Turning STEM Education Inside-Out: Teaching and Learning Inside Prisons

Abstract

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is an international network of teachers and learners who work to break down walls of division by facilitating dialogue across social differences.  In this model, first developed by Lori Pompa at Temple University, campus-based college students (outside students) join incarcerated students (inside students) for a college course that is taught inside a correctional facility.  Compared to other disciplines, STEM courses are underrepresented in the Inside-Out program.  Here we discuss the unique opportunities of teaching a STEM course inside prison using the Inside-Out approach and how it differs from other models of STEM teaching in prison.  Our analysis is based on the experience of three instructors from two liberal arts colleges, who taught Inside-Out courses in statistics, number theory, and biochemistry inside a medium-security state prison for men.  

Introduction

For over 20 years, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (https://www.insideoutcenter.org), based at Temple University, has brought campus-based college students together with incarcerated students for semester-long courses held in prisons, jails, and other correctional settings all around the world (Davis and Roswell, 2013). The Inside-Out approach to education is a collaboration between all parties involved, not one in which higher education professors and students go to a carceral organization to “help inmates” out of a sense of volunteerism or charity. The Claremont Colleges Inside-Out program at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a medium-security  state prison for men located in Norco, CA, was originally brought to Claremont by Pitzer College (one of the Claremont Colleges).  The Claremont Colleges Inside-Out program is run in part by a group of incarcerated men at CRC who are vital members of our “Think Tank.”

Although hundreds of Inside-Out courses have been taught nationwide and the outcomes have been extensively studied (Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, 2020), a very small number of the Inside-Out courses offered to date have been in the fields of mathematics or the natural sciences. In this paper, we explore some of the unique challenges and opportunities of using the Inside-Out approach for STEM classes.  

We recognize that there are myriad STEM programs inside carceral institutions.  They range from the nationally supported (e.g., NSF INCLUDES Alliance) to the very local (e.g., a program at CRC that allows inmates to earn an AA degree from Norco Community College).  At the Claremont Colleges, a group of student volunteers goes into prisons to teach non-credit physics, chemistry, and engineering through the Prison Education Project (http://www.prisoneducationproject.org). 

In contrast, here we are addressing the specific case of bringing traditional campus (outside) students into prison, not to be teachers, but to be co-learners alongside incarcerated (inside) students.  The simple difference of bringing together inside and outside students (which for us included both male and female students) fundamentally changes the structure of the classroom.  Without the co-learning process, both the inside and outside students miss out.  As part of the Inside-Out experience, the inside students have an opportunity to learn material to which they do not necessarily have access; but more importantly, the power structure of the learning is dismantled in a setting (a STEM class) where hierarchies typically dominate the space (Martin, 2009). For the outside students, the disruption of the power structure of the STEM classroom can be enlightening. The outside students experience the depth of learning that can happen when ideas come from many different perspectives.  In our experience, the impact of the Inside-Out classroom can be transformative for both groups of students, helping them to approach their learning and the world in a more humane way (Peterson, 2019).  

Here we present reflections based on three separate courses (math, statistics, and biochemistry) taught by three instructors from two different liberal arts colleges.  All three instructors had completed the weeklong Inside-Out Training Institute, and we were all teaching our first class in this format.  Each course was a full semester, credit-bearing course for all students, both inside and outside.  During the semester, the courses met once per week for up to three hours a week inside the prison.  We will talk about each course individually and then integrate our thoughts to offer a synthesis and analysis.

Thinking with Data (Jo Hardin)

Although Math 57 was a statistics class taught at an introductory level, it was not “Introduction to Statistics” as most university campuses conceive it.  The learning goals centered around being able to critically evaluate numbers and claims based on data that are presented.   The hope was for the students to realize that statistical conclusions are being made around them every day, and that to understand how those conclusions come about is a matter not only of quantitative literacy but also of a larger logical framework.  

Each week, the students read from a chapter of a statistics text (Utts, 1999) along with external articles.  For example, during the week when we covered sampling, the text was supplemented by articles on the sampling methods suggested by the Census Bureau as a way to improve the accuracy of the census—methods that were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, although statisticians believe the outcome of the ruling is to continue to undercount people of color and people with transitional living situations (Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives, 1999).  During the week covering probability, we spent time discussing forensics and how different “match” probabilities (e.g., hair match, DNA match, etc.) can have very different accuracy rates.

A typical day started with an activity designed to bring us all into the space, followed up with an activity which would highlight the day’s topic.  For example, during the week in which we covered confidence intervals, I brought in a blow-up globe.  We stood in a circle and threw the ball to one another, each time recording whether our right thumb landed on water or land.  We used technical details from the week’s readings to calculate a confidence interval for the proportion of the Earth that is covered in water.  (Depending on the correctional facility’s character, you might not choose to throw a ball around in an Inside-Out class; some facilities have strict security protocols and will not allow anything to be thrown around the classroom.)

After the topic-specific activity, we would often gather in small groups with a list of pre-written discussion questions.  The thought questions were meant to help the students dig deeper into the readings and debate the topic at hand.  Time and again, both the inside and outside students reported that the group discussions were their favorite part of the class.  In their small groups, hesitant students were given a voice, and each student could share their understanding of the material without fear of speaking up incorrectly in front of the entire class.

 Although we often ran short on time, we would always close with some kind of reflection on the material or on the day’s activities.  Sometimes we would go around the circle with a one-word reflection.  Sometimes I would ask them to report the part of the day which they were still struggling to wrap their heads around, or, slightly nuanced, the topic which was hardest to understand in general. 

After the class session each week, students were asked to write a reflection essay.  The reflection essay was among the most powerful aspects of the class, as it gave the students an opportunity to spend time putting down on paper both their emotional reactions and their understanding of the statistical topics.  The reflection paper had three sections: (1) observations from the class meeting—anything that stood out, (2) statistical analysis—using references from the texts, and (3) emotional reactions—feelings.

The reflections essays were not given a letter grade, yet they served the incredibly valuable purpose of connecting each and every student to both the material (statistical content) and the people in the room.  Detailed instructor feedback was provided on the essays, and without the essays, especially the personal reflection part, it would have been much harder for the students to feel connected and integrated into the course.

The last three weeks of the semester were spent working on projects whose purpose was to bring the ideas from the class into a larger space.  Outside visitors were invited to the closing ceremonies, but the logistics surrounding visitors’ clearance was unfortunately too complicated.  Instead, the students presented their projects to each other.  One group did a Dear Data (http://www.dear-data.com/) assignment where they compared artistic visualizations of the data describing a week in an inside student’s life with a week in an outside student’s life.  Another group made a chain link out of construction paper where each link detailed a study, a dataset, or an individual’s story describing recidivism.  A third group talked about some of the biggest misconceptions in statistical studies and how we can raise our consciousness to form valid conclusions about a study. 

HIV/AIDS: Science Society & Service (Karl Haushalter)

Chemistry 187 explored scientific and societal perspectives on infectious disease.  The course was divided into three modules focusing on plague, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis, with time approximately evenly divided between societal context and scientific content.  The complex and multidisciplinary challenges of responding to highly stigmatized infectious diseases such as HIV-AIDS can be fertile ground for exploring the entanglement of science and society, as demonstrated by the large number of published courses that use HIV-AIDS as a focus for integrating science education and civic engagement (for example, see Fan, Conner, & Villarreal, 2014; Iimoto 2005; SENCER 2020a; SENCER 2020b).  

Chemistry 187 was taught with the Inside-Out pedagogy, which emphasizes a dialogic approach with the majority of class time spent in small, mixed discussion groups (Pompa, Crabbe, & Turenne, 2018).  For the Chemistry 187 content related to our societal readings, this format was a natural fit for the issues we examined.  The students learned substantially from each other, especially given their differing perspectives based on life experiences related to the social determinants of health, which was an underlying theme of the course.  

Implementing the Inside-Out pedagogy for the science content of Chemistry 187 was challenging for me as an instructor.  Many of our chosen topics (e.g., virology) required a firm understanding of threshold concepts (e.g., the central dogma of molecular biology) in order to have an entry point into meaningful discussions (Meyer and Land, 2003).  As an instructor, I felt that I could not ignore the variation in previous exposure to biology instruction, but I did not want to center upon this difference either.  Thus, even though the students majoring in biology could have taught lessons on the threshold concepts, this approach would be counter to the spirit of Inside-Out in which the students are all co-learners. Ultimately, I used a hybrid approach that featured some mini-lectures that I strived to make as interactive as possible. When possible, these mini-lectures were preceded by small-group brainstorming sessions to generate motivating questions for the mini-lectures and followed by small-group applied problem-solving sessions.  The Inside-Out emphasis on community building, through icebreakers, circle activities, and jointly authored ground rules, paid dividends in the smooth functioning of the small group science lessons.   

If Chemistry 187 were taught as a traditional college campus-based course, the class would utilize technology (lecture slides, PyMOL, YouTube animations) for visualizing the molecular details of host-pathogen interactions.  In prison, where it was not possible to routinely access this type of technology, our class had to develop other methods to help the unseeable be seen.  Indeed, the absence of technology led to creative solutions.  By providing the students with large-format flip chart paper and thick colored markers, I allowed them to be creative in making colorful, detailed images that were even more informative than the standard slides used in the traditional campus-based course.  Several of the students had untapped artistic talent and working together with their classmates to interpret our readings, they were able as a group to communicate complex scientific ideas visually on the flip chart paper.  

An important part of an Inside-Out course is the end-of-semester group project. These projects are intended to be focused specifically on intersections of the course disciplinary topic and prison, with a strong emphasis on application (Pompa, Crabbe, & Turenne, 2018, p. 55).  In Chemistry 187, teams were blended, with two or three inside students and two or three outside students in each team.  All students were tasked to bring their own expertise to bear on the project, the theme of which was picked by the student teams.  For example, one of the student teams created educational posters about influenza vaccination.  As a class, we learned from the inside students that the flu vaccine is available at the California Rehabilitation Center, but many incarcerated men do not opt to get vaccinated, possibly due to low trust in the prison health system and widespread conspiracy theories (e.g., prison officials used the flu vaccine to inject people with tracking devices).  This is a missed opportunity to prevent a serious communicable disease that spreads easily in confined spaces (Sequera, Valencia, García-Basteiro, Marco, & Bayas, 2015). Working together, the inside and outside students on this team developed materials to address the common concerns of the target audience related to influenza vaccination and provide health-promoting education in the context of prison.  

Other team projects included a letter to the warden proposing the adoption of harm reduction strategies (e.g. bleaching stations for sterilizing needles used for illicit tattoos or injection drug use) to reduce the spread of hepatitis C in prison; educational pamphlets about preventing sexually transmitted diseases; and an evidence-based letter to the State Prison Board about the connection between nutrition and a healthy immune system.  The student projects shared in common the key feature of bringing together inside and outside students to share their unique expertise as they collaborated on a project that applied what they had learned about the science of infectious disease during the semester to an authentic issue in the living context of the inside students.  

Introduction to Number Theory (Darryl Yong)

Even though I have no formal training in number theory, I chose to teach this subject because it lends itself well to exploration and rehumanizing approaches to teaching and learning mathematics (Goffney, Gutiérrez, & Boston, 2018). Requiring only some mathematics skills and ideas from high school algebra, this course started with the divisors of integers and modular arithmetic and culminated with the Rivest–Shamir–Adleman (RSA) cryptosystem, a widely used method for secure data transmission.

Of our three courses, this one was perhaps the most grounded in its disciplinary content. While I organized several class discussions around our prior experiences of learning mathematics and about contemporary mathematicians (mostly of color), about 90% of class time was spent working on carefully sequenced sets of mathematical tasks in small groups. Students shared their results communally on the board, and I occasionally convened the group to share their findings with each other. The list of tasks for each class was adjusted based on what students accomplished and found interesting in previous classes.

In “Math Instructors’ Critical Reflections on Teaching in Prison,” Robert Scott writes: “A math pedagogy premised upon following the rules, accepting that there is only one right answer, and relying on practice/repetition in order to habituate oneself to predetermined axioms would seem to reprise the culture of incarceration itself.” How does one teach a class on a well-established field like number theory without reproducing the dehumanizing effects of prisons in the classroom?

To do this, I used a pedagogical approach based on my work delivering professional development to secondary school teachers through the Park City Mathematics Institute. In this approach, students encounter new mathematical ideas without any formal definitions or specialized notation. The mathematical tasks are designed to encourage students to look for patterns and make connections. Mathematical ideas are solidified when students give voice to them by sharing them publicly. Finally, after several exposures to similar patterns and connections, I formalized ideas by introducing their established mathematical names and notations. I followed this general approach during the entire course except for the last day of class when we used all of the machinery that we had developed to explain how the RSA cryptosystem works (Omar, 2017). So, even though students were often practicing and repeating mathematical calculations, they were in fact creating meaning for themselves and others in the classroom.

My observations of the students’ progress and their written reflections lead me to believe that they truly enjoyed learning mathematics, even though some had been traumatized by previous mathematics learning experiences. Each class period seemed to fly by. Students would work almost continuously for the entire period, though there was also quite a bit of casual banter and joyful laughter around the room. It felt like a space where both inside and outside students were doing mathematics and creating meaning together. My Inside-Out experience made me wonder why I don’t try to use more of this kind of rehumanizing pedagogy in my usual classes at Harvey Mudd College.

Lessons Learned

Examining the experiences of the three instructors, we find that several common themes emerge from our efforts to integrate STEM content within the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program. First, while many undergraduate STEM courses are primarily lecture-based, the Inside-Out program challenges faculty to use liberatory pedagogies (Freire, 1970).  Thus, we all chose to minimize lecturing as much as possible and spend most of our class time in small group activities or whole class discussion.  These forms of instruction democratize intellectual authority in the classroom and allow both inside and outside students to draw on personal funds of knowledge. An inside student wrote, “In non-Inside-Out classes I don’t learn who my peers are, whereas this class was unique in the fact that we were learning from one another just as much as we were learning from our professor.” Furthermore, with the inside and outside students constantly talking together and working with each other, the students discovered for themselves the many ways in which traditional college-age STEM students and incarcerated STEM students share common struggles, concerns, and motivations.  

A second common theme that we encountered in our classes was how Inside-Out courses helped students uncover and confront societal expectations and stereotypes about who is competent in STEM. In our end-of-course evaluation surveys, we asked students what their biggest worry about the class was prior to starting the course. A few outside students wrote that they were concerned that the Inside-Out course wasn’t going to be as rigorous as their usual courses, whereas inside students wrote that they were initially concerned about being able to “keep up” with the outside students. These concerns relate to societal stereotypes that STEM competence is innate rather than a skill to be developed and that incarcerated people and people of color are not able to access STEM. Fortunately, these surveys also revealed that students uniformly felt their Inside-Out courses to be intellectually demanding and that inside students felt successful in the class and were recognized for their contributions in class. The reason that students were able to upend their worries was because our Inside-Out courses brought together groups of people who would otherwise never get to meet each other in the context of doing rigorous, challenging STEM work together. One inside student wrote that he was surprised at the “ease [with] which people from diverse lifestyles and backgrounds can struggle with a subject, work together, and succeed.”

Finally, all three of the authors chose to teach an Inside-Out course primarily because of the humanity it offered to our work.  And while none of us are experts in criminal justice, we are all deeply aware that STEM is neither objective nor apolitical.  When designing our courses, we specifically chose topics and approaches that would connect STEM back to the human condition, for example, discussing how disease manifests in different communities, how forensic probabilities do not represent truth, and how mathematical self-identification is different from mathematical ability. There is abundant evidence that bringing humanity into STEM can have an enormous impact on marginalized communities, and we believe that our courses are part of that trend.

Along with humanizing the course content in each of our STEM courses, the act of bringing the courses inside is a manifestation of our collective belief that STEM is not the domain of the privileged few.  Instead, science and science education belong to and are in service of all people.  In plain sight of each other, students of all backgrounds are able to embrace the learning of STEM content. Creating a space that allows for the tangible recognition by everyone involved that STEM is for all people is itself a highly political act.  

Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the guidance and support of our colleagues from the Claremont Critical Justice Education Initiative, especially Tyee Griffith, Tessa Hicks Peterson, Gabriela Gamiz, and Nigel Boyle.  We would like to thank the staff at the California Rehabilitation Center for their continuing partnership.  Financial support was generously provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Academic Deans Council of the Claremont Colleges.  Critical feedback on the manuscript was provided by Tessa Hicks Peterson and David Vosburg.  We gratefully acknowledge Lori Pompa and the Inside-Out Center for their leadership and expertise.  Finally, we owe the largest debt of gratitude to our students, both inside and out.

Dedication

This article is dedicated to the memory of David L. Ferguson, whose lifelong work in extending the joys and benefits of STEM education to underserved students continues to inspire us.  David saw the potential to be a scholar in all of his students, even before they could see it in themselves.  We strive to follow the example of David’s pioneering work in diversity and inclusive excellence in STEM education.

Authors

Jo Hardin

Jo Hardin (Jo.Hardin@pomona.edu) is a professor of mathematics at Pomona College.  She is a statistician by training, and her research focuses on applied and interdisciplinary projects with molecular biologists.  Through the Posse Foundation, she has mentored students at Pomona College originally from Chicago, IL.

 

 

Karl Haushalter

Karl Haushalter (haushalter@hmc.edu) is an associate professor of chemistry and biology at Harvey Mudd College.  His research interests include the enzymology of DNA repair and the regulation of gene expression by small RNA.  Karl works closely with the Office of Community Engagement at HMC and has led faculty development workshops to promote community-based learning.

 

 

Darryl Yong

Darryl Yong (dyong@hmc.edu) is a professor of mathematics, associate dean for faculty development and diversity, and mathematics clinic program director at Harvey Mudd College. He was also the founding director of the Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning. His scholarship has several foci: the retention and professional development of secondary school mathematics teachers, effective teaching practices in undergraduate STEM education, and equity, justice, and diversity in higher education.

References

Davis, S., & Roswell, B. (Eds.). (2013). Turning teaching inside out: A pedagogy of transformation for community-based education. New York, NY: Springer.

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Fan, H. Y., Conner, R. F., & Villarreal, L. P. (2014). AIDS: Science and society (7th ed.). Burlington, MA:  Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Goffney, I., Gutiérrez, R., & Boston, M. (Eds.). (2018). Rehumanizing mathematics for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Iimoto, D. (2005). AIDS and other human diseases: Teaching science in the context of culture. Journal of College Science Teaching, 34, 38–41.

Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. (2020). Scholarship on Inside-Out. Retrieved from https://www.insideoutcenter.org/scholarship-inside-out.html

Martin, D. B. (2009). Researching race in mathematics education. Teachers College Record, 111(2), 295–338.

Meyer J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. In C. Rust, (Ed.), Improving student learning—ten years on (pp. 412–424). Oxford, UK: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2019). NSF INCLUDES Alliance: STEM opportunities in prison settings. Retrieved from  https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1931045)

Omar, M. (2017). Number theory toward RSA cryptography: In 10 undergraduate lectures. (n.p.): CreateSpace Publishing. 

Peterson, T. H. (2019). Healing pedagogy from the inside out: The paradox of liberatory education in prison. In R. Ginsburg (Ed.), Critical perspectives on teaching in prison: Students and instructors on pedagogy behind the wall (pp. 175–187). New York, NY: Routledge.

Pompa, L., Crabbe, M., & Turenne, E.  (2018). The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program instructor’s manual. Philadelphia, PA: The Inside-Out Center, Temple University.

Scott, R. (2019). Math instructors’ critical reflections on teaching in prison. In H. Rosario (Ed.), Mathematical outreach: Explorations in social justice around the globe (pp. 211–232). Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific.

SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities).  (2020a).  

Backgrounders. Retrieved from http://sencer.net/backgrounders/ 

SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities).  (2020b).  Model courses. Retrieved from http://sencer.net/model-courses/ 

Sequera V. G., Valencia, S., García-Basteiro, A. L., Marco, A., & Bayas, J. M. (2015). Vaccinations in prisons: A shot in the arm for community health. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, 11(11), 2615–2626. doi:10.1080/21645515.2015.1051269

Utts, J. (1999). Seeing through statistics (2nd ed.).  Pacific Grove, CA: Duxbury Press.

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National Summer Transportation Institute: Increasing Career Awareness in Civil Engineering for Underserved High School Students

Abstract

Our nation needs to increase the number of students pursuing degrees in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and those leading to transportation-related careers.  In order to meet the demand for qualified graduates in transportation, it is necessary to diversify the pool of students entering college with an interest in these fields. The National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) is an educational initiative developed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Department of Transportation (DOT).   The NSTI at City Tech was designed to increase awareness of transportation-related careers among New York City high school students. The structure of City Tech’s NSTI includes lectures, field trips, projects, and laboratory activities that promote the growth of each participant and strengthen their academic and social skills.  This NSTI program provides a model for broadening participation in STEM and building America’s STEM workforce.

Need to Increase Underrepresented Minorities in Civil Engineering

In order to remain competitive in a world of advancing technology, the United States needs to build a workforce with knowledge and skills in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected number of STEM jobs was expected to grow 18.7% during the 2010–2020 period (Fayer, Lacey, & Watson, 2017). As the country’s economy and demographics change, it is important to increase the participation of underrepresented minority groups in STEM, including women (Gilliam, Jagoda, Hill, & Bouris, 2016; Briggs, 2016).  Given more opportunities to develop their capabilities in STEM, this untapped population can help to fill the critical STEM workforce gap (Science Pioneers, 2017; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2011).    

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2020) reports that the employment of civil engineers is projected to grow 6% from 2018 to 2028, an average rate faster than all other occupations. As the current U.S. infrastructure grows obsolete, civil engineers will be needed to manage projects that rebuild, repair, and upgrade bridges, roads, levees, dams, airports, buildings, and other structures. Because of the urgency to increase the civil engineering workforce, the Federal Highway Administration Office of Civil Rights (HCR) encourages academic outreaches to target groups who are underrepresented in the transportation workforce.  Females, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities have been identified as underrepresented minorities in STEM (NSTIP, 2012). Based on the 2010 census report, the population of the United States is about 49.2% male and 50.8% female (Howden & Meyer, 2011). But although women make up half of the college student population and the general workforce, they account for only about one fifth of all bachelor’s degrees conferred in engineering in 2016 (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2017; Yoder, 2016) and a quarter of the STEM workforce (Landivar, 2013). The statistics become more dismal for minority women.  In 2012, only 3.1% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to minority women (National Science Board, 2016). Specific to the civil engineering workforce, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey (2016) states that a tenth of the jobs were held by women. Only 3.6% of the civil engineering positions were held by African Americans, 10.4% by Hispanics, and 7.7% by Asian Americans. While the population trends show that minorities will become the majority, the STEM workforce statistics clearly does not proportionally reflect this trend, particularly in civil engineering. Therefore, it is imperative that more programs be developed to promote the awareness of civil engineering occupations and to increase the participation of minorities and women in these fields.  

Benefits of Exposure to STEM at the K–12 level

Many studies have shown a correlation between STEM exposure at the K–12 level and a student’s interest in pursuing a STEM degree (Chiappinelli et al, 2016; Lomax, 2015; Means, Wang, Young, Peters, & Lynch, 2016; Naizer, Hawthorne, & Henley, 2014.) While the majority of American youth are exposed to STEM content in high school settings, out-of-school programming may be particularly important for sparking an interest in the STEM disciplines (Gilliam et al., 2016). Programs that engage high school students in unique STEM experiences will likely continue to play a profound role in recruiting and retaining bright young minds in the increasingly important STEM fields. Summer camps and experiences are especially important for students in urban and low-income areas, where underfunded science curricula and limited access to role models and mentors in STEM are common (Phelan, Harding, & Harper-Leatherman, 2017). Moreover, post-secondary institutions should prioritize programs that engage underrepresented students in hands-on science experiences during the high school years (Phelan et al., 2017).    The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), recognizing the importance of inspiring the next generation of civil engineers, has established a website for precollege outreach, which provides resources including lessons, videos, and activities that promote civil engineering (ASCE, 2020).

The Landscape of Minority High School Students

National trends indicate that high school graduation rates have declined, with African Americans and Hispanic graduation rates being approximately 65% (Heckman & LaFontaine, 2010). Minority students are also far less likely to be college ready. This is particularly the case in underserved minority high schools, where students are the least prepared (ACT, 2015; Bryant, 2015; Moore et al., 2010).  Evidence of poor performance among minority high school students abounds not only in high school graduation rates, but also in SAT scores, Advance Placement courses, and enrollment in advanced mathematics courses (Musoba, 2010; Camara, 2013).  These poor academic performances have been attributed to poor academic preparation.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress (2015) found that overall only 33% of eighth grade students entering high school were proficient in mathematics. The corresponding percentages for African Americans and Hispanics were 13% and 19%, respectively. Since mathematics is the foundation of engineering degrees, there is an urgent need to strengthen these skills at the high school level.  

City Tech’s National Summer Transportation Institute

The National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) is an educational initiative developed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Department of Transportation (DOT).   A transportation-focused career awareness program, it is designed to introduce high school students to all modes of transportation-related careers, provide academic enhancement activities, and encourage students to pursue transportation-related courses of study at the college/university level. Moreover, the NSTI focuses on addressing future transportation workforce needs by ensuring that the transportation industry has a well-trained, qualified, and diversified workforce.  City Tech was selected for funding by the FHWA and DOT in 2013, 2014, and 2015 to develop a NSTI for underserved urban high school students.  A grant is provided to cover all costs related to the program in order to provide the opportunity to participants on a tuition-free basis.  New York City is the ideal location, since it has both a diverse population and a complex transportation network.  The College’s location in downtown Brooklyn, New York, made it easy to recruit underserved high school students. City Tech is the designated senior college of technology within the 24-unit City University of New York, and it is the largest urban public university system in the nation. The college plays an important role nationally in the education of future scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians for New York City (NYC) and the surrounding areas. 

The mission of the civil engineering technology department at City Tech is to prepare non-traditional students of diverse backgrounds to successfully enter a wide range of careers through a balance of practical knowledge, theory, and professionalism. The department’s mission aligns with the program objectives of the NSTI: to improve STEM skills, to promote awareness among middle and high school students (particularly minority, female, and disadvantaged youth) about transportation careers, and to encourage them to consider transportation-related courses of study in their higher education pursuits.

City Tech’s NSTI summer program includes lectures, field trips, projects, and laboratory activities which promote the growth of each participant and strengthen their academic and social skills.  The academic component is designed to reinforce the mathematics and science skills of the high school participants, to stimulate their interest in the various modes of transportation, and to expose them to new opportunities. The session topics are transportation related and are taught by certified high school teachers with a STEM background. 

The skills enhancement component is critical to the success of the program. The topics covered include critical thinking, problem solving, computer literacy, research, oral and written communication skills, and time management.

The length of the summer program has varied; it was one week long in 2013, two weeks long in 2014, and three weeks long in 2015. The daily program schedule was from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and included a lesson, activity, lunchtime speaker, and field trip.

Curriculum Modules

Five curriculum modules were implemented in the NSTI: (1) Bridges, (2) Land Transportation, (3) Air Transportation, (4) Public Transit and Railroad Transportation, and (5) Water Transportation. A summary of each module and the course objectives is presented below.

Bridges 

This module is designed to introduce participants to different types of bridges, structural forces, and geometry. Participants will be able to differentiate between materials and understand the force systems responsible for the stability of a bridge. The course objectives are to identify types of bridges, to understand the force distribution within a truss bridge, and to design a structurally sound bridge using principles of compression and tension.  

Land transportation

This module introduces the interrelationship of land use and transportation systems. Students will be introduced to concepts of energy, force, motion, speed, velocity, and acceleration. The course objectives are to introduce participants to the process of land use and effective transportation systems, to identify data sources needed to make prudent transportation decisions, and to demonstrate an understanding of land use planning and ways to minimize transportation problems (i.e., congestion, noise, pollution).

Air transportation

This module introduces students to the concepts of flight theories, aircraft performance, flight instruments, gravity, air navigation, and space. Students will be introduced to concepts of force, projectile motion, center of gravity, velocity, and aerodynamics. The course objectives are to introduce participants to flight theories as they relate to airplanes and space and to explore a historic aircraft carrier and space shuttle.

Public transit and railroad transportation

This module describes the history of railroads and public transit.  Participants will be able to summarize advantages and disadvantages of public transit systems in use today, in particular in the New York City area. The course objectives are to explore the social history of New York City, subway and station design, transit development, construction, and impact over time.

Water transportation 

This module is designed to give participants an opportunity to learn the fundamental regulations and responsibilities of safe water transportation. Students will be introduced to the concepts of buoyancy and density, as well as to the engineering design process. The course objectives are to inform participants of the best water travel practices, and to identify possible threats and solutions to promote safe waterways.

Speakers

Participants were able to interact with professionals in the transportation field.  These professionals were invited guest speakers sharing their own academic experiences and challenges with the participants while highlighting their careers and promoting the field of transportation. Speakers were representative of the various fields related to transportation and engineering.  

Staff

The program staff consists of a project director, two instructors, and two academic aides.  The primary role of the project director is to develop, implement, and direct all phases of the program, schedule, and budget and to supervise the program staff, develop curriculum, and provide laboratory activities and resource materials.

The primary role of the instructors is to provide daily academic instruction, interact with participants and administrative staff, and develop curriculum.  The instructors are certified high school teachers, and as such have the training and background required to deliver the STEM-focused lessons and activities.  

The academic aides assist the instructors throughout the day, set up laboratory activities, assist with coordination of field trips, and assist with orientation and closing activities. The academic aides are typically graduates of the civil engineering technology associate degree program at City Tech.  The academic aides are also recruited from a group of trained peer leaders on campus.  As peer leaders the academic aides bring to the program their knowledge of pedagogy and techniques for group facilitation. 

Activities

The curriculum is reinforced with projects and laboratory activities. Participants are engaged in the engineering design process through hands-on activities and computer simulation applications.  Computer-based activities include simulating bridge building and city planning.  Hands-on activities include building a model bridge, solar car, boat, and rocket.  The activities were preceded by a lesson or guest speaker introducing the relevant topics and careers in transportation.  Participants worked both independently and collaboratively to complete the projects in preparation for testing and display. 

Field Trips

Several field trips were organized during the NSTI. The participants had the opportunity to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, the NYC Transit Museum, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the U.S. Coast Guard Command Center, as well as John F. Kennedy International Airport.  Each trip included a customized tour for the group aligned with the program focus of transportation and engineering. 

Sample schedules are included as Figures 1 and 2. 

Week 1 Sample Schedule
Week 1 Sample Schedule
Student Eligibility, Recruitment and Selection

At the time of participation, applicants must be a rising ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grader, qualify for enrollment in algebra, and hold a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale.  Graduates of the NSTI program are not eligible to repeat the program.  The students are primarily recruited from City Poly High School and STEP-UP, a program of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. City Poly High School opened in September 2009 as one of four state-approved career and technical education (CTE) demonstration sites in New York City.  The New York State Department of Education (NYSED) indicates that the 2015–2016 student demographics for City Poly were as follows: 75% black, 16% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 3% White, and 2% Other. In addition, 76% of the student population were economically disadvantaged (NYSED 2016).  STEP-UP is a program designed by African-American and Latino adolescents (14 to 17 years of age) experiencing significant academic, social, and emotional issues for teens in similar circumstances. The STEP-UP participants were from Central Park East (CPE) High School. The NYSED has supplied the following demographics for CPE students in 2015–2016: 24% Black, 62% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 4% White, and 1% Other. Eighty-nine percent of the student population are economically disadvantaged (NYSED, 2016). These demographics are representative of underserved high school students. 

Applicants submit a complete application with one letter of recommendation from a teacher or guidance counselor and a statement regarding their reasons for wanting to participate in the program and how the NSTI can assist in meeting their academic and career goals.  The program director selects a cohort of 20 students, and a select number of applicants may be placed on a waiting list.  

Methodology

Participants

A total of 41 high school students participated in the NSTI from years 2013-2015.  There were 12 participants in 2013, which was a one-week program, 15 in 2014, which was a two-week program, and 14 in 2015, which was a three-week program. There were at total of 24 (58.5%) males and 17 (41.5%) females.  Among the 41 high school students, 22 (53.7%) identified themselves as African American (non-Hispanic), eight (19.5%) as Hispanic, nine (22.0%) as Asian/Pacific Islander, two (4.9%) as Caucasian, and one failed to respond. The average age of the participants was 15.7 years.  The average New York State Regent Mathematics and Science scores of the participants were 82.9 and 80.0, respectively. 

Data analysis

On the last day of the NSTI, the high school students were asked to respond to statements regarding four areas: (1) speakers, (2) staff, (3) activities, and (4) field trips. A Likert scale with 1 indicating “strongly disagree” and 4 indicating “strongly agree” was used.  Table 1 is a summary of the responses by year and collectively over the three years.  

A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to determine whether the mean responses were statistically significant among the years.  Table 2 lists the responses that showed statistically significant differences. A Tukey test was used to follow up to determine the mean differences between each year.  Overall the responses of the participants in 2014 and 2015 were most strongly positive to the statements that the speakers were well organized, the students were academically challenged by the speakers, the speakers responded well to the questions posed to them, and the staff was very interested in the students’ career awareness. The activities and the field trips statements were also evaluated more positively by the 2014 and 2015 groups than the 2013 group.  

Some of the high school students’ reflections regarding the NSTI: 

The U.S. Coast Guard trip was fun. It made me consider joining! (2013 participant) 

John F. Kennedy Airport trip was a very new experience.  The tour showed me there [were] more [jobs] in air transportation. (2013 participant)

I was very interested in Intelligent Transportation Systems; there were more things about information and technology and how it is used in transportation. (2013 participant)

In this first week, I have already learned a lot about a diverse range of topics from bridges, trains and kites. My favorite experience in the program so far has been making a kite constructed of string, straws and tissue paper, with my partner. I really enjoyed building a workable kite from few materials and being able to test the invention later. I had never really built something from nothing. The project also forced me to work with and depend on my partner. It was fun to collaborate and we were really proud with the end product. (2015 participant) 

Table 1: Means and Standard Deviations for Students Satisfaction Survey Responses by Year
Table 2: One-way ANOVA Results

Conclusion

The results of the study showed high school students participating in the NSTI responded positively to the program.  The participants felt academically challenged by the speakers, and they felt strongly that the speakers were able to address their questions and concerns. Students benefit from role models in STEM and can expand their interest in STEM by exposure to informal STEM-related learning opportunities (Weber, 2011).  Hands-on activities can stimulate interest in STEM and help students gain confidence in their ability to approach STEM activities (Colvin, Lyden, & León de la Barra, 2013; Ziaeefard, Miller, Rastgaar, & Mahmoudian, 2017).  The students also found the field trips very informative.  Many underserved students do not have the opportunity to be exposed to various careers, and field trips allow them to connect the importance of civil engineering to the real world.   

This study also found that the length of the summer program made a difference in the participants’ responses.  The participants responded more positively to the speakers, staff, activities, and field trips when the program was either two or three weeks long.  Better feedback responses came from the participants in the two-week program.

Lessons Learned

The NSTI offers an opportunity for students to be exposed to civil engineering and transportation fields while reinforcing their math and science skills.  The most significant challenge of the program is recruitment, since the average high school student may not recognize the value of a STEM summer program. Several outreach efforts to advisors, parents, and counselors were made to encourage participation. The three-week program provided the students with one high school elective credit; however, it was difficult for students to commit for a three-week period because many of them had summer jobs.  For two consecutive years, the program offered participants a stipend which helped offset the costs of participation.  In 2015 the guidelines removed the allowable costs of stipends making recruitment more challenging.  Students from these underrepresented populations residing in the five boroughs typically have to work during the summer to cover their expenses and assist their families.  Participation in the NSTI offers a wonderful opportunity; however, it means the students have no income for the duration of their participation, and they have the added the cost of transportation.  This study reinforces that stipends will allow for greater diversity in participation.  

Epilogue

City Tech was selected to host the NSTI in July 2020; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the program was offered in a virtual platform. The curriculum remained the same, participants were expected to be available Monday–Friday from 9 a.m.–4 p.m. during the two-week period.  Lessons and guest lectures were delivered via Zoom. Field Trips were delivered as virtual reality field trips using available technology.  Students were provided a supply kit to complete projects individually and participated remotely in software simulations.  In order to ensure that all eligible applicants could participate in the program, students were provided the opportunity to obtain a loaner Chromebook for the duration of the program.  In addition, a stipend was provided to each participant to offset the loss of income they might incur by participating in the program.  The program was a success and students were able to benefit from the experience in an alternate format. 

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Transportation for their support and the many speakers throughout the years for their time.  We also acknowledge the instructors, Wandy Chang, Henry Arias, and Steven Coyle for their dedication to the program.

This project report is dedicated in loving memory of Janet Liou-Mark, a role model and a champion for all who were fortunate enough to know her.

Authors

Melanie Villatoro

Melanie Villatoro is an associate professor in the Department of Construction Management and Civil Engineering Technology at the New York City College of Technology (City Tech). She earned her BE in Civil Engineering from the Cooper Union and her MS in Geotechnical Engineering from Columbia University. Her outreach events target groups underrepresented in STEM with the goal of increasing the number of diverse qualified students entering the fields of STEM, particularly engineering.

 

 

Janet Liou-Mark

Janet Liou-Mark is a professor of mathematics at City Tech, and she holds a PhD in Mathematics Education. Her research focuses on developing and evaluating programs that help women and underrepresented minority and first-generation college students to remain in school and successfully graduate with STEM degrees. She is the interim director of Faculty Commons.

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Combining Cross-Disciplinary STEM Collaborations and Academic Service Learning to Help a Community in Need

Abstract

This project report presents a multidisciplinary Faculty Learning Community model to foster civic engagement in STEM classes. It focused on first-year Chemistry, Math, and Scientific Inquiry courses and incorporated Academic Service Learning in a project to build solar cell phone chargers for a school in Puerto Rico recovering from the effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The project provided hands-on experiences for the students, with the tangible outcome of building the solar chargers for people in need. Student engagement was measured through surveys and reflective assignments; the students responded positively to their work and their sense of fulfilling the St. John’s University mission. The members of the Faculty Learning Community have engaged in ongoing collaborative relationships.

KeyWords: Student Peer Mentoring, Knowledge Transfer, Academic Service Learning

Introduction

Faculty members from four different departments, Chemistry, Physics, Math, and Core Studies, were brought together as a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) under  a St. John’s University grant to improve undergraduate STEM education at St. John’s (Cox, 2004; Baker, 1999). Expectations for the cohort were to attend the 2017 Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Transforming STEM Higher Education conference, to disseminate their learning experiences to the wider St. John’s faculty, and to develop their own STEM project (Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2017). Inspired by an introductory talk at the AAC&U meeting, the cohort developed a multidisciplinary Academic Service Learning (ASL) project in which St. John’s students constructed solar cell phone chargers for students at a Puerto Rican school impacted by Hurricane Maria (Escuela Segunda Unidad Botijas #1 in Orocovis). ASL is a known high-impact practice that provides the potential for applied learning and civic engagement (Strage, 2000; Kuh, O’Donnell, & Reed, 2013). In our project, students in first-year Chemistry, Mathematics, and Scientific Inquiry (a required class for non-science majors) used their scientific knowledge and skills to help others by building 100 solar phone chargers for students who were without power in a mountainous region in Puerto Rico. The participants in this ASL project met outside of their scheduled class times to collaborate on assembling the chargers, participate in discussions with our Puerto Rican partners, and create videos on the construction process and the use of the chargers. Additional videos were produced by the St. John’s students in which they reflected on their involvement in the project.

Our FLC illustrates the power of this structure to encourage interdisciplinary cooperation and to build stronger ties among faculty members, which benefits the faculty, students, and the community beyond the university (O’Neil, Yamagata, Yamagata, & Togioka, 2012). This project, with its focus on civic engagement, integrated STEM learning and real life applications and excited the students about the tangible and practical impacts of STEM (Turrini, Dörler, Richter, Heigl, & Bonn, 2018; Strage, 2000). Furthermore, current research on learning acknowledges the many factors beyond classroom pedagogy and specific content—including individual, social, cultural, and institutional influences—that affect learning, for both faculty and students (Pandya, Dibner, & Committee on Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning, 2018).

Faculty Learning Communities

Faculty Learning Communities typically involve voluntary groups of teachers, students, and administrators with a clear sense of membership, common goals, and extensive face-to-face interaction (Baker, 1999). Our FLC differed in some ways from that model in that it was a closed group, and the members were invited to join by the Dean and a faculty leader who acted as a group facilitator. The goals of the FLC were to develop a project and to share knowledge with STEM colleagues within a one-year time frame. Following best practices, the participants represented faculty from diverse disciplines (Sonnenwald, 2007; Hunt, Layton, & Prince, 2015; FerriniMundy, 2013). Even though the members were largely unacquainted with one another at the outset, the FLC provided an opportunity for increased engagement across the disciplines.

The FLC was sent to the AAC&U conference to learn about new pedagogies and tools that they could bring back to the wider university STEM community. Most of the members of this FLC had not been exposed previously to some of these newer pedagogies. During the opening welcome, the Conference director challenged the attendees to consider projects that would help the people of Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricane Maria. Having decided to address this challenge by developing a project that built on our strengths in ASL, the group designed  a project that would provide students with an applied science-related activity that would also benefit people in Puerto Rico.

As a result of attending the conference, the FLC became a more coherent unit that provided a foundation from which to learn about each person’s discipline and personality. Exposure to our various disciplines, approaches to research, and our professional trajectories led to creative collaborations and problem-solving (Olson, Labov, & National Research Council (U.S.), 2014). This in turn led to a greater understanding of the strengths of each member and ultimately to a successful working relationship that is ongoing.

Project Overview

In response to the charge to create projects to help the victims of the hurricane, the FLC decided to focus on a STEM-centered ASL project that would aid this population. Realizing that many of the communities of Puerto Rico remained without electricity, the idea for a solar powered project emerged. Our ASL office identified Nuestro Ideal (Nuestroideal.org, n.d.), a local, non-governmental organization, as an effective collaborator. Nuestro Ideal selected a school without electricity in Puerto Rico. With funds provided by St. John’s University, the FLC acquired materials and organized classroom opportunities to bring together the different classes taught by the members of the FLC. Upper-level students from the Society of Physics provided assistance by preparing materials as well as acting as coaches during the assembly process. Two out-of-class sessions were scheduled for the project, one to learn the skills needed to build the chargers, and one to assemble them. An online repository was established for students to post video reflections on their work and to tie their experience to what they were learning in their individual classes.

The goals for the project were to:

  • Provide a STEM-based project with a civic engagement focus for a community in need in Puerto Rico.
  • Create a STEM experiential learning environment for STEM and non-STEM students.
  • Ensure that the hands-on applied project was accessible for students with different experiences and academic backgrounds.
  • Foster collaborations among these students in a multi-disciplinary project.
  • Create an opportunity for the upper-class students to share their expertise and enthusiasm for science.
Project Process

Upon receipt of the solar cell phone charger components, the Society of Physics students  helped  design and test the prototypes, pre-assembled the wiring harnesses with blocking diode housings, and fastened the connector housings to the solar cell frames (Fortmann, Lazrus, Rosso, Catrina, & Hyslop, 2019). At the initial ASL session, the students learned to solder and make reliable electrical connections, skills necessary for making the final products. They also learned about the school in Puerto Rico and the students who would receive the chargers. At the second session, the wires from the solar panels were soldered and attached to the USB connectors. All soldered connections were covered with silicon to prevent rust or disconnections. The entire assembly process was live-streamed via WebEx to the teachers and students in PR. The student groups were also asked to create two videos, one in which they described what they were doing and how to use the chargers and the other a reflective piece on their experiences. Two instructional videos were made by students for our partners, one in English, the other in Spanish, explaining the process of using the final product. A local TV station, upon hearing about the project, sent a news team to interview students about the impact of their experience (Fox 5 News, 2018). The solar cells were then packed and shipped to the school. We received pictures, videos, and thank you notes from the faculty and students in Puerto Rico.

Outcomes

We worked with Nuestro Ideal to provide a civic engagement focus with the community in Puerto Rico. With their help it was possible to set up a weblink during the assembly process, which fostered a greater sense of connection between our students and the recipients. Our students were able to see the environment in which the chargers would be used and gain a sense of purpose for their activity.

The project needed to be suitable for students with different academic backgrounds, experiences, and motivations. It became clear to the faculty that the students would need assistance in learning to solder and in understanding how solar cells work. We addressed this by having the Society of Physics students work with the groups learning to assemble the solar chargers. This also gave the upper-class students an opportunity to share their expertise and excitement for science. Students come to their classes with different motivations; when an opportunity for real-world applications of scientific skills is provided, the incentive to learn increases as students perceive the usefulness of their work (Committee on How People Learn II, 2018; see also student comments below).

In order to foster collaborations among the students in the different classes, they worked in groups of three to five on each charger and video. Just as the FLC worked across disciplines, an effort was made to form groups across the different classes. St. John’s University is one of the most diverse institutions in the country, and many of our students related to the recipients and the needs of the project, sharing their knowledge with their peers.

Evaluation

A survey was sent to all St. John’s students involved in the project. The results showed positive responses in evaluating scientific information and in their connection to the University and its mission. The results were strongest for the math and chemistry cohorts, with more than 60% of the students responding positively. In particular, the written responses from the math students indicated a new understanding of practical applications for STEM and a realization of the impacts of STEM on people’s lives. This was also the case in Strage’s work with ASL and lecture classes (Strage, 2000). A popular response noted that the experience“opened me up to the global aspects of STEM.” One possible improvement would have been the provision of more scaffolding for the ASL project within each individual class. This would have allowed the students to feel a greater ownership of the activity. In addition to the reflection and instruction videos, the use of process summaries might also have helped students integrate the new skills they were learning and reflect on their applications in the real world to a greater degree (Smith, n.d.; Keranen & Kolvoord, 2014). These types of activities expand the classroom learning experience, and, furthermore, expose students to the different types of knowledge that their peers bring to the project (Committee on How People Learn II, 2018; Olson et al., 2014).

The FLC experience has had a lasting impact on the participating faculty members, developing new cross-disciplinary relationships and leading to a desire to explore additional outreach projects together. The results of this initial project led to poster presentations at the 2018 AAC&U Transforming STEM Higher Education conference and at the 2019 New York City SENCER meeting. The project also had an impact on the Society of Physics students, and importantly, a large number of Society of Physics students in the 2018 graduating class intended to continue their education in engineering graduate school. Several student participants in this ASL project went on to engage in undergraduate research as second-year students.

Conclusions

The collaborations within the FLC, between the faculty members and administration, and between St. John’s and Nuestro Ideal created an opportunity for civic engagement within the STEM disciplines. In the short term, the group has applied for a small internal St. John’s grant to continue collaborating with Nuestro Ideal to identify new projects, including providing larger solar cell systems for water pumps in isolated farmhouses and transferring upkeep knowledge to the recipients. It also led to an additional ASL project in the fall of 2019 wherein students provided a handbook of seed bank best practices based on research to Nuestra Ideal for dissemination to a local farm project. Beyond that, the success of this project and the FLC led this group to apply for an NSF Ethical and Responsible Research grant. In this future project the group intends to assess methods of exposing students through mentoring, ASL, and personal interactions to ethical behavior in STEM fields, especially with regard to research choices and dissemination.

Authors

Florin Catrina

Florin Catrina, an associate professor of mathematics, has been at St. John’s University since 2006. He is active in the Mathematical Association of America and is a mentor for Project NExT, a professional development program for new or recent Ph.D.s in the mathematical sciences. His research focuses on non-linear analysis of partial differential equations.

 

 

Charles Fortmann

Charles Fortmann is currently an associate professor in the Department of Physics. Before joining the faculty at St. John’s, he was the vice president for research at Idalia Solar Technologies. He serves as the faculty advisor for the Society of Physics and Sigma Pi Sigma physics honor society.

 

 

 

Alison Hyslop

Alison G. Hyslop, an associate professor of chemistry, has been at St. John’s University since 2000. She has served as the faculty coordinator for STEM Faculty Learning Communities at St. John’s for three years, is active in the Women in Science program, and was the chair of the Department of Chemistry from 2012 to 2018 and the coordinator for Scientific Inquiry from 2006 to 2012.

 

 

Paula Lazrus

Paula Kay Lazrus is an associate professor in the Institute for Core Studies and Department of Sociology and Anthropology at St. John’s University, and has been at St. John’s since 2003. She is active in the Reacting to the Past community and has served on its Board of Directors since 2016. As an archeologist, she has participated in the Bova Marina Archaeological Project and is active in the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for American Archaeology.

 

 

Richard Rosso

Richard Rosso, an associate professor of chemistry, has been at St. John’s University since 1999. He was the chair of the Department of Chemistry from 2006 to 2012, and has served the American Chemical Society both locally and at the national level.

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STEM Teacher Leadership Development Through Community Engagement

Abstract

Academic service-learning through community engagement in a museum provides an opportunity for teacher leadership development in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Twenty student volunteers from teacher education in a public university took part in service-learning teacher leadership activities in STEM education through a local museum. A preliminary analysis of student responses to self-reflection questions indicated emerging themes predominantly in the areas of self-confidence development and depth of understanding of the topic, followed by audience STEM learning and sense of self-responsibility. Plans for future direction are explored with implications for teacher leadership in STEM education.

Keywords: STEM education, preservice teacher leadership, community engagement, museum, informal science education, service-learning, efficacy, student volunteer

Introduction

This paper describes academic service-learning by student volunteers in teacher education through community engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)  education  in  a  museum,  with a focus on developing teacher leadership. Calls for a workforce that is STEM skilled are being heard from leaders in business, government, and education. For example, the Committee  on  STEM  Education  of  the National Science and Technology Council (2018) stated that “the nation is stronger when all Americans benefit from an education that provides a strong STEM foundation for fully engaging in and contributing to their communities, and for succeeding in STEM-related careers, if they choose…. Even for those who may never be employed in a STEM-related job, a basic understanding and comfort with STEM and STEM-enabled technology has become a prerequisite for full participation in modern society” (p. 5). According to President Donald Trump, his administration “will do everything possible to provide our children, especially kids in underserved areas, with access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering, and  mathematics”  (Office  of   Science and Technology Policy, 2018, n.p.). How to transform such reform calls into action in K–12 classrooms is an important question. This article draws attention to the connection between teacher leadership in STEM areas and the university experiences and opportunities of aspiring teachers. Specifically, does academic service learning in STEM through community engagement in a local museum develop teacher leadership skills?

Teacher Leadership

For the purpose of this study, teacher leadership in pre-service STEM education is defined as follows: It is a process of developing leadership qualities (e.g., knowledge, dispositions, skills) in preservice teachers  by  engaging in volunteer activities that extend beyond classrooms into the community, tapping into local STEM resources (Ado, 2016; Bond, 2011; Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2011; Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, 2018; Wenner & Campbell, 2018).

Bond (2011) in a review of teacher leadership recommended that preservice teachers be given opportunities to serve and learn through volunteer activities in their local communities. Ado (2016) suggested “improving outreach and collaboration with families and community” (p. 15) for teacher leadership development. On the other hand, in a study of teacher leadership, Ado (2016) noticed that unless prompted, preservice teachers failed to address “improving outreach and collaboration with families and communities” (p. 15) as part of teacher leadership development. It is a reflection of our present system of education and preparation of teachers, which does not value outreach and community engagement. The Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium (2011) and the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (2018) have recommended that preservice and in-service teachers engage in outreach activities in their local communities as  a part of the process for developing teacher leadership.

Classroom teacher efficacy is key to student learning in K–12 education (Hattie & Timperely, 2007) and teacher leadership impacts  student  learning  (Stronge & Hindman, 2003; Kumar & Scuderi, 2000). Without teacher leaders in our schools who are well  prepared and confident enough to lead the STEM education reform, calls for STEM reform may not come to fruition. Teacher leadership also has the potential to retain teachers through support as they enter the teaching profession and as experienced teachers. In his study, Buchanan (2010) found that “lack of support emerged as the single strongest predictor of a decision to leave the profession” (p. 205). According to Danielson (2006), “precisely because of its informal and voluntary nature, teacher leadership represents the highest level of professionalism. Teacher leaders are not being paid to do their work; they go the extra mile out of a commitment to the students they serve” (p. 1). Students in this STEM program volunteer and already represent a group of individuals who are willing to go the extra mile.

Carlone and Johnson (2007) identified three constructs that support the development of teacher leaders:

  • Competence – knowledge and understanding supportive of leadership pursuits
  • Performance – social performances of relevant teacher leadership practices
  • Recognition – recognition by oneself and others as a teacher leader

In this context, an opportunity for undergraduate teacher education students to volunteer in a museum supports teacher leadership development in STEM education through community engagement. Students develop their STEM skills along with their leadership skills through deepening their content knowledge, participating in teacher leadership practices as presenters in the museum, and receiving recognition by others as leaders in the STEM topic they choose. Students have the additional opportunity to identify creative ways to tap into community resources, to enrich learning experiences for their students, to connect classroom lessons with STEM outside the classroom, and to serve as change agents.

Community Engagement

It was after the publication of the article titled “Opportunities for Teachers As Policymakers” (Kumar & Scuderi, 2000) that volunteer opportunities for teacher leadership development in informal STEM education through community engagement were created for Florida Atlantic University (FAU) undergraduate students in the course “Principles and Methods: K-9 School Science.” In the era of applying business models to the administration of schools and colleges, teachers are told what to do rather than given the opportunity to be professionals capable of making independent professional decisions in educational settings. This is reflected in the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME+) in the United States (Banilower et al., 2018). According to this NSSME+ survey, less than half of science teachers engaged in leadership activities, and elementary science teachers (8%) were less likely to lead a professional learning community in science than their high school peers. In this context, instilling in teachers, especially those in training, the confidence of leadership is essential if true education reform is the goal of the myriad of reform calls in STEM education (Kumar, 2019).

Discovery centers, planetariums, afterschool centers, and museums are excellent resources for community-based STEM education in the context of the real world. According to NSSME+ (Banilower et al., 2018), about 28% of elementary classes and 49% of high school classes have based their science instruction on lessons and units collected from sources such as museum partners, conferences, or journals, etc., rather than on traditional textbooks. Commercial textbooks published by the Museum of Science, Boston, are used in 4% of elementary classes. The survey also shows that only about 3% of elementary school students in self-contained classes have received science instruction from “someone outside the school,” such as a staff person from a local museum, though 68% of elementary schools and 78% of high schools encourage students to attend summer camps organized by science centers or museums.

In order to tap into informal educational institutions in communities across the land, appropriate education for teachers in preparation is necessary. Incorporating informal educational community resources in  teaching helps to improve teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge, besides improving the STEM knowledge and understanding of the students they teach (Kumar & Hansen, 2018; Brown, 2017; Jung & Tonso, 2006). Completing this task successfully adds to the “successful experience” of the student and “sets the stage for continued success” and raises self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986, noted in Versland, 2016, p. 300). Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the course of action required to produce given attainments. This is in line with construct three of Carlone and Johnson (2007): successful teacher leaders have belief in their own capacity as a teacher leader with strong STEM content knowledge Mastery of the content taught by teachers and confidence in the pedagogical skills they implement in teaching are critical to sustain teacher leadership qualities. A teacher leader in STEM will not shy away from taking advantage of any reasonable resource within reach to facilitate meaningful learning experiences for his/her students.

Leadership Through Community Engagement

Community engagement activities are an integral part of teaching and learning in STEM disciplines in the College of Education at FAU. Activities have included student volunteers engaging in STEM outreach to local K–12 classrooms and participating in service-learning community activities through informal science education institutions such as science museums, observatories, and planetariums as part of the undergraduate science education course. For example, an opportunity for teacher leadership development for student volunteers through community engagement is available through a local science museum. This is a unique opportunity for improving the pedagogical and science content knowledge of university students in the elementary/middle school science methods course. Preservice teachers need adequate knowledge of and access to reliable community resources in STEM disciplines, which they can tap into in order to develop teaching strategies to connect classroom STEM topics to the world around ( Jung & Tonso, 2006). Presenting classroom STEM in the context of applications of STEM in the real world is a pedagogically effective way to augment and enrich students’ learning experiences, and it can be achieved by connecting to local institutions such as museums, planetariums, and industries, and by implementing carefully prepared instructional resources (e.g., multimedia anchors) (Kumar, 2010).

Students who are interested in the community engagement volunteering opportunity express their interest to the course instructor and the designated museum staff. In working with the museum staff the student volunteer sets up an initial appointment to visit the museum and receives a free entry pass and a guided tour of the exhibits at the museum. The tour guide discusses with the student volunteer the STEM-related themes and principles of the exhibits. Depending on their interest and comfort level, each student volunteer selects one exhibit for the community engagement activity. The student volunteer then informs the course instructor and the museum staff of the exhibit chosen and proceeds to develop a detailed lesson plan incorporating pedagogically appropriate hands-on activities in alignment with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. Topics related to museum exhibits chosen by student volunteers have included airplane wings (e.g., Bernoulli’s Principle), weather, clouds, the water cycle, coral and coral bleaching, sharks, mangroves, the Everglades, etc. Twenty students have volunteered for this project since its inception.

The student volunteer has flexibility in the development of the lesson plan. Once the lesson plan is developed, the course instructor and the museum staff provide feedback. Every effort to improve the quality of the STEM content and pedagogical knowledge is made during this feedback process, with particular attention to misconceptions, correctness of content, cognitive levels of questions, connections to STEM in the real world, and the integration of suitable engaging hands-on activities. After finalizing the lesson plan, the student volunteer works with the museum staff to decide on a mutually convenient time and date to present the lesson in a group setting. Depending on the season, day and time, the group may be K–12 student visitors, tourists, parents, and/or senior citizens. Sometimes selected museum staff members are the audience that provides an opportunity for the student leader to answer questions that help build a deeper knowledge of the subject.

Once the lesson plan is implemented, the student volunteer receives feedback provided by the museum staff. The museum staff shares the feedback with the course instructor along with a summary of key aspects of the lesson presentation. In addition, each participating student volunteer is required to reflect upon their community engagement experience in terms of the following five prompts: (1) Describe any effect of the project on your level of understanding of the Science Concept/Principle you addressed. (2) Describe any effect on your level of confidence in explaining the Science Concept/Principle you addressed. (3) Describe any effect on your ability to relate science to real-world examples. (4) Describe any effect on your ability to teach science. (5) Describe any effect on your decision to utilize community resources such as museums in your future K–12 teaching.

Benefits to the Student Volunteer

At the end of the community engagement activity, the participating student volunteer receives credit in the form of bonus points toward course grade and FAU Academic Service Learning (ASL) credit. Since Fall 2017, students who participate in this community engagement project receive Academic Service Learning credit for approximately 10 hours spent on the project, with the corresponding ASL notation posted to their transcripts. Prior to the implementation of the FAU ASL credits system, participating students received volunteer hours in the FAU-designated Noble Hour. It should be noted that this community engagement by student volunteers supports the “Community Engagement and Economic Development” platform in the “Strategic Plan for the Race to Excellence 2015-2025” of FAU. Since Spring 2019, besides students in “Principles and Methods: K–9 School Science,” students in “Science: Elementary and Middle School” and “Science Content: K–6 Teachers” courses are also eligible to participate in this community engage- ment teacher leadership development project and receive FAU ASL credit. A higher level of confidence, a level of understanding of content and pedagogy, and an ability to incorporate community resources in teaching are all essential to building teacher leadership qualities. As student volunteers build leadership skills through community engagement activities, they help the museum visitors see the exhibits through the eyes of the STEM lessons they present, providing the visitors a different dimension of enrichment and exposure to the exhibits not available elsewhere.

Method

For this preliminary study, data were collected from a reflective survey response completed by students who participated in the museum experience. The reflective survey was developed by Kumar (2017) to allow students to self-reflect on their experiences and provide insights for the research around the impact of the experience on the student’s confidence and mastery of the subject. Since the development of the survey 12 students have participated in the project and received the survey, and seven students responded.

Analysis and Results

Each researcher reviewed survey responses individually to identify emerging themes. Researchers then reviewed and analyzed responses together. All responses from the students were coded collectively. Four major themes emerged.

  • Self-Confidence Development
  • Depth of Understanding of the Topic
  • Audience STEM Learning
  • Sense of Self-Responsibility

Table 1 summarizes the total responses by themes. In some themes the total number of responses exceeds the number of respondents. An analysis of each theme with specific quotes from respondents follows.

Self-Confidence Development

How did the self-confidence of the individual change during this activity? This theme emerged as the strongest one. Seven of the seven respondents shared 15 responses that support the development of self-confidence.

“This experience allows me to be more confident when teaching.”

“Presentation and demonstration allowed me to build confidence in explaining [the lesson].”

Audience STEM Learning

How well did the audience learn the science concept taught by the student? Three of the seven respondents shared seven responses that positively represented this theme.

“Because of the level of confidence, I had in my project, this caused audience to gain more knowledge about…”

Depth of Understanding of the Topic

How did this experience impact the depth of understanding of the selected topic? Six of the seven respondents shared 14 responses that positively represented this theme.

“Everything I learned [about my topic] will stick with me forever.”

“I have learned a lot about the different components of [the topic].”

Sense of Self-Responsibility

Did this activity include a sense of responsibility on the part of the student? Two of the seven respondents shared four responses that positively supported this theme.

“It is important to me that students understand the effects humans have on the Everglades.”

Discussion and Implications

Teacher leadership development through community engagement is a volunteer project for undergraduate students at FAU. Based on the preliminary data analysis, there are several benefits to students. First, the community engagement activity helps to build a sense of efficacy and self-confidence, which is noted as a valuable part of teacher leadership (Bandura, 1997; Versland, 2016). Furthermore, as noted by Hunzicker (2017), “internal factors such as motivation and confidence are likely to influence the progression from teacher to teacher leader more so than external factors” (p.1). Second, it provides a platform for experiential learning by leveraging community resources such as planetariums and museums to develop engaging STEM lessons that students identified as a deepening of their subject knowledge as aspiring leaders. Helping teachers develop content knowledge skills in their pre-teaching experiences is important, as these early career teachers may be more likely to advocate for instructional and curricular changes (Raue & Gray, 2015). Students who participate in experiential programs such as this have the opportunity to enter the beginning years of teaching with the ability to lead other teachers as the masters of the curriculum; they have built a sense of self-efficacy through repeated successes, which allows them to perform as confident teacher leaders (Huggins, Lesseig, & Rhodes, 2017; Bandura, 1997; Hunzicker, 2017). Third, it offers considerable pedagogical advantages, providing a unique opportunity to build confidence in teaching STEM lessons to audiences ranging from school children to senior citizens visiting the museum. These benefits are supported by the findings of Hunzicker (2012). Three factors were identified as those that develop teacher leadership: “exposure to research-based practices, increased teacher self-efficacy, and serving beyond the classroom” (p. 267).

Since 2013, 20 students have volunteered in teacher leadership development through community engagement in a museum. However, student self-reflections were not implemented until 2017. Since 2017, 7 out of 12 students have volunteered to submit self-reflections. A longitudinal study of those student volunteers who are now teaching in K–12 classrooms is needed to determine the effect of the community engagement experience on student learning and to understand the nature of teacher leadership development. Augmentation of the 5-item self-reflection questionnaire with additional specific teacher leadership questions is also underway. Based on the outcomes of future research and evaluations, creative ways to improve community engagement opportunities for teachers should be explored in order to contribute toward building teacher leaders who are champions of reforming STEM education in our classrooms.

It should be noted that this is a volunteer activity and that for various reasons, not many students signed up. Most of the students who attend classes on the FAU Broward campus are commuters or are employed full-time or part-time and have family obligations. A few times students who signed up and made the initial museum visit later changed their minds because of conflict of schedule with employment and/or family situations. Some students who struggled with the course have avoided the volunteer activity, while others in similar situations have taken advantage of the opportunity to improve their content and pedagogical knowledge in addition to improving their final grade.

Considering the benefits for student volunteers, opportunities for teacher leadership development through community engagement in partnership with local informal STEM education resources should be further developed. In most cities of the United States, informal science education resources such as museums, discovery centers, and planetariums that are suitable for establishing teacher leadership development opportunities through community engagement in STEM are available for teachers in training. Even in rural areas, building partnerships with farms, forestry businesses, aquaculture, and healthcare for STEM education are possible (Buffington, 2017). Universities and colleges with teacher preparation programs have a responsibility to explore and initiate collaborations with local informal education institutions. By establishing community engagement opportunities aimed at teacher leadership development, they can contribute to efforts to reform school science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

Authors

David Devraj Kumar is Professor of Science Education and Director of the STEM Education Laboratory in the College of Education at Florida Atlantic University. His research and scholarly activities focus on digital media enhanced STEM teaching and learning contexts, problem-based learning, science literacy, STEM leadership, education policy, and evaluation. He is a former Visiting Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is a recipient of the Sir Ron Nyholm Education Prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry, an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a SENCER Leadership Fellow of the N tional Center for Science and Civic Engagement.

Sharon Moffitt

Sharon R. Moffitt is a clinical instructor in educational leadership and research methodology in the College of Education at Florida Atlantic University. Her research and work focus on teacher, school, and district leadership coaching. She is the coordinator of a partnership between a large school district and Florida Atlantic University, which is focused on developing aspiring administrators through a rigorous Master’s Degree Program. She has 35 years of school and district leadership experience in the public school system.

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Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.

Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Malzahn, K. A., Plumley, C. L., Gordon, E. M., & Hayes, M. L. (2018). Report of the 2018 NSSME+. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.

Bond, N. (2011). Preparing preservice teachers to become teacher leaders. The Educational Forum, 75(4), 280–297.

Brown, K. (2017). Pre-service teachers’ acquisition of content knowledge, pedagogical skills, and professional dispositions through service learning. Science Education & Civic Engagement, 9(2), 13–26.

Buchanan, J. (2010). May I be excused? Why teachers leave the profession. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 30(2), 199–211.

Buffington, P. (2017). Closing STEM education opportunity gaps for rural students. Waltham, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.

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

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Hattie, J., & Timperely, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

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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

Balster, N., Pfund, C., Rediske, R., & Branchaw, J. (2010). Entering research: A course that creates community and structure for beginning undergraduate researchers in the STEM disciplines. CBE Life Sciences Education, 9(2), 108–118. Retrieved from http://www.lifescied.org/content/9/2/108.long 

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

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 

De Gale, S., & Boisselle, L. (2015). The effect of POGIL on academic performance and academic confidence. Science Education International, 26(1), 56–79. 

Freeman, T. M., Anderman, L. H., & Jensen, J. M. (2007). Sense of belonging in college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 203–220.

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

Klassen, R. M., & Klassen, J. R. L. (2018). Self-efficacy beliefs of medical students: A critical review. Perspectives on Medical Education, 7(2), 76–82.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). (2017). Commercial fisheries statistics. Retrieved from  https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/commercial-fisheries/commercial-landings/other-specialized-programs/total-commercial-fishery-landings-at-major-u-s-ports-summarized-by-year-and-ranked-by-dollar-value/index 

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_2-25-12.pdf 

Pittman, L. D., & Richmond, A. (2008). University belonging, friendship quality, and psychological adjustment during the transition to college. Journal of Experimental Education, 76(4), 343–362.

Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER). (2017). SENCER Ideals.  Retrieved from http://sencer.net/sencer-ideals/ 

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.

References

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Betts, J., Nagel, C., Schatzschneider, U., Poole, R., & Ragione, R. M. (2017). Antimicrobial activity of carbon monoxide-releasing molecule [Mn(CO)3(tpa-κ3N)]Br versus multidrug-resistant isolates of Avian Pathogenic Escherichia coli and its synergy with colistin. Plos One, 12(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0186359

Black, J. M., & Hawks, J. H. (2009). Medical-surgical nursing: Clinical management for positive outcomes (8th ed.). St. Louis: Saunders.

Bratu, S., Landman, D., Gupta, J., Trehan, M., Panwar, M., & Quale, J. (2006). A population-based study examining the emergence of community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus USA300 in New York City. Annals of Clinical Microbiology and Antimicrobials, 5(29).

Brunetti, J., Falciani, C., Roscia, G., Pollini, S., Bindi, S., Scali, S., . . . Pini, A. (2016). In vitro and in vivo efficacy, toxicity, bio-distribution and resistance selection of a novel antibacterial drug candidate. Scientific Reports, 6(1). doi:10.1038/srep26077

Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC). (1998, June 24). Perspectives in disease prevention and health promotion update: Universal precautions for prevention of transmission of human immunodeficiency virus, Hepatitis B virus, and other bloodborne pathogens in health-care settings. MMWR Weekly, 37(24), 377–388. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000039.htm

Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC). (2015). Healthcare-associated infections: Preventing healthcare-associated infections. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hai/prevent/prevention.html

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Cowan, M. K., Smith, H., & Lusk, J. (2019). Microbiology fundamentals: A clinical approach. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

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Foglia, E. E., Fraser, V. J., & Elward, A. M. (2007). Effect of nosocomial infections due to antibiotic-resistant organisms on length of stay and mortality in the pediatric intensive care unit. Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, 28(3), 299–306. doi:10.1086/512628

Ghosh-dastidar, U. (2010, August 5). Math, our community, and civic engagement. Paper presented at MathFest 2010, Pittsburgh, PA. Abstract retrieved from  https://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/abstracts/mf2010-abstracts.pdf  

Landman, D., Bratu, S., Kochar, S., Panwar, M., Trehan, M., Doymaz, M., & Quale, J. (2007). Evolution of antimicrobial resistance among Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Acinetobacter baumannii and Klebsiella pneumoniae in Brooklyn, NY. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 60(1), 78–82. doi:10.1093/jac/dkm129

Landman, D., Quale J. M., Mayorga, D., Adedeji, A., Vangala, K., Ravishankar, J., . . . Brooks, S. (2002). Citywide clonal outbreak of multiresistant Acinetobacter baumannii and Pseudomonas aeruginosa in Brooklyn, NY: The preantibiotic era has returned. Archives of Internal Medicine, 162(13), 1515–1520. 

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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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http://www.apa.org/education/undergrad/civic-engagement.aspx.

Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC). (2014, November/December).  Reconstructing STEM in our schools. Dimensions. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.astc.org/astc-dimensions/reconstructing-stem-schools/.

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.

Dwyer, L. (2014, July 12).  Social issues Americans talk the most about on Twitter. TakePart, Participant Media. https://www.takepart.com/photos/10-social-issues-americans-talk-about-twitter-most/.

Ehrlich, T. (Ed.). (2000). Civic responsibility and higher education. Phoenix: The Oryx Press.

Friedman, A. (Ed.). (2008). Framework for evaluating informal science education projects. Report from a National Science Foundation workshop. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://informalscience.org/sites/default/files/Eval_Framework.pdf.

McCallie, E., Bell, L., Lohwater, T., Falk, J. H., Lehr, J. L., Lewenstein, B. V., Needham, C., & Wiehe, B. (2009). Many experts, many audiences: public engagement with science and informal science education. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

New York Times. (2006). The definition of civic engagement. Retrieved February 2, 2018 from http://www.nytimes.com/ref/college/collegespecial2/coll_aascu_defi.html.

Ostman, R. (2006). STEM community partnerships and organizational change: Testing a scalable model to engage underrepresented children and families. Proposal to National Science Foundation from the Science Museum of Minnesota.

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Wikipedia. 2017. Civic engagement.  Retrieved February 2, 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_engagement.

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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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