Starting with SENCER: A First-year Experience Framed by the Science and Civic Issues of the Chesapeake Bay

Abstract

In 2017, Longwood University launched the LIFE STEM Program, a holistic program girded by best practices in STEM teaching: cohorts of students, summer bridge program, genuine community building, intentional faculty-student mentoring, focused academic support and professional development, early research experiences, engagement with challenging civic issues, and, importantly, financial support for students. The first-year experience is critical in establishing the academic expectations of the LIFE STEM Scholars, supporting their development as a community of learners, and engaging them in real work of scientists. That yearlong journey opens with a one-week summer bridge program on the Chesapeake Bay. While on the Bay, the Scholars begin to frame scientific questions tied to key civic issues and grapple with intersections of science, economics, and politics. In a two-semester Entering Research course sequence, Scholars expand on key questions, process field-derived samples, analyze data, and consider the meaning of their work in this complex and contested civic context.

Introduction

The LIFE STEM Program (Longwood Initiative for Future Excellence in STEM) was created to provide wrap-around support for academically talented science students with financial need. With funding from the National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in STEM (S-STEM) program (Award #1564879), the LIFE STEM Program is supporting, through curricular, co-curricular, and financial elements, the four-year college experience of two cohorts of 12–14 students representing  Longwood’s four natural science majors (Biology, Chemistry, Integrated Environmental Sciences, and Physics).  

In the 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 academic years, the first two multidisciplinary cohorts of LIFE STEM Scholars completed the first-year experience, which serves as the foundation on which the rest of the LIFE STEM Program builds. Recognizing the important challenges of the transition to college (PCAST, 2012), the program immediately connects the incoming Scholars with peer and faculty mentors and invests heavily in intentional community building. The fall course schedule of the Scholars includes cohort sections of the introductory chemistry course (CHEM 111), a first-year seminar focused on the transition to university work (ISCI 100), and a second seminar focused on research (ISCI 120; Table 1).  

Table 1: Overview of the LIFE STEM Program.

The context for the Scholars’ first-year research activities—almost from the minute they arrive on campus—is the Chesapeake Bay, the largest of over 100 estuaries in the United States (US) and the third largest in the world. Throughout the written history of the US, the Bay has provided vital resources (e.g., blue crabs [Callinectes sapidus], oysters [Crassostrea virginica], and menhaden [Brevoortia tyrannus]) and has fueled robust local and regional economies. In fact, still today, the small town of Reedville ranks first in the contiguous US for fish landings (by weight of catch; NMFS, 2017). A focus of intensive conservation efforts since the 1970s, the Bay’s key health indicators have improved, but overall it continues to earn a barely passing grade of D+ (CBF, 2018). With a watershed encompassing more than 64,000 square miles, the Bay is affected by land management practices extending from northern New York to southern Virginia. Furthermore, the watershed is home to more than 18 million people who have direct and indirect impacts on the Bay and the complex natural systems within it (CBF, 2018; CBP, 2019).

Clearly, this body of water presents almost endless potential for scientific research at all levels. Indeed, scholars in higher education and government service have invested careers in studying these natural systems. With its incredible jurisdictional complexity—six states and the District of Columbia and nearly 1,800 local jurisdictions (i.e., towns, cities, counties, and townships; CBP, 2017)—the Bay offers another level of scholarly engagement at the intersections of science and civic issues. For the LIFE STEM Scholars, the Bay is a study site in which they collect a variety of scientific data, but they also experience it as a home to the human communities that depend on it. Furthermore, many of our Scholars have a personal connection to the Bay, as it is an area where they and their families live. It is a contested space in many ways, and it has been for generations. Thus, the LIFE STEM Scholars do not start the college experience with prepared lab exercises at the bench, activities with known outcomes. Instead, they begin with an immersion in a complex civic issue, one where scientific study can offer new insights but for which science alone cannot offer solutions.

This focus on the Chesapeake Bay for the first-year experience grew from Longwood University’s long-running engagement with the SENCER program (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities). The SENCER approach to teaching and learning (SENCER Ideals)

•  robustly connects science and civic engagement “through” complex, contested, capacious, current, and unresolved public issues “to” basic science;

•  invites students to put scientific knowledge and the scientific method to immediate use on matters of immediate interest to students;

•  helps reveal the limits of science by identifying the elements of public issues where science does not offer a clear resolution;

•  shows the power of science by identifying the dimensions of a public issue that can be better understood with certain mathematical and scientific ways of knowing;

•  conceives the intellectual project as practical and engaged from the start;

•  locates the responsibilities (the burdens and the pleasures) of discovery as the work of the student;

•  and, by focusing on contested issues, encourages student engagement with “multidisciplinary trouble” and with civic questions that require attention now. (SENCER, 2017)

The LIFE STEM Scholars’ yearlong exploration of the challenging issues of the Chesapeake Bay was designed to intentionally operationalize the SENCER Ideals in each of the cornerstones of the first-year experience.

Cornerstones of the First-year Experience

Immersion Experience on the Chesapeake Bay

In the two weeks prior to the start of the fall semester, the LIFE STEM Scholars participated in a summer bridge program. The first week of that program was an immersion experience at the Chesapeake Bay for which Longwood University’s 662-acre field station, Hull Springs Farm (HSF), situated on tributaries to the Potomac River and just a short distance from the Bay proper, served as the center of operations.

One important goal of the HSF week was to set the stage for a guided interdisciplinary research project in the Scholars’ first year. That project intentionally incorporated the SENCER Ideals and, in so doing, expanded on Longwood’s previous SENCER projects focused on non-science majors and the general education curriculum. Using the place-as-text approach to learning (Braid and Long, 2000), Scholars explored issues that link scientific and civic discourses, such as water quality (e.g., stormwater runoff, eutrophication, dead zones) and resource use (e.g., oysters, blue crab, menhaden). During their explorations on Tangier Island, Scholars engaged with members of the local community in order to begin to understand the complex intersections of civic and scientific issues (e.g., sea-level rise) and to connect them to the individuals who must live with them. As a culmination to the week, a scientist from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation presented data on the state of the Bay, supporting Scholars’ development of their final projects and their team presentations, which focused on civic and science engagement (Table 2). 

Honors Leadership Retreat

The second week of the summer bridge integrated the Scholars with the Cormier Honors College (CHC) students for the annual Honors Leadership Retreat, an on-campus “mini-bridge” program. The CHC has facilitated this retreat and its embedded peer mentoring for more than a decade and has had great success in building a cohesive community. During the Honors Leadership Retreat, Scholars participated in activities to promote leadership skills, community building, an academic mindset, and identification with a group of students for whom intellectual challenge and curiosity are shared values. Each LIFE STEM Scholar was paired with an experienced honors science major (for the first cohort of Scholars) or a current LIFE STEM Scholar (for the second cohort of Scholars), who served as a peer mentor. The retreat provided Scholars with opportunities for personal growth and connection to a larger cohort of academically talented students with whom they lived in the honors residence hall.

Coursework

In order to promote a strong cohort of Scholars, a sense of community, a scientific mindset, and the successful transition to college, the LIFE STEM curriculum has a deliberate focus on the first semester during which all Scholars are required to take three courses together (see Table 1). Two of those courses (CHEM 111 and ISCI 120) have explicit scientific connections to the bridge experience, including the analysis of water and sediment samples and associated environmental data, while the other course (ISCI 100) focuses on the transition to college. In addition to those common courses, Scholars also complete introductory courses in the major. During the second semester, Scholars focus primarily on their major course requirements but continue in ISCI 121, the second half of the two-semester course focused on promoting a scientific mindset and developing scientific skills. These courses are taught by members of the LIFE STEM Leadership Team, all of whom attended at least one HSF summer bridge. Thus, a strong sense of scientific community was initiated during the summer bridge and continued throughout the Scholars’ first year. 

Fundamentals of Chemistry I (CHEM 111)

Fundamentals of Chemistry I (CHEM 111) is a required course for science majors and a common stumbling block for first-year students. This course is taught using an inquiry-based model and utilized the POGIL (Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) pedagogy (Hein, 2012; De Gale & Boisselle, 2015) in both lecture and laboratory components. The collaborative POGIL environment is intended to help students learn, understand, and remember more while practicing skills essential for future success in the classroom, laboratory, and beyond. Connections to the summer bridge program were incorporated into the classroom component of the course as appropriate (e.g., polyatomic ions, molecular bonding, intermolecular forces, solubility, etc.). During the last five weeks of the laboratory portion of the course, the Scholars in the first cohort participated in “The Nitrate Analysis Project.” The Scholars used a spectrophotometric method to determine nitrate concentrations in a series of simulated Chesapeake Bay water samples. The second cohort participated in a final laboratory project focused on harmful algal blooms. In this project, the Scholars grew cultures under differing conditions to determine the effect of nutrient levels on algal growth.​ Algal growth was determined using a fluorescence technique to measure the chlorophyll content.

LIFE STEM Seminar I (ISCI 100)

Scholars completed a one-credit freshman seminar course that blended an introduction to academics with the transition to college life. Scholars were expected to demonstrate critical thinking skills necessary for college success, learn the importance of a digital professional presence, begin the development of a four-year e-portfolio project, design a graduation plan, demonstrate an understanding of academic resources on campus, explore career opportunities through events on campus and guest speakers, and engage in activities with the college and local community. 

Entering Research I (ISCI 120) and II (ISCI 121)

The first half of the Entering Research course sequence, adapted from Balster, Pfund, Rediske, and Branchaw (2010), engages LIFE STEM Scholars in an authentic, albeit guided, research experience and supports their development of basic skills necessary for a successful research experience. The Chesapeake Bay serves as the research focus. It is a context broad enough to support a wide range of learning activities: field, bench, and modeling work by students in all four majors; literature searches and critical reading of relevant scientific articles; explorations of connections between science and society; and consideration of research ethics. Drawing on data collected during the summer bridge, Scholars developed research questions and hypotheses in multidisciplinary student teams. This experience culminated with project presentations that outlined all aspects of the project, from definition of the problem, formulation of the hypothesis, design of the experiment, collection and analysis of the data, and drawing of the conclusions (Table 3). Several experiences within this course added to the breadth of content that continues to define the Scholars’ e-portfolios.

Table 3: The Entering Research Sequence: Student Outcomes for Key Skills, Weekly Course Topics that Support Development in Those Areas ,an Student Research Products.

Entering Research II reinforces and expands upon the knowledge and skills practiced in Entering Research I. Scholars continue to hone their skills in reading and comprehending primary literature by making a formal oral presentation of the background and findings of a scientific paper in their field of choice, thus allowing flexibility of interest in this multidisciplinary group.  In addition, continuing the focus on the Chesapeake Bay, Scholars design formal proposals for research—from posing a question through final presentation—in a multidisciplinary team. This process challenges Scholars to practice experimental questioning and implementation, expand their thinking to consider the larger scope of a research proposal, and establish a strong argument to convince an audience of the significance of a project (Table 3).  

Mentoring

Each LIFE STEM Scholar was paired with a faculty mentor prior to the Scholar’s arrival on campus. This mentoring relationship, which is intended to grow and mature over four years, is a core component of the LIFE STEM experience. Mentoring is intensive in the first two years with weekly and biweekly meetings; regular but less frequent meetings continue during the third and fourth years as the Scholars develop more independence. Fourteen faculty members from the two science departments mentored at least one Scholar, with most mentoring two Scholars, one from each cohort. To prepare for this individualized work with Scholars, mentors participated in a workshop provided by Dr. Janet Branchaw of the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Biology Education. In addition to faculty mentors, Scholars also benefited from student peer mentors either from the CHC (cohort 1) or a current LIFE STEM Scholar (cohort 2). Although the structure was informal, peer mentors were often able to better understand and assist with the struggles associated with college life.

Student Voices: Reflections on the First-year Experience

Four LIFE STEM Scholars provided reflections on their experiences in the program: Samuel Morgan and Charlotte Pfamatter, Class of 2021 Integrated Environmental Sciences majors; Kelsey Thornton, Class of 2021 Biology major; and Cecily Hayek, Class of 2022 Biology major. These Scholars’ voluntary narratives (for which no specific directions were given) articulated insights on their learning in the affective domain. Drawing on a framework outlined by Trujillo and Tanner (2014), we tie their reflections to three key constructs related to the successful transition to the college environment and subsequent academic success: a sense of belonging in an academic community; identity as a professional and, more specifically, a scientist; and self-efficacy. Importantly, the development of their understanding of the connections between science and civic issues also was highlighted.

Sense of belonging

Students’ sense of belonging affects academic motivation, academic achievement, and well-being (Trujillo & Tanner, 2014), and first-year college students who experience more peer support performed better academically and had lower levels of stress, depression, and anxiety (Pittman & Richmond, 2008). LIFE STEM Scholars highlighted their early, meaningful, and persistent connections.

“The immediate connections and opportunities we were afforded upon arrival to Longwood have had a lasting impression on my time here, thus far. I was able to develop friendships before other college students, which made the transition less intimidating.”   (Kelsey)

“I cannot think of too many better ways that I could have started off college than going on my freshman summer bridge program. Meeting so many bright students and adults who shared my interest for science was an unexpected delight. What has been even more remarkable has been how I have kept my friendships and connections for almost two years and they have only gotten stronger. I have teamed up with many of my LIFE STEM friends for presentations, posters, and conferences, and each time, I know that I am able to rely on my cohort for sterling work and helpful insight.”

“While my duty is to my assigned mentee, I see both cohorts as one community where we are all trying to help each other get through college and make it out with a brighter future. Besides partnering with them on projects, I have enjoyed many one-on-one conversations on making it through college. I have gotten to bond over dinners and lunches, and I have benefitted from a few late-night study groups. I see this community best exemplified when many of us go back each semester to Hull Springs to beautify the area through gardening. We get to spend a weekend doing some service while also bonding. We get to self-lead and organize ourselves while giving back to the university that granted us this excellent program in the first place.” (Samuel)

“My LIFE STEM peer mentor has been so kind and supportive this year that I decided to apply to be a peer mentor for the next cohort. I know that these relationships that I have formed over this past year will continue to grow, and I am so thankful that I have been able to create such a great support system.”  (Cecily)

The development of sense of belonging is not limited to peer interactions: connections to faculty members also are important in promoting students’ sense of belonging in the university context (Freeman, Anderman, and Jensen, 2007).  

“I believe that the faculty-student connections we made upon arrival, and continue to make to this day, are the best reward of this program. Being able to go to any science faculty member and ask them about anything, whether it be in regard to academics or just life, they already know you and they are there and willing to help.”  (Kelsey)

“The LIFE STEM faculty have been able to make Chichester (our science building) feel like home. I have gone to so many faculty STEM mentors for guidance on school projects, and I will always be thankful for the many opportunities they have afforded me.”  (Samuel)

“Other than academic success, this program has also given me many great mentors who have been integral in helping me plan out my future. My faculty mentor is always there to give me advice on anything I ask about and is even assisting me in contacting people in my desired field.”  (Cecily)

Identity as a scientist

A student’s identification as a scientist is linked to persistence, and students who left the sciences often did not adopt that professional identity (Trujillo & Tanner, 2014). Science identity can be framed as a composite of multiple factors, including performance, recognition, and competence (Carlone & Johnson, 2007). Those dimensions are evident in the following statements by LIFE STEM Scholars:

“I have become a strong leader and a confident biologist in the making. I am excited to move forward in this program, meet and connect with future cohorts, and continue growing as a student and as a Citizen Leader.”  (Kelsey)

“One of my proudest titles at Longwood is being a LIFE STEM Scholar. . . . LIFE STEM has been pivotal for me not only as a student but as a young professional. . . . Also, LIFE STEM has brought me confidence as an aspiring scientist. Coming to college, I had limited experience in science and had only brief exposure to it in high school. I was not knowledgeable on scientific writing and presentations. The LIFE STEM courses have groomed me to become a professional in the STEM world through step-by-step writing and presenting exercises, while providing many opportunities for practice. This program has equipped me with the tools I need to be a competitive student in my major, which will help me thrive in a STEM career and graduate school after Longwood.” (Charlotte)

“I hope to continue to grow as a student and forge even more connections that will allow me to further my education as a biologist.” (Cecily)

Self-efficacy

A student’s self-efficacy is the belief or confidence that his/her/zir actions can affect outcomes and have desired effects (Bandura, 1997). It is an ingredient that can move students beyond the “raw materials” of knowledge and skills to academic success (Klassen & Klassen, 2018). LIFE STEM Scholars’ reflections indicate that the program’s scaffolded academic experiences and early research immersion supported students’ confidence in moving forward positively to more advanced work.

“This program helped me to grow in many aspects, both professionally and personally. In my first year, I learned how to do scientific research and had the opportunity to improve my public speaking skills. The second year was predominately learning how to be a scientist; that is, how to read articles, how to synthesize, and how to report to different audiences. These were all skills that were challenging at the time; however, I was grateful to have learned them in the LIFE STEM Program classes. Once the cohort started taking classes outside of the program, I was personally able to see how far ahead we were compared to other students in regard to simple skills such as writing and public speaking.”  (Kelsey)

“As a mentor to the second cohort of LIFE STEM students, I have been able to grow in my leadership skills. In my first year, I was provided with lots of help, advice, and opportunities, but, as a mentor in my second year, I got to provide those things to my mentees.” (Samuel)

“LIFE STEM has helped me gain momentum in pursuing undergraduate research. This academic program is designed for students to learn about undergraduate research, with the hope of actually taking on a research opportunity. The courses have exposed me to examples of some of the faculty’s work, while also being able to meet face to face with professors to learn what research entails. Because of LIFE STEM, I was able to take on research in my sophomore year and the summer before my junior year. LIFE STEM prepared me with professional communication skills, which landed me an opportunity to do research for the duration of my time at Longwood.”  (Charlotte)

“Coursework as a Biology major can be challenging, and I was pleased when I found myself performing much better on assignments and assessments than other students that are not in the program. This success is because of the skills and knowledge that LIFE STEM Scholars are exposed to within the first semester. I have been able to improve my writing immensely and even broaden my skills in researching and reading scientific articles. I believe that this program has opened doors for me within the scientific field as well as my other courses.” (Cecily)

Connections between Science and Civic Issues

The LIFE STEM Scholars begin their university careers immersed in a complex and contested civic issue that at first is framed as a scientific problem. Their “engagement with ‘multidisciplinary trouble’ and civic questions that require attention now” (SENCER, 2017) has prompted students to reevaluate their perceptions of their identities and their responsibilities as citizens and scholars.

“As I spent time on the Chesapeake Bay, I realized that an environmental scientist’s purpose cannot be to merely understand the relationship between a community of organisms and the landscape they inhabit, or to work to preserve beneficial ecosystems. Instead, an environmental scientist’s job is to lend their knowledge and skills to a cooperative effort of maintaining and improving a society’s relationship with the natural world. The Bay is much more than a tidal estuary for crabs, oysters, pelicans, and shad. The Bay has historical, economic, and recreational significance, and serves as a home to millions of people. Sometimes natural preservation conflicts with keeping these other values. An environmental scientist’s purpose must involve attempting to preserve all of society’s values.”  (Samuel)

Conclusion

Although it is still in the early stages of the evaluation process, initial assessment by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC) suggested that the LIFE STEM Program has been successful in achieving its objectives. From first to second semester, LIFE STEM Scholars were retained at a higher rate than their peers in the science majors (Table 4). Additionally, Scholars reported feeling academically supported through the program and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to connect with a cohort of science peers and faculty through the summer bridge, mentoring program, and LIFE STEM coursework (MERC unpublished data). Scholars from the first cohort also informally reported to the LIFE STEM Leadership Team that as they transitioned to upper-level courses, they perceived themselves to be better prepared for scientific writing and oral presentations than their peers. They attributed that to the Entering Research course sequence. Longwood University also recognized the successes of the program by providing institutional funding to enroll a third cohort of LIFE STEM Scholars, which extends the positive impacts of the program to continue beyond the timeline initiated in the NSF S-STEM award. 

Though the program is off to a strong start, it is not immune to both program- and institutional-level challenges such as faculty workload and sustainability. To address that, some members of the LIFE STEM Leadership Team applied and were accepted to the 2019 ASCN (Accelerating Systemic Change Network) Systemic Change Institute. The team’s major goals for the institute were to develop a realistic plan for engaging faculty from the science departments in discussions about lessons learned and opportunities for implementation beyond LIFE STEM, learn about proven strategies for engaging faculty in scaling up nascent efforts, identify strategies for engaging faculty and staff in recruiting efforts, and consider program elements that might support different funding opportunities, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence program. 

As the LIFE STEM Leadership Team and MERC continue to learn about the program’s successes, identify areas for improvement and growth, and pursue opportunities for scaling beyond the small cohorts, the Scholars’ first-year immersion at the intersection of science and civic issues continues to serve as a foundation for the Scholars’ academic and co-curricular efforts. The SENCER Ideals are infused into the upper-level LIFE STEM coursework, and Scholars are pursuing leadership roles on campus that again position them at that intersection (e.g., Eco-Reps in the university’s Office of Sustainability).

Table 4: Retention Rates of Longwood University Undergraduates (UG) for the Two Classes in Which the LIFE STEM Cohorts are Embedded.
Authors
Michelle Parry

Michelle Parry is associate professor of physics in the Department of Chemistry and Physics (C&P). She serves as the LIFE STEM Program coordinator and teaches the LIFE STEM Seminar I course that focuses on the successful transition to college. She also serves as the physics area coordinator and is responsible for program assessment and for leading curriculum change. 

Wayne Znosko

Wade Znosko is associate professor of biology in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences (BES). He leads the two-semester sequence of Entering Research for the LIFE STEM Program. His research on the effects of impaired waterways on the development of vertebrates helps to inform some of the data collection and analysis techniques during this sequence.

Alix Dowling Fink

Alix Dowling Fink is dean of the Cormier Honors College for Citizen Scholars and professor of biology in BES. She has been involved with SENCER for more than 15 years and, with Michelle, developed a SENCER Model Course, The Power of Water. Collaborating with colleagues across the disciplines, she also developed a transdisciplinary student program in Yellowstone National Park focused on the stewardship of our public lands. Her commitment to the SENCER Ideals continues to shape her work with students in the classroom, in the field, and through her administrative efforts.

Mark Fink

Mark Fink is the chair of BES and associate professor of biology. Since 2011, he has facilitated immersion learning experiences on the Chesapeake Bay, first with teacher candidates and in-service teachers and currently with students from all majors. In those programs and his life science course for future K–8 teachers, Mark has sought to engage students in learning science concepts by using relevant, timely, and challenging civic contexts.

Kenneth Fortino

Kenneth Fortino is an associate professor of biology in BES, where he teaches courses in introductory biology, ecology and evolution, ecosystem ecology, and introductory environmental science. His current research is on the factors that affect organic matter processing in freshwater ecosystems.

Melissa Rhoten

Melissa Rhoten is a professor of chemistry in C&P. Her research interests include topics in chemical education, bioanalytical electrochemistry, and biosensors. Melissa has been involved in pedagogical activities focused on the implementation of inquiry-based learning in Longwood’s chemistry curriculum. She currently serves as the director of Longwood’s new Civitae Core Curriculum.​

Sarai Blincoe

Sarai Blincoe is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and is the discipline-based educational researcher for the LIFE STEM Program. She regularly teaches undergraduate courses in research methods and social psychology and publishes research on disrespect, trust, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Sarai serves as assistant dean of curriculum and assessment in the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences.

Student Contributors

Cecily Hayek

Cecily Hayek is a biology major who graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax, VA, in May 2018. In June 2019, she attended the Mid-Atlantic Marine Debris Summit that sought to find solutions for marine litter and subsequent problems such as microplastics. Cecily plans to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

Samuel Morgan

Samuel Morgan is an integrated environmental sciences major who started his studies at Longwood University in August 2017. Since then, he has been a LIFE STEM mentor as well as a student collaborator on faculty research focused on allelopathy.

 

Charlotte Pfamatter

Charlotte Pfamatter is an integrated environmental sciences major who graduated from Monacan High School in North Chesterfield, VA, in May 2017. In the summer of 2018, Charlotte participated in the School for Field Studies program in Turks and Caicos Islands that explored issues in marine conservation.

Kelsey Thornton

Kelsey Thornton is a biology major who graduated from Thomas Dale High School in Chester, VA, in May 2017. In the summer of 2019, she participated in the Longwood University study abroad experience examining conservation and economics in Ecuadorian Amazon. Kelsey’s professional goal is to become a veterinarian.

References

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Braid, B., & Long, A. (2000). Place as text: Approaches to active learning. National Collegiate Honors Council. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nchcmono/3/ 

Carlone, H. B., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of women of color: Science identity as an analytical lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1187–1218.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). (2018). State of the Bay report.  Retrieved from https://www.cbf.org/document-library/cbf-reports/2018-state-of-the-bay-report.pdf 

Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). (2017). Facts and figures. Retrieved from  https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/facts 

Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). (2019). Bay barometer.  Retrieved from https://www.chesapeakebay.net/documents/2017-2018_Bay_Barometer.pdf 

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Hein, S. M. (2012). Positive impacts using POGIL in organic chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(7), 860–864. 

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Trujillo, G., & Tanner, K. D. (2014). Considering the role of affect in learning: Monitoring students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and science identity. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13, 6–15.  Retrieved from https://www.lifescied.org/doi/full/10.1187/cbe.13-12-0241 

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Study of Healthcare-Associated Infections and Multi-Drug Resistance in Brooklyn: An Integrative Approach

Abstract

One SENCER ideal is to connect science education and civic engagement by student learning through complex, unresolved public issues. Using this approach, we established a collaborative interdisciplinary project involving faculty and undergraduate students at NYC College of Technology. Over several semesters, students conducted literature search and discovered the complex factors contributing to the occurrence and transmission of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). Using microbiology data from 15 hospitals in Brooklyn, NY, they applied statistical analyses, studied the antibiotic resistance, and developed a campaign to bring more awareness of this problem. The results of the project highlight the importance of immediate action in combating HAIs and support the need for a public health campaign. Undergraduate students were provided with the opportunity to conduct research, perform scientific and mathematical analyses, and present their results. They gained better understanding of the complex interactions among microbiology, epidemiology, and mathematics that is needed to develop preventative measures and combat HAIs.

 Introduction

In April 2014, World Health Organization officials released a comprehensive report on antibiotic resistance, calling it a “major threat to public health” and seeking “improved collaboration around the world to track drug resistance, measure its health and economic impacts and design targeted solutions” (WHO, 2016). Using the SENCER ideals of connecting science education and civic engagement by teaching through complex, unresolved public issues, and inspired by the SENCER Summer Institute (SSI) in Chicago, we established a collaborative interdisciplinary project for undergraduate students at the NYC College of Technology, led by faculty from the Biological Sciences and Mathematics departments. By combining epidemiology and microbiology with mathematics, the project addressed the need for public education and awareness of two emerging health care problems: (a) healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), formerly known as nosocomial infections (NIs), and (b) antibiotic resistance. HAIs are infectious diseases, acquired during a hospital stay, with no evidence of being present at the time of admission to the hospital. HAIs affect 5–10% of hospitalized patients in the US per year. Approximately 1.7 million HAIs occur in U.S. hospitals each year, resulting in 99,000 deaths (CDC, 2015). Today the complications associated with HAIs may be responsible for an annual $5–10 billion financial burden on our healthcare system (Cowan, Smith, and Lusk, 2019). Education and public awareness campaigns have been among the most effective tools used in many industries, including healthcare.  HAIs are easily transmitted due to the numerous microbes in the hospital environment, the interaction of healthcare workers with multiple patients, the compromised immunity of patients, improper use of antibiotics, and inadequate antiseptic procedures. More than 70% of these infections are caused by multi-drug resistant (MDR) pathogens, which contribute to increased morbidity and mortality (Black and Hawks, 2009). Antibiotic resistance is the capability of particular microorganisms to grow in the presence of a given antibiotic. The acquired resistance results from spontaneous mutations or from the transfer of resistance genes from other microbes (Drlica & Perlin, 2011). Each year in the US, at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 people die as a result (CDC, 2018; Sifferlin, 2017). With the increased levels of antibiotic usage among humans, livestock, and crops, antibiotic resistant bacteria have increased dramatically in the past few decades (Foglia, Fraser, & Elward, 2007;  Sedláková et al., 2014). If a bacterial cell carries several resistance genes, relating to more than just one antibiotic, it is termed MDR, for multiple drug-resistant. Today these organisms are known as superbugs (Sifferlin, 2017).

The rising rate of antimicrobial resistance demands research and development of entirely novel drugs and new therapeutic strategies, from small-molecule antibiotics to antimicrobial peptides, from enzymes to nucleic acid therapeutics, from metal-carbonyl complexes to phage therapy (Medina & Pieper, 2016; Brunetti et al, 2016; Betts, Nagel, Schatzschneider, Poole, & Ragione, 2017; Nayar et al., 2015; Phoenix, Harris, Dennison, & Ahmed, 2015. 

The main goal of this research project was to study the complex factors that contribute to the occurrence and transmission of HAIs associated with antibiotic resistance in Brooklyn hospitals, to apply statistical analyses to the data, and to bring more awareness of this problem to our college community.

Student Involvement

Students enrolled in Microbiology (BIO3302) and Statistics (MAT1272) worked collaboratively on this project.  Undergraduate researchers, with a greater time commitment, were also involved in the project, through the college’s Emerging Scholars program (New York City College of Technology, Undergraduate Research, 2019) or the Honors Scholars Program (New York City College of Technology, Academics, 2019) the former providing stipends to students and the latter providing honors credit in a course. Both programs require student professional development related to research, such as abstract writing, preparing a poster, and making oral presentations, and each provides the opportunity for undergraduate students to conduct research with a faculty mentor and gain a practical understanding of the material learned in courses. Undergraduate researchers included students majoring in nursing and other health sciences (for whom both BIO3302 and MAT1272 are required), applied mathematics, and computer engineering technology.  

The specific objectives of the project were (a) to define the most common bacterial pathogens responsible for the spread of HAIs; (b) to identify risk factors and common infection sites; (c) to analyze microbial resistance to commonly used antibiotics, using data on multi-drug resistant bacterial isolates from hospitals in Brooklyn; (d) to study variations of resistance rates among different hospitals, using statistical analysis; (e) to study association among resistant isolates, using regression analysis; (f) to define the antibiotics with the highest bacterial resistance;  (g) to raise awareness of preventative measures for reducing HAIs;  and (h) to introduce students to an interdisciplinary practical field. 

Over six semesters, students performed comprehensive literature search on scientific articles by using the following key words: healthcare-associated infections, hospital acquired infections, HAI, nosocomial infections, antibiotic resistance, multi-drug resistance, epidemiology, Brooklyn hospitals. Additionally, they obtained already published data on multi-drug resistant clinical isolates from 15 coded (unidentified) hospitals in Brooklyn, (kindly provided by Dr. J. Quale, Division of Infectious Diseases, State University of New York Downstate Health Sciences University) (Bratu, Landman, Gupta, Trehan, Panwar, & Quale, 2006; Manikal, Landman, Saurina, Oydna, Lal, & Quale, 2002;  Landman et al., 2002; Landman et al., 2007). Using the data, students performed statistical analysis, using chi-squared tests on antibiotic resistance and regression analysis. 

Results

Most Common Bacterial Pathogens
and Risk Factors

As a result of extensive literature search, students defined twelve bacterial pathogens associated with HAIs. The most common ones in Brooklyn were Staphylococcus aureus, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Klebsiella pneumoniae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Acinetobacter baumannii, and Clostridium difficile. Next, the specific bacterial characteristics and the most prevalent sites of infections (urinary tract, lower respiratory tract, surgical incisions, and bloodstream) were described. Those at highest risk of contracting HAIs are patients with (a) a compromised immune system as a result of a transplant, HIV infection, malignant tumors, or possible prolonged treatment with antibiotics, cytostatics, or corticosteroids; (b) surgical procedures; (c) invasive procedures (e.g., urethral catheters, trachea ventilators, and/or intravenous therapy); (d) trauma and burn patients; (e) an underdeveloped immune system (e.g., newborns); and (f) diminished resistance (e.g. elderly); and (g) prolonged hospitalization, also a significant risk factor.

Statistical Analysis of Antibiotic Resistant Clinical Isolates

The next step of the project was to study the impact of multi-drug resistance on HAIs. One of the project participants established personal communication with Dr. J. Quale, who provided numerically coded data on clinical isolates collected from 15 Brooklyn hospitals. The percentage of resistance to the following most commonly used antibiotics was examined and compared: Amikacin (AK), Gentamicin (GEN), Ceftazidime (CAZ), Piperacillin-Tazobactam (Pip-Taz), Ciprofloxacin (Cip), and Imipenem (Imi). 

Analyses of the antibiotic resistance indicated that most of the clinical isolates were highly resistant to Ciprofloxacin, reaching 100% resistance among Acinetobacter baumannii. These results demonstrate that Ciprofloxacin should be used minimally for the tested HAI pathogens. Newer therapies such as Tigecycline and the combination of Polymixine + Rifampin showed much better bacterial susceptibility. 

Chi-squared tests (Table 1) revealed significant resistance variations of Klebsiella isolates to the antibiotics AK, CAZ, Cip, and Imi among the hospitals, that is, the variations of drug resistance of these isolates were too large to have occurred by chance alone.  Significant resistance variations of Pseudomonas isolates to AK, Cip, and Imi were also observed. The underlying causes of these disparities are most likely the differences in the inpatient population. Elderly and sicker patients usually take in more antibiotics and thus harbor antibiotic resistant bacteria. Patients in trauma centers are also more likely to develop antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, overuse or repeated use of a specific antibiotic by a hospital would lead to a higher resistance rate for that particular antibiotic. 

Interestingly, different scenarios were observed for Acinetobacter isolates. Variations of Acinetobacter resistance to the antibiotics AK, CAZ and Cip among the hospitals were not statistically significant; however, significant variations to Imi were observed. Patients with Acinetobacter infections are usually very ill and heavily exposed to antibiotics. Acinetobacter bacteria are resistant to most antibiotics, and thus for these isolates, variations of resistance to most antibiotics do not show statistically significant differences among the participating hospitals.

Table 1: Chi-Square Tests on Resistance Variations Among Hospitals.

Regression analysis showed high correlation between the antibiotic resistance of different pathogens. The correlation coefficient between Klebsiella and Pseudomonas was 0.929, Klebsiella and Acinetobacter – 0.825 and between Pseudonomnas and Acinetobacter – 0.859. The correlation between resistance of a specific organism to different antibiotics was also studied. Extremely strong positive correlation was found between Ceftazidime and Ciprofloxacin (R2 = .9961) in K. pneumoniae (Table 2), suggesting that these bacteria may carry the resistant genes for both antibiotics. Most hospital facilities nowadays use common antibiotics to treat infections. Within inpatient population there is a greater chance of contracting and spreading infections due to compromised or weakened immunity and the variety of pathogenic organisms present in such settings. Therefore, resistance to antibiotics that are prevalently used is higher.

Table 2: Correlation of Resistance to Different Antibiotics in Isolates of K. pneumoniae.
Preventative Measures

Another important objective of our study was to understand the need for proper preventative measures for reducing HAIs. In order to protect all individuals in the clinical setting—patients, healthcare workers, and public (visitors), CDC has laid down strict guidelines for handling patients and body specimens, termed Universal Precautions (CDC, 1998). All students, especially those majoring in health sciences, became acquainted with and learned these guidelines. The fight against the spread of MDR organisms begins with proper hand hygiene, correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and judicious use of pharmacologic treatment (Weinstein, 2001). Practicing proper frequent hand hygiene is essential to prevent the transmission of infections. It requires washing hands with soap and vigorous rubbing under running water for at least twenty seconds. Alcohol-base sanitizers are also used on unsoiled hands and require less time than hand washing. However, sanitizers are not effective in killing bacterial spores, whereas hand washing is effective on all microbes.  PPE includes gowns, goggles, or facial shields to protect skin and mucus membranes. Targeted pharmaceutical treatment, as a result of an antibiogram, should be prescribed instead of blind use of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Repeated bacterial cultures are necessary to assess the effectiveness of treatment. Additional preventative measures to reduce HAIs are (a) decreasing the number of skin punctures on a patient, since they provide opportunities for colonizing microflora; (b) following aseptic techniques when performing invasive procedures such as placing urethral and intravenous catheters; (c) reducing the duration of intravenous lipid use, since lipids are immunosuppressive, are easily contaminated, and support growth of fungi and bacteria; and (d) limiting the number of days for percutaneous deep lines. 

Technology is also playing a role in preventing and improving effective patient care through sharing health information. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act allows hospitals and providers to share patients’ health information (ONC, 2019). In New York City many healthcare providers are taking advantage of programs like the Regional Health Information Organization, a network that contains a complete picture of patient’s health history. 

Assessment and Outcomes

The information gained in this project highlights the importance of immediate action in combating HAIs and supports the need for a public health campaign. The project provided students with the opportunity to conduct mentored interdisciplinary research, work as a team, perform scientific and mathematic analyses, participate in discussions, and exchange opinions. Students were enabled to better understand the complex interaction between microbiology, epidemiology, and statistics and to gain knowledge of the need for preventative measures to combat HAIs. Adding the research component to the Microbiology course has helped students connect the information learned in class to the real world and to recognize the importance of HAIs and MDR as a threat to public health. Throughout the project, in a creative environment, students defined the most common bacterial species responsible for the spread of HAIs in Brooklyn and identified the risk factors and common infection sites. Using the data on multi-drug resistant isolates, they performed statistical analysis to study the correlation between two different antibiotic resistances and variability among Brooklyn hospitals. Their work was disseminated by publishing flyers (Figures 1 and 2) for distribution in local hospitals and clubs. Currently, the information from the project continues to be used by the participating faculty in MAT1272 for “hand washing habits” assignments, which also leads to a discussion on antibacterial soaps, sanitizers, and the occurrence of superbugs.

Furthermore, different phases of the project were presented at the end of each semester at the Semi-Annual Poster Sessions for Honors and Emerging Scholars at the New York City College of Technology. Several undergraduate students presented their research at regional and national conferences such as NYSMATYC (NYSMATYC, 2011), MAA Regional Meetings, Math Fest (Ghosh-dastidar, 2010), the 13th Annual CUNY Pipeline Honors Conference, and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). The project was also presented at the SENCER Washington Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Session in Washington DC. The work was also reflected in MAA Focus magazine (Baron, 2011), and in the NY Daily News.

Figure 1: Flyer with information about Nosocomial Infection (courtesy of Gillian Persue).
Figure 2: Flyer with information about Nosocoial Infection (courtesy of Michell Cadore)

In conclusion, we consider the research project very successful. Our main goal was achieved: to combine different subject areas, to address serious public health issues, such as HAIs and antibiotic resistance, and to bring more awareness in our community. The students were very enthusiastic and eager to learn and interacted very efficiently among themselves as a team.  The success of the project is best conveyed by the students’ reflections on their research work: 

“This was my first research project and it was challenging. I never thought I could do pathology research, but it opened a door to a new area. The experience was especially important for me, since health care workers can spread nosocomial infections. We’re supposed to help patients, but we can harm them. I would encourage everyone to do a research project in college. It’s definitely worth it.” 

“The most significant part of this project for me was working as an interdisciplinary team. I am proud to say that the results of our research were later presented on a state level at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.” 

Acknowledgement

 This work was supported by a sub-award from SENCER, SSI 2009 to P.B. and the Emerging Scholars Program at New York City College of Technology. Many thanks to Dr. J. Quale, Division of Infectious Diseases, State University of New York Downstate Health Sciences University for sharing his knowledge and his valuable suggestions. We acknowledge the excellent research performance of all student participants, led by Rona Gurin, Aionga Pereira (currently a co-author), Farjana Ferdousy, Efrah Hassan, Cintiana Execus, Jessica Obidimalor, Hui Meen Ong, Philip Ajisogun, and Jennifer Chan Wu. 

Authors 

Liana Tsenova

Liana Tsenova is a professor of Biological Sciences at the New York City College of Technology. She earned her MD degree and specialty in microbiology and immunology from the Medical Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria. Dr. Tsenova received her postdoctoral training at the Rockefeller University in NYC. Her research is focused on the immune response and host-directed therapies in tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. She has co-authored more than 50 publications. At City Tech she has served as the PI/project director of the Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program, funded by NIH ($1.2million. She is a SENCER leadership fellow. She mentors undergraduate students in collaborative interdisciplinary projects, combining the study of microbiology and infectious diseases with chemistry and statistics, to address unresolved healthcare problems. 

Urmi Ghosh-Dastidar

Urmi Ghosh-Dastidar is the coordinator of the Computer Science Program and a professor in the Mathematics Department at New York City College of Technology. She received a PhD in applied mathematics jointly from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University and a BS in applied mathematics from The Ohio State University. Her current interests include parameter estimation via optimization, infectious disease modeling, applications of graph theory in biology and chemistry, and developing and applying undergraduate bio-math modules in various SENCER related projects. She was elected a SENCER leadership fellow by the National Leadership Board of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement.

Arnavaz Taraporevala

Arnavaz Taraporevala is a professor of mathematics at New York City College of Technology.  She received her doctorate in statistics from Michigan State University. She is a member of the Curriculum Committee of the Mathematics Department and is actively involved in curriculum development.  Her courses include an intensive writing component and student portfolios.  Professor Taraporevala has served as a mentor to several students in honors projects. Her research interests are in stable processes and in pedagogical issues in mathematics. She co-wrote (with Professors Benakli and Singh) the text Visualizing Calculus by Way of Maple (New York: McGraw Hill Publishers, 2012).

Aionga Sonya Pereira

Aionga Sonya Pereira is a registered nurse. She graduated from Long Island University with a BSN and is currently working on her MSN. Her specialty areas and passion are emergency medicine and psychological health, and she has worked in both areas for the last six years. She is a reserve Air Force officer and is the current officer in charge (OIC) of mental health at the 459th ASTS at Joint Base Andrews. Most recently she joined the Mount Sinai Healthcare System as an RN. Her love for research started as an undergraduate student at the New York City College of Technology, where she participated in the Emerging Scholars Program. Aionga continues to seek ways to merge civic engagement research and nursing. 

Pamela Brown

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 her current position, Dr. Brown was dean of the School of Arts & Sciences for six years. Dr. Brown also served as 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, having earned her PhD from Polytechnic University and SM from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research interests include development and assessment of student success initiatives.

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Local to Global: Civic Engagement with Education, Awareness, 
and Global Health

Abstract

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.  

Introduction

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.  

Project Description

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.  

Project Outcomes

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

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.

References

Altheide, D.L. 1987. “Ethnographic Content Analysis.” Qualitative Sociology, 10(1): 65-77.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. 2011. “Ten Great Public Health Achievements: Worldwide, 2001-2010.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 60: 814-818. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6024a4.htm

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.

Reimers, F.M. 2017. “Engaging our Students in Conversations About the Consequences of Disengaging from Global Institutions: Lessons on US Withdrawal from UNESCO.” Retrieved from https://worldsofeducation.org/en/woe_homepage/woe_detail/15527/engaging-our-students-in-conversations-about-the-consequences-of-disengaging-from-global-institutions-lessons-on-us-withdrawal-from-unesco

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. 

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Teaching with Technology: Using a Virtual Learning Community and Peer Mentoring to Create an Interdisciplinary Intervention

 

Abstract

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.

Motivation

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). 

Project Development

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 for  students 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.

Implementation

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: 

  1. comparing/contrasting the ideas in the blog post
    to the ideas you’re discussing in class; 
  2. offering a solution to a potential problem; 
  3. identifying complications to potential solutions; 
  4. selecting a quotation from the original text with which you agree or disagree, and using interpretation and analysis to defend your position; 
  5. providing a solution to a problem and explaining your work; and 
  6. 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. 

Outcomes

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. 

Broader Implications

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

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

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

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.

Acknowledgements

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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Using the SENCER Approach in 
Collaborating Across Disciplines: 
Participating in Do Now U

Introduction

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.

Geology Students

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.

International Students

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.

Discussion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Acknowledgements

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 Bhattacharyya, PhD

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, PhD

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, MS

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.

References

Beckett, G., & Slater, T. (2006). The project framework: A tool for language, content, and skills integration. ELT Journal, 59(2), 108–166. doi: 10.1093/eltj/cci024

Burns, W. (2002). Knowledge to make our democracy. Liberal Education, 88(4), 20–27.

Fenton-Smith, B., Humphreys, P., Walkinshaw, I., Michael, R., & Lobo, A.  (2017). Implementing a university-wide credit-bearing English language enhancement programme: Issues emerging from practice. Studies in Higher Education, 42(3), 463–479. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1052736

Howard, R. M., & Jamieson, S. (2014). Researched writing. A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (2nd Edition), 231–247.

Kilgo, C. A., Sheets, J. K. E., & Pascarella, E. T. (2015). The link between high-impact practices and student learning: Some longitudinal evidence. Higher Education, 69(4), 509–525. doi:10.1007/s10734-014-9788-z

Kuh, G. (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.

Moore, C. (2016). The future of work: What Google shows us about the present and future of online collaboration. Techtrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 60(3), 233–244. doi:10.1007/s11528-016-0044-5

National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13398

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Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). (2014). What are civic life, politics, and government? In National standards for Civics and Government, 5–8 content standards. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.civiced.org/standards?page=58erica.

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Building a Greenhouse in a Community Farm: Urban Science and Community Democracy

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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.

Planning Stages

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.

Community Democracy

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.

Future Plans

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.

Conclusions

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.

Acknowledgements

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

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.

References

Department of Buildings, New York City. Building Code, Loads, Title 27, Subchapter 9.

Design Trust for Public Space (2014). Five Borough Farm II: Growing the Benefits of Urban Agriculture in New York City.

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.

Appendix

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.

Figure 4. Anna, Traci, Greg, Melissa, and Josh inside the greenhouse frame, working together on the details of the roof framing.

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.

Figure 5. Completed greenhouse with polycarbonate panels. The Spiraea bush in the forefront will grow many times in size.

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.

 

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A Multitier Approach to Integrating STEM Education into a Local Elementary School

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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.

Methods 

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.

In-class Lessons

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.

 

Afterschool Programs

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 using  balsa 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.

Success(es)

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.

Conclusion

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.

Acknowledgements

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

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
Manhattan College.

 

 

 

 

Kayla Natal

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

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

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

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.

References

American Chemical Society. (2018). Dissolving M&Ms. Retrieved February 5, 2018 from https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/adventures-in-chemistry/experiments/dissolving-m-ms.html.

Brophy, S., Klein, S., Portsmore, M., & Rogers, C. (2008). Advancing engineering education in P-12 classrooms. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(3), 369–387.

Brown, J. (2012). The current status of STEM education research. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations & Research, 13(5), 7–11. Available from Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 9, 2017.

Burte, H., Gardony, ,Hutton, , & Taylor, . (2017). Think3d!: Improving mathematics learning through embodied spatial training. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications2(13), 1–18.

City University of New York. (2018). CUNY Service Corps. Retrieved February 5, 2018 from  http://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.

Lopatto, D. (2010). Undergraduate research as a high-impact student experience. Peer Review 12(2). Retrieved February 7, 2018 from https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2010/spring.

National Engineers Week Future City Competition. (2017). Future City Competition. Retrieved February 5, 2018 from https://futurecity.org.

New York City College of Technology, City University of New York. (2017). Fact Sheet 2017–2018. Retrieved February 5, 2018 from http://www.citytech.cuny.edu/about-us/docs/facts.pdf.

Preschool STEAM. (n.d.). Easy turkey preschool STEM activities. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from https://preschoolsteam.com/thanksgiving-preschool-stem-activities/.

Ressler, Stephen. (2013). The Bridge Designer Software. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from http://stephenjressler.com/wpbd/.

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.

STEAM Powered Family. (2018). Slime STEM Activities – Learning with slime, STEM and fun! Retrieved February 7, 2018 from https://www.steampoweredfamily.com/activities/slime-stem-activities-learning-with-slime-stem-and-fun/.

Science Pioneers. (2017). Why STEM education is important for everyone. http://www.sciencepioneers.org/parents/why-stem-is-important-to-everyone.

Ressler, Stephen. (2013). The Bridge Designer Software. Retrieved February 7, 2018 from http://stephenjressler.com/wpbd/.

Wai, J., Lubinski, D. & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 817–835.

 

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Cultivating STEM Identity and Belonging through Civic Engagement: Increasing Student Success (Self-efficacy and Persistence) for the Two-Year College STEM Student

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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.

Methods

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.

Results

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.

Qualitative Findings

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).

Discussion

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

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 pleggett1@gsu.edu.

 

Mrs. Naranja Davis

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

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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Building a New Translational Research Program with Undergraduates: A Student-driven Research Class

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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).

Figure 1: Students reported learning gains in skills associated with research.
In this class, students were responsible for starting and defining a new research project that would continue beyond the course. Because starting a new project is, in many ways, different from continuing an established project, learning gains were assessed in areas similar to those made by students engaging in established research programs through course-based research activities. Students in BIOL 373 Advanced Neuroscience Research (blue bars) made learning gains similar to national averages (gray bars) in skills related to project management and design (A) and scientific research (B), indicating that engaging students in the research process early in a new project is a meaningful way to involve students in faculty research and development (two-sample t test, p > 0.05 for all comparison). Though there was no statistically significant difference between this course and national averages for these assessment categories, gains associated with project management and design (A) were slightly higher than national averages, perhaps because the students were deeply involved in determining the progress and trajectory of the research plan. A larger gain was also noted in skills related to oral presentation of results (B) because one of the main assessments for the course was a public works-in-progress presentation as a part of our institutional student research symposium. 1 = little gain, 5 = great gain. Error bars represent 95% CI.
Figure 2: Course benefits.
The benefits of mentored research extend far beyond learning basic scientific content. These CURE survey results indicate that students make valuable learning gains related to scientific research, even at a very early stage in the research project. Students in BIOL 373 Advanced Neuroscience Research (blue bars) made learning gains in personal development (A) and understanding the process of science (B) similar to national averages, indicating that engaging students early in the research process can be an impactful research experience (CURE survey). Together, these results suggest that undergraduate educators should consider engaging students at all stages of the research project, especially including the evaluation of project feasibility and the gathering of background data and information. 1 = little gain, 5 = great gain. Error bars represent 95% CI.

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.

Conclusion

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

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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Bergstrom, R. A., Choi, J. H., Manduca, A., Shin, H.-S., Worrell, G. A., & Howe, C. L. (2013). Automated identification of multiple seizure-related and interictal epileptiform event types in the EEG of mice. Scientific Reports, 3, 1483. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep01483

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An Authentic Course-Based Research Experience in Antibiotic Resistance and Microbial Genomics

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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 Staphylococci asymptomatically 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 that  my 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.

Acknowledgments

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.

References

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———. 2015b. FACT SHEET: President’s 2016 Budget Proposes Historic Investment to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria to Protect Public Health. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/27/fact-sheet-president-s-2016-budget-proposes-historic-investment-combat-a (accessed June 13, 2017).

World Health Organization (WHO). 2017. Antimicrobial Resistance: Global Report on Surveillance 2014. http://www.who.int/drugresistance/documents/surveillancereport/en/ (accessed June 13, 2017).

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