.
Stohlmann, M., Moore, T. J., & Roehrig, G. H. (2012). Considerations for teaching integrated stem education. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 2(1), 28–34.
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Retention efforts in STEM have become a priority of colleges and universities. Two-year college STEM students are particularly affected by factors that contribute to low retention and persistence. To address STEM retention problems, a student support program was developed through National Science Foundation funding to support STEM student success. The program sought to enhance STEM identity, thereby increasing persistence. Participants were required to engage in STEM civic engagement, using their STEM knowledge and skills for community betterment. This study sought to examine the effects of these activities on students’ STEM identity and ultimate persistence. Data were collected over years from participant surveys and interviews. We found that students had cultivated a sense of STEM identity, and that graduation and transfer rates increased as a result of their increased civic engagement. Students who engage in their community develop cultural competency, communication skills, and critical thinking ability and have opportunities to apply their knowledge.
The Role of Two- year Colleges in STEM Education
Two-year colleges are an often overlooked but essential component in the pathway to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) higher education (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM] 2016; National Research Council [NRC] 2012).They play a unique role in STEM education, enrolling nearly half of the nation’s undergraduate students (American Association of Community Colleges [AACC] 2014). Community colleges in the United States enroll more than eight million students annually, including 43% of U.S. undergraduates (AACC 2011; Mullin 2012). Approximately 50% of all college students who eventually earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM begin their undergraduate education at two-year colleges (Tsapogas 2004; Starobin & Laanan 2010), and 20% of students who were awarded science and engineering doctoral degrees earned credits at a two-year college at some point in their academic careers (Chen 2013).
Community colleges provide a diverse student body (people of color, women, older students, veterans, international students, first-generation college students, low-income students, and working parents) with access to higher education. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 52% percent of Hispanic students, 44% of African American students, 55% of Native American students, and 45% of Asian-Pacific Islander students attend two-year colleges (AACC 2011). Additional reports (Provasnik & Planty 2008) show the median age of two-year college students is 24, with 35% of the student population 30 or older. Further data show that 20% of two-year college students are married with children, and an additional 15% are single parents (Provasnik & Planty 2008; Li 2007). Almost half of college-going students attend community colleges at some point in their academic careers; low-income, first generation, and under-represented minority students are more likely to enroll in two-year institutions (NASEM 2016).
Two-year colleges attract many students by providing affordable tuition, flexible scheduling, small class sizes, and access to faculty. These institutional attributes accommodate those two-year college students who take a nonlinear path to degree completion due to family and work obligations (Pérez & Ceja 2009). On account of the rich diversity of their student population, two-year colleges have the potential to increase participation of non-traditional and underrepresented students in STEM.
Retention and Persistence for Community College STEM Students
Retention and persistence of all STEM students continue to be of significant concern as data reveal that more than half of freshman who initially declare STEM majors leave these fields before graduation (President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology [PCAST] 2012; Chen 2009; Chen 2013). Among all students who declared their intentions to pursue STEM majors, only 43% were still in a STEM major at the time of their last enrollment, with the others all transitioning to other majors. Even more problematic, only 7.3% of STEM students who began at a two-year college received a STEM bachelor’s degree after six years, compared with 45% of students who started in a four-year program (Chen 2013).
Factors influencing retention and persistence in STEM majors are diverse and often interconnected. Leading reasons for low STEM retention and persistence at both the two-year and four-year colleges are uninspiring introductory courses, lack of math preparation, and an academic culture not welcoming of women, minorities, and non-traditional students (PCAST 2012; Seymour and Hewett 2000; Griffith 2010; Huang, Taddese, & Walter 2000). Additionally, STEM students at the two-year college are affected by external circumstances such as work and family obligations and have fewer economic and social resources and fewer STEM role models than their four-year traditional student counterparts.For the two-year college STEM student, these external circumstances coupled with an unwelcoming STEM culture undermine their sense of identity, belonging, and self-efficacy, which are critical to their STEM retention and persistence.
The Culture of STEM
The explicit and implicit customs, behaviors, and values that are normative within STEM education make up the culture of STEM (NRC 2009). An examination of the culture of STEM education is important because the social, psychological, and structural dimensions of STEM education in two-year and four-year colleges influence student identity, belonging, self-efficacy, and encouragement. The experiences students gather during their interactions with the “STEM culture” of the department or institution drive student awareness and understanding of program standards, academic expectations, STEM identity, and their sense of belonging in the program. More importantly, student experiences within the STEM culture and the encouragement or lack thereof can have a profound impact on the student’s self-efficacy and desire to persist (Cabrera et al. 1999; Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele 1998; Reid & Radhakrishnan 2003; Pérez, Cromley, & Kaplan 2014).
Identity/Belongingness, Encouragement, and Self-efficacy
Self-perceptions regarding academic competence are framed by personal and collective identities. Each student has many such identities—racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, professional, sexual/gender, and family. These identities are framed by upbringing, experiences, and society at large and can shift across time either unconsciously or through deliberate effort (Good 2012). Students’ positive identification with their discipline can enhance academic engagement and belongingness and prove to be a great source of encouragement. However, more commonly the obverse is true, especially for non-traditional and underrepresented STEM students. These students often experience challenges such as isolation, invisibility, discrimination, and a sense of not belonging and disconnectedness from external social and cultural networks (Ong 2001; NRC 2012).
Belonging to valued social groups is a fundamental human need; a sense of inclusion is particularly important for underrepresented groups in STEM when stereotypes imply that they might be unsuited to certain settings, such as rigorous academic classes (Baumeister & Leary 1995; Dovidio, Major, & Crocker 2000; Walton & Cohen 2007; Cohen & Steele 2002). Feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance by others in STEM (faculty and peers) is crucial to retention and persistence for these STEM students (Johnson 2012; Palmer, Maramba, & Dancy 2011).
Stereotypical ideas about what constitute appropriate fields of study for two-year college students or comments regarding academic preparedness/achievement in math and science can serve as critical barriers to retention and persistence. According to Starobin & Laanan (2008), even when these students possess a strong math or science background, they often receive little encouragement or support from faculty. Creating a sense of encouragement and a support system for two-year college STEM students is paramount to increasing retention and persistence. Studies show non-traditional and underrepresented minorities need proactive personal encouragement and positive media messages to counteract the status quo “culture of STEM” (Hanover Research, 2014). Programs and activities that facilitate healthy positive relationships and offer encouragement among peers and from faculty promote student engagement and feelings of belonging.
Academic self-efficacy is commonly defined as the belief in one’s capabilities to achieve a goal or an outcome using one’s skills under certain circumstances, and that performance and motivation are determined by how effective people believe they can be. (Snyder & Lopez 2007; Bandura 1982). More specifically, for many two-year STEM students, academic self-efficacy is entangled with STEM identity as it refers to the belief or conviction that they can successfully obtain a STEM degree (Marra et al. 2009).
A major source of academic self-efficacy is simply having the raw knowledge, skills, and experience required to successfully reach a goal or to complete a task; this source of efficacy is commonly referred to as mastery experience (Bandura 1997). In the context of two-year STEM students, this means having a positive experience in completing a STEM task, specific course, and/or obtaining an associate’s degree.
STEM Civic Engagement through Peer Tutoring
STEM civic engagement covers a wide array of activities and learning outcomes in which students participate in the formal and informal STEM processes that address community needs and seek to improve the quality of life for individuals, groups, and entire communities. In this context, STEM civic engagement contributes to student growth by connecting authentic and meaningful service to communities with content and skills acquired in the classroom. Civic engagement activities, such as tutoring others in STEM content, present students with opportunities to reflect upon their own academic goals (also known as metacognition) (NRC, 2000), transform their communities, and identify and address social challenges that are specific to our society, i.e. the lack of STEM subject understanding, the lack of STEM role models, etc.
It is well documented that tutoring has beneficial effects on both the tutor and the tutee.In particular, many studies have shown that tutoring increases the content knowledge as well as the self-concept of the tutor (Britz, Dixon, & McLaughlin1989; Cohen, Kulik, & Kulik 1982; Early 1998).Students who tutor feel more positive towards themselves as students, and they display an improved academic self-concept. Through this enhanced self-concept, students identify themselves more strongly as students of their discipline (Early 1998).Furthermore, students in STEM disciplines who serve as leaders among their peers experience increased self-efficacy and retention, and studies have shown that this trend applies to both majority and underrepresented students.Thus, peer leadership may provide a path for improving retention of underrepresented groups in the field (Hug, Thiry, & Tedford 2011). Additional outcomes for STEM leaders (mentors or tutors) include increased participation in internships and higher GPAs (Monte, Sleeman, & Hein 2007). Other studies indicate that the opportunity to tutor or mentor others allows STEM students to develop a sense of belonging and social relationships that aid in student retention; to some extent, this can be attributed to improved experience with and understanding of STEM culture at the students’ institutions (Kiyama 2014; Kiyama et al. 2014).
Existing research provides a limited understanding of the relationship between identity/belonging, encouragement, self-efficacy, civic engagement, and retention rates for two-year college STEM students. Our study explored the effects of civic engagement volunteer activities on student identity/belonging, encouragement, and self-efficacy.The results show a relationship between these activities and STEM persistence and retention for two-year college STEM students.
Institution and Program
Perimeter College is part of Georgia State University, a diverse, multi-campus urban research university in metropolitan Atlanta. The college is the major provider of associate’s degrees and student transfer opportunities in Georgia and a gateway to higher education, easing students’ entry into college-level study.More than 21,000 students, representing all ages and backgrounds, are enrolled in Perimeter College. Through the college, Georgia State serves the largest number of dual enrollment, international, online, transfer, and first-time freshman students in the University System of Georgia.
Beginning in Spring 2012, through National Science Foundation funding, a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) was developed for two-year, full-time students, with a minimum 2.8 grade point average. To participate, students must have U.S. citizenship or status as permanent resident alien or refugee alien and be majoring in a STEM field of study, declared at any point but usually after the first year of coursework. The objectives of the program are two-fold: (a) to increase the number of students who persist in all STEM fields at the institution (chemistry, biology, math, geology, physics, computer science, and engineering) and (b) to increase the number of students who graduate and/or transfer to four-year colleges/universities to complete their STEM baccalaureate degrees.The demographic breakdown of the STEP participants throughout the lifetime of the program mirrored that of the STEM majors in the institution; the majority of STEP students are underrepresented minorities.
Students participate in the program for an average of three semesters (including a summer semester). Stipends are given to those participants who meet the following criteria each semester: (a) are enrolled as a full-time student (12 credit hours during the fall and spring semester); (b) maintain a cumulative minimum GPA of 2.8 and a minimum semester GPA of 2.5; (c) participate in a minimum of 10 hours of STEM civic engagement activities per semester; (d) participate in a minimum of six STEM–related activities (STEP-sponsored and others). Stipend amounts vary depending on the academic classification of the participant. Additional stipends are given for participation in the Summer Bridge I undergraduate research experience (three weeks), Summer Bridge II undergraduate research experience (eight weeks), and participation in the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. STEP sponsors multiple STEM activities each semester, including STEM industry visits and college visits.
STEM Civic Engagement Activities
Program participants are engaged in the STEM community in a number of ways, some of which are required elements and others that are optional.All program participants are required to attend a number of career workshops and to visit industry sites and four-year institutions.Additionally, throughout their tenure in the program, participants are required to complete a minimum of 10 hours of civic engagement per semester.Many of the students fulfill this requirement by serving as tutors in on-campus student support facilities or off campus in their communities. Additional civic engagement opportunities are available to the students through outreach activities (such as science festivals), environmental clean-ups, and other STEM-related events. Many students (73%) completed more than the required 10 hours per semester of service; the average contribution per semester is 12 hours of service.
In order to determine student outcomes, we tracked students through their program experience and after graduation and transfer to four-year institutions. During their tenure in the program, participants were asked to complete a number of surveys and focus group interviews to determine their reactions to and the perceived outcomes of the various student support activities.Surveys were retrospective in design: students were asked to think back to how they felt at the beginning of the program and compare that to how they felt at the time of taking the survey (usually after one year in the program). This approach maximizes ability to match responses and also eliminates pretest sensitivity and response shift bias, wherein students tend to underestimate or overestimate their attitudes towards the unknown prior to the start of an intervention (Howard 1980; Pratt, McGuigan, & Katzev 2000). In addition to surveys given during students’ tenure in the program, we also administered an alumni survey to those who had completed the program.
In particular, our 23-item student survey drew upon existing instruments designed to assess changes in STEM engagement (Fredricks et al. 2005), STEM identity and belonging, encouragement (Leonowich-Graham & Condley 2010), math and science anxiety (Bai et al. 2009; Glynn and Koballa 2006), commitment to research, and intent to persist (Tocker 2010). Further definition of these psychosocial constructs is presented in Table 1, along with example survey items. Students were asked to respond to survey items using a 5-point Likert scale of agreement (1=Strongly Disagree to 5=Strongly Agree).
To collect qualitative data, students were assembled in groups of 812 to participate in annual focus group interviews.During these interviews, students were asked probing questions regarding their experiences in the program and how they affected their identity, engagement, and intent to persist in STEM. The focus group interview protocol included questions such as the following:
Describe civic engagement activities that you participated in.
Did these activities change the way you think about yourself? About your intended career?
Are you making different decisions because of participating in this program? Explain.
To further explore the link between persistence and gains made by students as a result of the program and civic engagement activities, a multiple regression analysis was conducted whereby the outcome variable was Intention To Persist and the predictor variables were STEM Engagement, STEM Identity and Belongingness, Math and Science Anxiety, Research, and Encouragement. To compute the outcome and predictor values for this analysis, items from the student survey were averaged for each corresponding construct.
Qualitative data gleaned from participants’ open-ended responses to surveys and during focus group interviews suggested that the STEP program positively impacted their motivation to pursue STEM education and careers by enhancing their sense of STEM identity and belonging and by providing social support and encouragement.
[STEP] helped me to be confident and to trust myself that I can do better things if I have the will. It also helped me make the decision that I belong to a STEM family.
STEP enhanced my vision of being a scientist.
I was about to give up on my school.…[A]fter meeting and getting help from different people, I was able to rethink my major and continue my studies.
Additionally, annual surveys completed by program participants demonstrated that they made significant gains in terms of STEM engagement, STEM identity and belongingness, comfort with math and science, encouragement, and intent to persist.Table 2 shows statistically significant gains in attitude measured by these surveys over the course of the program.
Figure 1 summarizes the results of the regression analysis, conducted using data from the alumni surveys administered in 2013 and 2015 (n=39). Students taking the alumni survey had all completed their program and/or transferred to a four-year institution. Alumni survey data were chosen for this regression analysis in order to limit the findings to that of a longer-term student perspective; these students had the benefit of looking back over their entire program experience, and these data represent a more complete picture. The regression model with all five predictors explained 95% of the variance in the outcome variable (R2=.948, F(5,33)= 119.18, p<.001).Controlling for other variables in the model, the results indicate that two variables statistically significantly predict intent to persist:
STEM Identity and Belongingness (ß=.55, p<.001)
Encouragement (ß=.56, p<.001)
This suggests that students’ motivations to pursue additional STEM education and/or careers is contingent on the degree to which the program was able to (a) improve their sense of belonging in STEM and (b) provide encouragement for attaining a STEM degree. This finding corroborates previous research which indicates that STEM persistence increases as students experience a greater sense of belonging and general social support from mentors and colleagues (London et al. 2011).
Quantitative data analysis was limited in that the response rate for the student surveys was not 100%. (Response rate was roughly 85% across all items and multiple administrations of the survey.)Thus, responses might demonstrate a bias towards the positive, as students who felt less compelled to respond to the program survey were often those who had left the program (and usually the institution). Additionally, due to the low sample size, we must use caution when interpreting the results of the regression analysis. Correlations among constructs suggest that multicollinearity may have impacted the results of the regression. To mitigate the effects of multicollinearity, each predictor variable in the regression model was standardized (e.g., converted to a z-score). Furthermore, the results provided in the current report are preliminary and should be replicated using a larger sample size. It is also important to note that disaggregation of data by gender or race/ethnicity did not reveal significant differences among the participating groups of students.
During annual interviews, students were asked about their experiences in program activities, and how they thought these experiences affected them. In particular, we explored which facets of the program led to increased STEM identity and encouragement.Students explained that the volunteer work they did to meet their civic engagement requirements helped them in many ways.Specifically, they were able to solidify their STEM content knowledge and improve their communication and leadership skills:
Being part of [tutoring]… helps you refresh your mind. When you are helping them it helps you refresh your mind. You refresh communication skills.
It improves your leadership skills. One thing that I’ve learned is that you’re more involved in the community and you’re more exposed to the problems of the community. I think that it really improves your communication skills, your leadership, and it helps you learn more about your community.
Participants also felt that civic engagement motivated them to work harder in STEM and gave them a broader perspective on their futures.
It opens your mind up to all that’s out here. It’s opened my mind to what’s out there and made me think that I want to help people. It’s an unselfish thing.
Even being around the other members, outside of class, you get to know them—being around people that are really smart, makes me want to be really smart.
You become more motivated. You want to learn as much as you can. You want to help as much as you can. You want to put things out there so that people can learn from you.
It’s not about improving myself, but improving other people’s lives. I started thinking about non-profits. I started thinking about things that I didn’t think about before.
In short, students explained that participation in civic engagement improved their STEM and soft skills and motivated them to consider a broader range of career options. Their sense of identity as part of a STEM community was solidified through exchanges with their peers as well as with those they were helping.
In order to examine the effect of programmatic activities on actual persistence, we tracked transfer and graduation rates of the scholars, and compared those to non-participant STEM students. Table 3 indicates that program participants were more than twice as likely to complete their program of study and /or transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a STEM degree. Furthermore, STEP students who completed at least 10 hours per semester of civic engagement activities were even more likely to graduate and/or transfer (Table 3).
The culture that students encounter when studying STEM has an effect on their interest, self-concept, sense of connectedness, and persistence in STEM. Students who persist often have to draw upon personal, cultural, and co-curricular resources to counter messages about the nature of ability and stereotypes that they encounter in interactions with faculty and that are embedded in organizational norms and practices.
Interventions aimed at improving participant identity and belonging have been shown to enhance achievement and persistence (Cohen & Garcia 2008). Not surprisingly, students in highly evaluative environments (such as STEM courses) are sensitive to stereotype threat when facing difficult coursework and feedback, suggesting that it is particularly important to focus on improving STEM identity in an effort to increase student success (Cohen & Steele 2002).
Despite limitations of the study discussed in the results section, we found that an increase in STEM identity and belongingness and encouragement predicted an increase in intent to persist, and that actual persistence was improved with civic engagement. We posit that opportunities to guide others through tutoring and other civic engagement activities enhanced STEM identity, as scholars explained to us during interviews.In concurrence with STEM achievement, improved identity and belongingness in STEM led to a substantially higher likelihood of graduation and or transfer, as evidenced by participant graduation and transfer rates in comparison to those of non-participant STEM students at the institution. Participating students still face a number of challenges, as do their non-participating counterparts; though the overall graduation and transfer rate for participants is still alarmingly low, the trend towards success is encouraging and suggests that interventions aimed at increasing STEM identity through civic engagement will increase overall STEM diversity in academe and the workforce
About the Authors
Dr. Pamela M. Leggett-Robinson is the Science Department associate chair and an associate professor of chemistry on the Decatur campus of Georgia State University-Perimeter College. Dr. Leggett-Robinson has served as a program director for several NSF and NIH initiatives and is currently the principal investigator of Georgia State University-Perimeter College’s NSF STEP grant. Her research and scientific presentations focus on natural product chemistry, surface chemistry, and student support programs in STEM education. She holds a BS in Chemistry from Georgia State University, an MS in Bio-Inorganic Chemistry from Tennessee Technological University, and a PhD in Physical Organic Chemistry from Georgia State University. As corresponding author, Dr. Leggett-Robinson can be reached at email@example.com.
Mrs. Naranja Davis is the NSF GSU-PC STEP coordinator. She has worked as a coordinator on several other NSF STEM initiatives over the past 10 years and is experienced in student data systems. Ms. Davis has a BS in Communication with a minor in Public Relations.
Dr. Brandi Villa did her graduate research in areas of applied and environmental microbiology as well as program evaluation of a science education outreach organization. She has been a science educator at middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels for more than a decade and thus brings an educator and researcher’s perspective to the design and implementation of education research and program evaluation. In addition to her passion for all aspects of STEM education, Dr. Villa particularly enjoys challenges related to evaluation design, reporting, and data visualization.
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Course-based undergraduate research is an effective active, inquiry-based pedagogical tool. In many cases, these research experiences build on established research programs. This project report describes a research course designed to establish a new translational research program in epilepsy and to test the feasibility of engaging students early on in the research process. The outcomes of this class, including research deliverables and student learning gains assessments, indicate that engaging students in research at a very early stage in project development is a meaningful and productive pedagogical framework for student and faculty development. This high-risk model for course and research development is a novel and exciting method for engaging students in mentored research at the undergraduate level.
Mentored research at the undergraduate level is considered a high-impact pedagogical practice (Kuh, O’Donnell, & Reed, 2013), and many STEM courses incorporate students into established research programs and projects. The benefits of course-based research are not limited to students, as faculty research progress can be boosted by the concentrated student collaboration found in these courses. Moreover, students can bring fresh perspectives and make important contributions to research at the point of new project development. Involving students in “early” research (e.g. establishing research aims, refining protocols and procedures, and collecting and analyzing background data) can be a context for simultaneously robust student learning and faculty professional development. However, the risks of failure associated with early research may make faculty reluctant to consider building a research course specifically centered on developing a new and untested project. The course described below provides evidence in favor of building a course around a new research program, using the example of a successful pilot of course-based translational neuroscience research at the undergraduate level. The work of this course, offered at a small liberal arts college, set the stage for a robust, student-centered translational research program that also advanced the instructor’s research agenda.
Translational research: From basic science to disease intervention
The confirmation in humans of the results of basic science research using cell and animal models is a critical step in developing patient-centered interventions to improve human health (US Department of Health and Human Services [USD HHS], 2015). Translational research, which bridges basic science and clinical research, is a major focus of NIH funding and support through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. However, it can be challenging to implement translational research at small colleges and universities, as many of these institutions are not in a position to conduct clinical and patient-centered translational research. These shortcomings may be circumvented through the use of publicly available online databases that provide students and faculty with the opportunity to work directly with human data collected under IRB approval from large research institutions. As funding for basic science research decreases, engaging undergraduate students in the process of translational research is critical to the enhancement of their understanding and appreciation of the fundamental role of basic science in improving the health and well-being of the broader population (Hobin et al., 2012).
Epilepsy and EEG
Approximately two percent (+/- 0.11) of Americans suffer from epilepsy (US DHHS, 2017), a family of disorders in which a person who has previously had a seizure is likely to experience another unprovoked seizure (Fisher et al., 2014). The etiologies of epilepsy are varied and, in many cases, still unknown (Shorvon, 2011). Thus much of the effort in the clinic is aimed at seizure management and prevention.
The monitoring of the epileptic brain via electroencephalography, or the recording and analysis of the electrical signals of the brain, is critical to the management of epilepsy. In particular, many patients with intractable epilepsy, i.e. epilepsy that is resistant to management by medication, undergo long-term intracranial electroencephalography in the inpatient hospital setting to collect electroencephalogram (EEG) signals from up to hundreds of locations across the cortex of the brain over the course of several days. The signals are analyzed to determine whether surgical resection of the epileptic locus, or the portion of the brain implicated in the start of seizure activity, is a possible epilepsy management strategy. Yet EEG analysis is time-consuming and subject to low inter-observer reliability, especially regarding the precise timing and location of seizure onset in the brain (Abend et al., 2011; Benbadis et al., 2009; Tatum, 2013). Therefore, research on the development and use of automated, standardized, and quantitative EEG analysis through computer is an expanding field of inquiry (Acharya et al., 2013; Halford et al., 2011).
Course structure and implementation
Translational research towards understanding how EEG analysis is similar or different among rodent models of epilepsy and human epilepsy in the clinical setting serves as the foundation for the research course described in this report.An advanced topics course (BIOL 373, Advanced Neuroscience Research) was developed and implemented in spring 2017 to model a translational EEG research laboratory environment for eleven undergraduate students. The three goals for this course were to: (1) engage multiple students in a semester-long mentored research experience, (2) determine whether student learning gains through engagement with an early research project are similar to those of students in established research projects, and (3) determine the feasibility of conducting and developing the background work for translational epilepsy research at Beloit College, a small liberal arts college with no clinical research affiliation. In this model, students were full partners with the instructor in the research process to determine the goals and direction of the project. Students gained experience with the research process and its challenges, became familiar with the procedures and outcomes of a basic science investigation of seizure detection in mice (Bergstrom et al., 2013), identified and mined a publicly available human intracranial EEG database, revised and tested a MATLAB-based algorithm—originally developed for seizure identification in mice—on human EEG signal, and established and validated a procedure for quantitative analysis of human intracranial EEG signal.
The course began with a review of research in the analysis of rodent EEG (Bergstrom et al., 2013) and a discussion of the function of translational research. The students and instructor collaboratively identified a strategy for goal-setting and reflection-based assessment that would be completed every two weeks throughout the 15-week semester, with one single-week goal-setting and reflection cycle before the mid-term break. Major assessments for the class were: (1) a public works-in-progress seminar at the Beloit College Student Research Symposium and (2) smaller weekly student-driven lecture/discussion presentations on timely research-related questions of neuroscience and epilepsy in the literature, e.g. neuron and brain anatomy, the action potential, the contribution of interictal spiking brain activity to epileptogenesis, and automated EEG analysis tools. Additional assessments included (1) pre- and post-course Course Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey (Denofrio et al., 2007; Lopatto et al., 2008), (2) Student Assessment of Learning Gains, or SALG survey (Carroll, 2010), (3) and completion of the standard Beloit College end-of-semester course evaluations. Data collection and reporting procedures were approved by the Beloit College Institutional Review Board, and students provided informed consent for their participation in this study.
Students self-identified interests within the project and formed small groups to develop and accomplish sub-goals for the research project. Groups of two to six students were fixed for each two-week goal-setting/reflection period in the first half of the term and worked on goals within the broader research aims, such as identifying data sources, learning basic seizure analysis in EEG, and annotating and implementing MATLAB code. At the midterm, students re-organized into stable groups for the remainder of the semester. These groups were focused on preparing a literature review (four students), establishing a strategy for manual scoring of EEG signals (three students), and revising and analyzing MATLAB algorithm code (three students). One student served as an official liaison between the manual scoring and code revision groups (eleven students total). The two-week reflection cycle was maintained through the second half of the course.Class time (twice a week for 110 minutes per meeting) was used primarily for weekly lab group meetings, student presentations of relevant neuroscience topics, and individual and group work interactions with the instructor.Students were expected to be largely self-directed and to allot additional time outside of class, though logs of work were not required.
Preliminary observations and outcomes
Seven of the eleven course participants completed both the pre- and post-course surveys. Their responses indicate that students in this course made similar learning gains in relevant research skills to those of the CURE survey comparison groups (Denofrio et al., 2007; Lopatto et al., 2008) (n ≤ 9603, Figures 1 and 2, two-sample t test, p > 0.05 for all comparisons). This indicates that engaging students in a course-based project at a very early stage is a meaningful mechanism for research at the undergraduate level and also performs an important role for faculty interested in establishing a new research project or trajectory.
Student responses from the SALG survey and Beloit College course evaluation seem to indicate that students, even while doing translational research, did not make significant connections between the concepts of basic science and translational research. For example, they did not mention translational research in any of their long-form comments. However, students did report in the course evaluations and the SALG that they made clear gains in self-directed learning (Box 1). It is important to note that, while most students had little or no prior experience with neuroscience, epilepsy, EEG, or the MATLAB programming environment, they were junior- or senior-level students who had already had extensive experience with student-driven learning and research design through the broader Beloit College curriculum. Thus it is possible that students at an earlier level of academic development might not have made similar learning gains (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).
Establishing a new research project: Engaging students in faculty development
In many course-based research projects, students are inserted into an already-established research project and are given a single task or experiment to complete by the end of the class. This course was different, in that the students were involved in establishing a new research program from the ground up and therefore were required to consider not only their role in the project but also how the project fit into a much broader context of sustained research. This challenging authentic research experience provided students with many opportunities to develop cognitive skills and resilience around the challenges of research and learning, especially self-directed learning and identifying research and educational resources.Assessment of the learning outcomes of this project indicate that involving students in research at a very early point in the process, even before research aims and procedures are fully developed, can be a powerful learning tool for students.
Involving students early in the development of a new research project can also be an efficient mechanism for increasing faculty research output. The translational research outcomes of this course were significant; the deliverables completed in the class which are relevant to starting a new research project are summarized in Box 2.Further, this preliminary work set the stage for three of the eleven students in the course to continue work with the faculty member on this project after the course, including serving as mentors for two new student researchers. Additional students will be recruited to this project in the future and will eventually see it through to completion and publication.
Together, the research deliverables and learning outcomes analyses suggest that situating early research project activities and goals as the context for a structured undergraduate course is an effective mechanism for faculty to test-drive or establish a new research program that extends beyond the course and, at the same time, engage more students in mentored research.
Challenges and Recommendations
The overt link to the unique niche of translational
research within the biomedical community did not come through in the analysis of student responses, even though students were actively engaged with the process. The concept of translational research is new to most students, and so more careful attention to highlighting the important role of this type of work is needed in models like this. Because this was a laboratory course designed to focus on analysis of EEG signal, the student presentations were primarily focused on the neurological concepts relevant to the project. However, more attention could have been directed to the impact and structure of the bench-to-bedside research model.
A future course is planned around this research project, but it will be situated at a different point in the research process than the course described here. This new course could provide additional opportunities for students to engage with the research process and to gain a broader understanding of the clinical aspects of epilepsy. Three potential additions to the course could include (1) inviting a physician to meet with the class to discuss epilepsy and EEG in the clinical context, (2) including a conference call or in-person meeting with an epilepsy researcher at a large research institution to provide additional input to the project and to model effective research collaboration, and (3) assigning students to prepare patient-centered documents or presentations to explain epilepsy, EEG, and the analysis tools that they are developing.
Finally, it is important to note that this model requires significant buy-in and trust from the students, as it is a high-risk project for both the students and the faculty member, and many students expressed uncertainty regarding their progress at some point in the course. For instance, one student commented on a lack of typical “classroom-like” learning (Box 1) while also noting clear gains in experience. While a neuroscience “crash course” or more regular lectures and activities centered on the concepts of neuroscience might have been useful for content acquisition, it is important to help students recognize that these may be common feelings as they transition from a more typical undergraduate lecture-discussion course format to a student-centered project in which students themselves are responsible for identifying and structuring their learning content. It was useful to have regular check-ins with students to help to normalize feelings of frustration and uncertainty as they encountered research roadblocks and conflicting information from published reports. Still, it is possible that recognizing the emotional investment inherent in research can help students at this stage of their academic career build resilience for future challenges. This hypothesis must be tested as we build new models for engaging students in research at the undergraduate level and in preparation for broader participation within the STEM fields.
Mentored research is a high-impact undergraduate education practice (Kuh, O’Donnell, & Reed, 2013), and STEM educators in particular must therefore be creative and develop more opportunities for students to be involved with and learn from the process. Students can and do make important learning gains through the process of investigating the feasibility of a translational research project and gathering background data and material in support of a larger project. The dual purpose of this course, to engage students in research and to develop a new avenue for a faculty member’s research, situates it as a model through which instructors can recognize and harness the power of students at this stage of the research project. These results should encourage faculty to consider course-based research as a powerful tool that they may wish to use to develop new lines of inquiry, and student contributions to faculty work at all other stages of a research project should be considered an essential component of research at undergraduate institutions.
About the Author
Rachel A. Bergstrom is an assistant professor of biology at Beloit College in Beloit, WI. She is a SENCER Leadership Fellow with two major arms to her research agenda: 1) identification and quantification of ictal and interictal events in EEG, with a focus on seizure diagnosis and prediction, and 2) the intersection of identity and education in STEM, specifically how group work impacts the student experience in the classroom and is related to persistence in STEM.
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We have designed and implemented a novel microbiology elective course “Microbiology of Urban Spaces” to provide students with a transformative education in microbial ecology and genomics. It champions the values of general education while making sure students are well equipped for their future careers. Infusing my personal research into the course allowed me the time and resources needed to advance my own research, while allowing the students to tackle an authentic and real-world problem that they can be passionate about. Several students who were engaged in the research course developed their own research projects during the summer, based upon their own ideas and questions. These students have taken the first steps towards developing the mindset and confidence in themselves that will enable them to succeed in their future scientific endeavors. Though still in its infancy, this course shows great promise to promote SENCER ideals at Mercy College and beyond.
A Capacious and Civic Issue
Bacteria residing in the environment can act as reservoirs for resistance, having been exposed to many antimicrobials such as disinfectants, heavy metals, and antibiotics (He et al. 2014). Frequently encountered in the environment are the Staphylococci, many species of which are human pathogens. Especially problematic are the coagulase negative staphylococci, as they are among the most resistant, the most prevalent in environmental settings, and frequently the source of hospital-acquired infections of immunocompromised patients (Becker et al. 2014).
One of the most recognized and worrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a form of Staphylococcus aureus called MRSA or Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is recognized as a serious threat by the CDC, causing 80,000 infections and 11,000 deaths annually (CDC 2013). About one in three people carry Staphylococciasymptomatically in their noses. Several different mechanisms of transmission have been described for MRSA and it is frequently isolated from the environment (Smith et al. 2010). The recent emergence of community-associated MRSA or CA-MRSA has had a huge impact on the field, as the bacteria are acquired by people with no known risk factors. What is known about transmission of MRSA (Smith et al. 2010), particularly in the built environment, has generated many questions that can be of interest to our students. Such questions can include the following: Is the choice of material used in construction important in how long bacteria can adhere to a surface? Are some types of staphylococci better able to adhere to surfaces than others? Can some surfaces facilitate colonization by bacteria more readily than others?
Many Mercy students are studying to be healthcare professionals, such as nurses and veterinary technologists. As such, they are usually familiar with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Thus, my goal is to help students understand the role of human activity, particularly the role they themselves can play, in driving or tackling this problem. Antibiotic resistance is now being recognized as a global threat (Nathan and Cars 2014). Over the past ten years, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Economic Forum have placed antibiotic-resistant bacteria at center stage. The WHO exclaimed in April 2014 (WHO 2014) that the problem “threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—is a very real possibility for the 21st century.” The Obama administration released a National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in March 2015 (The White House 2015a). The 2016 federal budget almost doubled the amount of federal funding for combating and preventing antibiotic resistance to more than $1.2 billion (The White House 2015b). Our success or failure in the coming years will depend upon continued support for these initiatives and having a well-educated workforce, ready and prepared to tackle this capacious problem.
Results and Discussion
Students As Researchers
Incorporating research into the classroom, be it the lecture or the laboratory, affords all students an opportunity to be included in and exposed to research, which their economic means, schedule, or background may prevent them from otherwise experiencing (Bangera and Brownell 2014; Gasper and Gardner 2013). Engaging students in undergraduate research can promote retention and career readiness and increase enrollment in graduate studies. It can improve their critical thinking and problem solving abilities as well as their independence (Auchincloss et al. 2014; Harrison et al. 2011; Jordan et al. 2014; Lopatto et al. 2008). Thus, the aim of this ongoing project is to design, implement, and improve upon a novel course-based undergraduate research experience that investigates the prevalence and persistence of antibiotic-resistant staphylococcal bacteria in the environment. By participating in this course, students engage with the literature and keep pace with new developments in antibiotic resistance research; they learn about government-driven and global efforts to combat resistance; and finally, they present their work in a public forum. They begin to understand the dual roles that research and education play in tackling this capacious problem. The course involves isolating and characterizing specific antibiotic-resistant staphylococci colonizing the campus, using a range of classical and next-generation techniques and correlating these findings with metagenetics, a novel technology that allows the researcher to sample all DNA at a site (Blow 2008). This new course called “Microbiology of Urban Spaces” directly ties into my own research agenda and expertise and helps me to recruit and retain a team willing and ready to tackle the problem. Student learning outcomes are presented in Box 1 and specific activities in Box 2. The data generated as part of this project are used as a foundation for further student projects in the summer and have served as preliminary data for federal grant proposals and to obtain funding to support and sustain the course.
Briefly, students isolate individual bacteria using media selective for antibiotic and heavy metal resistance and characterize them phenotypically and genotypically over the course of the semester. They use a BSL2 lab that was recently refurbished for the purpose of microbiological research. The students are then encouraged to design their own phenotypic-based experiments (antibiograms, biofilms, adherence) to be conducted over the summer, and to develop their own research questions while continuing to harness the technologies and techniques learned in the course. The course is designed such that the metagenetic data are available for analysis towards the end, allowing time to expose the students to other characteristics and mechanisms leveraged by environmental staphylococci. The metagenetic component (swabbing, isolating DNA, and sequencing) is entirely at the discretion and choice of the students. In the first meeting of the course, students are introduced to my research questions and the work thatmy students and I have completed to date. They then brainstorm what sites would be of interest to target for sampling in view of my research and considering their own research questions. Once they have discussed and planned, the students, working as a team, sample various sites on campus. In Spring 2016, we targeted the new residence hall and sites such as elevator buttons, door handles, and handrails, and in Fall 2016, we targeted various water bodies in the vicinity of Mercy, including the Hudson and East Rivers and the Old Croton Aqueduct. The data we generated in Spring 2016 revealed the impact of human presence on newly colonized buildings at Mercy, and we have begun to design experiments targeting the specific organisms we have isolated and identified on surfaces there. While my original target was antibiotic-resistant staphylococci, we have also used metagenetics to identify the presence of Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and Streptococcus on surfaces, many species and strains of which are also resistant to antibiotics. We shall adapt and modify our screening in future semesters.
How the Students Are Evaluated
Microbiology of Urban Spaces is designed not only to improve students’ knowledge and understanding of research and antibiotic resistance, but also to train them to be 21st-century citizens. Students are expected to work in teams and build their communication skills. In this digital age we use instant messenger and group chats to facilitate communication. Dropbox is used to store course materials, protocols, and data in shared folders. Digital lab books are used (viewable to all team members) to ensure notes are updated regularly. Students are expected to be able to use and develop their quantitative reasoning skills and develop mastery of basic microbiology techniques such as dilutions, conversions, and basic computational tools and to generate a properly formatted bibliography. Above all else, the course encourages critical thinking and teamwork; students are able to choose their own sampling sites, interpret their findings, and learn from their mistakes. Repetition and iteration ensure mastery. Students are graded on the basis of their participating in lab meetings and lab activities, their detailed lab books, their final papers, and the generation of a scholarly poster. In addition, a survey based upon the SENCER SALG is administered at the beginning and end of the course, as well as the standard Mercy College End of Course surveys.
Student Success, Course Limitations, and Reflections
Since the pilot, I have been able to recruit eight students to participate each semester, and the course has gone through three iterations. Each section has been a success, with students reporting their enjoyment, self-satisfaction with their learning, and demonstrating their improvement in knowledge and skills over the span of the semester. Many had never generated a poster, worked with computational tools, or used molecular biology techniques except in class (if at all). Two students registered to take the course for a second time. Feedback from the End of Course and SALG surveys was positive as indicated in Box 3 and 4 (though not all students responded). In Spring 2016, when asked on the End of Course survey “if they would recommend a course to their friends and why,” students answered, “Sure, opens your eyes to the world of research and looks great when applying to any grad schools,” and “Yes, I personally learned a lot more about microbiology research and improved my skills.”Limitations and student concerns were also noted in the end of semester surveys, where a student revealed that they didn’t enjoy the lectures. Interestingly, student frustration with backordered/missing lab supplies also manifested itself on the end of semester surveys, indicating that they were indeed having an authentic experience. The minimal budget and modest lab facilities limit some of what can be done at Mercy. Students also learned that working in the lab is frequently frustrating and not always for reasons under our control.
Several of the students who were in the Spring 2016 pilot continued to work on their projects over the summer and developed their own areas of research such as prevalence of enterotoxin genes, detection of bacteria in the gym, natural antimicrobials, and using antimicrobials in building products. At the end of both Spring semesters, students in the class presented their work at a local conference, the Westchester Undergraduate Research conference. In addition, students who continued their Spring 2016 projects into the summer presented their own independent research projects at national and international meetings such as CSTEP (Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program), ABRCMS (Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students) and Microbe (the American Society for Microbiology Annual Meeting). On the basis of their abstracts, one student was awarded a partial travel grant to attend ABRCMS and received an honorary mention for her poster at CSTEP. Another student was awarded an ASM Capstone award to attend and present at Microbe 2017.
One of the most useful aspects of the course was using digital tools to facilitate teamwork and continual feedback. The use of Dropbox to store the digital lab books, though simple, was a successful social experience, as the students and I were able to engage with one another and make comments on each other’s work; it was particularly useful since many of the students had jobs and commuted to school. The students could also make use of pictures and notes taken in class shared via Dropbox to ensure that their own lab books were up to date and not missing details. The groups used WhatsApp to connect with one another and to stay in contact throughout the course. This meant that students truly behaved as if they were on a team and worked as a unit throughout. When working on their poster in Spring 2017, the students took it upon themselves to book a conference room and displayed the poster on the screen as they worked together in order to ensure that their poster was generated collaboratively and collectively.
Summary and Future Directions
Undergraduate research experiences can greatly enhance the career development and readiness of all students in STEM fields, and they have shown substantial impact on the retention of students in STEM disciplines. By integrating my research into a classroom-based research experience, I have enabled students to gain exposure to research while enhancing their critical thinking, communication, quantitative reasoning, and teamwork skills. For three semesters, I have had eight students register and the feedback has been positive. Working with the students has also rewarded me: useful and intriguing data were generated, which now inform my research and further student projects in the lab. In the coming semesters, I will continue to improve upon and modify this course so that it exemplifies a SENCER Model Course and provides a truly transformative and successful experience for our students.
About the Author
Davida S. Smyth is an Associate Professor and Chair of Natural Sciences at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. A SENCER Leadership Fellow, her research focuses on the genomics of Staphylococcus aureus and the impact of antibiotic resistance in clinical and environmental strains of staphylococci. She is also interested in pedagogical research in the area of student reading skills in STEM disciplines and peer-led team learning in Biology.
The author would like to acknowledge the hard work and diligence of the students at Mercy College and her collaborators at CUNY, Prof. Jeremy Seto (New York City College of Technology), Prof. Avrom Caplan (City College), and Prof. Theodore Muth (Brooklyn College). She would also like to thank the members of the library staff, namely Susan Gaskin Noel, Hailey Collazo, and Andy Lowe, who assisted with the generation and printing of the posters. The development of the novel course “Microbiology of Urban Spaces” was funded through a Mercy Senate Micro-Grant for Course Redesign. Additional funding came from a Mercy Faculty Development Grant. Lastly she would like to thank her colleagues at SENCER, namely Monica Devanas, Eliza Jane Reilly, Stephen Carroll, and Kathleen Browne for their guidance and assistance with the projects to date.
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Online higher education programs provide opportunities and access to students who might not have enrolled in a higher education program otherwise. As the demand for these online programs increases, including those in the STEM fields, the need for experiential learning opportunities becomes critical. Experiential learning in the online environment can take place in a multitude of ways, can generate student engagement, and can incorporate collaborative learning opportunities. Together, these courses will involve hands-on learning experiences that address real-world needs, service learning, and civic engagement, all which encompass the central focus for these opportunities and are the foundation on which these courses will be built.
A growing demand for online higher education programs brings with it the challenge of incorporating civic engagement responsibilities into an online environment. According to the 2015 Survey of Online Learning, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and published in the Online Learning Consortium’s Online Report Card (Allen et al. 2016), 2.85 million students are taking all of their courses in an online environment, while another 2.79 million are taking at least one online course. To put that in perspective, more than one in four students (28 percent) took at least one online course in the fall of 2014. Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education (SNHU COCE) currently serves online students and offers more than 200 online college degrees and certificates, including those in Environmental Science and Geosciences. The demand for individuals in these fields is expected to increase 10 to 11 percent faster than average between 2014 and 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016); therefore, providing innovative, hands-on, experiential learning opportunities for these students is crucial.
SNHU COCE incorporates experiential learning opportunities into its online STEM programs with a unique approach. Experiential learning is grounded in the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget (Kolb 1984). Dewey (1938) argued that education and learning are social and interactive processes and stated that there is a connection between education and personal experience. Lewin and his Lewinian Model of Action Research and Laboratory Training focused on learning as facilitated by experience, acquisition of data, and observations. Piaget’s Model of Learning and Cognitive Development incorporates aspects of these two, but also adds reflection and action to the mix. Together, the philosophy of experiential learning can best be described as a process of learning as opposed to learning on the basis of outcomes (Kolb 1984). According to Kolb (1984), “knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (See Figure 1 for a depiction of experiential learning in the 21st century framed in the context of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.)
The purpose of the experiential learning courses for our online learners is to provide students with an opportunity to gain experience in their chosen field. In this report, we’ll focus specifically on civic engagement and service learning opportunities within the experiential learning courses. Civic engagement and service learning opportunities promote a sense of community and civic responsibility using reflective thinking to develop the students’ academic skills. Students participating in these types of immersive opportunities have the chance to work in local communities, address current environmental issues, and assist communities in implementing solutions. Course outcomes for the experiential learning courses revolve around guided reflection. The act of reflection is often a process that allows for the reorganization of knowledge and thought in order to attain greater insight (Moon 2004, 82). According to Moon (2004), understanding, decision making, resolution, and action outcomes can result from the use of reflective processes, including reflective journaling. Together, these reflective processes link reflection with the process of learning.
In the experiential courses, students reflect on scientific practices and real-world situations; they reflect on how experiential learning opportunities play a role in driving the achievement of their goals, and examine the relationship between the application of scientific inquiry and their real-world experiences. Students engage in reflective learning by participating in various discussions with their peers (collaborative reflection), along with writing in weekly journals to document their journey through the many experiences they encounter (personal reflection). (See Figure 2 for an overview of student journal guidelines.)Upon completion of the course, students produce a guided written reflective piece that summarizes all of their experiences and details how those experiences have influenced their personal goals and future career path and helped identify what questions they may still have as they go forth in their educational and professional careers.
Online Experiential Learning in Science through Service Learning and Civic Engagement
Service learning has been identified as a high-impact practice that promotes higher-level learning and success (Kuh 2008; Brownell and Swaner 2010). The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) is calling for renewed energy in community engagement, civic engagement, and service learning. Service learning and civic engagement involve building a sense of responsibility to one’s community and allow students the opportunity to apply concepts and ideas learned in class to real-life situations and scenarios (Holland et al. 2008, 165). Experiential learning with an emphasis on service learning and civic engagement in the online science learning environment can take place in a multitude of ways and can, in fact, generate high levels of student engagement and collaborative learning opportunities. The learning can take place in both the student’s local community and in the online environment where students interact with their peers and a faculty member, sharing, communicating, problem solving, and reflecting throughout the course.
At Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education, the goal is to provide students with meaningful learning experiences that connect to real-world relevance. To achieve this goal, an online science experiential learning undergraduate course has been created for our Environmental Science and Geoscience majors that includes varying topics that rotate throughout the year. Students may take this elective course up to two times in total. (See Figure 3 for the Course at a Glance Overview.)
Students engage in short-term immersive learning experiences that span roughly two months and include a minimum of seventy documented hours of experience. (See Figure 4 for the required weekly student timesheet template.) Students have the opportunity to engage in service while concurrently reflecting on their experience, exploring personal and professional development opportunities, applying scientific concepts to real-world situations, and developing competencies and skills around a desired career interest. The course also allows students to make personal connections in their field of interest and provides a face-to-face experience where students can demonstrate competency in the field to potential future employers, colleagues, or collaborators.
Examples of topics that focus on service learning and civic engagement in science for the online science experiential learning course are discussed below.
Service learning is a form of experiential learning that involves equal focus on student learning and community service goals. Service learning encompasses both reflection and reciprocity, where students actively participate in the service learning project and reflect on their experiences, in a dynamic action-reflection process. In Service-Learning in Higher Education (1996), Barbara Jacoby writes, “Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes.” Therefore, in the online experiential learning course, students are actively engaged in learning opportunities that address a real-world need, while also providing time for reflection and discussion as learners progress towards mastery of course learning outcomes.
Service Learning and Grant Writing
Students learn to write a science grant in a real-world setting. They are tasked with finding and working with a local community partner organization in their area (such as a local, state, or national agency or park, museum, wildlife center, science center, aquarium, or zoo). The students work with their chosen entity to develop a grant proposal for funding that will be submitted to a granting agency for consideration. Students are not assessed on the outcome of the grant application process, but rather the outcomes and assessment focus on the experiential reflective learning process. In this experience, students make connections in their local community, serve the organization’s need by submitting a grant on their behalf, and gain a marketable skill.
Service Learning and Field Experience
Field experience can be interpreted broadly, but generally refers to gaining experience in the field in which the student would like to work. For example, it may include service in a branch within the Department of the Interior, e.g. National Park Service (NPS), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), United States Geological Service (USGS), or serving on a local (city or county) geographic information system (GIS) project. Conversely, it may involve students who serve as data analysts on a scientific study that encompasses large data sets ready for analysis and synthesis. In this case, students work collaboratively with a faculty member who provides the raw data for the course, and the team of faculty and students work together to analyze and synthesize the data. The data analysis and synthesis could also include a final communication of those science results in a journal, data report, or other research publication.
Field experience allows students to gain skills that will help them in their future careers, and to make connections in the field, add to their professional network, and serve the needs of a community project or organization by serving its overall goal or mission in some capacity.
Civic engagement centers on making a real-world difference in the community while concurrently developing knowledge, skills, competencies, and abilities to achieve successful course and community project outcomes. Civic engagement can take on many forms in the higher education environment, and it prepares students to be engaged citizens. In our civically engaged experiential learning opportunities, students work on authentic science projects that are designed to make a difference in the community and provide students with real-world experience in science.
Civic Engagement through Community Citizen Science
In the online science experiential learning classroom, the world is our lab (Figure 5). Citizen science, or public participation in science, offers science students the opportunity to engage in science along with a greater community of collaborators or participants. Students gain experience facilitating and leading the public in real-world science. For example, students may create a citizen science species monitoring project on iNaturalist and host a BioBlitz in their local area. A BioBlitz refers to a period of time (such as a weekend) when organisms in a certain geographic area are surveyed and documented. The iNaturalist mobile device app allows for the BioBlitz to take place, with participants using smart phones and uploading images of the organism to the iNaturalist project.
In 2017, the “City Nature Challenge,” which began in California in 2016, became a national event. The April “City Nature Challenge” (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County 2017) coincided with “National Citizen Science Day” and included a friendly BioBlitz-style competition among sixteen cities across the United States. The “City Nature Challenge” uses iNaturalist to document species in a given area during a set period of time. Therefore, events like this can be a way for students to get involved in their local community and organize, lead, and facilitate BioBlitz events with the public. Engagement in community citizen science and BioBlitz events can lead to publishing ideas and opportunities for students, including the creation of a blog relating their experiences. Reporting about the experience is beneficial to the learning process, and also serves to reinforce an important aspect of the science process: communicating the science. In addition, science students help identify organisms that come in from participant observations during the challenge, and ultimately student participation helps to “crowdsource” and update species guides for each region. (See Figure 6 for an example of the updated species guide from the North Texas area, following the 2017 City Nature Challenge.) In 2018, the City Nature Challenge will be a global event. Imagine the unlimited possibilities for your own students when the world comes together in a locally engaged, globally connected iNaturalist BioBlitz next spring.
Conclusion and Discussion
The journey into experiential learning in the online science classroom has only just begun and the service learning and civic engagement examples discussed in this article are only the beginning for online experiential learning opportunities in science. We look forward to continuously learning from our students and our colleagues, and to applying collective stakeholder feedback as we further expand our course topic offerings. We welcome and invite discussion and collaboration with the entire SENCER community as we continue the exciting journey and evolution in online science education to serve the twenty-first-century learner.
About the Authors
Kelly Thrippleton-Hunter is a Faculty Lead for Undergraduate Science at Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education. She received two B.S. degrees, one in Zoology and the other in Environmental Biology and Ecology, from California State University, Long Beach in 2002, a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from the University of California, Riverside in 2009, and an M.A.T. in Science from Western Governors University in 2015.
Jill Nugent is the Associate Dean for Science at Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Texas Tech University, investigating locally engaged, globally connected citizen science in university science courses.
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There has been an increased emphasis in recent years on implementing active learning strategies in science courses for undergraduate students. Particularly, undergraduate research methods courses have focused on incorporating pedagogies that utilize a practical application of the course content. As a result, we created a research methods course for undergraduate health sciences students to teach them about research methodology through a hands-on project.The health sciences students were part of an outdoor education program, where for one week third and fourth grade students from an elementary school came to a camp as part of an outdoor education experience. The health sciences students taught the children a variety of STEM(Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and health/wellness skills and content.In addition, the undergraduate students learned about research methods by conducting their own studies during this outdoor education program. The benefits were twofold.The health sciences students learned about research methodology in an applied and practical manner and the elementary school children experienced STEM education in an outdoor environment.
The value of active learning in science education has been emphasized by many national organizations (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1993: Association of American Colleges and Universities 2007; National Research Council 1999, 2003a, 2003b; National Science Foundation 1996).Encouraging students to formulate their own ideas, interpret data, generate conclusions from experimental evidence, and participate in other hands-on activities can be more effective than the passive learning that typically occurs during lecturing.The increased recognition of the value of active learning is supported by a growing body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of incorporating active learning techniques in the undergraduate classroom (Prince 2004).The literature has shown improved learning when a variety of active learning strategies were used in a wide range of science disciplines including physics (Hake 1998), chemistry (Niaz et al. 2002; Towns and Grant 1997), biology (Burrowes 2003), nursing (Clark et al. 2008), and physiology (Mierson 1998).
In most health sciences undergraduate programs, a research methods course is part of the curriculum.Many faculty who teach undergraduate research courses are aware of the challenges that are associated with making this material practical for students. Research is an area that students have unfavorable attitudes toward, attitudes that may become even more negative upon taking a research methods course (Sizemore and Lewandowski 2009).One potential reason for the lack of interest is students’ inability to perceive themselves as engaged in meaningful research activities as undergraduate students (Rash 2005; Macheski et al. 2008). The literature has demonstrated that students tend to learn abstract concepts more fully when they can apply them to their to “real world” settings (Macheski et al., 2008).In our health sciences department, we have implemented active learning strategies utilizing other approaches (FitzPatrick and Campisi 2009; Campisi and Finn 2011; FitzPatrick et al. 2011; Finn and Campisi 2015), but we wanted to create a way to specifically teach research methods using active learning in an outdoor education program. After examining the effects of active learning pedagogies on student learning and perceptions for a number of years, we have implemented different pedagogies such as clickers, peer-led team mentoring, and group and collaborative learning, to examine how active learning effects both student learning and perceptions. Many of these pedagogies have improved student learning and have had positive impact on student perceptions.
For the outdoor education project, we redesigned our undergraduate research methods course to incorporate participation in a research project.We hoped that stimulating interest in research through active and collaborative learning would allow students to understand the practical implication of research.
The Outdoor Education Program
During this project, 100 third and fourth grade children participated in a five-day, five hour/day outdoor education program that took place at a local day camp owned by the YMCA. This program was a joint venture between the city’s school district and the local YMCA to provide elementary students with an exciting opportunity to participate in active learning in a camp setting. This was the first outdoor experience in a camp environment for many students who participated in this program.As part of being enrolled in the research methods course, the health sciences undergraduate students implemented this outdoor education program by utilizing the camp’s program areas and natural ecosystems to provide the children with unique experiential learning activities in four main curricular areas: science and math, healthy living, environmental education, and team building. These engaging activities and the use of natural surroundings encouraged the children to explore their interests and abilities in a safe and nurturing environment. Below is more detail on each section of the curriculum.
Environmental Education: This component of the curriculum corresponds with the goals of the school system, the Massachusetts State School Standards, and the New National Science Standards. Each day, students learned about a different ecosystem at the camp (e.g. the wetlands, fresh water lake, forest, and open field) through a combination of hands-on experiments and lectures.In each ecosystem, students learned about the different types of animals, plant life, rocks, the cycles of natural resources, and the dangers that each ecosystem faces, among other topics. Students also took nature hikes and performed on-site field tests, including taking water and soil samples and testing pH.
The Science and Math of Camp: This component of the program included several physical activities that provided the opportunity for students to learn math and science skills. These activities included
Maps –The goal of this module was to allow students to develop and make maps using scale, topography, measurements, and other skills.
Archery – While participating in archery, students were provided the opportunity to learn about velocity, rate of speed, distance, inertia, and gravity.
Canoeing – While participating in this activity, students could learn about propulsion, angles, planes, kinesiology and biomechanics, resistance and friction, and wind and currents.
Gaga –The goal of this activity was for students to learn how to play the popular camp game Gaga. While playing, they wear devices such as a pedometer, to measure steps, distance traveled, and overall activity levels. Students took the data from these devices and recorded it, and then, using the Active Science curriculum, analyzed the data, answered questions, and drew conclusions about the data.
Team Building: The team-building component was a progressive learning experience where students were encouraged to challenge themselves in a variety of different ways. This provided emotional and physical growth and gave each student the feeling of self worth and self-accomplishment. The week began with team-building activities on land, such as “get to know you” games, trust falls, spotting techniques, and problem-solving games. As the group mastered the land activities, they moved to the low ropes course. At the camp, there were seven low ropes elements. Each element had two groups participating (one group spotting and one group climbing). After mastering the low ropes course elements, students over the age of ten had the option of trying the high ropes course. There were seven high ropes course elements, including a zip line. Younger students (over the age of eight) had the chance to try the giant swing. The camp’s ropes course offered a variety of fun opportunities to build trust, solve problems and learn the value of collaborative teamwork.
Healthy Living: During this component of the program, students were exposed information about living healthy lifestyles. These included safety concepts, healthy eating and nutrition, and physical activity.Activities included Water and Boating Safety, Garden Project, Fitness Challenge, Otterthon Relay Race, and Field and Court Games. The students were encouraged to participate, be active, and have fun with their classmates.They learned about the importance of being physically active, having good nutrition habits, and overall what it means to be healthy.
Research Methods Course
The research methods course was delivered during the summer session for six weeks.Twelve students were enrolled in the course. During the first two weeks of class, the health sciences students learned about the outdoor education program and became familiar with the curriculum and content that they would be teaching to the children.From there, the class was divided into four groups of three students each to come up with a research question that they wanted to investigate during the program. As part of the course, one of the first assignments that the students completed was a proposal that detailed the specifics of the research project. They were required to provide a research question, hypothesis, methods (participants, data collection, data analysis), and the type of research design that they were interested in carrying out.Based on what they learned at the beginning of the course about the types of research designs, they created a study and a question to match the design.Once the students completed the assignment on the design of their study, the instructor met with each group to review it.The instructor provided feedback on ways to improve the study and the students worked to incorporate the changes to make the design stronger.This back and forth process happened until the instructor felt the design was well thought out and could answer the research question.
Prior to going into the field, the students had a solid research study that addressed a specific research question. The research questions the students focused on were specific to the one-week outdoor education experience. Two of the student projects focused on assessing the amount and level of physical activity that the participants accumulated while in the outdoor education program. They compared physical activity levels such as sedentary, light, moderate, and vigorous between classes, curriculum components, age, and gender.Another group assessed the science learning that occurred during the camp. They performed pre- and post-assessment to determine science knowledge that was gained through the experience. They had a control group that did not perform the outdoor education program for a comparison.The last group examined the participants’ perceptions of learning in the outdoor education environment.They conducted surveys of all participants at the end of camp and then interviewed a subset of children to gather their feedback on the outdoor experience.
During weeks three and four of the course, the health sciences students were in the field implementing the curriculum and collecting data.At the end of the course (weeks five and six), the students returned to the classroom to analyze their data. The students learned about the different types of statistical analysis (correlational, independent t-test, ANOVA) that could be performed based on their design and research question. The hands-on application of real data to teach the statistical analysis portion of this course was viewed positively by both the students and the instructor.They worked on creating a final paper and presentation that represented the results of their study.The course concluded with a presentation from each group to the YMCA senior leadership, board members, classroom teachers and administrators, and faculty.
This approach was a way to demonstrate how to teach research methods to undergraduate health sciences students through a community-based initiative in an urban school district.The health sciences students felt that a project-based approach was an effective way to learn the content of the course. The course objectives were met through demonstration of performance on course quizzes and through designing and carrying out a research study, analyzing the data, and writing and presenting the results of the project.As we continue to offer this course, we will use this approach to create measures that assess student perceptions of learning for both the health sciences students and the elementary school children. The active learning and student-centered pedagogical strategy created a culture of ownership over the research project and excited students about the course material.In many science lecture and laboratory courses, active learning can be an effective method to improve student learning and understanding and to improve student attitudes about a subject. Incorporating a team-based research project that uses the outdoor environment into a research methods course can help prepare students for future research experiences and their professional careers.
About the Author
Dr. Kevin Finn is an Associate Professor and Chair of Health Sciences at Merrimack College. His area of expertise is curriculum and teaching in the health professions with a focus around increasing physical activity in children. Kevin is a licensed athletic trainer in Massachusetts and a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
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