Computer Science and Fairness: Integrating a Social Justice Perspective into an After-school Program

Jill Denner,
Education, Training, Research
Jacob Martinez,
Digital NEST
Heather Thiry,
Golden Evaluation and Policy Research
Julie Adams,
Education, Training, Research


Children are motivated by the concepts of fairness and justice and by the idea that they can address problems in their communities and in the world. In this paper, we describe an after-school program that teaches Latino elementary school students how they can use computer science to address social justice issues at their school. The classes are co-run by high school near peers, who introduce both social justice and computer science concepts and guide students to design and program a final project. We describe both the process and outcomes of implementing this approach, including the challenges and opportunities, and the important role of the teacher and school context. The paper concludes with recommendations for efforts to engage elementary school students in computer science by scaffolding their awareness of social justice issues and involving near-peer role models.


Latino/as are the fastest growing ethnic minority population in the United States; they accounted for over half the growth of the U.S. population between 2000 and 2010 (U.S. Census 2010). Despite the growing numbers, Latino/as are vastly underrepresented in computing-related fields: in 2010, they made up only 4.6 percent of computer and information scientists in the labor force (National Science Foundation, 2014). Latinos are 16 percent of AP test takers, but only 1 percent of the AP Computer Science (CS) test takers; those who took it scored far below their peers (College Board 2011). Although Latinos make up 19 percent of all U.S. college students ages 18 to 24 (Lopez and Fry, 2013), the 2013 Taulbee Survey found they earned just 6 percent of CS bachelor’s degrees, and fewer than 2 percent of students who enrolled or completed a Ph.D. in CS were Latino/a (Zweben and Bizot 2014). There are very few CS education efforts that target elementary school; most focus on high school or middle school students, even though early preparation is key to getting children on the pathway. In this paper, we describe a program that aims to engage children in CS by having them explore and raise awareness about civic issues at their school.

The approach described in this paper builds on prior research that identified some promising strategies for recruiting students from underrepresented groups into computing fields. These include increasing access, relevance, role models, and experiences of success. For example, implementing a computer science curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives both in and out of school is a strategy that has increased the participation of both girls and boys in CS courses. Students see that computer science is a tool they can use to solve real life problems (Ashcraft et al. 2012). In addition, having role models and near-peer mentors in CS courses can decrease the prevalence of stereotypes around computer science careers and increase interest in pursuing these types of careers (Craig et al. 2011; Lang et al. 2010). Opportunities to experience success are most effective when they focus on learning the material rather than completing a set of requirements in order to get a grade; this allows students with less experience to thrive and not feel disadvantaged compared to their more experienced classmates (Schwartz et al. 2009). Finally, students need access to learning opportunities that go beyond computer literacy (e.g. typing) in order to learn and apply CS concepts (Margolis 2008). A key part of this is teaching underserved youth to create technology, rather than merely using it (Denner and Martinez, in press).

A class that connects social justice to CS is a promising approach for computing education, particularly with Latino/a youth, because it shows the relevance of CS to what students value. For example, Latino/a students are more likely than other groups to say that the message “computing empowers you to do good” is very appealing (Association for Computing Machinery 2009). Doing good is connected to family obligation, and studies suggest that family needs (often financial) can serve as motivators for Latino/a students to pursue higher education and succeed on behalf of their families and communities (Cooper et al. 2005). For example, when asked about their career goal and why they wanted to pursue it, most Latino/a fifth grade students from a low income community described a helping profession (e.g., doctor, police officer), and said they want to help their community (Denner et al. 2005). When cultural value systems are taken into account, it appears that truly engaging Latino/a youth involves building connections to their identity and culture by also addressing the needs of their community, not just those of the individual (Sólorzano et al. 2005). In particular, exposure to role models and activities that show how CS can be used for the social good can increase students’ expectations of success and the value they place on computing, which are directly related to their computing aspirations (Goode et al. 2006; Zarrett et al. 2006).

The program described in this paper was inspired by several movements that are focused on civic engagement. The first, Computing for the Social Good, aims to broaden participation in computing in higher education (Goldweber et al. 2011). For example, a growing number of colleges offer opportunities to apply CS to social causes, including Georgia Tech, Xavier University, SUNY Buffalo, and Rice University (Buckley et al. 2008). We extend this approach to K–12, adding perspectives from Latina/o critical race theory, an analytic tool used to critically examine how power relations shape Latinos’ educational experiences by considering how race, social class, gender, language, and immigration status intersect (Yosso 2006). Using this lens, a class on social justice can help students identify issues they want to address in their lives, as well as the underlying or root causes of them, by learning about other young people who are making positive social change. The goal is for students to develop a belief that they can make a difference, or what some have called civic efficacy. Our application of Latino/a critical race theory to K–12 is informed by the Social Justice Youth Development model, which describes how social change begins with awareness, identity exploration, and a critique of existing structures before it moves to taking action to address social inequity (Ginwright and Cammarota 2002). In this view, critical consciousness is an essential part of social justice: it is not simply an awareness of an issue or problem, but is a critique of that problem that aims to identify the underlying causes, which include power dynamics in social relationships and institutional structures.

Our process for integrating social justice with CS builds on similar efforts in mathematics. Studies have shown the promise of using mathematics as a lens to introduce social justice concepts to Latino/a children, and to use social justice as a hook to teach mathematics (Gutstein 2003; Turner et al. 2009). However, we are aware of only three programs that aim to integrate social justice with computing: CompuGirls, an after-school program that links social justice concepts to the technical aspects of digital media (Scott et al. 2014), Apps for Social Justice, a class where youth learn to create apps that address local community needs (Vakil 2014), and Exploring Computer Science, a school-based curriculum that uses an equity-based pedagogy such as using data to make digital media artifacts about a social issue in their community (Ryoo et al. 2013). All of these programs were designed for high school students, and little is known about how a social justice approach can be used effectively to engage elementary school students in computing.

Studies do suggest that even young children are able to think about social justice, but pedagogical strategies must take into account developmental differences. For example, in one study of 6-17-year-olds in Argentina, children were asked to talk about something that had to do with justice that had either happened to them or that they had seen or heard about, and why they thought it was just or unjust (Barreiro, 2013). The researcher found that only 6 percent said they did not know what “just” meant. The most common representation of justice across the groups was utilitarian—justice is something that enables everyone to be happy. Only 5 percent of students referred to justice as an equal distribution for all people without privilege or bias, which includes concepts of fairness. Starting at age 10, students connected peoples’ actions to whether or not they deserve punishment or reward. Similarly, Thorkildsen and White-McNulty (2002) found that children as young as six can consider the greater good when reasoning about fairness. However, that study also showed that children under 10 thought it was fair for people to win a skill-based contest as long as they worked hard, while according to older children, it was only fair for people to win based on skill, not based on hard work or luck.

There is little research on children’s understanding of fairness at their school, which is the community they know best. One study found that 7-12-year-old children thought the most fair teaching practices were those that promote equality of learning (everyone should learn the same material equally well), but the emphasis on rewards for high performance declined with age (Thorkildsen and Schmahl 1997). In a more recent study of a small group of Latino/a fifth graders, the majority viewed random choice as the fairest way to make decisions, because it meant that everyone had the same opportunity and reduced favoritism, which suggests a view of procedural justice (Langhout et al. 2011). They also found that this group of children defined fairness in terms of equal outcomes (or distributive justice) and in terms of minimizing emotional harm (emotional justice). These studies show that elementary school students have opinions and even theories about fairness at their school, but few efforts have been made to help students explore or act on them. These studies also suggest that young children’s ideas about fairness in the concrete examples of school and teaching are more developed than the abstract examples of fairness, and that few are ready to translate the concept of fairness into critical ideas about systems of power and social change. Based on this work, we concluded that the concept of fairness is more developmentally appropriate than “social justice” or “civic issues” when talking to young children.

While the studies described so far clearly show that children can think about fairness and have opinions about it, there is scant research on pedagogical strategies that can be used to build a critical consciousness about fairness in elementary school. In one report, Silva and Langhout (2011) describe how a first grade teacher used an art curriculum to increase her students’ critical consciousness, with the result that many of the children took action to address stereotypes at school. The process included talking explicitly about power and privilege in terms of how group membership affected artists’ lives and their art, and reflecting on emotions. In another example, Kohfeldt and Langhout (2011) describe how they helped a group of fifth grade students to define a social problem, which is the first step before taking action. Their approach included constructing the problem as a group, starting with a discussion of students’ hopes and dreams about their school before moving on to discuss problems, causes, and potential solutions. The researchers used a series of questions to help students identify the underlying causes of the problem. These small studies suggest that teaching social justice principles in elementary school is possible, but despite the large number of educator groups devoted to teaching social justice principles (e.g., Rethinking Schools, Radical Math), there is little research on the challenges of integrating a social justice perspective into an elementary school classroom, or on how to connect social justice to academic content like CS.

The CSteach Program

CSteach is an after-school program based on prior research on how to engage underrepresented students in computing. It uses a culturally responsive approach that includes attention to students’ multiple and intersecting identities, among them the students’ identities in their school community (Scott et al. 2014). Key strategies include a multigenerational approach, the introduction of CS and social justice concepts, and the application of those concepts through the design and programming of a digital media project.

The multigenerational teaching strategy involves instruction and role modeling by high school aged near peers, students who are slightly older, more knowledgeable about the content area, and have qualities that younger students respect and admire (Murphey 1996). Near peers are not expected to be true experts; their value lies in being slightly more advanced, and also in being familiar with the community. The near peers (high school students) serve as role models and ensure that the program is responsive to the local context and to students’ individual motivations, as well as to the dynamic role that culture plays as students negotiate their goals and obstacles (Brown and Cole 2002; Gutiérrez and Arzubiaga 2012). For example, the near peers understand local challenges (e.g., financial constraints, family responsibilities, etc.) and offer stories and activities that help students navigate competing expectations across their worlds of home, school, and peers (Cooper et al. 2005). The high school students also challenge negative stereotypes about who does CS, and provide examples of how CS can be used for the social good. The near peers in CSteach live in the community; in many cases they attended the same elementary school and/or have relatives who attend that school. They receive a stipend for attending trainings, reviewing the curriculum to practice their role, and for attending class.

A key goal of CSteach is to increase students’ understanding of CS concepts and principles. A series of developmentally appropriate activities are designed to introduce and reinforce four of the College Board’s (2014) seven “big ideas” in the Computer Science Principles: abstraction, algorithms, programming, and networks. These include learning to program in Scratch (a child-friendly drag-and-drop tool), doing unplugged activities where students write algorithms, and participating in online communities. The computer science activities are connected to four social justice “big ideas”: fairness, empowerment, action, and community. For example, students explore how “networks” and “community” share similar properties. They also learn that “action” is part of the word “abstraction,” and both involve moving from the general to the specific.

The CSteach curriculum builds on the Social Justice Youth Development model, where social change begins with awareness, identity exploration, and a critique of existing structures before it moves to taking action that will address social inequity (Ginwright and Cammarota 2002). Developing a critical consciousness is a key part of this effort: CSteach aims to help students go beyond a simple awareness of an issue or problem in their community. The activities in CSteach move students along the pathway from awareness toward action by showing them social justice role models in person and on video, encouraging them to debate what is fair and unfair at their school, introducing them to concepts like “bias,” and helping them design and program an animated movie using the Scratch programming tool, to inform other people about why a particular social justice issue at their school is important.

Research Questions

This study was designed to document not only the outcomes, but also the process of developing and implementing the curriculum. In order to improve educational practice, it is necessary to go beyond a simple description of the implementation process to a description of what Gutiérrez and Penuel (2014) call the social life of interventions, or how they are adapted over time in response to the needs and strengths of students, teachers, and the broader school context. This involves bringing key people together to discuss and debate the primary focus of a research and development project. To this end, we employ a Design Experiment, an iterative cycle of implementation, data collection, and revision that helps us to develop programs that avoid a deficit perspective when promoting learning experiences for marginalized populations (Collins et al. 2004). The goal is to describe how to create a learning environment that utilizes social justice to promote students’ interest in computer science, their capacity to productively engage in and apply social justice and computer science concepts, and the extent to which they see and appreciate the relevance of computer science. In this article, we will address the following questions:

  • How did the social justice part of the curriculum evolve over time?
  • How are fourth and fifth grade Latino/a students thinking about social justice?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities of integrating social justice into an elementary school classroom?




CSteach has been implemented three times in a school district that serves mostly low income, rural Latino/a students, most of whom have family members who work in agriculture. Participants were 333 fourth and fifth grade students and 31 high school students who attended as part of an extended learning program at nine elementary schools. The mean age of the elementary students was 10, there were almost equal numbers of girls and boys, 85 percent self-identified as Latino/a, and 71 percent spoke a language other than English at home more than half the time. While there is great variation in the group of students called “Latino/a,” the focus of this study is on students of Mexican origin, who make up 63 percent of the U.S. Latino population and accounted for three quarters of the growth in the U.S. Latino population in the last decade (Ennis et al. 2011). We use the term “Latino,” because it is commonly used in California. The thirty-one high school near-peer teachers (mean age=15.5) were 61 percent female; 84 percent identified as Latino/a. Four adult teachers (all school district employees) were also interviewed (one male, three female).


The CSteach course met for two hours/week for 12-13 weeks and was implemented over four semesters. Several sources of data were used to address our research questions. These included students’ Scratch animation projects, classroom observations, interviews with high school students and adult teachers, and a survey administered to students at the beginning and end of the program. Student projects from the Fall 2013, Spring 2014, and Fall 2014 semesters were coded using a 0-3 scale to measure the extent to which students integrated a social justice issue into their Scratch animations. Each coding category was defined as follows:

Level 0: The project does not mention a social justice issue.

Example: A cat and dog are on screen and the cat says it wants revenge. The dog says “I have to get out of here,” and the cat says, “You are not going to escape.” The cat then attacks the dog.

Level 1: The project includes a complaint or a conversation about a social justice issue or a personal preference.

Example: A bear is standing in the forest and a cat runs up and asks the bear to save him/her from the bully. The cat says, “Help hide me! The bully won’t leave me alone,” and the bear replies that he/she will “help get rid of the bully.”

Level 2: Characters in the project advocate for something to change about a social justice issue or a personal preference, but there is no mention of why it is important.

Example: A girl is sitting on a street corner near a man who is smoking. Two girls nearby see this and one says, “Look at that man smoking in front of that girl. Should we tell him to stop smoking?” The other girl replies, “I think we should,” and then they ask the man if he can “please stop smoking” in front of the girl. The man thanks them for telling him to stop.

Level 3: Characters in the project advocate for something to change about a social justice issue and explain why it is important in a way that goes beyond personal like/dislike.

Example: A boy in the library says that his “school would be better if there was a bigger library.” Another boy appears and says that he “know[s] it is important because more students would be interested in reading and that would help with education.” Then three more boys appear and reinforce the message by saying that students would “choose interesting books” to read, that “students learn by reading” and that “students would be more interested in going to the library.”

Another source of data included a questionnaire that was administered on the first and last day the class. For example, students’ views about the value of computing were measured with a six item scale from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students rated their level of agreement with statements such as “Computers are important to my community,” and “Learning about computers will help me in the future” (National Assessment Governing Board 2012). Students’ views of how to address community needs were measured using a four-item scale that includes the following statements rated from Never to Often: “I know how to use a computer to identify needs in my community,” and “Computer science is a field that makes the world a better place.”

Over the three semesters, 21 high school students participated in either individual interviews or a focus group. Students were asked about their experience in the program and had the opportunity to provide feedback on their role. They were also asked specifically about the social justice component with questions that included: Tell me about a day this semester where the kids made the most progress in learning about social justice issues in their community. Tell me what could be improved in CSteach so that students will learn more about social justice issues in their community. Four adult teachers were also interviewed to gather information about their experience teaching the class, including what worked and what needed improvement.


How Did the Social Justice Part of the Curriculum Evolve over Time?

The curriculum went through a series of iterations that were informed by both internal research and an external evaluation. In this section we describe some of the key stages of implementation, as well as the findings that led to a series of revisions designed to strengthen and increase the relevance and impact of the program and to increase the interest and capacity of the schools to sustain the class.

The first draft of the curriculum was pilot tested in two small classes during the Spring semester of 2013. In this initial version, the focus was primarily on teaching CS concepts, such as abstraction, algorithms, and data; there were only a few social justice-focused activities. An early attempt to integrate CS with social justice was an activity that introduced the connection between networks of computers and networks of people. However, additional follow-up and reinforcement of this idea was needed to help students use the concept of networks to address needs in their community. Another activity involved a role-play about a student-led effort to limit food waste at the school cafeteria. However, no connections were made to CS, and the focus was on food waste rather than the social justice issue of “hunger.” As a result, students learned about the importance of helping others, but did not learn about the underlying causes of hunger. For their final project, students created a PowerPoint presentation based on internet research and data collection from classmates on a problem they want to solve in their community. Students were directed to select an abstract problem (e.g., bullying, animal cruelty) but the connection to the underlying causes or how the students could address them was not made. The students summarized their findings by adding them into a PowerPoint template.

Based on data that included observations, interviews, and an analysis of student projects, the curriculum was revised over the summer to reflect a stronger connection to the national K–12 CS standards (Computer Science Teachers Association 2011). This included teaching students to use the Scratch programming tool to make an animation where characters talk about a problem in their community. In order to help students select a social justice topic, we added a new activity where students learned about the CS concept “abstraction,” and were instructed to apply it to their “problem” topic in order to break it into sub-problems that could be solved. However, the curriculum was not designed to help students think about the causes of the problem, and this limited the students’ ability to break it into a smaller set of problems or to identify solutions. In addition, although the role of the high school near peers was strengthened by having them take the lead on instruction starting earlier in the semester and by training them in how to program in Scratch, but they did not receive any training on social justice, and there was not a shared understanding of what the term meant. As a result, the topics in students’ final projects were similar to those in the prior semester (e.g., bullying, pollution) and seemed to reflect adult concerns, rather than issues that were meaningful to the students. The new curriculum was implemented in Fall 2013 in four classes by two school-based teachers.

Based on classroom observations, interviews with near peers, and an assessment of students’ projects, several changes were made before the Spring 2014 implementation. These included strengthening existing activities to make more explicit connections between computer science and social justice. For example, students learned how networks of computers and networks of people can both be powerful sources of social change. In addition, stronger connections were made between the final Scratch project and social justice. This involved showing examples and explaining how their animation would be created using the tools of computer science and then used to communicate a message about how to take action regarding a social justice issue. Although the high school student near peers were increasingly put in charge of leading large group activities, and received additional training in Scratch, they received no training in how to help students formulate a social justice issue. In addition, the connection to the regular class day was lost as the four classes in Spring 2014 were led by the same adult teacher who did the pilot implementation; a tech support employee of the school district with a CS degree. This change was made because the district was in the middle of contract negotiations which did not allow teachers to work outside the regular school day.

During the summer of 2014, the research team engaged in several activities in order to increase the relevance of the activities to the students and the schools. First, the team analyzed the data from observations, surveys, interviews, and the students’ final projects. Next, there was a two-day meeting of multiple stakeholders that included two adult teachers, two high school-aged near peers, two experts in social justice, the project evaluator, and the research team. As a result of that meeting, we clarified the definition of social justice as something that a student believes is unfair and needs to be changed or improved. It should be relevant, and ideally personally meaningful to them. Further, it was agreed that the goals of the social justice component were to help students: (1) learn to identify and understand advocacy needs in their school and/or community, (2) learn how computer science can help address these needs (and how it could hurt), and (3) develop a sense of responsibility and motivation to use computer science to address those needs.

As a result of that meeting, the team identified social justice terms that were appropriate for elementary school students, more tightly integrated the social justice and CS principles, and added scaffolding to help students identify issues in their community that are personally meaningful to them. To this end, four “big ideas” of social justice were identified: fairness, community, empowerment, and action. These “big ideas” were designed to run parallel to the “big ideas” from Computer Science described earlier (College Board, 2014). The following are definitions of the social justice big ideas:

  • Fairness: something in their community that they believe needs to be changed or improved. It is different from a complaint/dislike because it deals with whether there is inequality in people’s opportunities, due to the distribution of wealth or other privileges.
  • Community: the focus is on their school community, because it is personally meaningful to them and they can realistically expect to have an impact.
  • Empowerment: the belief that they can make real change, and the motivation to do it; development of an identity as a leader or change agent.
  • Action: collective action is the most effective way to have an impact; change happens by working with others and leveraging networks.

Several new activities were added to the curriculum for Fall 2014, order to introduce students to these big ideas. The activities included a focus on student leaders, for example by showing short videos about youth who are taking action in their community, and an enhanced reflection component, a daily wrap-up where key CS and social justice concepts and terms were reviewed by a near peer, and then written down by the fifth grade students in their workbook. In addition, flexibility was built into the curriculum to accommodate students who arrive late or leave early due to other school activities or family commitments. In some cases, students worked with a partner who could catch them up and continue the project work in their absence. Another change was in the procedure for selecting and training the high school near peers, and expectations for their role in the classroom were clarified. Applicants were screened to ensure their commitment to working with children, as well as a positive attitude toward using computers and technology to help their community. As part of these revisions, the assessment process was also revised to improve our measurement of how learning progresses over time.

A final iteration of the curriculum was implemented in Spring 2015. The changes included teaching students the definition of social justice that is used in the Teaching Tolerance website: something that is free of prejudice, inequity, and bias. New activities were added to introduce and reinforce those concepts, using models from the website, such as “What is Fair?” where students debate whether or not an issue (e.g., boys getting more time on the soccer field because they get there more quickly) is a social justice issue. A series of trainings were developed to scaffold the near peers’ understanding of social justice, and to help them guide groups of students to narrow the focus of their final project so that it was about an issue that is personally meaningful to them at their school, rather than an issue in their broader community. The cultural relevance was increased by including bilingual Spanish/English instruction and worksheets, and videos of non-dominant groups taking action in their school and community. In addition, the CS learning part of the class was changed from large-group to self-paced instruction, as students learned to program in Scratch by watching videos created by the high school students, and then applying what they learned by completing a set of challenges. Finally, the role of the high school students became more diverse to allow them to use their strengths: some led activities with the whole class, while others facilitated small group activities or helped students who needed individual assistance.

How Are Fourth and Fifth Grade Latino/a Students Thinking about Social Justice?

Students who participated in the CSteach program varied in the extent to which they incorporated a social justice issue into their Scratch projects. From semester to semester, however, there was a steady increase in the percentage of students who used their Scratch animation as a tool to advocate for change. The Fall 2013 cohort produced only nine projects (21 percent) that mentioned a social justice issue (above a Level 0), while the Spring 2014 and Fall 2014 cohorts produced 15 (52 percent) and 45 (70 percent) projects, respectively, that scored above Level 0. Very few students (seven total) made projects at Level 3, where there was inclusion of information about why it was important to address the issue. The total number of projects that were scored in each category is summarized in Table 1. The data show an increase in the extent to which students integrated social justice into their Scratch project as the curriculum was revised.


Pre-post survey data were also used to understand how the children were thinking about social justice, including variation across demographic groups. Based on their responses to survey questions, fifth grade students from all semesters showed statistically significant increases in their perceived ability to use a computer or computer science to address community needs. However, this finding was less robust for certain subgroups. For example, students who frequently spoke a second language at home (more than half the time) were significantly less likely to make gains in this measure, and the gains were greatest during the Fall 2013 semester. Nevertheless, students demonstrated growth on that scale in every semester. Additionally, students made steady increases in the perceived value that they placed on computing, especially its importance to their community and daily lives. Table 2 provides a summary of these changes by semester.



Although the survey results show that students moderately increased their perceived ability to use computers to address problems in their communities, they still struggled with connecting social justice issues to computing. Interviews with the adult teachers and the high school near peers provided some insight into how the fifth grade students were thinking. As stated by an adult teacher, Fall 2013: “I think that [tying social justice to computing] was hard for them just developmentally to do. That whole idea of the social justice topic and the community…. because it is something that I think is really important for the students to be aware of and I think that the students weren’t generally interested in the topics that they chose but I just think it was hard for them to navigate and research and do all that on their own. They needed more guidance and help.” This view was shared by the high school near peers, as shown in the following quotes:

Interviewer:     What do you think that they learned about using computers to address problems in their community?

Near peer:       I’m not sure, because we’ve only done that for the past three weeks and all of them picked bullying and pollution pretty much. I don’t think maybe it’s sunk in yet that we’re talking about the community on the whole. Maybe they’re thinking about just the schools. The fact that we’re getting them to think about that even is, I think, pretty good.

Interviewer:     Do you think that’s a new idea for many of them? That they could make a difference even at their school?

Near peer:       I would say so.

 Another high school student described it this way: “We ask them: What are problems you see in your community? How are they supposed to know that? They focus on issues that they have at the house, like oh I have to go to bed at a certain time and I wish I didn’t. Oh, I have too much homework at school. They’re not thinking a larger bubble, which I understand. That’s part of life that’s all about them and what they’re going through.”

What Are the Challenges and Opportunities for Integrating Social Justice into an Elementary School Classroom?

The results suggest that although the fifth grade students were developmentally ready to identify a social justice issue and to explore the underlying causes, most needed additional scaffolding and support to integrate that understanding into their animation project. Challenges include having adult teachers and high school near peers who were unable to provide that support, and a school context in which some of the adults reinforced obedience to authority and discouraged students from questioning existing rules or procedures. The opportunities included connecting the social justice activities to existing civic education curriculum and leadership programs for students at the school.

A major challenge was in staffing the classes, which included limitations on the availability of both high school students and classroom teachers after school. It was also challenging to find adult and high school-aged teachers who were comfortable with both managing a fifth grade class, could learn and support the learning of others with computers, and were committed to following the curriculum and documenting what was changed and why.

In order to effectively run the classes, a teacher needs expertise in three areas: computer science, social justice, and classroom management. None of the four teachers in this study had all three. To address gaps in teachers’ CS knowledge, we used existing resources that were developed and vetted by others (e.g., Hour of Code) and child-friendly software (Scratch). Given that the CS concepts were at an introductory level, the teachers who lacked the CS background learned along with the students, and relied on some of the high school-aged students who had experience with Scratch and some of the CS concepts. Filling gaps in teachers’ experience with connecting computer science and social justice, or in their classroom management skills was more challenging, since both take years to develop and hone.

Most of the high school students also lacked one or more areas of expertise. Initially, few had the classroom management skills to lead an after-school fifth grade class, and many lacked the confidence or assertiveness to deal with disruptive or off-task behavior. While many were tech savvy, during their first semester they learned the CS concepts and their application in Scratch along with the fifth graders. None of the near peers had already developed the language associated with social justice, nor had they applied that lens to their own schools. However, quotes from their interviews suggested that as a result of their experience in CSteach, they learned how computers can be used to help the community or to make the world a better place.

When [the adult teacher] was telling the little kids about networks and how a network of people is just like a network of computers, I was watching him give this speech, I felt like one of the students. I also realized that I was unaware about all this and I realized that these things that we usually use for fun can be used to connect to other people that we wouldn’t usually connect to or connect to people that have been really hard to connect to. Kind of to try to change. I don’t have any really specifics, but it was just sort of like a concept that was kind of beautiful.

The interviewer also asked “Did you learn anything about how computers can be used to make the world a better place?” And the student responded: “Yeah. Like make projects and show them out to people.”

The empowerment aspect of social justice, which involved using the tools of computer science to create a product to advocate for change in the community, was a new idea and initially a difficult concept for them. At a training for the high school students in preparation for the Spring 2015 classes, the students were tasked with filling in the worksheets that would also be used with the fifth graders. At first, the students struggled to identify a social justice issue they wanted to address. Then slowly, examples emerged. One student described how the availability of food choices was unfair at her school. Her last class before lunch was across campus from the cafeteria, so she was often too late to get her first choice for lunch. She identified this as an injustice that affected her own and other students’ nutrition. Examples from other students included the need for tutoring programs for students who are not adequately prepared for college; the need to raise money to make the playgrounds safer; the need for ramps and wheelchairs for special needs students; and the inconsistency of teacher enforcement of the school’s policy about being late to class. However, while the high school students were able to identify some examples of unfairness at their schools, they were not clear about the underlying or structural causes for these issues or specific ways that these issues could be addressed.

The ways in which students engaged with social justice concepts must also be interpreted in the context of the schools they attend. In the early stages of the program, students did not differentiate between a complaint about their schools (e.g., recess is too short, video games and candy should be allowed) and a social justice issue (e.g., not enough books in the library that have stories about people who look like them). But by Spring 2015, when the social justice terms were defined and reviewed, students were able to explain why a certain issue was about injustice, prejudice, or bias. For example, they advocated for a swimming pool at school (for exercise and so that they could learn water safety), for pets on campus (for emotional support), for cell phones for students (for safety in the event of a fight), and for more science classes like chemistry (to prepare them for college).

However, despite the improvements in the curriculum and the increased understanding by the near peers of what social justice involved, the school context created other challenges. For example, students often arrived late to class or left early to do sports or drama; school-wide activities sometimes led to last-minute class cancellations; and some parents picked their child up early on their way home. Students who arrived late or left early often missed the important introduction and reflection activities. In addition, since the selection process varied across schools, students brought a range of prior experience and interest or ability to learn, and their level of commitment and attendance varied depending on why they were in the class. At some schools, students chose to take the course, while at other schools, they were assigned to take the course, either based on academic merit, or academic need. Schools also varied in the extent to which they required their students to have consistent attendance at the after-school program. Having to account for so many absences often disrupted the momentum of the class because there were always students who needed additional support to learn both the CS and social justice concepts from previous weeks. In addition, halfway through the Fall 2014 semester, daylight savings time ended. As a result, students at several schools left class half an hour early to walk home before dark. In these cases, students missed the review portion of class, which is when the social justice and CS concepts were reinforced.

There were several opportunities afforded by the school to help create a developmentally appropriate curriculum and pedagogy that was engaging, introduced and reinforced CS principles, and showed students that CS can be used to address needs in their community. For example, the curriculum was particularly effective when the teacher made connections between the social justice concepts introduced in CSteach and the activities and concepts students learned about during the regular school day. For example, during a session in mid-January on becoming a leader, the teacher talked about Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was being celebrated that week. The following are notes from that observation: “At the end of the class, for wrap-up, she talks about social justice in terms of MLK Jr. fighting for justice. She tells the class that she hopes they will find something that is as important to them in this class. She explains that we will be talking about social justice and helping them think about what it means here at our school.” In another example, a near peer facilitating a discussion about leadership reminds a group of students that they already have a leadership program at their school where fifth grade students help younger children to solve problems. Connecting the CSteach activities to these familiar examples of leadership helped students to see the possibilities of using CS for the social good.

In summary, the data suggest that most of the elementary school students in CSteach were at the earliest stage of thinking about social justice issues (awareness). Challenges to integrating a social justice perspective into the class included the need to train the adult teachers and near peers so that they understood the definition and developmentally appropriate terminology associated with teaching children about inequity. Additional challenges to connecting social justice to CS include the limited time in which to introduce, reinforce, and apply the social justice concepts, and to teach children how to program well enough to express their ideas in Scratch.


In order to increase diversity in computer science, it is important to help children see the relevance and the value of the field for issues that are meaningful to them. The CSteach program described in this study is part of a larger effort to engage young people by showing them how computing can be used for the social good. In this paper, we describe the evolution of a social justice curriculum, including the challenges and opportunities of integrating it into an elementary school-based after-school class, as well as connecting it to computer science. We report on both the strategies and the results of this program, using data from student projects, classroom observations, interviews, and surveys.

The findings from this study contribute to research on how fifth grade Latino/a students are thinking about social justice. Their Scratch animation projects, as well as interviews with the high school students and adult teachers, suggest that participation in the class led to an increased awareness of the difference between a complaint and social justice issue. This was shown in the ability of most students to identify something at their school that needed improvement, although the topics focused mostly on safety issues, which are a common focus of school assemblies. Only a small number used their project to advocate for change or to explain why the issue was important. While this finding may be explained in part by a lack of programming skills to express that knowledge in their projects, our observations of and interviews with the high school students and adult teachers, as well as our efforts to ask students about their projects, suggested that most did not see themselves as leaders who can make change, did not understand the underlying causes of the problem, and could not identify ways to take action. The finding is consistent with another study of fifth grade students in a mostly Latino/a community, which also found that few students identified the underlying causes of the problems at their school (Kohfeldt and Langhout 2012), and studies outside the U.S. (Barreiro 2013; Thorkildsen and White-McNulty 2002) that find most elementary school children to be at the early stages of the Social Justice Youth Development Model, which begins with awareness and moves to identity exploration (Ginwright and Cammarota 2002).

This paper also describes the challenges and opportunities of integrating social justice into an elementary school classroom. Based on several iterations of implementation and data collection, the final curriculum uses a scaffolding process that starts with increasing the students’ awareness about social justice issues and developing their identity as leaders, with support from near peers who live in their community. Like Kohfeldt and Langhout (2012), we found it was important to begin a social justice conversation by talking to the children about how to make their school a better place, rather than asking them to identify problems or concerns. Focusing on improvement was one strategy to prevent students from taking a deficit perspective about their school; instead students were encouraged to focus on how they want their school to be, rather than on the problems. Both feedback and reflection played a critical role in helping children to think about the connection between CS and social justice, which is a strategy that has also been successful with high school students (Scott et al. 2014).

One of the challenges was to help students develop a critical eye toward phenomena they see every day, a challenge that Gutstein (2009) also describes in his social justice mathematics classes. An effective strategy is to start by talking about an issue they identify as “unfair,” and then ask questions that move students from voicing a complaint to an understanding of the structural reasons for that issue. In CSteach, there was not always enough time or enough experienced educators to move the students deeply into an issue. One promising strategy was for students to work in small groups led by trained near peers; the interaction increased the opportunity for students to internalize the information and make it more personally relevant. However, as Scott et al. (2104) explain, culturally responsive teaching requires instructors to reflect on their own identities and cultural backgrounds, and most of the high school near peers had not yet developed their own language or critical consciousness about issues of inequity and fairness.

An important challenge was finding teachers with the range of knowledge required, who were comfortable teaching computer science concepts, guiding students through a process of identifying a social justice, and managing the behavior of fifth graders in an after-school setting. Gutstein (2009) laments that few teachers have the time or expertise to build among their students a critical consciousness and an identity as change agents, and that some may see it as outside their role. Again, it might be more important to select teachers for this type of orientation than for a CS background. Key elements for success include having classroom teachers who develop strong connections to what students are learning during the school day, and high school near peers who have (or build) a critical consciousness about injustice at their school, as well as an identity as a social change agent.

Children now have access to a growing number of digital media tools, but how and for what purpose they are used varies depending on the interest and expertise of the adults in their lives. In this paper, we describe an effort to leverage children’s interest in “fairness” in order to introduce them to new computing skills and concepts and to build their interest and capacity to use computers to create social change. Rather than just documenting the “success” or “impact” of the CSteach program, we included a description of the steps and the challenges involved in developing, implementing, and studying a curriculum that connects computing with the social good. The findings provide insight into the process through which children develop a social justice orientation and learn computer science concepts, and the conditions under which these can mutually reinforce each other. However, several supports need to be in place to move students beyond awareness and empowerment to a sense of identity as a change agent and to an understanding of the power relations and institutional structures that perpetuate inequity. Key supports include teachers who have training in social justice education with young children, access to computing tools and resources, the involvement of tech-savvy and socially aware near peers who live in the local community, and clear connections between the larger school context and what children are learning about computer science and social justice.

About the Authors

Jill Denner is a Senior Research Scientist at ETR (Education, Training, Research), a non-profit organization in California. She does applied research, with a focus on increasing the number of women and Latino/a students in computer science and information technology. Her research includes studies of how children learn while creating computer games, the role of peers and families in children’s STEM education pathways, and strategies for increasing diversity in community college computer science classes. She has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Prior to establishing the Digital NEST in 2014, Jacob Martinez spent ten years leading innovative computer-based programs in Pajaro Valley schools and beyond, with a focus on encouraging Latino/a youth to enter high tech fields. He recently spoke at the first White House Meetup and was named by Tech Crunch as one of the Top 10 Men in the Country Supporting Women in Technology. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a Masters degree in Instructional Science and Technology from California State University, Monterey Bay.

Heather Thiry is an educational researcher and program evaluator specializing in STEM education innovation from the K-12 through graduate education levels. Her research and evaluation interests focus on the educational and career pathways of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in scientific and technological fields. She is a research faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is currently co-PI of a national research study exploring student persistence in STEM undergraduate degrees. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice from the University of Colorado at Boulder

Julie Adams is a Research Assistant at ETR (Education, Training, Research), a non-profit organization. Her work includes helping with the implementation of the CSteach program in addition to curriculum development, data management, and professional development design on various other projects focusing on youth and technology. She received her BA in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2013.


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CNS-1240756. We are grateful to Ryan Morgan, Sarah Anderson, Shannon Campe, Yethzéll Díaz, Katie Roper, and Thomas Gelder for their insights and contributions to this work.


Deepening Understanding of Forest Health in Central New Jersey through Student and Citizen Scientist Involvment

Nellie Tsipoura,
New Jersey Audubon Society
Jay F. Kelly,
Raritan Valley Community College


SENCER-ISE (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities-Informal Science Education) is an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Noyce Foundation to support partnerships between informal science and higher education institutions. SENCER-ISE currently includes ten cross-sector partnerships offering a range of civic engagement activities for K–12, undergraduate and graduate students, and the public. SENCER’s primary focus is the improvement of undergraduate teaching and learning through the framework of civic engagement (Friedman and Mappen 2011).

While the formal and informal science education worlds seem far apart, Alan Friedman noted that “informal Science Education (ISE) does not deliver education like a school, but rather it provides opportunities for people to become fascinated with something they experience, and to then find themselves learning and becoming even more interested in whatever it was that caught their imagination” (Friedman 2011). This free-choice learning complements formal education. The goal of SENCER-ISE is to help students and the public appreciate the value of informal science education institutions as credible and accessible and to support the exploration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by people of all ages and all walks of life (SENCER-ISE 2014).

To achieve this goal and to emphasize the importance of informal science education, SENCER-ISE supports institutional partnerships between higher education and informal science partners./ Ten diverse partnerships across the United States are currently part of this program, with funding from the NSF and the Noyce Foundation. These partnerships are made up of an array of higher education institutions that include two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities and informal science education institutions that include science museums, an outdoor education center, a research and policy institute, and a wildlife sanctuary.

Civic engagement is the “acting on a heightened sense of responsibility to one’s communities that encompasses the notions of global citizenship and interdependence, participation in building civil society, and empowering individuals as agents of positive change” (Musil 2009). By framing higher education in the context of real-world problems facing our communities, students more easily gain a sense of their studies’ relevance and importance to their lives and the world around them, enhancing student interest and the imperatives both to learn and to take action. Moreover, by actively participating in identifying and solving these problems in their communities, students gain hands-on experience in applying what they learn, thus developing both the knowledge and practical skills needed to make them more informed, capable, and engaged citizens and professionals.

The Civic Issue

Figure 1. Map of surveyed area in NJ Raritan/Piedmont Region

Funding from SENCER-ISE has been supporting a collaborative effort of New Jersey Audubon (NJA) and Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) to monitor bird populations and forest health in central NJ in the Piedmont section of the Raritan River watershed. The goals of this project are to involve community college students and citizen scientists in a conservation issue of civic importance, and specifically to (1) document the abundance and distribution of forest breeding birds and the quality of their habitat in central New Jersey; and (2) make recommendations for improving forest health in the state.

Today, more acres of forests are being lost each year than any other land use type in New Jersey (45,000 acres were lost between 2002 and 2007 alone; Hasse and Lathrop 2010). Urban land uses have made the greatest increases and now cover nearly 30 percent of the state (1.5 million acres), propelled in large part by suburban sprawl. Significant strides have been made in recent decades to protect our natural areas from development through the public and private funding of open space, which has resulted in more than 1.2 million acres preserved. While these efforts have done much to stem the tide of habitat loss, little has been done to protect and maintain the quality of these natural areas in the face of other, more subtle threats.

In addition to the direct conversion of natural areas to developed landscapes, the integrity of the natural ecosystems that remain continues to be threatened by the physical and biological effects of fragmentation, including excessive deer herbivory, invasive organisms, climatic change, and pollution. New Jersey has some of the highest numbers and densities of deer and invasive plant species in the United States (Drake et al. 2002, Kartesz 2011). More than a third of the plant species present in New Jersey today are non-indigenous species (Snyder and Kaufman 2004), and many of these species are transforming our local ecosystems, filling in niches that are being created by disturbance and/or suppression of native species by deer. Deer densities in the state have been recorded at approximately twenty-eight deer/mi2 in recent years, which is approximately four times higher than the historical background rate. Densities of deer in central New Jersey are even higher, averaging seventy-eight deer/mi2 and in some places as high as 202 deer/mi2 (NJ Audubon 2012). The overabundance of deer has had devastating effects on forest understories, in which the herb, shrub, and sapling layers are completely absent in many places. The result is a slow process of ecosystem decay and the loss of many native species and habitat niches. Without intervention to protect, maintain, and improve New Jersey’s natural resources, loss of ecosystem function and habitat is inevitable.

Program Plan

This project involves students and citizen scientists in collection of data on invasive plants and deer and bird populations. Students learn about the principles of forest ecology and conservation as well as applied research methods in their General Ecology, Field Botany, and Environmental Field Study classes. Following this immersive introduction to forest ecology, the students create materials to educate citizen volunteers about the impacts of deer overpopulation and invasive plant species on forest health, and to lead training sessions during which they teach the volunteers how to collect relevant data. After the training workshops, students conduct research on the status of selected forest areas, looking at deer browse and invasive species in those areas, all under the guidance of their RVCC professors and NJA staff. Funding from SENCER was sufficient to hire two interns for summer 2014. In addition, RVCC students raised $1000 in donations in spring 2014 and an individual donor gave RVCC $4,000 to support this program. With these additional funds, we were able to involve four interns in this program.

Concurrently, citizen scientists collect data on bird populations in those forests and at additional sites with the Raritan/Piedmont region and also made rapid assessments of invasive plant species.

Figure 2a. Sample data analysis of bird in the floodplain forest understory at Duke Island Park.
Figure 2b. Sample data analysis of invasive and native vegetation in the floodplain forest understory at Duke Island Park. Vegetation data compares “old” and “new” forest study sites to historic data sets from the 1950s.

Program Implementation

In spring 2014, Dr. Jay Kelly developed the Environmental Field Studies course at RVCC around issues of forest health and the specific SENCER project. Students were introduced to basic ecological concepts related to forest structure and composition and learned how these can be applied to understanding and assessing forest health. Students conducted extensive field and library research on factors such as forest history, land use, invasive species, deer overabundance, endangered species, climate change, landscape context, public policy, and forest management. After personally delving into the causes and consequences of these factors, students engaged in the development of solutions to these problems, focusing on integrating invasive plant species into the citizen science training being conducted by NJ Audubon, as well as assessing the effectiveness of existing restoration efforts and forest management plans being applied to local forest preserves.

Previous versions of the course focused on student-driven independent research projects and/or more structured modules, exposing students to the process of conducting scientific research (from literature review to various types of data collection, along with data entry, analysis, and interpretation) through a variety of less-directly related community-based field research and conservation/restoration projects (e.g., community well water testing, superfund sites, amphibian road crossing surveys, invasive and endangered species surveys). The new version through SENCER helped focus and deepen the course content, providing a useful conceptual framework to integrate different course materials and giving students an opportunity to participate in meaningful community-based research and outreach being conducted by NJ Audubon. In all, this exposed them not only to the principles and practices of basic scientific research, but also to the relevance of research methods and results to solving real-world problems, and to the moral and civic values, roles, and responsibilities of science and scientists in matters of civic importance.

As part of the curriculum and syllabus, Kelly Wenzel, an educator with NJ Audubon, met with the students and helped them understand how to create lesson plans for volunteers and brainstormed with them on a design for a field manual. Dr. Nellie Tsipoura also spoke to the class as Director of the Citizen Science Program at NJ Audubon; she explained the purposes of the citizen science project and discussed what the students would be expected to produce and how to make the presentations tie in and flow with the rest of the workshop. Twelve species of invasive plants (shrubs, herbs, and emergent species) were selected as focal species for this project, and the students prepared materials on the biology and identification of these species. The students did a “dry run” of their PowerPoint presentations to the class during the lab period the week before the first citizen science workshop.

Citizen scientists were recruited through NJ Audubon membership lists and through birding groups in New Jersey. Although the NJ Audubon citizen science program has been active for over 10 years, creating new educational opportunities to engage and to challenge volunteers is a continuous process. The partnership with RVCC brings a fresh approach by allowing volunteers to interact with the college community and learn what the students are learning. In addition, people who have conducted bird surveys before through this project can expand their involvement and understanding of forest ecology by including the plant component, a new experience for them.

At training workshops, citizen science volunteers were presented with background information on the collaboration between RVCC and NJ Audubon through the SENCER grant. Then they were introduced to the purposes of the project and the scientific and civic questions relating to forest health in New Jersey. This was followed by (classroom) training in bird identification and invasive plant identification. While this is done in a classroom setting, we go into great detail concerning species identification with the aid of photos in a PowerPoint presentation, and in the case of birds there is also an audio component with bird songs. The bird ID part was presented by NJ Audubon staff, while the invasive plant identification was presented by the RVCC students.

The ID training was followed by a “working” lunch break, during which the students set up a display of herbarium specimens to test citizen scientists’ newly acquired knowledge. The volunteers were excited about being tested and very pleased to realize that they could identify most invasive plant species correctly after the workshop. Finally, the last hour of the workshop was spent going through the protocols for data collection for birds (NJA staff) and invasive plants (RVCC). Since we are using rigorous scientific methodologies to collect data that can be used for conservation and management purposes, we impress upon the volunteers the importance of careful data collection and go into detail on what this involves.

Each citizen scientist received a packet with CDs of all the presentations and of bird songs, all the protocols, and any additional paperwork. For this specific project the students developed a “field manual” to assist with invasive plant identification and survey protocols, and this was also included in the packet. This field guide is two-sided with photos and ID tips for the invasive plant on one side and the similar native plant in the back, along with visual depictions of cover classes and search radii for different target species. Volunteers can cut them out separately or print them out again in thicker paper and develop cards that they can bring with them into the field.

After the workshop each volunteer was assigned five to ten survey points within the selected forest sites and conducted surveys of birds and/or invasive plants between late May and early July 2014.

Field trips and integrated curricula in the different courses prepared students for field data collection. The Forest Ecology Interns were taught basic plant identification and field techniques for measurement of forest structure and composition in their General Ecology (BIOL-231) class; rigorous experience-based field identification of New Jersey plants in Field Botany (BIOL-232); and background on forest ecology, historical human impacts, and present day threats in Environmental Field Studies (ENVI-201). However, the most essential course needed to qualify for the internships was Field Botany, since the interns needed to have adequate skills in plant identification in order to collect reliable data. Dr. Jay Kelly also gave them basic training and orientation in the field, helping to locate study sites, set up sampling grids, and identify any plant species that were unfamiliar to the students.


Forest surveys

Overall 375 points throughout natural areas within the Raritan/Piedmont region were mapped and of these 192 points at seventeen sites were surveyed (Figure 1). Thirty-one volunteers participated in surveys and counted 3998 individual birds of eighty-eight species.

The interns collected data on the structure and composition of forest vegetation in the Piedmont region of the Raritan Watershed in central New Jersey, focusing on upland, mountain, and riparian environments and comparing forests of different ages, habitat types, and landscape contexts. Four student interns collected data at twelve sites (420 tree quadrats and 840 seedling plots) and counted 3067 trees.

While a complete analysis of biological information is beyond the scope of this paper and will be submitted to an ecological journal at the completion of the project, Dr. Jay Kelly involved the students in his fall 2014 General Ecology class in data analysis and presented the results at the RVCC Departmental Seminar. (See Figure 2 for examples of types of data and graphic representation and analysis.)

Student and Citizen Scientist Assessments
Figure 3. Self-assessment of students before and after participation in the project based on their response to questionnaires. Stars (*) denote statistical significance (GLM p<0.05). Interestingly, even though the rankings went up in every category, they were not significant for the “ability” related questions.

We conducted two types of quantitative project assessments.

To look at the educational value of the project for students, we distributed questionnaires to students before and after their participation in the program (Appendix 1). The questions asked for students’ perspectives about their personal interest, concerns, knowledge, and skills related to both forest health and environmental issues in general. There were significant differences in obtained pre- and post-project scores overall and by category (SAS PROC GLM statistic; P > F less than 0.05; Figure 3), with an average 0.8 point increase on a 5 point scale by each category.

Figure 4. Percent of volunteer citizen scientist observations correctly reporting presence or absence of invasive shrubs and herbs.

To test the effectiveness of the training on volunteer citizen scientists’ ability to identify and quantify invasive plants, we followed up and compared the results submitted by volunteers to the more accurate surveys that the student interns conducted at the same sites. We used similar methodology to that used by Jordan et al. (2012) and recorded true and false positives and negatives. After being trained, volunteers were very skilled at identifying invasive plants, reporting presence or absence correctly more than 80 percent of the time (Figure 4). However, volunteers were incorrect in their abundance estimates almost 50 percent of the time for shrubs, somewhat less for herbs. These results are similar to those previously published for invasive plant surveys (Crall et al. 2011; Jordan et al. 2012) and imply that we would need to incorporate a field training module to make those data more reliable.


Participation in this project confirmed and strengthened students’ interests in academic and career paths in environmental science and continuing civic engagement. The reflection papers show the impact this active learning experience made on these students not only in terms of approaching the civic issue of forest health, but also regarding learning and life in general (Appendix 2). All four summer interns in the 2014 program applied to do the internships again in 2015, in some cases turning down other more lucrative job offers to do so. All four students have successfully transferred to four-year programs in ecology-related programs at Rutgers and Cornell University, and several commented how well the courses at RVCC prepared them for their studies. This outcome of the project is in agreement with the studies of service learning that have found that students who combine community service and academic study benefit in their target attitudes, skills, and understanding of social issues compared to those who do not, as well as in their likelihood for further civic engagement (Eyler et al. 1997; Moely et al. 2002; Yorio and Ye 2011).

This project has benefited NJ Audubon, the non-academic partner, in its mission of protecting wildlife and engaging the public. To achieve conservation goals through citizen science requires an integration of volunteer involvement and conservation implementation (Figure 5). There are several steps in this process in which students can participate and contribute. In this project so far, these have included getting to know the audience, training participants, and tabulating and analyzing data. We anticipate continuing to involve students within the scope of the SENCER-ISE grant in disseminating results and reframing questions.

Figure 5. Schematic model of the process of involving volunteer citizen scientists in the effective implementation of conservation goals

Furthermore, this project provides a model that NJ Audubon and similar nonprofit groups can use to engage college-age youth and help shape them into civic-minded citizens while promoting new skills and career directions. This model can be incorporated into future work, for example into grant applications and other fundraising activities, as a paradigm of informal education and successful involvement of youth. Currently, NJ Audubon and Brooklyn College, another ISE partner, are developing a new partnership with each other using this SENCER-ISE model. Student interns and class curricula will be supported through funds awarded to NJ Audubon for coastal impoundment and climate research that carries with it the requirement that young adults be involved in process. This project is in the initial stages of development, but since it is supported through a grant from the U.S. Department of Interior/Hurricane Sandy funds, it is likely to have high visibility and high civic impact. These opportunities for college students and other youth are becoming critical parts of conservation efforts as our understanding expands of how wildlife recreation and involvement in activities in nature results in pro-environmental behavior (Cooper et al. 2015).

Similarly, RVCC is building on our successes with the SENCER-ISE model, developing new partnerships with other non-profit institutions working on other types of environmental issues in New Jersey and abroad. These include a project being developed with Clean Ocean Action focused on plastic debris accumulation on the tidal portions of the state shoreline, and another with Pinelands Preservation Alliance related to beach management practices affecting endangered species habitat and dune development. Each of these projects will build on existing curriculum offered in the Environmental Science and Biology programs, research interests and experience of professors, and relationships with individuals at non-profit institutions who are involved with these issues, to develop opportunities to involve students in the research and outreach needed to help address these issues of civic importance in the state.

While scientists devise methods to test data reliability (Wiggins et al. 2011) and evaluate the information so that it can be used in conservation and management (Dickinson et al. 2012), less is understood about the longer-term impacts of citizen science activities on volunteers both educationally and in terms of attitude changes and continuing involvement in civic issues (Toomey and Domroese 2013) or about the motivations behind their volunteer work (Rotman et al. 2012). There is broad recognition that the processes and outcomes of citizen science need to be studied for their social, educational, and environmental impacts (Bonney et al. 2014; Jordan et al. 2015). Within the context of this project, we found that volunteers were able to identify plant species successfully, but were not very accurate at providing percent coverage estimates, suggesting lower order versus higher order learning for these two tasks (Bloom 1956; Miri et al. 2007). The information recall needed for species identification is an example of lower order thinking skills, whereas analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of information, considered higher order thinking skills, are needed for developing abundance estimates. Future work that includes a more in-depth look at the changes in volunteer knowledge and ability to conduct surveys, as well as changes in attitudes and motivation during a project, would contribute greatly to improving the informal education value of this approach.


We thank Ellen Mappen and Monica Devanas for many brainstorming sessions and fun discussions that resulted in this work; Hailey Chenevert for her help and support through the SENCER-ISE project process; all the SENCER-ISE partners for their input, suggestions, and camaraderie; Dale Rosselet and Kelly Wenzel for guidance on outreach and informal education; Mike Allen and Laura Stern for coordinating citizen science efforts and data collection; the RVCC students for their contributions to the training workshops and the field work; the many citizen science volunteers for collecting survey data; and NJ Audubon and RVCC staff for administrative support.  Funding was provided by SENCER-ISE with additional support from the RVCC Foundation and Environmental Club and NJ Audubon donors.

About the Authors

Dr. Jay F. Kelly received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University in 2006. Since 2007 he has been a professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Raritan Valley Community College, where he teaches a variety of botany, zoology, ecology, and environmental science courses. His research interests are the ecology and conservation of endangered species in New Jersey, especially with regard to their population biology and habitat management. Other interests include plastic marine debris and toxins in consumer products and their effects on human health and local environments.

Nellie Tsipoura earned a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1999 and has been working as the Director of citizen science for New Jersey Audubon Society, developing and coordinating a number of studies that employ volunteers throughout NJ to monitor bird populations. Each year approximately 150 volunteers collect data on bird population that are used to make policy and management decisions. Through these citizen science activities, volunteers are provided a rewarding experience through informal education and civic engagement.


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Jordan, R.C., W.R. Brooks, D.V. Howe, and J.G. Ehrenfeld. 2012. “Evaluating Performance of Volunteers in Mapping Invasive Plants in Public Conservation Lands.” Environmental Management 49: 425–434.

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Midshipmen-Facilitated Informal STEM Education

Jennifer A. da Rosa,
United States Naval Academy
Sarah S. Durkin,
United States Naval Academy
Rachel Hetlyn,
United States Naval Academy
Mark Murray,
United States Naval Academy
Angela Leimkuhler Moran,
United States Naval Academy


The nation’s security relies heavily on future STEM talent with scientific and technical skills, which is why the United States Naval Academy (USNA) encourages midshipmen (all USNA undergraduates) to facilitate informal STEM education outreach events for K–12 students and teachers. This experience prepares the midshipmen as problem solvers, effective communicators, and leaders—all necessary attributes for officers in the United States Navy and Marine Corps— while encouraging more young people to be STEM-literate citizens and pursue STEM careers in Navy-relevant fields. Using event-specific pre- and post-surveys, we measured the gains that midshipmen made in communication, confidence, and leadership as a result of their facilitation experience. In addition, analysis of overall STEM Impact Survey results reveals that midshipmen’s participation in informal STEM outreach improves their motivation to remain in the STEM pipeline. This study will be useful for assessing gains made by activity educators, judges, mentors, or facilitators of other informal STEM outreach programs.


It is not a sight you see every day: a midshipman from the United States Naval Academy (USNA) helping a fifth-grader glue washers onto a small piece of metal. After the midshipman describes how an underwater glider moves through the ocean, the student chooses a launch angle and releases her newly ballasted glider into the tank. She is delighted when it travels farther than previous attempts. This student is engaged in Navy-relevant project-based learning, and the midshipman is one of many who facilitate informal STEM education through USNA’s STEM Center for Education and Outreach (STEM Center).

Many organizations (educational, private, commercial, and governmental) offer, host, or support informal STEM education opportunities (Bonney et al. 2009; Committee on Science and Technology 2009; Harlow 2012; Phillips et al. 2007).

This can take many forms such as hosting a Family Science Night, judging a science fair, mentoring future scientists and engineers, promoting citizen science, or supporting competitions such as the FIRST Robotics or MathCounts. The primary goal of these activities is to increase STEM awareness and access community-wide. In order to gauge these efforts, organizations study participant gains made as a result of the informal event, usually through the use of surveys. Often overlooked in this process is the impact of the informal STEM activity on the educator, judge, mentor, or facilitator.

The Navy’s interest in STEM education comes as a response to the military’s struggle to recruit people with essential STEM experience, especially those from underrepresented groups, for both civilian and military positions (Committee on STEM Workforce Needs for the U.S. DOD 2012). Nationwide, policymakers and scholars often lament leaks or reduced input into the STEM pipeline of future science and engineering talent (Committee on STEM Workforce Needs for the U.S. DOD 2012; Hernandez et al. 2013; Korpershoek et al. 2013; Kubel 2012).

The STEM pipeline is a common metaphor describing the ever-narrowing conduit of people flowing from high school graduation, entering college, choosing a STEM major, graduating from college with a STEM major, and entering a STEM career (Cannady et al. 2014). Indeed, the Department of Defense (DOD) “hires more scientists and engineers, and sponsors more research and development projects than any other federal employer” (Miller 2011, 42). With that in mind, the goal of the USNA STEM Center is to encourage more young people to pursue STEM careers (especially in technical fields relevant to the Navy), to engage K–12 students and teachers in STEM innovation and project-based learning (PBL) methodology, and to increase retention of USNA STEM majors by engaging them in education outreach.

The STEM Center works to bridge the gap between formal and informal STEM education by engaging USNA midshipmen in the outreach process. Education outreach involves offering an educational event for groups that do not otherwise have access to that experience, and informal STEM education (ISTEM) refers to informal learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (Committee on Science and Technology 2009). Similar to informal science education, ISTEM is voluntary, self-paced, and free-choice, typically occurring outside of a traditional classroom (Falk 2001). Education in an informal setting is driven by learner interest and curiosity; thus the informal learner controls their level of engagement in pursuit of knowledge gratification (Falk and Storksdieck 2010; Harlow 2012).

For STEM Center events, the informal learners are K–12 students or teachers nationwide, and the facilitators are USNA faculty and undergraduate midshipmen volunteers. Representing a cross-sector collaboration between the Navy, education practitioners, our sponsors (Office of Naval Research, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Naval Academy Foundation), and event-specific partners (Maryland Mathematics Engineering Science and Achievement [MESA] and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]), these events fulfill a civic need to engage participants in STEM education and innovation in order to meet national security needs. Events include SeaPerch competitions and builds, Girls Days, MESA Days, Summer STEM Camps, STEM Educator Training (SET) Sail workshops, and Mini-STEM events. Most events utilize a workshop format in which participants join 30- to 60-minute modules focused on a particular topic (fluid mechanics, alternative energy, applied math, robotics, engineering design, applied science, and others). Modules are largely hands-on, combining the scientific method with the engineering design process, and emphasize essential naval applications of STEM innovation.

The autonomy and magnitude of midshipmen facilitator roles vary from event to event. For example, the lead facilitator for each module of Girls Day events is a USNA faculty member, with two to four midshipmen as assistant facilitators, whereas MESA Day modules are entirely operated by midshipmen facilitators. They have complete control over the module setup, organization, and presentation; only the content is loosely provided to them by STEM Center faculty, and active learning pedagogy encouraged. Both Girls Day and MESA Day events will be explored later in this article.

Review of Literature

Although considerable literature has focused on the impact of informal education among participants (Committee on Science and Technology 2009; Dierking and Falk 2010; Falk and Dierking 2000; Falk and Storksdieck 2010; Learning in the Wild 2010; Schwan 2014), research exploring facilitator gains made as a result of informal education is limited, focusing on either preservice teachers, formal service-learning, or mentorships. An informal education facilitator is one that arranges resources, establishes rich experiences, and engages with participants to promote learning (Schunk 2012). Harlow (2012), McDonald (1997), and McCollough and Ramirez (2010) investigated gains made by preservice teachers serving as Family Science Night facilitators. They each found that, as a result of informal science facilitation experience, preservice teachers gained confidence in their ability to teach and communicate science, improved in their understanding of the public’s prior science knowledge and preconceptions, and honed STEM education techniques to maximize public engagement. Similarly, Crone et al. (2011) found that the training of science and engineering graduate students in informal education yielded gains in student communication and evaluation skills.

Other researchers specifically explored undergraduate science majors involved in K–12 outreach as part of a formal service learning project (a combination of formal classroom learning with community service). Roa et al. (2007) found that undergraduate participation in K–12 science outreach increased confidence, boosted communication skills, linked knowledge with application, promoted identity-building, influenced career choices, and assisted in undergraduate retention of science majors. Both Gutstein et al. (2006) and Sewry et al. (2014) noted enhanced learning, academic development, and improved perceptions of science applications in society among undergraduate facilitators. LaRiviere et al. (2007) reported undergraduate chemistry majors learning and appreciating how children conceptualize science as a result of science education outreach.

Additional research investigated STEM undergraduate gains after mentoring young women who were considering a STEM career. Mentoring involves advising others on strategies and skills in a professional context (Schunk 2012). Chan et al. (2011) found that female undergraduate mentors majoring in biomolecular science experienced improved patience and communication as a result of their outreach mentoring experience to seventh graders. Furthermore, Amelink (2009) argues that mentoring benefits both mentor and protégé. Specifically, the mentor gains a sense of accomplishment, a boost in self-confidence, an augmentation in communication skills, and a feeling of personal validation. In addition, mentoring likely improves the retention of undergraduates in STEM fields (Amelink 2009).


The above literature review indicates observable advantages for higher education students serving as outreach facilitators. However, no study yet exists investigating undergraduate STEM majors serving voluntarily as ISTEM facilitators for the K–12 community. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to explore the gains that USNA midshipmen made as a result of facilitating ISTEM outreach events. Guiding questions include (1) Do midshipmen demonstrate improvements in leadership, communication, and confidence after facilitating ISTEM events? and (2) Does participation in ISTEM improve midshipmen’s motivation to continue in the STEM pipeline? These questions can help to assess the gains made by activity educators, judges, mentors, or facilitators of other STEM outreach programs.

Theoretical Framework

Constructivist learning theory presupposes that learners actively construct their own knowledge (Kruckeberg 2006; Schunk 2012). STEM Center events are designed under the constructivist assumption that knowledge develops inside active learners through engagement in hands-on activities (Piagetian constructivism) and social interactions (Vygotskian constructivism). Furthermore, constructivists also assume that educators serve as facilitators, structuring environments for learners to actively engage with content and materials (Schunk 2012). In this sense, we postulate that informal education facilitators also actively learn from their experience in facilitating hands-on activities and interacting with event participants. Alan Friedman expressed a similar view in an interview with Ellen Mappen: “When you try to teach a concept to others your own understanding is really tested and improved. So I think undergraduates who learn to communicate science to informal audiences…have a unique experience that sharpens their own knowledge and communication skills” (Friedman and Mappen 2011, 35).


USNA midshipmen involved in STEM Center outreach were surveyed for particular ISTEM events (Girls Day and MESA Day) and overall STEM outreach impact in 2013 and 2014. Survey questions were adapted from Assessing Women and Men in Engineering mentor surveys (Assessing Women and Men in Engineering 2014).

Event-Specific Surveys

Girls Day. Printed, anonymous pre- and post-surveys were administered to midshipmen facilitators of two Girls Day events: one on October 19, 2013 and the other on March 1, 2014. Survey responses were later entered into an electronic survey created using Google Forms for compilation and analysis. Girls Day is a one-day ISTEM event hosted at USNA in which 215 (on October 19, 2013) and 221 (on March 1, 2014) middle-school girls participated, to explore STEM concepts and careers using PBL. Activities at each Girls Day include modules on astronomy, weather, fluids, bioterrorism, rockets, robotics, physics, engineering design, and others. Each Girls Day module has a lead USNA faculty facilitator, who supervises two to four midshipmen facilitators. Approximately forty-eight midshipmen facilitated the October 19, 2013 event. Twenty-four pre-surveys and seventeen post-surveys were collected on that day. The March 1, 2014 event was facilitated by approximately thirty-one midshipmen, with twenty-one pre-surveys and eighteen post-surveys being collected (Table 1). Pre-survey questions employed multiple choice or Likert scale. Post-survey questions employed multiple choice, Likert scale, and open-ended response. Similar Likert scale questions appeared on both pre- and post-surveys to measure changes as a result of event participation:

  • As a leader for a STEM activity, how much ability do you have for each of the skills listed below? (Likert scale response: None, Some, Good, Excellent)
  • Ensure that participants are satisfied with their participation in an activity
  • Deliver an effective explanation of an activity to the participants
  • Take charge of leading a portion of a student activity
  • Solve a conflict between participants effectively
  • Motivate participants to actively engage in an activity
  • Teach a hands-on skill, after being trained
  • Adjust activities when things aren’t going as planned
  • Positively influence younger children through your leadership
  • Communicate with diverse audiences (age, ethnicity, region)

Other questions appeared only on the post-survey:

  • Please respond to these items that will help us improve the activity that you participated in. (Likert scale response: NO, Strongly Disagree; Disagree; Neutral; Agree; YES, Strongly Agree)
  • The organizers adequately supported me in fulfilling my assigned duties.
  • If I needed help in solving problems during an activity, it was readily available.
  • I had adequate information about the activity and my role in order to do a good job.
  • I had adequate training to prepare me to effectively perform my leadership role.
  • From my point of view, the students I led are satisfied with my performance.
  • From my point of view, the students I led found participation worthwhile.
  • This activity was well organized.
  • This activity should be offered again.
  • My participation in this activity led me to a better understanding of a STEM field.
  • My participation in this activity led me to a fuller exploration of my own career goals.
  • My participation in this activity makes me more confident in my own ability to succeed in a STEM field.
  • My participation in this activity improved my leadership skills.
  • What are two things you learned by participating in this STEM event?
  • What was effective about the way this event was organized?
  • What needs to be improved the next time this event is offered?

Finally, a paired sample t-test was conducted to compare pre- and post-survey questions that appeared on both instruments.

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MESA Day. Printed, anonymous pre- and post-surveys were administered to midshipmen facilitators of two MESA Day events: one on November 22, 2013 and the other on November 5, 2014. Survey responses were later entered into an electronic survey created using Google Forms for compilation and analysis. Pre- and post-survey questions were exactly the same as Girls Day survey questions. MESA Day is an event held in collaboration with Maryland Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA). For each MESA Day, midshipmen stage and facilitate a full day of hands-on modules (robotics, buoyancy, water properties, polymers, engineering design, and more) for approximately 250 fifth-grade students from local schools at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Thirty-three (on November 22, 2013) and thirty-four (on November 5, 2014) midshipmen facilitated each MESA Day, exercising complete control over module set-up, organization, and presentation. Thirty-three pre-surveys and twenty-seven post-surveys were collected for the November 22, 2013 event, and thirty-four pre-surveys and thirty-four post-surveys were collected on November 5, 2014 (Table 1). A paired sample t-test was conducted to compare pre- and post-surveys. For the November 5, 2014 post-survey, responses to the open-ended question “What are two things you learned by participating in this STEM event?” were categorized and tabulated based on subject occurrence such as communication, leadership, or facilitation.

STEM Impact Survey

An anonymous STEM Impact Survey was created using Google Forms and administered via email on December 20, 2013 to eighty-four midshipmen with over six hours of STEM outreach participation during fall semester of 2013, and on December 12, 2014 to 104 midshipmen with over six hours of participation during fall of 2014. The 2013 survey had forty-two midshipmen respondents, and the 2014 survey had sixty-five respondents (Table 2). Survey questions employed multiple choice or Likert scale:

  • Please respond to these items to describe how participation in STEM outreach has impacted you. (Likert scale response: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly Agree, Not Applicable)
  • My participation in STEM outreach made me more confident in my own ability to succeed in a STEM field.
  • My participation in STEM outreach influenced me to choose a STEM major.
  • My participation in STEM outreach influenced me to stay in a STEM major.
  • How has your participation in STEM outreach influenced you as a student?
  • If applicable, please describe how participation in STEM outreach influenced you in selecting or staying in a STEM major.

Question 3 appeared only on the 2014 STEM Impact Survey, not on the 2013 survey. All other questions were the same on both instruments. Likert responses indicating “Not Applicable” were removed from the analyzed data set.

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Results and Discussion

Event-Specific Surveys

Comparison of pre- and post-surveys for the March 1, 2014 Girls Day (Figure 1) and the November 5, 2014 MESA Day (Figure 3) indicated improvement in all leadership categories as a result of event participation: communication, improvisation, teaching ability, conflict resolution, module management, and concept clarification. Specifically, midshipmen facilitators on Girls Day experienced the greatest gains in their ability to motivate module participants (10.9 percent), adjust activities spontaneously (10.1 percent), communicate with diverse audiences (8.7 percent), and teach a hands-on activity (6.5 percent) (Figure 2). Three of these gains were statistically significant using a paired sample t-test: motivate module participants, t(12) = 1.90, p = 0.08; communicate with diverse audiences, t(12) = 2.74, p = 0.018; teach a hands-on activity, t(11) = 2.16, p = 0.054. Midshipmen facilitators on MESA Day indicated greatest gains in their ability to adjust activities spontaneously (9.5 percent), solve a conflict between participants effectively (8.8 percent), positively influence younger children (5.2 percent), and ensure participants are satisfied with their participation (4.4 percent) (Figure 4). All of these gains were statistically significant according to the paired sample t-test: adjust activities spontaneously, t(30) = 3.24, p = 0.003; solve a conflict effectively, t(30) = 1.97, p = 0.058; positively influence children, t(30) = 2.24, p = 0.03; ensure participants are satisfied, t(30) = 2.52, p = 0.017.

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Originally, we anticipated that MESA Day would yield greater leadership gains overall compared to Girls Day, because the event allows midshipmen greater ownership and influence as facilitators. However, this was not consistently the case. The 2014 MESA Day event, in which midshipmen had more control over module execution, yielded greater gains in midshipmen’s ability to solve conflict between participants and to positively influence young children than did Girls Day. On the other hand, 2014 Girls Day midshipmen reported greater gains in ability to motivate and engage girls in activities, to teach a hands-on skill, and to communicate with a diverse audience compared to MESA Day. We suspect the greater gains displayed among Girls Day midshipmen was due to the large number of first-time outreach midshipmen participants for that event. Eight of the twenty-one midshipmen (38 percent) facilitating the 2014 Girls Day rated themselves as “I have not yet participated in a STEM activity” on the pre-survey. On the other hand, only three of the thirty-four midshipmen (9 percent) facilitating the 2014 MESA Day rated themselves in that category. In our experience, first-time ISTEM midshipmen tend to rate their leadership abilities lower on administered pre-surveys than experienced midshipmen facilitators. Furthermore, the data indicate that newer facilitators report greater gains in leadership abilities due to a single ISTEM event.

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The November 5, 2014 MESA Day post-survey responses to “What are two things you learned by participating in this STEM event?” were coded and tabulated based on subject occurrence (Figure 5). One midshipmen wrote “I learned how to better communicate with children and how to lead groups of kids” (MESA Post-survey 2014). Therefore, this response was coded under communication, leadership, and audience (kids). Overall, responses mentioning working with children (26 percent), communication (22 percent), and facilitation experience (22 percent) occurred most frequently.

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Midshipmen from all four events (Girls Day on October 19, 2013 and March 1, 2014; MESA Day on November 22, 2013 and November 5, 2014) rated their leadership abilities between 3.1 and 3.7 on post-surveys, with (3) being Good Ability and (4) being Excellent Ability (Figure 6). The highest skill averages occurred for ability to take charge of leading a student activity (3.6) and ability to teach a hands-on skill (3.6). Midshipmen facilitators are placed in the role of subject matter expert for each event and subsequently draw on their own STEM background to engage and lead participants. Prior training in event-specific project-based learning helps to prepare midshipmen as hands-on activity facilitators. The lowest skill averages occurred for ability to solve a conflict between participants (3.2) and ensuring participant satisfaction (3.3). This is possibly due to the nature of module execution. Children may be less inclined to argue in the presence of a stranger (the module facilitator). Moreover, module brevity (thirty to sixty minutes) makes it difficult for midshipman facilitators to thoroughly assess participant satisfaction.

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Comparison of post-survey midshipmen responses regarding effects of participation for all four events revealed overall gains in leadership skills, confidence to succeed in STEM, and understanding of a STEM field (Figure 7). The scores ranged between 3.8 and 4.6 with (3) being Neutral, (4) being Agree, and (5) being Strongly Agree. As a result of event participation, midshipmen indicated improved leadership skills (average = 4.4), more confidence in their ability to succeed (average = 4.2), and a better understanding of a STEM field (average = 4.0). A relatively weaker agreement occurred in response to “this activity led me to a fuller exploration of my own career goals” (average = 3.9). This may be due to the midshipmen’s service commitment. Unlike traditional undergraduates, USNA midshipmen must serve at least five years in the Navy after graduation, making their career paths somewhat fixed.

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STEM Impact Survey

General assessment of midshipmen ISTEM facilitators for the fall 2013 and 2014 semesters revealed gains in motivation to improve academic performance and to stay in a STEM major (Figure 8). Midshipmen also indicated a boost in confidence to succeed in a STEM field as a result of ISTEM participation, averaging 4.0 for 2013 and 4.2 for 2014 where (3) is Neutral, (4) is Agree, and (5) is Strongly Agree. As the following excerpts from the STEM Impact Survey 2014 show, open-ended responses support Likert question findings and also indicate gains in STEM application, communication, and enthusiasm:

Response 1: “I had a better understanding of some of [my] courses by applying them in STEM activities. For example, I applied some knowledge about cryptography (that I learned in Plebe [freshman] Cyber) in one of the STEM activities I participated [in]!”

Response 2: “It seems simple, but the act of teaching younger kids about how cool STEM is actually makes me think about how interesting it actually is. It makes me more curious when I learn about the simple ways the world works and drives me to do research on my own.”

Response 3: “Participating in a STEM outreach event helps me apply what I’ve learned in the classroom to a situation where I have to break down concepts in order to explain the science behind the math.”

Response 4: “STEM outreach influenced me to stay within my STEM major because of how applicable it is to everyday life.”

Response 5: “It makes me appreciate my major more. Being able to educate others in the basics of engineering is a great way to see how my efforts in school are benefiting others and their futures.”

Many respondents indicated that facilitating ISTEM outreach influenced them to continue in a STEM major, thereby supporting our hypothesis that midshipmen’s participation in ISTEM outreach improves their motivation to stay in the STEM pipeline. This is particularly interesting for policymakers and scholars interested in strengthening the metaphorical STEM pipeline in order to ensure future science and engineering talent for our nation’s workforce.

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The purpose of this study was to explore gains made by volunteer undergraduate STEM majors serving as ISTEM facilitators for USNA’s STEM Center. Driving questions were (1) Do midshipmen demonstrate improvements in leadership, communication, and confidence after facilitating ISTEM events? and (2) Does participation in ISTEM improve midshipmen’s motivation to continue in the STEM pipeline? We found that Girls Day facilitators experienced gains in their ability to motivate module participants, communicate with diverse audiences, and teach a hands-on activity. MESA Day facilitators reported gains in their ability to adjust activities spontaneously, solve conflict between participants effectively, positively influence children, and ensure participant satisfaction. Indeed, our findings correlate with existing literature that undergraduate facilitation of ISTEM yields improved confidence in discussing STEM concepts, greater communication skills, experience taking charge of an activity, practice improvising and adapting to the unexpected, and an improved understanding of STEM fields and their importance to society. Other STEM outreach programs might consider assessing gains made by educators, judges, mentors, or facilitators in a similar manner in order to better determine the impact of their event.

Furthermore, based on midshipmen’s responses to the culminating STEM Impact Survey, experience facilitating ISTEM events appears to increase motivation to stay in the STEM pipeline and improve academically. This finding is significant for other outreach and education programs dedicated to improving retention in the STEM pipeline. Further research is needed to explore whether skills honed while facilitating ISTEM outreach help midshipmen after graduation—while serving in the fleet, or later, when some of them enter the civilian workforce.


We would like to thank the Office of Naval Research, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Naval Academy Foundation for their support of USNA’s STEM Center for Education and Outreach.

About the Authors

Jennifer A. da Rosa is an Instructor of Practical Applications for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. She has an M.S. in Geoscience from Texas A&M University and is an Ed.D. student at Northeastern University. Her research interests include conceptual change and learning theory, impacts of informal STEM education, and STEM education policy.

Sarah S. Durkin is a Professor of the Practice for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. Previously, she was a researcher at Pfizer Global Research and Development in cancer drug discovery. She received her Ph.D. in Biology from Eastern Virginia Medical School and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.

Rachel Hetlyn is an Instructor of Practical Applications for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. Previously, she was an outreach educator for the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. Rachel Hetlyn holds a bachelor’s degree in geophysics and planetary sciences from Boston University.

Mark Murray, Ph.D., P.E. is a Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the United States Naval Academy. He is the Nuclear Engineering Program Director and has taught numerous courses in fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and nuclear engineering. Dr. Murray holds a Ph.D. from Duke University and is a licensed professional engineer in the State of South Carolina.

Angela Leimkuhler Moran is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Odgers Professor for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. Her research interests include rapid prototyping and rapid solidification, materials characterization, and failures analysis. At USNA, she has developed a series of STEM Educational Outreach programs that impact over 18,000 students and 800 educators a year. She received her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.


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Connecting to Agriculture in Science Centers to Address Challenges of Feeding a Growing Population

Kathryn Stofer, University of Florida


The need to feed nine billion people by 2050 looms large. While the problem is complex, increasing civic engagement around the need and the potential solutions must be emphasized. Museums are fundamental places for the public to support efforts in public education to re-emphasize the connections between agriculture and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Yet many science museums do not explicitly highlight those connections through exhibits. The authors categorized a sample of science museums across the country into small, medium, and large, based on square footage, annual attendance, and operating expenses, and took inventory of exhibits at each museum. As we suspected, we found a general lack of exhibits explicitly labeled as agricultural but a high percentage of exhibits related to agriculture content or practices. Thus, we suggest science centers could re-brand existing content and programs to address civic engagement around agriculture to feed our growing population.


Estimates suggest that by the year 2050, the world will have a population of at least nine billion people, nearly two billion more than today (Godfray et al. 2010; Leaders of Academies of Sciences 2012). Furthermore, we know that the world faces challenges of adequately feeding even the current population, in both wealthy and developing countries. How will we meet the challenges of producing and distributing enough food for even more global inhabitants, especially while preserving the natural resources needed to continue to do so long term? This is the crux of the food security challenge facing the world, a challenge that crosses applied fields like agriculture as well as the underlying basic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Much of the public support for research funding and decision-making around food issues will rely on an understanding of the connections among such basic research and agricultural fields. Museums are beginning to realize their role in assisting in such civic engagement, though they have yet to take full advantage of their existing resources to do so (Kadlec 2009). Many across the spectrum of content types (e.g., science, art, or history) are already exploring exhibits and programs related to food (Merritt 2012). However, other museums may not feel that food is in their mission, or may not know easy ways to contribute to conversations about food and agriculture or connect existing resources without large inputs of time and effort (Merritt 2012). Further, they themselves may not connect the applied discipline of food production with basic science and research, or even with their current efforts at sustainability.

Science museums, more often called science centers in their professional associations, are natural contexts for agriculture and food security issues, given their existing focus in both exhibits and programming on the basic disciplines. Such support could simultaneously encourage public involvement and action on the issue and inspire and prepare the necessary future Ag-STEM research workforce. Indeed, at least a few science centers already offer agricultural connections (“Tapping into Agriculture” 2014). This article investigates the broader potential for integrating agriculture into science centers. Specifically, it examines the existence of agriculture-related content, including that related particularly to food and food security, in science centers across the United States.

Review of Literature

From the 1950s-1980s in the United States, agricultural education in secondary school was essentially separated from science and math (S1057 Multistate Research Project 2012), and to some extent from technology and engineering. Agricultural education was considered a pathway to a career immediately after high school graduation, part of a vocational program (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983; Phipps et al. 2008), while STEM classes, especially at the advanced level, were considered preparatory classes for college (Oakes 1986). This separation persists (Oakes and Saunders 2008) and may be one reason for the lack of STEM contextualization for learning through secondary school and the dropout of students from STEM career paths. Therefore, this persistent separate tracking could be a factor in the scarcity of STEM-skilled, and particularly Ag-STEM-skilled, workers in the U.S. workforce.

Calls to re-emphasize the STEM fundamentals inherent in agricultural programs (Enderlin and Osborne 1992; Hillison 1996; National Research Council 2009; Thoron and Myers 2008) aim to address the need for STEM-skilled workers, particularly in the agricultural industries and agricultural research. Existing problems of food insecurity, sustainability, and looming global crises of feeding a growing population demand interdisciplinary research and solutions (Godfray et al. 2010; Schmidhuber and Tubiello 2007; Guillou and Matheron 2014).

Another fundamental problem thought to plague STEM education is a lack of real-world context (National Research Council [U.S.] 1996; Rivet and Krajcik 2008). STEM fields struggle to retain students and excite them about careers, suffering especially from a lack of real-world connection and, especially for women, connection to helping people (White 2005; Wilson and Kittleson 2013; Herrera et al. 2011; Maltese 2008; Carlone and Johnson 2007).

However, school is neither the only place, nor necessarily the most frequent place, a person learns. In a typical American’s lifetime, over 95 percent of one’s time is spent outside of a formal school context, and even during formal school years, a significant portion of one’s time is spent away from the classroom (Falk and Dierking 2010). That time may be spent on paid or volunteer work, recreation, socializing, or family, among other things, meaning that there is a significant influence of these social and community groups on learning (Rogoff 2003; Vygotsky 1978). The preponderance of out-of-school influence means that to truly re-emphasize the interconnectedness of agriculture and STEM, learners must see the connections throughout their lives, not only in their formal classrooms.

The adult public in the United States has long been thought to be able to benefit from increased science knowledge and skills, which could result in more able and engaged participation in the workforce (Carnevale et al. 2011) and in our democracy (Meinwald and Hildebrand 2010; Miller 2010). The majority of workforce indicators predict a further skills gap in the coming years between employers’ needs and employees’ skills at the time of hire (Carnevale et al. 2011; Goecker et al. 2010; Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century [U.S.] 2007). Further, as recently as 2008, roughly 70 percent of U.S. adults were thought to be unable to read and make use of The New York Times Science section (Miller 2010), one metric lately used to track the effectiveness of science communication for broad outreach and baseline science “literacy.” However, many adults, once finished with their degrees, do not return to formal school for additional learning.

Science centers play a major role in adult and out-of-school science learning (Falk and Dierking 2000). In fact, they naturally embrace many of the ideals inherent in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for secondary school science learning: question-driven, learner-centered, hands-on, and integrated development of knowledge, practices, and abilities (Bell et al. 2009). They also attract a wide audience of learners each year, both school groups and independent visitors (Falk and Dierking 2000). These days, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population lives on a farm (National Institute of Food and Agriculture 2015), and informal education institutions are one major potential source of adult learning about agriscience.

While students are in formal school, agriscience teachers may use science centers to reinforce agriscience learning, and these field trips may be especially important for rural residents. In the United States, agriculture is often overlooked as an explicit component of formal curricula in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, whether those curricula are integrated as STEM or separate, and agriculture may also be disconnected from these domains in the minds of the public. Reconnecting agriculture with its research and engineering underpinnings in public spaces through the context of food can reinforce the interconnectedness between them that some students learn in school, or provide connections for students who still experience the Ag-STEM subjects independently of each other.

Without connections to agriculture in these everyday settings, the artificial intellectual divide between agriculture and other science domains in the minds of the public may be perpetuated. This public divide can hurt not only efforts to prepare school children to be future Ag-STEM researchers and workers but also efforts to involve the public in decision-making for sustainable food production for our future population.

Science centers have begun to explore ways to be more involved in public scientific issues (Kadlec 2009; McCallie 2010; Worts 2011). Moving beyond simply presenting engaging information and experiments on accepted science, many are beginning to introduce exhibits and theaters that explore science at the forefront, aiming to present science and technology as it emerges, with all the surrounding ethical, economic, and environmental considerations. The Café Scientifique, or Science Café, movement is explicitly trying to foster public dialogue about these considerations and issues by bringing the public together in forums designed to encourage discussion with experts (Dallas 2006; McCallie 2010).

Previous special journal issues, including Museums and Social Issues in April 2012 and the March/April 2014 volume of the Association of Science-Technology Centers’ Dimensions, explored case studies of exhibitions related to food in more detail, including internationally. However, little attention has been paid so far to a broader, field-wide emphasis on bringing agriculture to all science center visitors and thus to a significant portion of the U.S. public. The focus on food also could neglect the broader story of agriculture and its global effects from start to finish, from research to production to distribution, with its STEM basis as well as its context that touches everyone.

Purpose of the Study

For the many reasons outlined, science centers are ideal places to start to support efforts to make explicit and emphasize the Ag-STEM connections for all of their audiences. Indeed, we suspect that in many cases existing exhibits and programs could support Ag-STEM efforts without major renovations; in fact, such emphasis may require only minor adjustments to language and framing in promotional and educational materials, programs, and the exhibits themselves. Therefore, this study sampled large and small U.S. science centers to determine which and to what extent existing exhibits have explicit or underlying relations to agriculture that could be exploited for Ag-STEM integration emphasis purposes.


A sample of science centers in the United States was created, spanning geographical and size diversity to the best extent possible. A list of the top ten science centers by 2010 annual attendance (Walheimer 2012) was the starting point for devising the sample of large science centers. To this list were added well-known large museums or centers that were not on the list due to lack of membership in professional organizations, namely the Smithsonian Air and Space, American History, and Natural History Museums, The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The addition of these centers to our list increased our geographic diversity by including Texas and Washington, D.C. (A complete list of science centers and locations is provided in the Appendix.) Estimated annual attendance, total exhibit square footage, and annual operating budget were confirmed via center web sites, annual reports, or phone calls to ensure they all had similar resources. The minimum criteria for inclusion in the list was a budget of 10 million dollars annually and visitation of at least 200,000. Centers were neither excluded nor included based on square footage, as reliable estimates of exhibit space versus total building space could not be obtained for all centers.

For the sample of small- and medium-sized science centers, an online alphabetical list of member science centers from the Association of Science-Technology Centers (“List of Science Centers in the United States” 2013) was numbered. A list of random numbers was generated at and then each center that matched the first fifteen numbers in the list of random numbers was chosen. Centers were confirmed to be still in operation, not on the list of large centers already generated, and not in the same city as the large centers. If a center was excluded in this process, the next random number on the list was matched and confirmation continued in this manner until there was a total of 15 small- and medium-sized centers.

Next, in January 2014, the web sites of all the identified centers were visited and the page that listed all of their exhibits found. Counting everything the science center itself listed as an exhibit on those pages, the exhibit titles and brief one- to three-sentence description of each exhibit listed on that page were recorded. For example, the Museum of Science, Boston, lists their exhibits at; on this page, each exhibit is listed with a title, such as “A Bird’s World,” followed by a short description, “Take a virtual tour of Acadia National Park in this exhibit, which includes a specimen of every bird found in New England.” The link following that description takes the viewer to a longer description, and the first paragraph on each of those individual exhibit pages was captured for the long description. Therefore, there were up to three pieces of data for each exhibit at each center: exhibit title, short exhibit description, and long exhibit description.

To determine which exhibits were related to agriculture, the titles and the short and long descriptions that explicitly used the term agriculture were noted first. Next the titles and descriptions of topics were read again to identify those that were related to agriculture, based on seven of the eight pathways of the National Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources (AFNR) Career Cluster Content Standards (National Council for Agricultural Education 2009).

Each title and short and long exhibit description was qualitatively coded (Auerbach and Silverstein 2003; Patton 2002) as to whether or not it was related to agriculture. In other words, was the title or short or long description related to one or more of the eight pathways of the AFNR Career Clusters? We coded each as clearly related; probably related but somewhat unclear from the limited information given; probably not related but an argument could be made for its relatedness; or definitely not related. Some exhibits did not have content that was related to Ag-STEM but were definitely designed around Ag-STEM skills, such as observation, finding patterns, or modeling; these exhibits were coded specifically as skills and included in the counts of related exhibits. The author and a research assistant worked together to develop the codes and coded one large science center’s exhibits together. After they had agreed on the meaning of the codes, each coded half of the large and small science centers.

Special Note: The National Ag Science Center

Despite its name, the National Ag Science Center in Modesto, California, does not yet have a physical space, and therefore, was not part of our study. However, since they are already fluidly combining the traditional material of science centers with the agricultural context required to address problems of feeding more and more people, they serve as an example here. As Center Director Michelle Laverty notes, “Few [students] make the link between math and recipes, density and soils, or light and plant growth. Students also have a limited view of careers in agriculture” (Laverty 2014, 28). The National Ag Science Center also exemplifies the ideal that it doesn’t take a large-city science center to bring meaningful content to students. The students they serve in their county live at least two hours from San Francisco.

The Ag Science Center’s two main programs are examples of the ways existing science content can be contextualized with agriculture through hands-on exploration and through local partnerships. First, lab experiences in the mobile lab of the Ag Science Center connect typical experiments—such as testing pH or using a microscope—to agriculture and food production by testing soil pH or examining beneficial insects for crops under the microscope. Second, their summer camp paired local FFA students working in agriculture with middle-school campers using similar hands-on contextualized experiments and allowing the two groups of students to share with each other (Laverty 2014).


Overall, of the large centers sampled, none had agriculture in the title or short exhibit description, and only four of 316 exhibits sampled explicitly had agriculture in the longer exhibit descriptions. However, fully 45 percent of the exhibits were at least probably agriculture-related based on the titles and long descriptions, 40 percent when considering the short descriptions. (See Table 2.)

Take, for example, the St. Louis Science Center, one of the large science centers examined. A list of some of the exhibits and their long descriptions appears in Table 3. The website did not list short descriptions at the time of analysis. None of the exhibit titles and only one description, for the Life Science Lab, explicitly uses the word agriculture. Yet only four of the 18 exhibits—the Energizer Machine kinetic sculpture, Planetarium, Experience Flight simulator, and Amazing Science Demonstrations—are not obviously related to agriculture in the AFNR Career Clusters, based on the titles and descriptions provided. The Planetarium and Amazing Science Demonstration shows may feature agriculture, however, and the Structures exhibit may have related content not obviously described on the website.

Of the smaller science centers sampled, overall nearly 60 percent of the exhibits are agriculture-related, even though none have the word agriculture explicitly in the title or short or long description. We also discovered that while smaller centers overall had higher rates of agriculture-related exhibits based on their titles and descriptions, the centers also tend to be more specialized. This meant there was a higher variation in the presence of agriculture-related exhibits among smaller science centers. For example, all the exhibits at the Ocean Science Exhibit Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were agriculture-related due to the center’s overall ocean focus. On the other hand, only one of ten exhibits at the New Mexico Museum of Space History was coded as agriculture-related, as that museum dealt primarily with space history and exploration.

The overall range of related content was very rarely explicitly related to food and agriculture. Instead, exhibits dealing with basic sciences or engineering, or applied fields such as biotechnology, were prevalent in the agriculture-related exhibits. Exhibits dealing with animals or plants broadly, including those about evolution, were found. There were also a number of exhibits related to skills of science research, such as observation, math, and modeling, which are fundamental to both science and agriculture research practice.


Large science centers tended to be more evenly split between related and non-related content and covered a broader range of content overall. Small centers were highly variable, ranging from a large amount of agriculture-related content to none. Some small science centers were actually just a planetarium theater, which might show agriculture-themed shows about life in space but did not indicate that this was the case. Overall, however, there were definitely many exhibits that could be related to agriculture with some reframing of existing content.

Given the existence of content that could be re-branded without costly and extensive renovation, we suggest several ways that science centers could start to use their exhibits and programs to highlight the challenge the world faces of feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050; by addressing the existing exhibits and programs, science centers can immediately begin to make those traditional offerings more effective at engaging the public in social issues (Worts 2011). Some international museums, especially, already have programs and exhibits on agriculture (“Tapping into Agriculture” 2014). Others already focus on issues of sustainability (Worts 2011; “Spotlights” 2014), though they may not explicitly relate sustainability to food production or bridge to more traditional agricultural topics.

First and foremost, science centers can highlight their existing exhibits that are agriculture-related simply by connecting the word agriculture explicitly with programs and exhibits. This could be done by posting additional signs on exhibits or components or by creating field trips or public tours on topics of agriculture, either docent-led or self-guided. For programming both in the science center and traveling to schools, educators could redesign school programs to use agriculture as a context but offer similar hands-on explorations already in place. For example, a DNA extraction laboratory experience could be set up in the context of understanding how plants fight disease or in the context of genetic engineering to produce more nutritious products such as beta-carotene-enhanced rice. Similarly, science centers could partner with with local agriculture research colleges and industries as well as with science research entities to create a special event day or adult evening science café around agriscience issues.

Many science centers have already begun implementing various sustainability measures, which they may or may not make obvious to their visitors. These may include installation of solar panels, as at the Maryland Science Center, food partnerships and waste reduction through recycling and composting, as at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Brulington, Vt., or smarter water use, as at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Prairie Ridge Ecostation. These, too, can be directly tied to the problem of preserving resources for food production and distribution. Highlighting hunger problems that exist in the community gives these efforts a real local tie, making global, somewhat abstract problems such as climate change more relevant and motivating to individuals (Lachapelle et al. 2012).

Regardless of size, attendance, location, or operating budget, smaller science centers in rural areas have much to offer. This means teachers can use any science center to make Ag-STEM connections, even if they cannot travel outside their local area on a field trip. Science centers of all types can reach out to and work with agriculture and science teachers to encourage them to see these connections and offer their students a real-world problem as the context for their STEM learning, that of food production for our future population. They could market their professional development opportunities to a broader audience if they included agriculture teachers. If agriculture teachers consider the science centers as resources, they could work with center staff to find further connections between their curricula and the exhibits and programs. Botanical gardens, zoos, and aquaria have natural connections to agriculture based on their exhibitions of plants and animals and the related land use and resource needs, but these connections may be overlooked not only by agriculture teachers but also by the organizations themselves.

While we did not look specifically at agriculture, living history, or farm museums for their STEM-related content, we suspect that there are also existing exhibits in those museums that could be used to highlight Ag-STEM connections. These exhibits could be used, therefore, to talk about the challenges of feeding a growing population and the role of Ag-STEM research in addressing these issues, and the institutions could reach out to STEM teachers as a potential new audience as well. Moreover, agriculture museums and science centers could partner in these efforts, sharing each other’s strengths and building even larger partnerships. University Cooperative Extension, for example, the nexus between agricultural research and public outreach in the Land Grant system, exists in nearly every county of the United States, not just in college towns or large cities (National Institute of Food and Agriculture 2015).


This article has explored the need for public engagement around research efforts for agriculture and agriscience—including global sustainable agricultural production, nutrition, hunger, and food and food security—and some ways that science centers can support these efforts. Adding agricultural context to science centers can emphasize Ag-STEM connections for both school children and the general adult public. Engaging the public directly in co-creation of content (Tate 2012), framing issues and moving people to action (Kadlec 2009), and thinking more broadly about a science center’s mission and role in the community as related to food issues (Merritt 2012) will all help to address need for public involvement in meeting the long-term challenge of feeding a growing planet. At the same time, expanding the examination of food and agriculture can continue to serve more basic goals of public education and workforce development, particularly around Ag-STEM research.

The world is facing complex problems related to food that will require innovative agricultural science and STEM thinkers. Yet these thinkers cannot be fully supported in their efforts without communities that provide local input and develop a continual supply of well-prepared STEM workers. As science centers move to engage more with contemporary issues, they do not always need to completely overhaul their current operations to do so. With agriculture and food issues, the basic exhibits and programs often exist and may be addressed using a less costly re-framing and contextualization as a more immediate first step.

The author wishes to thank Christie Harrod for her assistance on this project.

About the Author

Kathryn Stofer, PhD, is Research Assistant Professor of STEM Education and Outreach at the University of Florida. She researches how people gather, access, and make use of current research information, especially around agriscience through science centers and in partnership with University Extension. She spent several years as an Earth science educator and exhibit manager at the Maryland Science Center.


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Weird Science: Ten Years of Informal Science Workshops

Robert E. Pyatt,
Ohio State University


As educators, we are frequently challenged to develop interesting and educationally robust methods for the promotion of critical thinking in our classrooms. Once our students have graduated, the opportunities for them to further develop their critical thinking skills are greatly diminished. For the last ten years I have conducted informal science outreach workshops outside of the classroom setting, which I call “Weird Science.” In the discussion that follows, I’ll introduce the concepts behind these workshops and the strategies I have used to promote science and critical thinking skills among diverse audiences. I’ll conclude with some challenges I have encountered and provide anecdotal feedback from attendees on the significance of these events.

Weird Science

Weird Science workshops are part journal club, part citizen science project, and part stand-up comedy. Having previously written for the Annals of Improbable Research, I have adopted their slogan of making “people laugh and then think.” Through Weird Science I have appeared before diverse audiences including lunch clubs, summer school programs, book clubs, science fiction conventions, and MENSA chapters in informal learning environments such as public libraries, hotel ballrooms, gymnasiums, waterparks, bars, restaurants, and churches. Each session typically lasts from sixty to ninety minutes and includes a review of three to four science articles and participation in a hands-on experiment. Both parts are designed to be interactive and foster maximum audience participation in the form of a group discussion on data review/analysis and a hands-on activity. The content is tailored for either adult or family audiences.

The educational framework of Weird Science is based on training I received in the philosophical, pedagogical, and scientific aspects of education through the Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) program, which is cooperatively organized through Emory University, Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College and School of Medicine. This fantastic program combines a traditional post-doctoral research experience with formal instruction on teaching and learning methods, with a mentored teaching experience at one of the minority serving institutions in the Atlanta area. Specifically, I have covered topics drawn from Barbara Davis’s book Tools for Teaching, which was used as a text for this program: encouraging student participation in discussions, tactics for effective questioning, fielding student questions, and alternatives to lecturing. Although the book focuses on formal classroom techniques, I have found many of its principles to be applicable to informal teaching as well.

Figure 1. The author presenting a Weird Science workshop in late 2014. The caption on the image behind the author reads “Because Chocolate Can’t Get You Pregnant”

Weird Science contains many of the strands recently outlined by the National Research Council for learning in informal spaces. These include reflecting on science as a process, participating in science activities involving scientific language and tools, manipulating, testing, and exploring the natural and physical world, and experiencing excitement and motivation to learn about our world (Bell et al. 2009). My goal is to make each one a funny, educational, and informative session for everyone, regardless of their age or science background.

Part Journal Club

The majority of a Weird Science workshop is composed of audience analysis and discussion of scientific articles as typically found in a science journal club. The types of articles I draw from include primary, peer-reviewed literature as well as reports from the mass media. In many cases, this is the first time audience members have ever been exposed to a peer-reviewed publication, and I find demystifying the scientific literature to be an important goal. While the prospect of fostering a discussion of primary scientific articles involving individuals with diverse science backgrounds may seem daunting, the selection of appropriate papers has been the key to success. I have found that the most appropriate types of publications typically include topics with a minimum of background information needed to understand the hypothesis, experimental methodologies with simple designs used to address that question, and most importantly a subject which can quickly grab attention and stoke curiosity. For example, little background knowledge is needed to understand the importance of identifying methods to safely transplant animals to new habitats, such as those discussed in “Transplanting Beavers by Airplane and Parachute” (Heter 1950). Participants can easily understand the experimental design in “Testing the Danish Legend That Alcohol Can Be Absorbed through Feet: Open Labelled Study” (Hansen 2010), where subjects immersed their feet in vodka for three hours and then monitored their blood alcohol levels.   Finally, the papers already mentioned and many others, including “My Baby Doesn’t Smell as Bad as Yours: The Plasticity of Disgust” (Case et al. 2006), “Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior” (Hendriks et al. 2011), and “Do Women Spend More Time in the Bathroom Than Men?” (Baille et al. 2009) illustrate how a great subject can quickly pique interest.

By using these examples, and many others over the last ten years, I have been able to guide participants with little to no formal training in science through a critical review of the scientific methodology, data analysis, and conclusions presented in these publications. For example, when asked to design their own method to test the myth of alcohol absorption through feet, many audiences initiated spirited discussions concerning what type of alcohol to use (percentage alcohol content) and what controls would be appropriate for such a study. Participants then contrasted their experimental designs to the one used in the published report, which opted for vodka (37.5 percent alcohol by volume) but included no real controls (Hansen 2010). For the study “Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior” (Hendriks et al. 2011), which surveyed a population of six individuals as part of their methodology, participants correctly recognize that such a small sample size does not provide statistically reliable support for the conclusions drawn by the authors. The differences between hypothesis-driven research and observational types of science can be illustrated through case studies such as “Pharyngeal Irritation after Eating Cooked Tarantula” (Traub et al. 2001). Mass media articles like “Swedish Cows Make Lousy Earthquake Detectors” (The Local 2009) can be used to explain what peer review is and to promote a discussion on the differences between peer-reviewed scientific literature and reports from mass media sources. The history of science can be explored through publications such as “The Behavior of Young Children under Conditions Simulating Entrapment in Refrigerators” (Bain et al. 1958). In the end, science articles like these are ideal for stimulating discussions about the scientific method and data analysis in individuals, regardless of their formal scientific training.

While finding appropriate journal articles with these characteristics within the vast body of published literature may seem overwhelming, there are actually many resources that one can mine. Both the Annals of Improbable Research and the Journal of Irreproducible Results feature odd science topics in every issue. There are also a wealth of blogs including Sci-Curious ( and Seriously, Science? at Discover Magazine (, which highlight strange science publications. Additionally, many end-of-year “best of” lists now include odd science discoveries in their categories. Fortunately, I have always had some form of academic position that has included access to nearly all of these publications through the fantastic library resources found at colleges and universities across the United States. With the gradual adoption of open access policies, many of these articles are now accessible for free to participants after the workshop.

Part Citizen Science Project

The last third of a Weird Science session involves audience participation in examining a scientific question. It has been suggested that involving the public in citizen science projects can impact their understanding of science content and the process of science (Cohn 2008). While most citizen science projects are long-term studies in which participants play a minor role, these exercises are smaller in scale and are selected so that participants can be actively involved in both data collection and interpretation. I again draw directly from the primary literature for inspiration; previous topics have included stall preference in public bathrooms (Christenfeld 1995), left/right-side preference for tasks such as holding a small dog (Abel 2010), and whether Dippin’ Dots (tiny frozen spheres of ice cream) can cause ice cream headache (Kaczorowski and Kaczorowski 2002).

While the exact series of steps differs depending on the topic of investigation, this section typically includes a brief discussion on the background knowledge behind a specific scientific question and an experiment in the form of a hands-on activity or survey to test the discussed hypothesis. For example, Chittaranjan and Srihari published a report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry examining nose- picking behavior in two hundred school-age children in Bangalore City (Chittaranjan and Srihari 2001). As the instrument used in that study is included in the article, I would hand out that short survey and ask that any interested individual anonymously answer the questions on their nose-picking behavior. Once these responses are collected, I would introduce the publication and discuss any limitations in their methodology, in this case issues such as reporting honesty by respondents and response selection bias when using surveys. The group then discusses the results from the paper allowing attendees to compare their own personal answers to questions like “Do you believe that nose picking is a bad habit?” and “Do you occasionally eat the nasal matter that you have picked?” to the complete data set from the article (Chittaranjan and Srihari 2001).

While I vary the articles I cover for every Weird Science workshop, I conduct the same scientific experiment for all presentations during a calendar year running from July to June. This allows me to amass a large data set examining a specific hypothesis and to correlate results from the Weird Science experiments with results from the original manuscript. Most venues invite me back annually, which means I can present the cumulative data set from the complete year upon my return visit and allow the audience to draw parallels and conclusions from our data in relation to the original published study. Most importantly, we discuss how no scientific study is perfect and identify the limitations of our own study methods, which impact how we can analyze the data and draw conclusions from it.

Part Stand-Up Comedy

In the last few years, publications have appeared examining the use of humor in science communication with both positive (Roth et al. 2010; Pinto et al. 2013) and negative conclusions (Lei et al. 2010). While acknowledging that there can be positive effects of humor in education, Lei et al. also comment that some types of humor can be viewed as offensive and therefore unfit for a classroom setting. Additionally, humor that is excessive or forced may also be viewed as negative and can undermine the credibility of the educators (Lei et al. 2010). Through an analysis of video tape recordings of first-year teachers, Roth et al. describe multiple types of humor in the classroom and identify laughter as “a collective interactive achievement of the classroom participants that offsets the seriousness of science as a discipline” (Roth et al. 2011).

Figure 2. Clay creations made by attendees in 2013, testing whether working with modeling clay can alleviate chocolate cravings.

I rely heavily on humor as an instructional and entertainment tool that takes three general forms. First, many of the articles themselves contain classic bits of humor I can draw from directly. For example, in the study “Observing a Fictitious Stressful Event: Haematological Changes, Including Circulating Leukocyte Activation,” the authors determine whether immune cells are activated when participants view a fictitious stressful event by having them watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Mian et al. 2003). In commenting on the study’s conclusions disproving the Danish myth of absorbing alcohol through the feet, the authors write, “Driving or leading a vessel with boots full of vodka seems to be safe” (Hansen et al. 2010). Secondly, as I typically use PowerPoint as a method of delivering figures and images from these publications, I can draw on the extensive collection of clip art from the internet to graphically enhance my presentations. Finally, the responses from participants themselves during the experimental portion are often excellent sources of humor. When reviewing the results of our test to see whether a modelling clay activity can alleviate chocolate cravings, I show pictures of some of the clay creations made during that activity. While I encourage everyone to treat the experiments with an appropriately “serious” attitude, I see a wide range of interpretations. In response to a question concerning their favorite ice cream flavor, participant answers included “blue,” “orange sherbet,” and “Ben and Jerry’s Vanilla Nut Cream of the shimmering hills crowded among the snowy valley.” As part of a study on body hair patterns, participants responded to a question on unusual body hair locations with answers including “I have it on the tops of my feet but no, I am not Frodo Baggins” and “Only when I am around my cat.” While not necessarily fulfilling the intent of the questions asked, these responses are funny in a good-natured way and provide a great teachable moment to illustrate some of the challenges of using surveys as a research instrument.

It has been suggested that humor may not be an appropriate tool for science communication as audiences lack the background knowledge to get the jokes (Marsh 2013), speakers present themselves as elite individuals (science experts) elevated above the audience (Marsh 2013), or because humor can only be derived when the audience asserts their superiority over the shortcomings of the particular situation (Billig 2005). I would instead argue that humor is a powerful tool in any educational setting, and that these pitfalls are avoided by the organization and delivery of Weird Science. The audience members themselves serve as the scientists as they work through the various analysis and experimentation exercises. Consequently I serve more as a “guide on the side” rather than as an all-knowing “sage on the stage.” My selection of articles specifically ensures that extensive background information is not needed to get any particular joke and shows that critical review is an integral part of the scientific process, which need not include an air of superiority. Finally, humor is essential to making these sessions entertaining and promoting a general feeling that an audience’s time has been well spent.

Putting It All Together

To demonstrate how all of these parts come together to form a complete program, I’ll describe a recent workshop I presented at the Multiple Alternative Realities Convention (MarCon) in Columbus, Ohio. The workshop lasted approximately seventy-five minutes and began with a discussion of “Do Bees Like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers?” (Chittka and Walker 2006). I used this paper to foster a discussion on the study’s methods, which measured the preference of bees to pictures with and without flowers, using different media for each image; these included posters with reprints of original works, oil on canvas, and an acrylic on canvas board reproduction of Van Gogh’s painting by another artist. Audiences noted that the inconsistent use of media complicated the interpretation of bees’ preferences for the images. Next we reviewed the results from the previous year’s citizen science project “The Use of a Modeling Clay Task to Reduce Chocolate Craving” (Andrade et al. 2012). After reviewing the results from the study, the audience contrasted the published methods with the study they participated in and noted that while the original had selected for individuals who self-described as “chocolate lovers,” our population was not pre-screened in such a way. This may have contributed to our failure to reproduce the study’s findings.

Next the paper “Skipping and Hopping of Undergraduates: Recollections of When and Why” (Burton et al. 1999) was presented. The authors of the paper highlight that one percent of undergraduates surveyed report never having skipped or hopped, which the audience noted may reflect more on the selective memories of the respondents and the limitations of surveys as experimental instruments than on actual events. The case report “The Case of the Haunted Scrotum” (Harding 1996) was used to illustrate the difference between hypothesis-based research and observational science. Finally, the audience was challenged to design an experiment to test whether watching different types of television programs would impact the amount of food being consumed during snacking, as studied in the paper “Watch What You Eat: Action-related Television Content Increases Food Intake” (Tal et al. 2014). We closed the workshop with a new citizen science project examining the types of rubber glove creations attendees would make in the setting of a pediatric doctor’s office to calm an upset child. Once I recorded the types of creations made, the audience then compared their creations to child preferences in the study “The ‘Jedward’ versus the ‘Mohawk’: A Prospective Study on a Paediatric Distraction Technique” (Fogarty et al. 2014).


While I have loved presenting these workshops, they have not been without their challenges. Because of the diversity of scientific backgrounds in audience members, I have seen participants with more science experience unintentionally dominate discussions. The job of moderator is an important one and requires a sensitive touch in these informal settings to maintain a balance between a lively group discussion and basic crowd control. Additionally, while I have often found myself presenting in bars, I have luckily never found the inclusion of alcohol to be a negative factor. However, its presence can change the discussion dynamics, and I am always on guard in such situations for alcohol-related complications such as heckling.

I find identifying appropriate articles to be relatively easy, but designing the hands-on component has proven to be more complicated. The diversity of locations where I present limits the types of hands-on experiments that can practically be done. Surveys have become an easy solution to these logistical issues, but I have tried to use them only sparingly, when I can’t identify another subject that involves more active experimentation. As a majority these workshop are free, the cost of any reagents (ice cream, chocolate, rubber gloves, etc.) comes directly out of my own pocket, and a lack of external funding further limits experimental complexity.

Occasionally, I have perceived a slight air of disappointment from participants when our attempts to replicate a published scientific study fail, as in the clay modeling activity to alleviate chocolate cravings. While situations such as this provide excellent educational opportunities to discuss how the process of science is full of errors and failed experiments (for whatever reason), a lack of exciting results does work against the entertainment goal of the workshops. I have tried to redirect negative feelings through analogies to the TV show Mythbusters by discussing how replication is the foundation of science and how our negative results may have disproved a questionable hypothesis (with caveats regarding differences between our experimental method and the published study).

Anecdotal Feedback

I have honestly been thrilled with the level of success I have experienced with Weird Science. I have never made a formal attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of these sessions or track my attendance numbers, but written responses to the experimentation portion over the last four years can be used to at least measure the number of attendees participating annually. For each year from 2011 through 2014, between 192 and 207 people participated, with ages ranging from 17 to 79 years. This included approximately equal numbers of male and female respondents. I would estimate that at any one workshop, between one half to two thirds of attendees participate in the science experiment.

Finally, the success of these sessions has led me to create a Facebook group called “Weird Science with Rob Pyatt” to continue similar scientific discussions outside of the workshops by using social media. In preparation for this paper, I asked group members who had previously attended a workshop a few questions regarding their views on and experiences with Weird Science sessions. While this is far from a scientific evaluation, I think these anecdotal responses begin to illustrate the value in this unique informal education format. When asked if something surprised them about a Weird Science workshop, two individuals responded “The amount of time devoted to discussing data collection and study. I learned more about how science works than any actual science itself,” and “Science can be fun.” When asked why they took the time to attend a Weird Science workshop, answers included “Because you don’t just lecture, you involve everyone in the process so that they understand how a scientific study should work,” and “Learning and entertainment!” One final comment from a participant concerning why they have attended a session in the past, “You engagingly discuss science in a way that I who has a minimal science background and my fiancé who has a degree in chemistry can both enjoy.” I’ll close with an unsolicited comment I received in 2013 from a mother who had attended a session with her daughter; I hope it serves to illustrate the impact these workshops can have. She posted “Just wanted to let you know that you are an influence on young minds. My mom was talking about some ‘study’ she saw on TV (with a test group of one) and my daughter immediately started countering with all the reasons this was NOT a scientifically valid study. So proud!”

About the Author

Robert E. Pyatt is an Associate Director of the Cytogenetics and Molecular Genetics Laboratories at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an Assistant Professor-Clinical in the Department of Pathology at Ohio State University. He received his M.S. from Purdue University and Ph.D. from Ohio State University. Rob is also the chair of the JW Family Science Extravaganza, a satellite event of the USA Science and Engineering Festival held annually in Hilliard, Ohio.


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Figure Legends

Figure 1: The author presenting a Weird Science workshop in late 2014. The caption on the image behind the author reads “Because Chocolate Can’t Get You Pregnant.”

Figure 2: Clay creations made by attendees in 2013, testing whether working with modeling clay can alleviate chocolate cravings.

Sustaining Place, Language, and Culture Together


Our initiative involves a community engagement partnership guided by an understanding of decolonizing methodologies and an overarching goal to sustain the place, language, and culture of the Alaska Native village, Chevak. Furthermore, the Indigenous sovereignty and ownership of ancestral ways of knowing guided the design and implementation of this initiative. The Will of the Ancestors is an ongoing effort that involves a rural, community-based partnership of Elders, Indigenous inservice and preservice teachers, parents, and elementary students from a rural community located near the Arctic Circle and an education faculty from a major state university in Alaska. This synergistic approach includes the following components: teacher education, a collaborative Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and language revitalization through a children’s book project and writing workshop.


The Native American Languages Act, Title I of Public Law 101-477 proclaims: “The status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages.” Additionally, Congress made it the policy of the United States to “preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages.” Adding to the discourse, in April of 2014, the President of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages provided testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives on the need to support programs that help meet the linguistically unique educational needs of Native students while also preserving, revitalizing, and using these students’ native languages (Testimony of Ryan Wilson 2014).

While the charge is clear, so are the reasons behind it. In their work, Angelina Castagno and Brian Brayboy (2008) point out that the rhetoric that recognizes the shortfalls of the K–12 educational system offered to Indigenous students in this country dates back almost fifty years. At 13.2 percent, the dropout rate for Indigenous students is among the highest of any ethnic group in the United States (Aud et al. 2011). The statistics regarding the academic achievement of Native populations, particularly Alaska Native students enrolled in K–12 classrooms, indicate a persistent gap in achievement (also referred to as the “opportunity gap”). Often these system inadequacies are aggravated by the high teacher turnover rate. According to the University of Alaska Center for Educational Policy and Research, the teacher turnover rate in rural areas has been reported to average 20 percent, with some rural districts reporting a teacher attrition rate as high as 54 percent. One of the factors contributing to this rate is the teachers’ lack of knowledge about the local culture and traditions (Hill and Hirshberg, 2013). Additionally, the amount of material available to these students in their native languages is abysmal. This is important given that the number of books in the child’s home and the frequency with which the child reads for fun are also related to higher test scores, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (National Center for Educational Statistics 2013).

While there is no denying the discourse centered on the failures and inequities of the past, this project was initiated to provide a more thoughtful, action-driven, and synergistic approach. Our approach seeks to address the needs of K–20 students and their teachers, while preserving the Alaska Native cultures, languages, and subsistence ways of life. To do that, we have embarked on several projects, including the following components: a teacher education plan, a collaborative Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and language revitalization through a children’s book project and writing workshop.

Theoretical Understandings of Our Work

The community engagement projects have their foundation in the possibility and hope that through authentic engagement, students and faculty can establish meaningful relationships and a genuine appreciation of the importance of language, culture, and place with members of an Alaska Native community. Thus, this project was approached and implemented using two theoretical lenses: (1) Sociocultural Theory applied to science education (Tobin 2013) as a means of improving practice through research that benefits the participants; and (2) Demmert and Towner’s (2003) “culturally based education” (CBE), which emphasizes the following elements: recognition and use of Native languages; pedagogy using traditional cultural characteristics; teaching strategies and curriculum congruent with traditional culture and traditional ways of knowing; strong Native community participation in education; and knowledge and use of the political mores of the community.

Setting the Context: Life in the Arctic Circle

For thousands of years the Arctic tundra and the nearby Bering Sea and its tributaries have provided shelter and endowed the inhabitants of this remote village with an environment that has supported rich cultural traditions rooted in ecologically responsive knowledge and subsistence living in rural Alaska. Ancestral knowledge dating back thousands of years has been shared through oral traditions of storytelling, songs, and dances. Subsistence gathering and hunting are carried out using principles of harmonious coexistence in one of the harshest environments on Earth. The careful gathering of eggs and berries, ice fishing in the winter, spring seal hunting, and summer fish camps have ensured the survival of the Cup’ik people for thousands of years.

The bicultural, bilingual community of Chevak, Alaska is faced with language retention issues and with the challenges associated with incorporating Western technology while still maintaining a strong cultural identity, culture, and language. The Elders, teachers, and preservice teachers who work in the Immersion program are fluent and literate in their native language and possess anecdotal and practical knowledge of subsistence activities and ways of knowing in science. On the other hand, many of the parents of school-age children do not participate in subsistence activities and/or struggle with the Cup’ik language.

Multiple Approaches to Language and Culture Revitalization

Our involvement with this community engagement project began in 2010 when the superintendent of the Alaska Native community of Chevak approached the College of Education faculty about the revolving door of teachers in his district. Every year, teachers from outside Alaska came to teach at the school and very few lasted more than a couple of years. In extreme cases they did not return after the winter break, leaving children without a certified classroom teacher for months at a time. The request the superintendent made was for our college to provide a quality preservice education program for the Alaska Native paraprofessionals at the school. These individuals have deep roots in the community. Many even have relatives who graduated from the school or children who are enrolled in the K–12 school. This request began a collaboration between the faculty at our college and community members from the village. The Alaska Native paraprofessional initiative inspired faculty members to continue and deepen their collaboration with Elders, teachers, parents, and students. Five years later, these community-engaged projects are all intricately connected and mutually informing. The design and implementation of each initiative emerged from thoughtful conversations between community members and faculty. The initiatives include: (1) Alaska Native teacher preparation project; (2) Traditional ways of knowing in the STEAM curriculum; (3) Local atlas of plants and animals; (4) Children’s book project; (5) Writers group. Although we describe them below as separate projects, they are, in fact, a part of an integrated approach that has emerged through our collaboration. The graphic representation below shows how each project is linked within the partnership, followed by a more detailed description.

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The Alaska Native Teacher Preparation Program

The Alaska Native teacher preparation initiative seeks to prepare teachers who are fluent speakers of Cup’ik and who can serve the cultural, academic, and linguistic needs of students in the K–6 Language Immersion Wing, as well as in the English Language Wing. As the president of the local school board stated,

The members of the cohort will teach in the immersion program. We want to produce homegrown teachers with the help of the university. We support this program and would like to see it expand in the years to come. The presence of the faculty in our village is really appreciated. The cohort is taking the Western-style approach and the cultural roots of our people and merging them side by side, in the way Elder Boyscout envisioned it. This program will benefit our people, our kids. It is a model that other villages can follow. (Jeff Acharian, School Board President, April 12, 2013)

This model is a cohort model, enrolling currently uncertified Alaska Native paraprofessionals, who are already working in the classroom, in the elementary education program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The cohort has ranged in number from twenty to seven, depending on the semester, starting in 2010. While the students take many of the classes via distance learning, which allows the students to continue to work at Chevak School, take care of their families, and practice subsistence, intensive courses have also been offered on site. These intensives are run over the course of one week and allow the cohort to experience an active learning environment while also cultivating relationships with a variety of university faculty, including those in the elementary education program, early childhood education program, and College of Arts and Sciences (for example science, philosophy, and anthropology faculty).

Although both faculty and cohort members generally prefer face-to-face classes, it is not economically feasible to fly instructors to the village for every class. In the beginning, more classes were offered on site, but as students have gained access to technology and the Internet, they have participated in more online courses. Intensive courses scheduled around subsistence are offered when possible (depending on faculty availability and funds).

During a session at the 2013 Alaska Native Studies Conference, a panel that featured members of the teacher preparation cohort, school board members, and university faculty shared their engagement with the project and its importance to the people in the community. The panel opened with the voice of cohort member Susie Friday-Tall, who shared the story of turning driftwood.

My mother shared the story of the driftwood with me; she heard it from my grandmother: The driftwood is alive and it deserves to be turned over. The pieces of driftwood talk. Each one says something different: I will be a harpoon, I will be a boat, I will be a walking stick. The driftwood will become something useful. We have to turn it, to make it useful. …My dream is to see our local people become teachers from kindergarten to 12. (Susie Friday-Tall, cohort member)

This story exemplifies the partnership that started five years ago, which seeks to provide a culturally sustaining teacher preparation program. The paraprofessionals who are part of the preservice teacher cohort have been working at the school for over a decade. One cohort member shared:

[With] the support I received from the teacher initiative I have been able to take college classes. This is a dream that I thought was so unattainable that it would die. Thanks to this initiative I will someday reach the goal to become a teacher for our Cup’ik children. (Cikigaq Joseph, cohort member, March 12, 2012)

Yet another young woman shared in a spirited voice what the program meant to her:

When we all reach our goals of becoming teachers it is going to be amazing. We know our students, we live among them; we eat the same food. I know that when we teach them they will soak up the information. Our children will excel. I am really thankful to this program. We are going to keep going and the students are going to fly; they are going to be good. (Julia Alberts, cohort member, April 12, 2013)

Finally, university faculty have also attested to the importance of this work and what they have received in return. As Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education Kathryn Ohle stated,

Going to Chevak to teach Family Community Partnerships was life changing. It forced me to really think about the contexts in which we work while also recognizing and embracing the values of the community of Chevak and not those necessarily characteristic of the university community. We talk about culturally responsive    pedagogies but I did not fully understand what that looked like until I was there, interacting with these paraprofessionals who will change what education looks like for the next generation. I am a better teacher and a better citizen because of my experience there. (Kathryn Ohle, university faculty, August 10, 2014)

With four students already receiving their associate’s degrees and many others closely following suit, this is an initiative that has provided and will continue to provide support to the community by helping them “grow their own.”

STEAM Curriculum

The STEAM Curriculum project began in 2013 when a UAA faculty member, Dr. Irasema Ortega, began discussions with community members, in particular inservice teachers, about the science curriculum within the Immersion Wing. Dr. Ortega saw the possibilities of connecting the existing curricula to the preservice teacher initiative through collaborative efforts to create curricula via methodology and other courses. Before that, the science curriculum implemented in the K–4 immersion school was not available in the form of written lessons. At best, it was written in an abridged format. Previous efforts had involved a project in which twelve paraprofessionals worked alongside inservice teachers to produce picture books about the animals and plants found in the village and the surrounding tundra. (See Figure 2.) This project extended the effort by integrating the books as well as oral stories, plays, photography, and other forms of artistic expression into the immersion curriculum.

In our cooperative effort, our team shared a common goal: to design a curriculum map and lessons that address the revitalization of the language, culture, and traditional ways of knowing in science in an integrative fashion. (See Figure 2.) We also sought to address two needs: (1) the need to cooperate with the educators and community members in the village, and; (2) the framing of a curricular approach that addresses the preservation of their language, culture, and ways of knowing in science. Thus, we adopted the model of Culturally Sustaining Schooling (CSS). Given the wealth of Indigenous knowledge and its role in preserving the cultural and linguistic traditions, this approach validated Cup’ik traditional knowledge of nature and technology and allowed for three intertwined elements: culture and tradition, personal stories, and the stories uncovered in knowledge construction and use.

During the initial phase of the curriculum project, we worked with K–3 teachers at Chevak School and a cultural advisor to create integrated STEAM curriculum that was culturally responsive. The curriculum units were developed in Cup’ik and English and included both Western and Cup’ik perspectives. The stakeholders spent the first three days in the teachers’ lounge listening to stories about traditions and local knowledge. For example,

Making a kayak takes a lot of time and skill. When I was a young man, I started making my own kayak. First, I had to measure four arm lengths to figure out how long the kayak had to be. I had to build it according to my height and weight and it could only be off by ten pounds; otherwise, it would sink in the cold water. I would go out and collect pieces of birch wood. That took a long time. We do not build kayaks like this one anymore. The other day I set the traditional tools for kayak-making right here, by my kayak, next to the modern tools. Then I brought my father and asked him which set of tools he would choose to build a kayak. He looked at me and replied: I would use the Western tools; that way it would take less time and I can have more time for seal hunting and fishing tools (James Ayuluk, summer of 2012).

In this story, the narrator clearly illustrated the idea of the two rivers of knowledge and the desire to engage Alaska Native students in traditional knowledge using modern materials and technology. It was also clear that traditional knowledge included well-defined elements of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. These are some of the elements that helped define the curriculum project and illustrate why it is important that the local ways of knowing be documented and shared. The curriculum that is documented is subsequently integrated into coursework for the preservice teacher cohort as well as for science methods courses at UAA.

Below is the curriculum map that was generated during this project.

Local Atlas of Plants and Animals

The atlas project was another initiative that focused on the revitalization of language, culture, and place through Indigenous ways of knowing in science. An example of the synergy and connections this initiative has fostered started in 2013 and ended in 2014. During this project, an elementary preservice teacher and Irasema Ortega, who is a science education faculty member, collaborated with Alaska Native Elders, parents, teachers, and students to design and prepare an atlas of plants and animals based on traditional knowledge of subsistence practices, which the community members would then own and disseminate as they wished. During this project, members of the community provided valuable information and guidance used in the preparation of the atlas. Pictures were collected from a local photographer and cultural consultant and from the State of Alaska Fish and Wildlife website. It culminated in a tablet-based atlas for the community members to use as they wished.

This project also resulted in a meaningful experience for both the preservice teacher and UAA faculty member, as it reinforced the importance of learning from the community and understanding the characteristics of shared cognition of ancestral Indigenous knowledge of place, culture, and language. Thus, the atlas of plants and animals exemplified a mutually beneficial civic engagement project and also demonstrated an alternative approach to engagement with an Indigenous community. Further, it is representative of the connections the partnership has fostered toward the common goal of linguistic and cultural revitalization.

Language Revitalization Through Children’s Books

This is a project that reflects the wisdom of Elder Cecilia Pingayak-Andrews. When one of the UAA faculty visited with her during the Atlas project, she was asked: what would it take to retain the language and culture? Her answer was clear and definitive. ” Children learn our language on their mother’s lap. But how are we going to keep the language alive if the parents themselves do not speak it?” (Cecilia Andrews, informal interview, July 2014).

With that wisdom in mind, a project was initiated with Unite for Literacy, an organization working towards creating an abundance of books through a free, digital library with books that celebrate the languages and cultures of all children while also cultivating a lifelong love of reading. This project hinged on the amazing talents of the paraprofessionals from Chevak School (another indication of the ways in which the various facets of this collaboration work together), who helped translate the books into Cup’ik and narrated them. There are now thirteen books that can be heard in Cup’ik, and by the end of the project in 2015, an additional thirty-seven books will be added. Plans are also in the making to “localize” the books by using pictures from the Alaska context and then to print them as hardcopy books, which will be shared through interested Head Start organizations. This will not only make them available to families without access to the Internet but will also show the community that both their language and culture are recognized in print. Positive support from the On-site Coordinator of the Chevak Head Start has already been expressed, who commented,

We are very excited for our Head Start program to be considered to receive our Cup’ik culture’s tools such as the books you are offering. They are going to be used by our entire staff, Elder Mentors, and volunteers. And it is a bonus that the local Chevak School’s paraprofessionals are the ones who help create them. It will help our entire staff to work together to add 1 to 2 of these books per week into our lesson plans, so our students will hear and see our Cup’igtaq language. (e-mail correspondence, February 25, 2015)

While this project is still in process, the hope is that by providing materials in the native language, both early literacy and language preservation will occur “on the mother’s lap.”

Language Revitalization through Writers Workshop

The final project that is currently underway seeks to promote language revitalization while also documenting the preservation of language and ancestral knowledge of how to coexist in harmony with the environment. This will be done through a writers group, where manuscripts will be developed and featured as participant-authored chapters in a book for Emerald Publications (working title, Language Revitalization and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies in Teacher Education Programs), which is due to the publisher in January 2016. This project was initiated as a result of a UAA faculty member’s experiences with the cohort as an instructor in a class in which participants shared stories from their lives. It is a project that connects the preservice teachers with their cultural identities through stories, while also providing experiences in methodologies that can be used in classroom teaching. In addition, research focusing on the viability of writers groups as tools for sustaining linguistic and cultural identity will be conducted.

The stories of the participants are powerful, because although contact is for the most part detrimental to their identity as Alaska Natives, they have persisted in their goals. Their stories are examples of self-determination and agency, and they inform our present and future work. They are collective, they can be healing, and they will become powerful publications in every genre.


These projects, including a teacher education plan, a collaborative STEAM curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and a language revitalization initiative using a children’s book project and writing workshop, were initiated to address the needs of K–20 students and their teachers, while preserving the Alaska Native cultures, languages, and subsistence ways of life. As we continue to work collaboratively toward sustaining place, language, and culture, we find that the future of our partnership, and of future partnerships, resides in relationships, mutuality, and creativity. Together, we pursue projects that are transformative and sustaining. Such projects have no pre-existing frameworks. They are based on our strengths and on our relationships, and those will last a lifetime. The biggest threat to this and future partnerships is a lack of funding, but we remain hopeful (and we continue to seek funding).

While results of our ongoing efforts are forthcoming, our hope is that this synergistic approach might act as a framework for others working towards similar goals.

About the Authors

Flora Ayuluk is a teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. She is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM)-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

James Ayuluk is the cultural specialist at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. He is involved in many projects at the school and in the community, including the creation of a tablet-based atlas that documents the plants and animals important to the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Susie Friday-Tall is a preservice teacher and the administrative assistant at the Chevak School. She is a member of the Cup’ik Dreams cohort. She hopes to see a school where all the teachers are from Chevak and can teach children Cup’ik language and culture.

Cathy Coulter is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2010. She is the Co-Principal Investigator of the Language, Equity, and Academic Performance (LEAP) Project initiative and teaches courses in the elementary education program related to second-language acquisition and literacy. Dr. Coulter also possesses significant expertise in narrative methodologies.

Agatha John-Shields is an Indigenous assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has worked with the Chevak cohort since 2011 as the Immersion program consultant and expert for the Chevak Project. She has co-taught LEAP Project courses with Irasema Ortega. She teaches and supervises intern principals and teaches multicultural courses for the preservice teacher program and for new teachers coming to Lower Kuskokwim School District in Western Alaska. Agatha also possesses significant expertise in Indigenous immersion education, culturally responsive pedagogy, language revitalization and maintenance efforts, and educational leadership.

Mary T. Matchian is a teacher at the Chevak Language Immersion School. She is also a member of the Cupi’k STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Kathryn Ohle is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2014. She teaches courses in the early childhood program related to literacy, math, and science teaching methods. Dr. Ohle also has interests in education policy and the early childhood teacher preparation.

Lillian Olson is a Cup’ik language teacher at the Chevak school. She is currently working on the creation of a Cup’ik dictionary. Lillian is involved in multiple language revitalization initiatives such as the Cup’ik classes for the parents of the Cup’ik immersion Head Start students.

Irasema Ortega is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2013 as the Principal Investigator for the Chevak Project. She is the Co-Principal Investigator of the LEAP Project initiative and teaches courses in the elementary education program related to science education. Dr. Ortega also possesses significant expertise in place-based educational initiative and decolonizing methodologies.

Phillip Tulim is a kindergarten teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. He is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Lisa Unin is a first grade teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. She is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community. Lisa is an artist who specializes in traditional parkas.


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Demmert, W.G., Jr. and J.C. Towner. 2003. A Review of the Research Literature on the Influences of Culturally Based Education on the Academic Performance of Native American Students. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. (accessed June 9, 2015).

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Hill, A., and D. Hirshberg. 2013. Alaska Teacher Turnover, Supply, and Demand: 2013 Highlights. Anchorage: University of Alaska, Center for Alaska Education Policy Research.

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Brownfield Action: Dissemination of a SENCER Model Curriculum and the Creation of a Collaborative STEM Education Network


Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based environmental site assessment (ESA) simulation in which students form geotechnical consulting companies and work together to solve problems in environmental forensics. Developed at Barnard College with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, BA has been disseminated to 10 colleges, universities, and high schools, resulting in a collaborative network of educators. The experiences of current users are presented describing how they have incorporated the BA curriculum into their courses, as well as how BA affected teaching and learning. The experiences demonstrate that BA can be used in whole or in part, is applicable to a wide range of student capabilities and has been successfully adapted to a variety of learning goals, from introducing non-science-literate students to basic concepts of environmental science and civic issues of environmental contamination to providing advanced training in ESA and modeling groundwater contamination to future environmental professionals.


Figure 1. Call for a Brownfield Action Seminar using the Brownfield action logo that shows a contaminant plume from a factory migrating in the saturated zone of an aquifer.

Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based, interactive, three-dimensional digital space and learning simulation in which students form geotechnical consulting companies and work collaboratively to explore and solve problems in environmental forensics. Created at Barnard College (BC) in conjunction with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, BA has been used for over ten years at BC for one semester of a two-semester Introduction to Environmental Science course that is taken each year by more than 100 female undergraduate non-science majors to satisfy their laboratory science requirement. BA was selected in 2003 as a “national model curriculum” by SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities), an NSF science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education initiative. The BA curriculum replaces fragmented, abstract instruction with a constructivist interdisciplinary approach where students integrate knowledge, theory, and practical experience to solve a complex, multifaceted, and realistic semester-long interdisciplinary science problem. The overarching themes of this semester are civic engagement and toxins, focusing on toxification of the environment, pathways taken by environmental toxins, and the impact of toxins on the natural environment and on humans. Readings that have been used to complement teaching using BA include Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The pedagogical methods and design of the BA model are grounded in a substantial research literature focused on the design, use, and effectiveness of games and simulations in education. The successful use of the BA simulation at Barnard College is fully described in Bower et al. (2011). This article describes multiple formative assessment strategies that were employed using a modified model of Design Research (Bereiter 2002; Collins 1992; Edelson 2002), culminating in a qualitative ethnographic approach using monthly interviews to determine the impact of BA on the learning process. Results of these ethnographies showed at a high confidence level that the simulation allowed students to apply content knowledge from lecture in a lab setting and to effectively connect disparate topics with both lecture and lab components. Furthermore, it was shown that BA improved student retention and that students made linkages in their reports that would probably not have been made in a traditional teaching framework. It was also found that, in comparison with their predecessors before the program’s adoption, students attained markedly higher levels of precision, depth, sophistication, and authenticity in their analysis of the contamination problem, learning more content and in greater depth. This study also showed that BA supports the growth of each student’s relationship to environmental issues and promotes transfer into the students’ real-life decision-making and approach to careers, life goals, and science (Bower et al. 2011).

BA is one of a small but growing number of computer simulation-based teaching tools that have been developed to facilitate student learning through interaction and decision making in a virtual environment. In STEM fields, other examples include CLAIM (Bauchau et al. 1993) for mineral exploration; DRILLBIT (Johnson and Guth 1997) and MacOil (Burger 1989) for oil exploration; BEST SiteSim (Santi and Petrikovitsch 2001) for hazardous waste and geotechnical investigations; Virtual Volcano (Parham et al, 2009) to investigate volcanic eruptions and associated hazards; and eGEO (Slator et al. 2011) for environmental science education. These virtual simulations give students access to environments and experiences that are too dangerous, cost-prohibitive, or otherwise impractical to explore (Saini-Eidukat et al. 1998). Through directed role play they also provide opportunities for social interaction and student inquiry into the human element of technical analysis and decision making (e.g., Aide 2008).

What makes the Brownfield Action SENCER Model Curriculum unique among these STEM online simulations is that it includes a significant component of engagement with the civic dimensions of environmental contamination, interwoven with the technical investigations being conducted by the students. The BA simulation is also unique in that it has been disseminated to ten colleges, universities, and high schools, and a collaborative community of users has developed. To the best of our knowledge, BA is the only SENCER national model curriculum with a network of faculty collaborating in a community of practice. Moreover, this network has adapted the original simulation and its related products for use with a widening diversity of students, in a variety of classroom settings, and toward an expanding list of pedagogical goals. This paper documents the experiences of ten teachers and professors (in addition to those at Barnard College) who are using BA to improve student learning and teaching efficacy, to improve retention in the sciences, and to increase student motivation and civic engagement. All of these teachers and professors have shared their experiences, course materials, and curricula developed using the BA simulation in their courses, and the evolution of this collaborative network has now begun to define the direction that BA is taking. Currently the network consists of environmental scientists, an environmental engineer, a sociologist, geologist, GIS specialist, a smart growth and landscape architect, and high school science teachers, all sharing the goal of teaching science from the perspective of promoting civic engagement and building a sustainable society. Team members have developed course content specific to their individual fields of expertise and have made their course materials available to the community. The goals of this collaborative network also include telling the story of the dissemination of BA and thereby encouraging the dissemination of other successful SENCER model curricula. Ongoing efforts are being made to expand the BA network, especially among the hydrogeologic, brownfield, and environmental site assessment community. The BA SENCER Team has also begun to develop BA for use in online education.

The purpose of this paper is to present the collective experiences of the college and university faculty and high school teachers who have incorporated the BA simulation and curriculum into their courses. The experiences using BA reported here demonstrate how the BA simulation can be adapted for use, in whole or in part, for a wide range of student capabilities, and the authors describe how BA affected student learning and satisfaction. The descriptions that follow include applications of the BA simulation to environmental instruction at the high school level (Liddicoat, Miccio, Greenbaum), to the fundamentals of hydrology and environmental site assessments at an introductory to intermediate undergraduate level (Bennington, Graham), and to training both undergraduate and graduate students in advanced courses in hydrology and environmental remediation (Lemke, Lampoousis, Datta, Kney). Although many of the applications reported here apply to courses in STEM curricula, BA is not restricted in its utility to teaching students with advanced STEM skills. Rather, BA has proven to be equally effective whether it is used to introduce non-science-literate students to basic concepts of environmental science and basic civic issues of environmental contamination or to provide advanced training in environmental site assessments and to model groundwater contamination to future environmental professionals.

Figure 2. Data can be obtained for surface and bedrock topography, water table, water chemistry, soil characteristics, and vegetation, as well as data from tools like soil, gas, seismic reflection and refraction, metal detection and magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and drilling.

For interested instructors, information about BA and a guided walkthrough of the simulation can be found at By contacting the lead author (Bower), one can obtain a username and password to access the simulation, see the library of documents, maps, and images related to the simulation and its use in the classroom, and visit the “User Homepages” where the authors from the collaborative network describe their use of BA in more detail than is done in this paper and provide additional documents and maps. These instructors have expanded the pedagogy of BA by utilizing the simulation in unique ways and in contributing new curriculum. In the “User Homepages,” new or potential users can find an instructor whose use of BA parallels their own, begin a dialogue, and become part of the collaborative network.

Teaching High School Students the Fundamentals of Environmental Science

Joseph Liddicoat, Barnard College

Using the interactive, web-based Brownfield Action simulation, a total of 48 public high school students from the five boroughs of New York City who were enrolled in the Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF) were taught environmental science in a way that combines scientific expertise, constructivist education philosophy, and multimedia during 12-week programs in the fall of 2009, 2010, and 2011 at Barnard College. In the BA simulation, the students formed geotechnical consulting companies, conducted environmental site assessment investigations, and worked collaboratively with Barnard faculty, staff, and student mentors to solve a problem in environmental forensics. The BA simulation contains interdisciplinary scientific and social information that is integrated within a digital learning environment in ways that encouraged the students to construct their knowledge as they learned by doing. As such, the approach improved the depth and coherence of students’ understanding of the course material.

In Barnard’s partnership with HEAF, BA was used in modular form to gather physical evidence and historical background on a suspected contamination event (i.e., leakage of gasoline from an underground storage tank) that resulted in the contamination of the aquifer in a fictitious municipality, Moraine Township. The HEAF students assumed the role of environmental consulting firms with a fixed budget to accumulate evidence about a parcel of land intended for a commercial shopping mall and to report the feasibility of using the property for that purpose. Through the integration of maps, documents, videos, and an extensive network of scientific data, the students in teams of three and working with a Barnard undergraduate mentor engaged with a virtual town of residents, business owners, and local government officials as well as a suite of geophysical testing tools in the simulation. Like real-world environmental consultants, students had to develop and apply expertise from a wide range of fields, including environmental science and engineering as well as journalism, medicine, public health, law, civics, economics, and business management. The overall objective was for the students to gain an unprecedented appreciation of the complexity, ambiguity, and risk involved in investigating and remediating environmental problems.

The Barnard undergraduate mentors were familiar with BA from doing the simulation as part of an introductory science course. The mentoring included weekly assistance with writing and mathematical exercises, and guidance in writing a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment report that was required of each HEAF student. Assessment of the program included weekly journals reviewed by one of us (RK) at Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. The student mentors also provided information throughout the program on the progress of the students and their role in the program.

Overall, the students responded well to computer-based learning, especially the students who perceived themselves to be visual learners. Videos were especially effective in the instruction, as were hands-on laboratory activities (e.g., sieving of sand, permeability measurement exercise, measuring movement of a fictitious underground plume in a water model) as evidenced by open-ended journal responses from the students. One additional activity mentioned by nearly every participating student was the weekend retreat to Black Rock Forest, a 3,830-acre second-growth forest near West Point, NY, which Barnard helps to support. This retreat provided the HEAF students an opportunity to interact informally with each other and the HEAF staff, their mentors, and the Barnard instructors. Those two days allowed immersion in topics about geology, biology, botany, and ecology that the students did not encounter in the urban environment they lived in. As the 12-week program progressed, students frequently expressed their concern about gas stations in their neighborhood, which is a potential form of brownfield known to all of them. An indication of sustained interest in the program was the high percentage of student attendance, considering the students’ sometimes difficult commute on public transportation from the five boroughs to Barnard within an hour of when they were dismissed from their high school. Average weekly attendance was 91% in year one, 98% in year two, and 92% in year three. Recommendations made by student mentors based on their experiences with the program include the suggestion that the mentors be utilized more fully in the instructional process to allow them to provide more context and other scaffolding support during group work time. This would allow for less large group lecturing and more peer instruction, as participants reported benefitting more from structured group time with mentor guidance than from the full group lecture components of the curriculum.

Briane Sorice Miccio, Professional Children’s School

Brownfield Action has been used for four years in a high school Environmental Science class consisting of students in grades 10, 11, and 12. The class met 40 minutes each day, five days a week for seven weeks. During this time, the students investigated the gasoline plume emanating from the BTEX gas station and then wrote a Phase II ESA.

BA has been an invaluable tool in demonstrating many of the concepts covered in the curriculum. It has given the students a “hands-on” opportunity to put into practice the topics and skills they have learned. They were able to study a number of concepts, including groundwater movement (porosity, permeability, D’Arcy’s Law), topography and contour mapping, and the chemical and physical properties of gasoline, while simultaneously experiencing how the knowledge of these concepts can be applied in a real-world situation. There was also an in-class demonstration of the movement of a contamination plume through a cross section of an aquifer, as well as a sediment size analysis using sieves to separate a sediment sample “taken” from the ground near the BTEX gas station. Students were able to physically see the different components of sediment and relate the different sized particles to the speed with which groundwater, and any inclusive contamination, is able to flow. With BA, students are able to learn, apply their knowledge in an ongoing interdisciplinary exercise, and see how all of these separate concepts taught in environmental science class tie together in the real world.

The Environmental Science course has been taught for seven years with BA being used for the past four years. BA made a tremendous difference, satisfying both the goals of the curriculum as well as enhancing student interest. Students are given the opportunity to investigate the environmental, social, and economic issues facing a community that is forced to deal with a brownfield and contamination of the local environment. New York City has over 40,000 brownfield sites, many of which are unknown to its residents. When students who live in the city work with BA, whose narrative deals with the ramifications of contamination in a small town, they are able to gain a better understanding of the magnified ramifications in a larger city. This, in turn, will make them socially aware of the effects of a brownfield on the people surrounding it.

Typically, students execute the “learn and apply process,” where they learn in class and apply these concepts to a one-time lab exercise and exam before moving on to the next topic. However, with BA, the students are enthusiastic about applying what they have learned in a more interesting, realistic, and interactive format. Since the implementation of BA, students have been more receptive, and it has sparked more questions and comments than ever before. The students’ questions have also demonstrated a deeper understanding of the subject matter than with traditional textbook work. The students are also able to incorporate problem-solving skills, exercise leadership skills and management strategies, and work collaboratively. Moreover, they are able to recognize the social and economic ramifications of pollution. In addition, BA’s demonstration of the work of an environmental site investigator has, on more than one occasion, inspired students of mine to pursue the field of environmental science in college. Since my students are all college bound, the fact that Brownfield Action inspires interest in this field, particularly now when we need the next generation to be environmentally conscious, is gratifying and demonstrates the value of Brownfield Action within a high school curriculum.

Bess Greenbaum, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School

Columbia Grammar & Prep is a private K-12 school in Manhattan, NY. The Brownfield Action simulation was utilized in two sections of the yearlong environmental science elective course, open to juniors and seniors. (One section had nine students; the other had 14. All of the 23 students were in either 11th or 12th grade, except for one in 10th grade). The high school students investigated the gasoline plume and associated drinking water well contamination portion of BA simulation. The goal of the project was to engage the students in some real methodologies used to detect and delineate contaminant plumes.

Students completed the investigation in teams of two or three over seven weeks. Groups were chosen by the instructor, who had, at this point, a fairly good sense of each student’s ability and motivation level. In order to avoid the common pitfall of one student in the group doing all the work, students were grouped according to similar ability and motivation levels. This was a successful tactic. First, students were introduced to the concepts of brownfields and superfund sites. Then, they were shown how to log onto and navigate the BA computer simulation and the features for each new test. The students found the online interface to be very user-friendly.

Each team conducted tests and made maps of the gasoline plume, but each student was responsible for submitting their own final four- to six-page report along with four hard-copy maps. One map was a basic site map, and three were topographic maps of the site highlighting different data: surface topography, bedrock topography, and water table elevations. Students utilized two tests for contamination provided in the simulation: soil gas sampling and analysis and drill/push testing. Prior to conducting these tests, the instructor spent two or three class periods discussing with the students the major components and characteristics of gasoline. Students discovered that gasoline is a mixture of many substances, each with its own physical and chemical properties. We discussed that gasoline contained floating, volatile, and water soluble parts. For this investigation, we focused on two tests for the presence of gasoline provided in the simulation. First, the Soil Gas Sampling and Analysis (SGSA) tested for hexane, a volatile component found in the air pockets of the soil. The second test detected the presence or absence of benzene, a water-soluble component. Once the presence of hexane in the soil was confirmed, students used the Drilling and Direct Push test to see if there was any benzene in the groundwater. Students learned that the tests were performed in this order because it was financially practical; if gasoline had not been present in the soil, it would have likely been wasteful to perform the more expensive and time-consuming test on the groundwater. The final report submitted by each student had three main parts: (1) a summary letter to the EPA outlining reasons for, and results of, their investigation; (2) a description of investigation methods, testing procedures, and data; and (3) analysis and interpretation of the data.

Students varied widely in their spatial visualization abilities. Some were quite challenged by creating and understanding the meaning of the hand-drawn topographic maps. While tedious, this tactile and methodical process improved student understanding of mapping; however, comprehending the meaning of the aerial view of the plot of the hexane data (from soil gas measurements) and the cross-sectional view of the benzene data in the groundwater contaminant plume was not so obvious for some. The concept that each contamination map represented a different orientation (either cross-section or aerial view) of the contaminant plume was repeatedly emphasized. Students understood why there was a need to test for a volatile compound (hexane) in the soil and a soluble one (benzene) in the water table, but their understanding of sediment properties and the movement of groundwater was simplistic.

The BA simulation was a good classroom experience. Based on observations, students enjoyed the self-paced group work. Two adjustments for future use are suggested. First, introduce exercises in spatial orientation earlier on in the year. This would help students grasp the concept of topographic maps more easily, and they would be better equipped to identify and draw contour lines based on elevation points. Second, the experience could be enhanced with hands-on demonstrations of sediment size class and porosity/permeability of different sediments. These adjustments would likely allow students to take a more independent role in the investigation, and require less instructor guidance as they investigate the task at hand.

Although students were given a budget, the focus was on completing the Phase II investigation—regardless of cost. Some students were initially mindful of how much each test cost, but once they knew that it did not really matter how much they spent, they no longer paid attention to this feature of the simulation. Students did, however, take advantage of the Moraine township history and interviews with the citizens in order to make their final assessment and report. Another tactic that might improve student autonomy and the BA experience would be to have them work together to figure out the most logical order of steps to take in the investigation process. A class discussion of crime shows or A Civil Action would facilitate this. Once they reach consensus on a logical way to carry out the investigation, they could be introduced to the simulation’s tools.

Teaching Environmental Science Students Fundamentals of Hydrology and Environmental Site Assessment

Bret Bennington, Hofstra University

Brownfield Action (BA) is used throughout the entire semester in both an undergraduate hydrology course (Hydrology 121) and a graduate hydrogeology course (Hydrogeology 674). These are combined lecture/laboratory courses taken by students pursuing degrees in geology, environmental science, or sustainability studies, most of whom are motived by an interest in applying science to solving environmental problems but who have little prior experience in groundwater science. Students are assigned to groups of three or four to form consulting teams. Teams are provided class time each week during laboratory to meet and coordinate online work performed individually outside of class hours. Students use the simulation to conduct a Phase I ESA (Environmental Site Assessment), and each group is required to make a presentation to the rest of the class detailing their findings and to submit a Phase I ESA report midway through the term. During the second half of the semester the teams work on a Phase II investigation. Final group presentations communicating the results of the Phase II investigation are made at the end of the term, and each student is required to submit an individual Phase II ESA report for evaluation. Students use critical feedback from the assessment of the Phase I materials to improve their Phase II presentation and reports.

A useful attribute of the BA simulation is that important hydrologic concepts introduced in lectures and labs can be incorporated into different stages of the online BA investigation, providing students the opportunity to practice applying these concepts in realistic, problem-solving activities. For example, in one laboratory exercise, students measure the porosity and hydraulic conductivity of a sediment sample obtained (hypothetically) from the abandoned Self-Lume factory site in the BA simulation. In another exercise, students learn how to calculate the direction and magnitude of a hydraulic gradient from hydraulic head data collected from monitoring wells. As part of their Phase I and Phase II investigations, students use these sedimentological measurements and groundwater analytical methods, in combination with data obtained in the online simulation, to calculate flow volume and seepage velocity beneath the Self-Lume site to assess potential impacts to the town water supply well. Students must also incorporate into their investigations knowledge of groundwater law and the regulations and standards governing environmental investigations, methods of aquifer testing and analysis, and the behavior of different forms of groundwater contaminants. To complete their ESA investigations within the BA simulation, students are thus required to integrate a wide range of data, methods, and concepts learned across the course.

Navigating the BA simulation also introduces students to the different components of civil government and the variety of agencies and departments involved in regulating and maintaining public health and groundwater quality. Students are drawn into the simulation by the authenticity of the online world provided, which is supported by realistic, richly detailed documents, newspaper articles, videos, and video and text interviews with public officials. It is a revelation to most students that so much useful information on potential environmental problems can be obtained just from interviews and municipal documents. In addition, the BA simulation provides many opportunities for students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as professional and technical skills, most importantly the ability to interpret, summarize, and effectively communicate technical information. As part of their course requirements, students must produce two formal, professionally written and formatted technical reports, and one informal and one formal oral presentation, and they must draft topographic, water table, and bedrock contour maps, as well as maps summarizing data from different aquifer tests and analyses. Finally, students gain valuable experience working cooperatively as part of a team focused on solving problems on time and within a reasonable budget. (Student teams are billed for all activities within the simulation and are assessed on how cost-effective their investigations are.)

Figure 3. Average student responses to questions asking them to rate the effectiveness of the Brownfield Action simulation for aiding student learning. Responses ranged from 1 (most negative) to 10 (most positive). Error bars indicate average +/- one standard deviation.

In the past year and a half students were surveyed to determine their perceptions of the effectiveness of BA as a teaching tool. Student response to the BA simulation has been overwhelmingly positive, with a large majority of students indicating that BA was successful in facilitating student learning and providing experience with data analysis, interpretation, and problem solving (see Figure 3). More recently, in the fall of 2013, a SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) instrument was deployed in the Hydrology 121 course at Hofstra University (nineteen undergraduate geology and environmental resources majors) to assess student gains in understanding and skills derived from their experiences with the semester environmental site assessment project built around the Brownfield Action simulation. Results from this assessment indicate moderate to large gains in understanding of course content (Figure 4) and relevant cognitive skills (Figure 5) learned and practiced while working with the BA simulation.

Figure 4: Changes from the beginning to the end of the semester in the mean d Mean) and standard deviation (d Std dev)value of responses to questions asking students to rate their understanding of environmental and hydrologic concepts learned in the course working with the Brownfield Action simulation. An increase in the mean of the responses indicates a gain in understanding relative to a 5 point scale. A decrease in the standard deviation value indicates greater agreement among student responses.

Many students report that BA increased their interest in pursuing hydrogeology and environmental consulting as a career (although some have also indicated that they learned from using BA that this was not the career path for them). Students have also reported that knowledge and experience of how to conduct Phase I and Phase II ESA investigations obtained through the BA simulation have been a very positive factor in interviews for jobs in environmental consulting. As one student wrote, “The Brownfield Action simulation not only helped me define a career goal, but it also helped me land a job in the environmental field. The skills and knowledge I gained through the simulation not only made my résumé look stronger to future employers but it allowed me to impress interviewers through conversation. Many potential employers were impressed by the fact that I knew enough about federal regulations and environmental concepts to even just carry on a discussion about Environmental Site Assessments.”

Figure 5. Changes from the beginning to the end of the semester in the man (d Mean) and standard deviation (d Std dev) value of responses to questions asking students to rate their ability to apply academic skills learned or practiced in the course working with the Brownfield Action simulation. An increase in the mean of the responses indicates a gain in ability relative to a 5 point scale. A decrease in the standard deviation value indicates greater agreement among student responses.

The BA simulation has proven to be an effective teaching tool for three main reasons. It recreates the ambiguity of real-world problem solving by providing students with an open-ended set of environmental problems, and it requires that they apply what they have learned in the classroom without ever being told exactly what to do. It provides a richly detailed and realistic virtual world that students find interesting and that engages their curiosity by presenting them with realistic environmental problems to solve. Finally, the BA simulation provides a framework for demonstrating key concepts developed in hydrology/hydrogeology courses. Because much of the lecture instruction in these courses involves the mathematical analysis of groundwater flow, the students benefit from being able to apply concepts such as hydraulic conductivity, hydraulic gradient, hydraulic head, and seepage velocity to solve applied problems within the framework of the BA simulation. This helps the students to better understand these concepts, and it greatly increases their interest and engagement in hydrogeology. Students routinely comment on how much they enjoy working in the simulation and it has inspired a number of students to pursue careers in environmental consulting and groundwater remediation.

Tamara Graham, Haywood Community College

Haywood Community College serves a predominantly rural community in the Appalachian Mountains roughly one-half hour west of Asheville, North Carolina. Haywood’s Low Impact Development (LID) Program was launched in 2009 to provide workforce training and resources to foster more sustainable development in the region. Though the LID Program is relatively new, it is part of the College’s highly regarded Natural Resources Management Department, which has offered two-year associate degrees and professional certificates in Forestry, Horticulture, and Fish and Wildlife for more than 40 years. The LID Program complements these established programs by offering students the opportunity to study innovative strategies for mitigating the impact of development on natural systems, particularly the hydrologic cycle.

LID 230, The Remediation of Impacted Sites, is a required course in the LID Program that surveys issues related to environmental contamination from the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century to contemporary 21st-century brownfields remediation programs:

This course is designed to familiarize students with various scale remediation projects to enhance understanding of the role environmental repair has in sustainable development. Emphasis will be placed on case studies that cover soil and water remediation efforts necessitated by residential, commercial, industrial, governmental, and agricultural activity. Upon completion, students will be able to discuss and utilize the tools and technologies used in a variety of soil and water remediation projects. (Course description fromHCC Catalog & Handbook )

From the perspective of LID, the remediation of brownfield sites offers communities perhaps the greatest return on investment in terms of sustainability. Brownfields are among the most contaminated sites environmentally, and their remediation spurs reinvestment in otherwise dilapidated urban areas, creating walkable, vibrant spaces for living and working where infrastructure already exists, rather than necessitating further encroachment of development on rural land or “greenfields.”

In addition to a Brownfield Action (BA) training seminar held at Barnard College, the BA website contains a User Section with curriculum resources that have been have been an invaluable, engaging resource for developing Haywood’s LID 230 course. In the spring semester of 2011 and 2012, BA resources were first introduced at approximately week five of the sixteen-week semester course, with a close reading of A Civil Action. The shared curricula and resources, such as reading guides made available in the BA User Section, provided students with compelling historical background on the origins of current brownfields programs. Building on this foundation, in the final third of the semester students worked in small teams with the simulation to develop a Phase I ESA Report and supporting topographic and inventory maps. The BA video interviews, narrative, and interactive simulation piqued student interest and facilitated understanding of the complex, interdisciplinary, even labyrinthine nature of environmental remediation. Site exploration afforded by the simulation allowed LID students to work at their own pace to cultivate attention to detail (careful detective work) while simultaneously being mindful of the bigger picture. Coupled with students’ study of case studies of local remediation projects, the simulation effectively conveyed the complex and interrelated political, environmental, economic, and social factors at issue in environmentally contaminated sites and the necessity of collaboration among diverse entities to facilitate remediation and reuse.

Rather than appearing trite in the face of the somber topic, the playful nature of the simulation, with myriad puns and entertaining diversions woven through the narrative, helped to engage students and demystify the otherwise intimidating content. The fear of the effects of environmental contamination and intimidation regarding the process are perhaps the largest factors hindering collaborative public and private action to remediate sites. The BA simulation effectively addresses these barriers through its appealing, approachable format, effectively fostering collaboration among students to address complex problems and work toward solutions.

The BA simulation has provided an engaging learning opportunity for HCC’s students. Several LID graduates have obtained employment with local and regional planning agencies, where their experience with the BA simulation has proven invaluable in addressing complex brownfields projects in their respective communities. HCC appreciates the opportunity to integrate this innovative simulation into our curriculum and is eager to assist Barnard College in expanding its access as an educational resource to further sustainable development goals in the region.

Douglas M. Thompson, Connecticut College

The Brownfield Action (BA) simulation has provided an important component of the course Environmental Studies/Geophysics 210: Hydrology at Connecticut College since the fall of 2004. Attendance at a Brownfield Action seminar the previous year showed that the simulation was an ideal means to replace a paper-based simulation used previously. As an experienced user of BA, I can confirm that it is a wonderful learning tool that has brought a very realistic group activity to my classroom. The program also does a very good job helping students develop the scientific background and confidence needed to find employment in the groundwater consulting industry. More importantly, students enjoy the BA module and learn a great deal about basic project management and group collaboration skills that apply to a range of disciplines.

My first job after college was as a Project Geologist for a groundwater consulting company in New England. It was a good first job, but my undergraduate geology major and hydrology course had not prepared me for the types of decisions faced on the job. Years later as an instructor of a hydrology course, it was important that I share my consulting experiences in order to help prepare undergraduates for what can be a very good job opportunity after graduation. The BA simulation provides an excellent replication of many of the components of a Phase I site investigation. Several former students who now work in the groundwater consulting industry have said that they greatly appreciated the background they developed using the simulation.

Figure 6. The Brownfield Action “playing field” in the reconnaissance mode visiting the BTEX gas station.

In my class, students are divided into groups of two or three and are asked to investigate the contamination at the BTEX gasoline station. The students are required to determine whether contamination exists and to delineate the nature, extent, and source of contamination. Students are encouraged to use the soil gas sampling and analysis tool and to determine a rough map of where volatile organic compound concentrations are highest. The students are then required to install at least three shallow wells and one deep well to document the approximate source of the contamination and direction of flow in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Drilling location and well placement are important decisions for a successful project, and students often display a great deal of trepidation when they begin to install monitoring wells. The cost of a poorly placed well is an important reason for this. As someone who has stressed over drilling holes for real monitoring wells, I know that the angst that students display is a good indication that BA realistically simulates the decision-making atmosphere. The students then use the survey instruments, sample analysis options, and the resulting data to produce maps of the BTEX gasoline contamination plume and the free-product plume. Students complete a group report that presents their findings.

To supplement the basic materials supplied with the computer simulation, the program is augmented with additional data sources and activities. Existing documents as well as newly created documents are placed as a reserve in our library to replicate the task of going to government buildings to search municipal and state records. Each group is provided with a small sample of loess and asked to classify the soil based on a textural method. Students are taken on a field trip to the campus power station to see two large underground storage tanks. A mock site visit is also made there to identify potential sources of contamination and locations where monitoring wells might be installed. The BA simulation is also used as a means to demonstrate the basic principles of Darcy’s Flow and hydraulic conductivity learned in the class. The students are asked to complete an estimate of the rate of groundwater movement based on some simulated pump test data created for this purpose and the groundwater table slope they determine from their BA wells.

BA provides an excellent opportunity for students to understand how the site assessment process is approached. The simulation adds a sense of realism to the sometimes abstract topics learned. BA has become a very important component of Environmental Studies/Geophysics 210: Hydrology, and the program will be used as long as its software is viable.

Training Undergraduate and Graduate Students in Advanced Courses in Hydrology and Environmental Remediation

Larry Lemke, Wayne State University

Brownfield Action was originally incorporated into GEL 5000—Geological Site Assessment—at Wayne State University during the Winter-2010 semester as part of an NSF CAREER grant that focused on groundwater contamination in previously glaciated urban areas. BA continues to play an integral role in this course, which is offered to both graduate students and upper division undergraduates and typically attracts 20 to 24 students each time it is offered. BA forms the basis for a term project in much the same way that it is employed at Barnard College: teams of students at Wayne State use the BA simulation as the basis for formulating Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments and reports.

In the first phase, students strictly follow ASTM Standard E 1527-13 (formerly E 1527-05). After completing site reconnaissance, records review, and interviews (no sampling is allowed except for Topographic Surveys), students document their findings, opinions, and conclusions following the ASTM specified report format. In the second phase, students choose two Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs) to be investigated following ASTM Standard E 1903-11. The 2011 revision of this standard prescribes application of the scientific method to evaluate RECs. To begin this process, students must schedule an interview with their client (the course instructors) to recommend Objectives, Questions to be answered, Hypotheses to be tested,Areas to be investigated, a Conceptual Modelfor contaminant migration including target analytics, a proposed Sampling Plan, and an estimated Budget. During the interview, one course instructor plays the role of a naïve business manager focused on liability and budget issues, while the second course instructor plays the role of an environmental manager who asks probing technical questions. After receiving client authorization, student teams proceed to implement their sampling plan and complete the Phase II ESA. In our experience, the role play exercise adds another realistic dimension to the BA simulation by providing students practice in communicating technical information and recommendations to clients in an oral format (in addition to writing professional reports).

Most recently, Gianluca Sperone, a co-instructor in the WSU course, developed an effective innovation by utilizing ESRI ArcGIS tools to perform the Phase I ESA analysis. After converting available materials from the BA simulation into ArcGIS Geodatabase format, he mapped the information accessible to student investigators during the Phase I site visit and interview process. Subsequently, he used the ArcGIS Spatial Analyst Extension to model potential subsurface contaminant migration in the event of a release into the BA simulation environment. In this way, Sperone was able identify potential areas for Phase II ESA recommendations and demonstrate the utility of GIS tools to perform analyses and prepare professional materials for communicating project results.

Feedback from our students has indicated that the authentic, realistic nature of the BA simulation greatly enhanced their ability to understand and apply the relevant ASTM standards. One student wrote: “I thought the BA simulation was invaluable to students. The Phase I ESA knowledge gained from reading through the standard is reinforced with the game. It puts a practical twist on a document that can be difficult to focus on (hooray for legal jargon!). The experience will greatly aid students heading into consulting/government jobs.”

Angelo Lampousis, City University of New York

The Brownfield Action simulation and curriculum has been used at two different colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY). In both cases BA was adopted at the undergraduate and graduate levels of the course “Phase II Environmental Site Assessments” (City College of New York EAS 31402 [undergraduate] and EAS B9235 [graduate], Hunter College GEOG 383 [undergraduate] and GEOG 705 [graduate]). The combined number of students introduced to the BA simulation to date is 24. The academic background of the students involved ranged from geology, environmental sciences, and geography, to urban planning and sustainability.

The BA simulation was used as a refresher for the Phase I process, since most students had already completed the Phase I environmental site assessment course that is also a prerequisite for the Phase II course. The BA simulation served this purpose exceptionally well. Students had the opportunity to experience and practice a realistic interview component of writing Phase I reports as they interacted with the characters of the simulation. This addressed a specific gap in the CUNY curriculum that, while strong in using real data on real estate properties located in New York City (Lampousis 2012), treated interviews as a data gap (i.e., per ASTM designation E1527 – 05) due to legal and other restrictions on allowing college students to interact with property owners in an unsupervised manner. The BA simulation addresses this gap through its incorporation of a wide range of very thoughtful fictional interviews. The BA simulation experience for CUNY students was realized through several homework assignments culminating in a Phase I report. Due to time constraints, considerable amounts of information from the simulation, including data for topography, depth to bedrock, and depth to water table, were made available to CUNY students from the very beginning. Students were also assisted by the instructor in their construction of a conceptual site model.

Overall, the adoption of the BA simulation within the two CUNY colleges greatly reinforced student learning on the topic of environmental site assessments. The BA simulation provided an opportunity to test the knowledge and level of students’ understanding achieved up to that point. Students were able to get a panoramic view of the process, from signing the initial contract to submitting a final report. Because everything they did in the simulation cost them money, they also experienced working within a budget. The BA simulation will be used in the future starting in the Phase I course offered in the fall, and there are plans to adapt the BA simulation for a geographic information systems platform in the “Introduction to GIS” scheduled for the spring semester 2014. The latter will be in collaboration with Gianluca Sperone of Wayne State University.

Saugata Datta, Kansas State University

Brownfield Action has been used at Kansas State University (KSU) since 2009 for the undergraduate and graduate students in the lecture and laboratory courses of Hydrogeology (GEOL 611, with an average of 20 students mainly from the geology, biology, agricultural and civil engineering departments), Introduction to Geochemistry (GEOL 605/705, 10 students, mainly from the geology, agronomy, and chemistry departments), and Water Resources Geochemistry (GEOL 711, eight students from veterinary medicine, geology, and agronomy). All three have been offered as interdisciplinary courses.

Figure 7. The Brownfield Action “playing field” in Testing Mode with zoom function applied and magnetometry/metal detection measurements being made.

In Hydrogeology, BA is utilized as the foundation for a one-month practicum. Students work in teams of three and are given complete access to the BA simulation and website including all data and documents. Student teams must choose a topic or specific problem to be solved within the BA simulation. Topics range from using the BA simulation and database for a Phase I ESA of the Self-Lume property or the BTEX Gas Station, for flow net exercises to delineate various contaminant plumes (gasoline or tritium), for simple permeameter measurements to understand hydraulic conductivity, or for utilizing the many soil exploration tools (drilling, seismic reflection and refraction, ground penetrating radar, soil gas) to determine plume location and its migration paths, and chemical characteristics of different contaminants. Lectures are developed based on the topics chosen. Each team is required to write a report on their findings and evaluate what they have learned from their practical experience with the simulation. Poster sessions have often been assigned so that students may share their experiences using the BA simulation with other students to demonstrate how different methods and principles are used to solve complex hydrological problems. Additional faculty members are invited to these poster presentations and interact with and question the student teams.

In Geochemistry, BA is used for one month as a case study as part of the final project. Students use BA in order to understand the chemical characteristics of organic contaminants, the chemistry of groundwater, and the use of various field or laboratory geochemical analytical tools to measure various contaminants, map these contaminants in the surficial soil cover, and create hydrochemical maps with piper diagrams for various inorganic contaminants. Students learn how different plumes will mix or impact each other. BA allows students to develop a clear understanding of the composition of different contaminants and their MCLs in the environment.

In Water Resources Geochemistry, BA has been used in collaboration with other users of BA from Lafayette College (LC) and Wayne State University (WSU). Students are assigned to investigate BA in order to write Phase I and II ESA reports. There are invited lectures from within KSU as well as video lectures transmitted by instructors from LC and WSU. Students from KSU present their findings to students in an Environmental Engineering course at LC and a geology course at WSU, who in turn present their findings to the KSU students. Working with instructors from WSU, students at KSU learn how to use ARC GIS on the BA database. The topics in this video conferenced course evolved from the joint use of MODFLOW and Groundwater Modeling Systems (EMS-i) in tracing groundwater contaminants in the BA aquifer.

Typical student comments about the use of BA include: “One of the greatest ways to connect to a real world problem and it was interesting how we were acting as consultants, and tried not to leak ideas to the other groups,” and, “I learnt more about the application of Darcy’s law when I was taught with BA, even the water table characteristics, and the direction of groundwater flow were more clear when BA was demonstrated to us.” Students also commented on how they learned to work as a consultant and that one cannot make mistakes that might result in losing the contract or not making a profit. Several students have gone to job interviews and used BA to demonstrate their knowledge of ESAs and to respond to questions from the interviewers. BA played a significant role in the hiring of these students by government agencies and has also led to a dialogue with these agencies on how to use BA within communities they serve that are affected by brownfields.

Arthur D. Kney, Lafayette College

Over the last seven years the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CE) program at Lafayette College has used Brownfield Action successfully in two courses: Environmental Engineering and Science (CE 321) and Environmental Site Assessment (CE 422). CE 321 is an introductory course, and BA is used to introduce the issues of brownfields, remediation, and environmental regulations. CE 422 is a course in which students learn how to do Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) consistent with ASTM 1527. Because most of the fundamental science needed to understand and participate in the BA scenario is taught to CE students throughout their first few years of our CE program, use of BA in CE 321 and 422 is targeted at applying their accumulated fundamental skills and knowledge in a realistic simulation in addition to teaching the details of the ESA process. Following a two-week exercise utilizing BA, students are prepared to do a real-time site assessment on neighboring properties.

My experience has shown that BA is very applicable to the field of civil engineering from initial investigation through remediation and that the interdisciplinary, realistic nature of BA provides an effective tool with which to teach aspiring civil and environmental engineers. Connections to the practice of civil engineering are played out in numerous scenarios in BA. For example, understanding how chemicals move through the water and soil is made evident through models that civil engineers are taught in water quality and water resource classes. Methods and practices used in remediation are common themes taught in upper level environmental engineering courses. Additionally, ESAs must be accomplished by an “Environmental Professional” as outlined in the US CFR 40:312.21. BA provides a wonderful storyline linked to believable data that ties together individuals and their community with industry and very real economic and environmental concerns. In order to piece together the truth, critical thinking skills must be used to interpret and communicate the significance of data obtained from the simulation.

In CE 422 especially, the incorporation of BA has tremendously improved student understanding of the ESA process as compared to classes taught prior to use of BA. Anecdotal evidence from student conversations, faculty observations, student test scores, and the fact that BA continues to be a central part of CE 422 all support this statement. Beyond CE 321 and 422, students have reported that BA has strengthened their ESA skills in senior-level design projects and has provided evidence of competence when applying for jobs. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear that students have not only gotten jobs because of their ESA skills but have also gone on to perform ESAs in their jobs. Because of these reports from students, future plans include introducing some form of an ESA course for engineering professionals. Incorporating BA would be integral, because of the fact that one can quickly comprehend the overall ESA process through the interactive, informative framework of the simulation.

As part of the collaborative network, Saugata Datta from Kansas State University (see above) and I have used BA to complement several courses. Our most recent course development is a team-taught course module between Kansas State and Lafayette. Graduate and undergraduates from both institutions have worked together reconstructing plume flow via groundwater models like MODFLOW and Groundwater Modeling System (EMS-i), using data from the BA simulation. Students connect the groundwater solution to the models in the existing BA simulation and make the BA narrative come alive as they learn how the various chemical and kinetics principles of contaminants behave throughout the BA storyline. In addition, other collaborative engagements have blossomed through BA team interactions, such as a recent set of academic video discussions between Wayne State University, Kansas State University, and Lafayette College students and faculty revolving around the overuse of key nutrients, phosphorous and nitrogen. Consistent with professional practice, future plans include developing a workshop open to environmental professionals interested in learning how to conduct ESAs. BA would be used to help professionals connect to the task at hand just as it has been used in CE 422.


Assessing the Effectiveness of the Brownfield Action Simulation

All faculty using BA in their courses report high levels of student engagement with the simulation and increased confidence in students’ ability to understand and apply science to solve problems. Although a simulation, BA is grounded in civil, legal, and scientific reality such that experience gained through BA is directly applicable to the real world. This is demonstrated by the many students who report that BA has assisted them in gaining employment as environmental professionals. Other important professional and conceptual skills reported being taught and learned in the context of the BA simulation include data visualization, map-making, budgeting, formal report writing, making formal oral presentations, as well as decision-making, dealing with ambiguity, teamwork, and networking in information gathering.

Reliable summative assessment of the pedagogical effectiveness of the BA simulation has not yet been performed due to the lack of appropriate control groups (the courses discussed above are not taught in multiple sections with some instructors using BA and some not) and a lack of appropriate data on student performance prior to the adoption of BA in courses. However, a variety of formative assessments of the BA simulation were incorporated throughout the design and initial use of BA at Barnard College to provide feedback and confirmation of the effectiveness of the simulation (Bower et al. 2011). We are currently developing and testing a survey-based formative assessment utilizing the SENCER SALG tool available online ( A SENCER SALG instrument consists of a pre- and post-course survey taken online that provides instructors with useful, formative feedback for improving their teaching. A SALG instrument provides a snapshot of student skills and attitudes at the start and end of courses, allowing instructors to gauge the effectiveness of teaching strategies, methods, and activities such as the BA simulation (Seymour et al. 2000). A preliminary version of a SALG instrument designed to measure student learning gains resulting from working with the BA simulation has recently been deployed by Bret Bennington and analysis of the results show marked gains from the beginning to the end of the semester (see discussion above). At the next meeting of BA users in the spring of 2014 we will finalize this SALG instrument and begin deploying versions of it to measure the impact of BA on student learning in a variety of educational settings and applications.

Ongoing Work and Future Directions

The tenth in a series of seminars and training sessions for Brownfield Action will be held at Barnard College in April of 2014. Most of the early seminars were devoted to training new users of the simulation and to troubleshooting problems existing users were having. As the simulation evolved, two new versions of BA were produced making the simulation web-based, enhancing the features of the “playing field,” and developing a “modularized” version that is more adaptable to creative new uses. While new users are still being trained, the ninth seminar held in the spring of 2013 was devoted primarily to the sharing of experiences teaching with BA and presenting new applications of BA developed by current users. These included using the data in the BA simulation to teach modeling and analysis using GIS, using the simulation to teach undergraduates about Phase I Environmental Site Assessments incorporating GIS, the use of the gasoline contaminant plume in the simulation as the basis for a six-week unit on toxins and environmental site investigations for high school students, the creation of evaluation tools for the assessment of the effectiveness of BA in an undergraduate hydrogeology course, the modeling of groundwater contaminant plumes from the BA database as part of graduate level student exercises, and discussion of new possibilities for furthering the BA simulation using 3-D gaming technologies.

It is apparent from the above reports that users continue to develop new ways of using BA to teach science in the context of civic engagement. While BA was not developed to teach GIS, the work done in this area suggests that the BA simulation can be easily adapted to enhance GIS instruction. The data- and context-rich virtual world of BA provides an ideal tool for realizing SENCER goals for teaching science through important civic issues and motivating students to learn and understand basic science. Environmental contamination and brownfields are universal problems in today’s world and incorporate civic issues to which every student can relate. BA provides a virtual world and narrative in which students figure out for themselves how to apply basic scientific concepts learned in a course to solve real, practical problems. There is significant potential for further growth of the community of BA users but it is also apparent that BA must undergo significant technological change to bring it up to date with new advances in online delivery and learning technology. A “next-generation” Brownfield Action project is in the early stages of development in order to create a more interactive, 3-D game-based learning environment for the simulation. We would also like to add new data to the simulation, expanding the range of environmental toxins represented to include dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLS) and nitrates, two major sources of groundwater contamination. Developing the next generation of BA will require funding, and appropriate documentation of learning gains will be needed to make a case for continued investment in BA. To this end we are currently developing standardized student assessment tools using the SENCER SALG that will be deployed across the community of BA adopters. But most importantly, improvement of the Brownfield Action simulation will be facilitated through expansion of the community of instructors who use BA in their courses and who will continue to develop innovative approaches that can be shared across the BA collaborative network.

About the Authors

Peter Bower

Peter Bower, conservationist and educator, is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science at Barnard College/Columbia University, where he has taught for 28 years. He has been involved in research, conservation, and education in the Hudson River Valley for 35 years. He is the former Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, where he served on the City Council, Planning Board, and Environmental Commission for eight years. He received his B.S. in geology from Yale, M.A. in geology from Queens, and Ph.D. in geochemistry from Columbia.

Ryan Kelsey

Ryan Kelsey is a Program Officer for Education at the Helmsley Trust, where he focuses on national work in improving educational practices, with a special emphasis on higher education, STEM learning, and effective uses of technology. Prior to coming to the Trust, he spent thirteen years at the Columbia University Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, most recently as the Director of Projects. Ryan earned his Ed.D. and M.A. in Communication and Education from Teachers College and his B.S. in biology from Santa Clara University.

Joseph Liddicoat

Joseph Liddicoat has been teaching Brownfield Action since it became part of the Introductory Environmental Science course at Barnard in 2000. He is now retired from Barnard but still teaches Astronomy, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Global Ecology at New York University where he has been an Adjunct Professor of Science for nearly 25 years, and as a SENCER Leadership Fellow has represented NYU at the SENCER Summer Institutes since 2008. He received his B.A. in English Literature and Language from Wayne State University and his M.A. and graduate degrees in Earth Science from Dartmouth College (M.A.) and the University of California, Santa Cruz (Ph.D.).

Douglas Thompson

Douglas Thompson is a scientist trained in the field of fluvial geomorphology. He has taught for seventeen years at Connecticut College in the Environmental Studies program and has written one book, over 30 scientific articles and book chapters, and made over 50 scientific presentations. He currently serves as the Karla Heurich Harrison ’28 Director of the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College. He received his B.A. from Middlebury College, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from Colorado State University.

Angelo Lampousis

Angelo Lampousis is a Lecturer in the Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences of the City College of New York. He is a member of the ASTM subcommittee E50 and the task group responsible for developing the ASTM Standard E1527, Practice for Environmental Site Assessments. He received his B.S. in agriculture from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and M.Phil. and Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Bret Bennington

Bret Bennington conducts research in paleontology and regional geologic history at Hofstra University where he has taught for 20 years. In addition to paleontology, he teaches courses in physical geology, historical geology, hydrology, geomorphology, and the history of evolutionary thought. He also co-directs a study abroad program that brings students to the Galápagos Islands and Ecuador to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin in studying the relationships between ecology, geology and evolution. He received his B.S. in biology / geology from the Univ. of Rochester and his Ph.D. in paleontology from Virginia Tech.

Bess Greenbaum Seewald

Bess Greenbaum Seewald has taught middle and high school science for nine years. She currently teaches high school level biology and environmental science at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School in New York City. Bess graduated from Barnard College in 2000 double majoring in Biology and Film Studies and received a M.A. in secondary science education from The City College of New York.

Arthur Kney

Arthur D. Kney is an Associate Professor and Department Head in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Lafayette College. He has served as chair of the Pennsylvania Water Environment Association (PWEA) research committee and of the Bethlehem Environmental Advisory Committee, vice president of Lehigh Valley Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and secretary of ASCE/Environmental and Water Resources Institute (EWRI) Water Supply Engineering Committee. He received his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Lehigh University in 1999 and his professional engineering license in 2007.

Saugata Datta

Saugata Datta is an Associate Professor of Chemical Hydrogeology and Environmental Geochemistry in the Dept. of Geology in Kansas State University. He teaches courses in hydrogeology, low temperature geochemistry, water resources, and soils and environmental quality with research expertise in trace element and oxyanion migration and contamination, especially in groundwater, urban air particulates, subway microenvironments, and unproductive soil environments. He received his M.Sc. in geology from the Univ. of Calcutta and his Ph.D. in geochemistry from Univ. of Western Ontario, Canada.

Larry Lemke

Larry Lemke is an Associate Professor of Geology and Director of the Environmental Science Program at Wayne State University. He spent 12 years exploring for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. At Wayne State, his research focuses on modeling the fate and transport of contaminants in groundwater, air, and soil in natural and urban environments. He received a B.S. in geology from Michigan State University, an M.S. in geosciences from the Univ. of Arizona, an M.B.A. from the Univ. of Denver, and a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the Univ. of Michigan.

Briane Sorice Miccio

Briane Sorice Miccio has taught environmental science at the Professional Children’s School for seven years. She received her BA from Barnard College in Environmental Science and Education and her MA in Climate Science from Columbia Univ. She has worked at the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation as well as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia Univ. While at Barnard, she used the Brownfield Action simulation as a student and has successfully adapted the simulation in her own classroom for the past 4 years, thereby creating a curriculum for use by high school educators.

Tamara Graham

Tamara Graham is an Instructor in the Department of Low Impact Development and Natural Resources Management at Haywood Community College. In her work as a designer and project manager for landscape architecture firms and in community development, she utilizes sustainable and smart growth planning approaches to create projects that simultaneously accommodate sound development, contribute to a vibrant sense of place, and strengthen community connections to the environment. She has worked as a consultant on park and greenway projects in Asheville, North Carolina. She received her BA from Yale Univ. in art and architecture and an M.L.A from the School of Environmental Design at the Univ. of Georgia.


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Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process—ASTM Designation E1527 – 05

Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Process—ASTM Designation E1903 – 11


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Quantifying the Atmospheric Impact of an Urban Biomass Incinerator


This study examines the carbon footprint of a proposed biomass incinerator in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. This research was integrated as a service-learning project into the curriculum of an undergraduate differential equations course. Mathematical models were developed and analyzed to examine the local contribution of emissions to the atmosphere and the extent of land needed to offset incinerator emissions both in the short (daily) and long (yearly) term. [more] Our results show the sensitivity of atmospheric carbon content to the incinerator output rating, area and type of land dedicated for offsets, and atmospheric wind speed. The amount of managed land ranges from 7,000–20,000 hectares of land, or approximately the area of Saint Paul. The land requirements seem feasible in the context of the amount of available (unmanaged) land both locally and worldwide, but these requirements are diminished given the potential air quality effects resulting from biomass incineration.


The Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant located in Saint Paul, Minnesota employs over 500 people and contributes significantly to the economic health of the greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area (Nelson 2007). The company initially had its thermal energy supplied by Xcel Energy, the local power provider. In late 2007, Xcel Energy decommissioned the plant that supplied Rock-Tenn’s thermal energy. Alternative sources of energy were needed to maintain the long-term sustainability of the recycling plant.

Refuse derived fuel (RDF) was a proposed alternative to provide energy for the recycling plant. This technique derives energy from the incineration of plant material, refuse, and compost (Nelson 2007). RDF is an example of bioenergy. Generally defined as the use of plant material to supply energy, bioenergy supplies 15 percent of the world’s energy needs (Lemus and Lal 2005). Bioenergy is an alternative energy to fossil fuels. Trees, through the process of photosynthesis, convert carbon dioxide into carbon, so any combustion of tree residue (and associated release to the atmosphere of this comparatively recently-fixed carbon) theoretically results in no net change of atmospheric carbon (Smith 2006).

Surrounding the Rock-Tenn plant are residential neighborhoods. In response to the proposed plan of the biomass incinerator, a grassroots organization, Neighbors Against the Burner, formed to oppose the incinerator, citing air quality effects on health (Pope et al. 2002) as one of its main objections. Based on the strong community response, in November 2008 the Saint Paul City Council passed a resolution against having the biomass incinerator be the energy source for Rock-Tenn. The Council advocated investigation of other alternative energy options, such as using biogas from anaerobic digestion (Saint Paul City Council 2008).

Augsburg College is a private, liberal arts college in Minneapolis, Minnesota, approximately three miles from the Rock-Tenn Recycling Plant. In spring semester 2008 as part of a semester-long research project for a course on differential equations, 11 students, with this author as the instructor, engaged in a service-learning project to investigate the atmospheric effects and carbon footprint of the proposed biomass incinerator. The project was integrated into the course content to provide a real-life example that had both civic and environmental connections. Two key research questions were addressed by the students:

  1. How much do incinerator emissions elevate local atmospheric carbon?
  2. What conditions need to be satisfied for carbon neutrality both short and long term?

For the purposes of this study, carbon neutrality implies zero net change in the atmospheric carbon content.


This study was integrated in the curriculum for a one-semester differential equations course. At the beginning of the term the instructor introduced the project objectives. The students formed teams to investigate the project objectives through construction and analysis of a mathematical model. The teams reported updates with the instructor throughout the semester. Additionally, a representative from Neighbors Against the Burner attended a class session to answer student questions and provide feedback. At the end of the term, students presented their results and wrote a report describing their results in the context of the mathematical, environmental, and civic dimensions of the project. The results presented in this study derive from these student projects.

Mathematical models

All mathematical models are formulated to measure the rate of change in atmospheric carbon content. Two overarching processes are assumed to affect this rate of change: emissions from the burner (increasing atmospheric carbon content) and biophysical processes that decrease atmospheric carbon. The following word equation describes this process:

Rate of change of atmospheric carbon =
Incinerator emissions – Biophysical processes

Emissions from the incinerator are assumed to occur at a constant rate, dependent on the emission type and incinerator output rating. To maintain carbon neutrality, we assume the existence of an active forest that removes carbon. With these assumptions, each team then had to quantify the appropriate mathematical model based on Equation 1. The mathematical models are qualitatively described below; additional mathematical descriptions are in the Appendix.

Emissions Contribution to Atmospheric Carbon.

Emissions from the incinerator and subsequent dispersion into the atmosphere create a plume of incinerated material and gases. This model, derived from models of contaminant transport in fluids (Brannan and Boyce 2007; Falta Nao and Basu 2005), describes the rate that incinerated carbon enters the plume. The biophysical process term is assumed to be directly proportional to the wind speed versus higher wind speed values decrease the amount of carbon near the incinerator and increase the concentration of carbon in the plume. Outputs from this model could subsequently be used to quantify spatial distribution of carbon in the plume through diffusion, advection, and other atmospheric properties.

The incinerator emissions are inversely proportional to the smokestack output area, assumed to be 250 square meters for this study. The flow (in terms of volume per time) of emissions into the smokestack must equal the flow of emissions into the atmosphere. If the area of the smokestack increases, the rate of change of atmospheric carbon must decrease to maintain the constant flow of emissions.

Short and long term carbon neutrality.

Long term atmospheric measurements of carbon dioxide over various ecosystems have shown the short and long term responses of ecosystems to carbon uptake through the dynamic processes of photosynthesis (conversion of carbon dioxide to simple sugars) and respiration (release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere) (Baldocchi et al. 2001; Wofsy et al. 1993). Aggregated up to annual timescales, this balance between photosynthesis and respiration typically is negative (meaning the photosynthesis flux is stronger than all respiratory fluxes), indicating the ecosystem is a sink of carbon to the atmosphere. Diurnal fluctuations in temperature and moisture, seasonal variation, species composition, and plant species successional stage all contribute to an ecosystem being a given source or sink of carbon to the atmosphere (Baldocchi et al. 2001). The productivity of a forest (or its ability to decrease atmospheric carbon) can therefore be quantified with long-term records of net carbon uptake.

As previously stated, we assume the existence of a forest that will offset incinerator emissions. In our models this is represented by having the emissions term inversely proportional to the forest area. As forest area increases, emissions contribute proportionally less to atmospheric carbon because there are more trees to remove atmospheric carbon.

The biophysical process term was quantified in two different ways to describe short term (daily) and long term (yearly) carbon uptake. Short term carbon uptake was modeled with a dynamic, periodic term modeled after patterns of diurnal net ecosystem carbon exchange (Wofsy et al. 1993). Long term carbon uptake or forest productivity was assumed to occur at a constant rate, with values determined from Baldocchi et al. (2001).

Model Results of Atmospheric Carbon Content from Incinerator Emissions as a Function of Wind Speed
Figure 1. Model Results of Atmospheric Carbon Content from Incinerator Emissions as a Function of Wind Speed


Figure 1 shows results of the influence of wind speed on atmospheric carbon content. As wind speed increases, local emissions decrease independent of burner output. Increasing the incinerator output rating o (measured in MBtu per hour) also increases atmospheric carbon content, inferring a higher concentration of carbon in the plume.

Figures 2a-b show model results of the daily temporal change in atmospheric carbon content. Vertical axis values in Figures 2a-b are scaled as a percent change from the initial atmospheric carbon content. Positive vertical axis values suggest that the incinerator is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, or a “carbon-positive” incinerator, whereas negative vertical axis values indicate the incinerator is “carbon-negative,” or that the forest removes additional carbon dioxide beyond incinerator emissions. The periodic behavior in atmospheric carbon results from the selection of a periodic function for the carbon uptake function (see the Appendix). Daytime has a stronger net carbon uptake, indicating trees in the forest are removing carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, thereby decreasing atmospheric carbon content. As photosynthesis is a light-dependent reaction, during the night the forest is a source of atmospheric carbon.

Model Results for the Short‑Term Carbon Neutrality of the Burner
Figure 2. Model Results for the Short‑Term Carbon Neutrality of the Burner

Figure 2a reflects short term temporal emissions when the output rating of the boiler o is varied from 200 to 400 MBtu per hour. These output ratings were estimated from similar steam-producing systems as the one studied by the students (Energy Products of Idaho 2009). In all cases, it is assumed that there is an actively growing forest of 14,500 hectares (approximately the area of Saint Paul) to offset incinerator emissions. For an output rating of 400 MBtu per hour the atmospheric concentration is increasing at a constant rate of 10 percent per day, whereas for an output rating of 200 MBtu per hour the forest is large enough to reduce atmospheric carbon content by 10 percent per day.

Figure 2b shows the effect of changing the forest area on atmospheric carbon content. If the forest area is reduced to 10,000 hectares, then the incinerator becomes a source of carbon to the atmosphere with emissions growing at a rate of approximately 10 percent per day, indicating that the forest itself is not large enough to offset emissions from the plant. On the other hand, if the forest area is increased to 20,000 hectares, then the incinerator is “carbon negative,” decreasing atmospheric carbon concentrations approximately 10 percent per day.

Model Results for the Long-Term Carbon Neutrality of the Incinerator
Figure 3. Model Results for the Long-Term Carbon Neutrality of the Incinerator

Figure 3 shows the area of land that would need to be dedicated to maintain long-term carbon neutrality as a function of the output rating. As the output rating increases, a larger forest area will be needed to sustain carbon neutrality. The slope of the linear dependency in Figure 3 depends on the forest productivity (F) in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Different values of F result from the overall forest species composition (Baldocchi et al. 2001). The less productive forest (smaller values of F) will require a larger area to offset incinerator emissions.


Evaluation of model results

A strong concern to the incinerator is the decrease in air quality in the neighborhoods surrounding the recycling plant. The results shown in Figure 1 qualitatively support this concern. Higher incinerator output ratings increase the amount of atmospheric carbon in the emissions plume. While atmospheric carbon decreases with increasing wind speed, conservation of mass infers that this carbon is dispersed to neighborhoods surrounding the incinerator.

Recent studies have shown linkages between public health and air quality (Pope et al. 2002; Zhang and Smith 2007). In addition to the carbon released through incineration, aerosols and other particulate matter may also be released into the atmosphere by incineration. While these other aerosols were not investigated in this study, the models presented here could easily be adapted to take these into consideration. Additionally, coupling this model to an atmospheric transport model could quantitatively describe increases in carbon or other aerosols and the spatial extent to neighborhoods around the incinerator.

Our results indicate that the amount of forest area needed to maintain carbon neutrality ranges between 7000–20000 hectares, depending on the type of species planted and the output rating (Figures 2 and 3). These estimates are a small fraction of land both locally and worldwide that could be dedicated to bioenergy. In Minnesota approximately 563,000 hectares of land could be rehabilitated to support bioenergy crops (Lemus and Lal 2005). Worldwide, the amount of land in need of restoration from degraded agricultural soils is approximately 1965 million hectares (Lemus and Lal 2005), which is a large proportion of the 2380 million hectares of land not classified as urbanized or protected (Read 2008). The total area of managed, or plantation, forests are 187 million hectares, consisting of 5 percent of worldwide forest area (Mead 2005).

Dedicating land to bioenergy crops helps to mitigate increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, restore soil organic carbon that were depleted from agricultural practices, and prevent erosion (Lemus and Lal 2005; Lal 2004; Sartori et al. 2006). In spite of these benefits and comparatively small area of land required to offset incinerator emissions, other factors not accounted for in our models would modify our estimates for the amount of land needed to offset emissions. First, technological advances will be required for their application, which may not be appropriate at all regional and local levels (Smith 2008). Second, bioenergy should be part of a suite of strategies targeted to mitigate climate change, which include the reduction of existing emissions through changes in consumption and improving agricultural efficiency (Smith 2008; Rhodes and Keith 2008). Third, life-cycle analyses for bioenergy crops (Adler, Del Grosso, and Parton 2007; Spartari, Zhang, and Maclean 2006) have shown a slight decrease in their mitigation potential when the growth and maintenance of the bioenergy crop (which requires energy) is taken into consideration. Additionally a recent study by Fargione et al. (Fargione et al. 2008) has quantified a substantial carbon “debt” incurred by clearing land for bioenergy crops. Further investigation into these factors is needed to refine and quantify the carbon footprint of the incinerator.

Evaluation of teaching and learning outcomes

Key learning outcomes of the project were to (a) develop and apply differential equation models to a contextual situation, (b) interpret results in the context of the carbon neutrality of the burner, and (c) provide valued recommendations based on the observations of the mathematical models.

The use of a service-learning-based project aligned well with both course learning objectives as well as the Augsburg College mission, which has a strong history in service learning (Hesser 1998). The students were given a survey to assess project outcomes in three categories: (a) overall learning (application and connection to course learning outcomes), (b) resource utilization (ability to complete the project independently), and (c) community connection (public acknowledgment of student efforts). The eleven students in the class responded to each category on a 5 point Likert scale. The average results were 3.9 (median 4) for the overall learning, 4.2 (median 4) for resource utilization, and 3.6 (median 4) for community connection. Students overall remarked positively about the service-learning project. One student remarked that “It was interesting to see real-world applications of math,” and another student commented “The project was an excellent way of learning how to put our concepts into a practical perspective, and it was also edifying to learn the nature of carbon neutrality.”

Based on the evaluations, it can be concluded from the student assessments that the first two outcomes were met (the construction, application, and interpretation of mathematical models). The lower ranking of the community connection category indicated not fully meeting the final objective. While students articulated recommendations on model results, a stronger connection to the relevant stakeholders in the issue (Neighbors Against the Burner and Rock-Tenn Recycling) could have been made. Multiple student evaluations expressed the desire for a tour of the recycling plant, or have more interaction with local community organizations beyond the mid-term visit. It would have been desirable to have a public forum of presentation of results, thereby increasing the visibility of the project in the college community.

This project has shown the qualitative contribution of the biomass incinerator to local atmospheric carbon content and the amount of land required to offset incinerator emissions. The project articulated the value of mathematical models and connected classroom learning to a civic and environmental issue.


The author would like to thank the students enrolled in the spring 2008 section of MAT 247: Modeling and Differential Equations for their diligent work and efforts; Mary Laurel True of the Center for Service, Work and Learning at Augsburg College; Benjamin Stottrup; and Tom Welna of Neighbors Against the Burner. Special thanks are expressed to the Barbara Farley, Vice-President of Academic Affairs at Augsburg College for conference travel support to present preliminary results at the Mathematical Association of America MathFest 2008.

About the Author

John Zobitz ( is an assistant professor of mathematics at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. John received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2007, specializing in mathematical biology. Current research includes the development of mathematical models quantifying forest carbon uptake from automated data streams. He continues to find ways to intersect environmental mathematics with his mathematics teaching at all levels of the curriculum.

Appendix: Description of Mathematical Models

The quantity described in all models is the atmospheric carbon density (grams carbon per square meter, or g C m-2), represented with the variable c. Models were expressed as a differential equation, and where appropriate, solved directly or with standard numerical techniques (Blanchard, Devaney, and Hall 2006). The initial condition (c0) for all models assumes a fixed CO2 mixing ratio of 385 parts per million by volume (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2009; Peters et al. 2007), assuming an air density of 44.6 mol m-3(Campbell and Norman 1998) uniformly distributed up to 21.5 m above the ground surface. Energy units are expressed in MBtu, or a million British thermal units.

Model results were investigated in the context of the following key parameters:

  1. Incinerator output rating o (MBtu hr-1),
  2. Atmospheric wind speed v (m hr-1, expressed in all figures and results as miles hr-1)
  3. Forest area A (m2, expressed in all figures and results as hectares)
  4. Forest annual net carbon uptake or productivity F
  5. (g C m-2year-1)

Emissions Contribution to Atmospheric Carbon

The model of the emissions contribution to atmospheric carbon was modified from models of contaminant transport in fluids (Brannan and Boyce 2007; Falta Nao and Basu 2005) with the following differential equation:

where c, t, o, and v are defined above, t is time (hours), α is a conversion factor from grams to pounds (453.59 grams pound-1), ε is a conversion factor to determine the amount of carbon in carbon dioxide (0.2727 g C g-1 CO2), E is the emissions fuel type for wood (assumed to be 195 lbs CO2MBtu-1 [Palmer 2008]), o is the boiler output rating, S is the incinerator total smokestack area (assumed to be 250 m2). For a circular smokestack this would be a diameter of 17.8 m, and m0 is the initial atmospheric carbon volume (0.206 g C m-3). Assuming the carbon dioxide concentration equilibrates rapidly to steady state (that is, dc/dt = 0), an expression can be determined that relates atmospheric carbon content c to the wind speed v, as shown in Figure 1 for different values of the output rating o.

Short- and Long-Term Carbon Neutrality

The short term carbon uptake was determined via the following differential equation:

where c, t, α, ε, E, and A are defined above. The periodic function represents the diurnal uptake pattern typically found in a forest (Wofsy et al. 1993). For this study, f1 = 0.1 g C m-2 hr-1, f2 = π/12 ≈ 0.262 hr-1, f3 = 0.524, and f4 = 0.05 g C m-2 hr-1. The values of f1, f2, f3, and f4, were visually determined from data of the average diurnal uptake pattern for a coniferous forest during the peak summer carbon uptake period (Monson et al. 2002; Zobitz et al. 2007).

To investigate the long-term carbon footprint, the following model was used:

where all variables are defined above. Again assuming steady state dynamics (or no change in atmospheric carbon) a linear equation between A and o can be formulated and is represented for different values of F in Figure 3.


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Preparing Future Teachers Using a SENCER Approach to Positively Affect Dispositions Toward Science


Pre-service and in-service elementary teachers tend to have poor attitudes and beliefs about science that stem from their own early science-related experiences. The development of positive dispositions toward science among pre-service teachers is problematic but essential if we are to improve science education. Attitudes will affect behavior and positive attitudes among pre-service teachers will lead to good learning and subsequently to good science teaching. Previous studies suggest college science courses that contain elements of inquiry-based learning, practical application to teaching, and engagement with broader real-world issues can affect positive change in these dispositions. [more] Here, I report on the efficacy of a new biology course at Longwood University in improving science dispositions among pre-service teachers. The course, modeled on a SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) approach, engages students in biological concepts using focal topics that involve timely, complex, and biologically relevant issues confronting society. Four semesters of assessment data demonstrate a favorable change in students’ attitudes toward science, science teaching, and engagement in broader civic issues after completing the course.


Wanted: College and university science teachers wishing to become engaged in a comprehensive, important, and potentially transforming educational movement. Those who accept the challenge will join with K–12 teachers in a quest to give every American an essential understanding of the physical and biological processes that characterize our world, and to nurture curiosity and scientific habits of mind. In the process, all participants will experience change and renewal.

This opening paragraph of “College Pathways to the Science Education Standards” (Siebert and McIntosh, 2001), both highlights the critical need for systematic consideration of science education in higher education but also identifies one of the greatest obstacles to holistic change: the cyclic nature of our educational systems. Teachers often teach as they were taught (Watters and Ginns, 2000), and thus meaningful and positive change is required not only to improve scientific understanding of all citizens but also to affect the “pipeline” that develops future K–12 teachers.

Pre-service and in-service elementary teachers, in general, tend to have poor attitudes and beliefs about science and their capacities to be effective teachers of science (Stevens and Wenner, 1996), and many experienced teachers report feeling uncomfortable and unqualified to teach science (Kahle, Anderson, and Damjanovic, 1991). Research suggests that these attitudes develop as a result of their own science-related experiences in elementary and high schools (deLaat and Watters, 1995) and support the teacher preparation pipeline problem: a student’s interest in pursuing science is shaped by experiences at a young age and his/her most frequent exposure to science is through those teachers. While these pre-service and in-service teachers often have a love for the profession of teaching, they may lack a passion for or real connection to the science content. Given this situation, the development of positive dispositions towards science and science teaching among pre-service teachers is problematic (Watters and Ginns, 2000).

If we seek to change this cycle by impacting the preparation of our future K–8 teachers in their science courses in higher education, we must accept some of the constraints of our own systems. In most college and university science departments, courses are taught by disciplinary experts who may have little or no formal training in teaching or science education. As such, at the college level we have the same issues as at the K–8 levels but in reverse: faculty with a love for the content but who may not be prepared to or comfortable with modeling and teaching pedagogical approaches for these teacher candidates. How then can we seek meaningful change in the preparation of K–8 teachers while working within the higher education systems, neither overwhelming faculty with proposed changes nor selling short our future teachers on the content and context they need to successfully teach their own students?

My research in this area supports the utility of the SENCER approach (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) as a way to reform science courses in higher education and positively impact teachers. SENCER (2009), a national initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and housed at the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, seeks to improve learning and stimulate civic engagement by teaching science through complex, largely unsolved civic issues that interest large numbers of students. In this paper I present survey data collected in a SENCER-styled course for pre-service teachers at Longwood University. The survey was designed to assess the efficacy of this course in improving dispositions that lead to increased student learning of science concepts, greater confidence in teaching science, and enhanced engagement in broader civic issues. The underlying idea of this study is that attitudes will affect behavior and that positive attitudes among pre-service teachers will lead to good learning and subsequently to good science teaching.


Institutional context
Longwood University has a long tradition of developing teachers, and until 1975 was an all-female institution with a predominant focus on teacher education. Today, pre-service teachers continue to make up the largest major program on campus (approximately 750 of 3900 undergraduates). The home for these pre-service teachers is the Liberal Studies program in the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences. This program seeks to provide a strong Liberal Arts content background to pre-service teachers before they begin their formal training in education. In addition to their required General Education science course, students within the Liberal Studies program who are seeking elementary licensure (grades K–6) are required to take four science courses: one two-hour physics course, one two-hour chemistry course, one three-hour earth science course, and one four-hour biology course. Students electing to obtain certification to teach science at the middle school level (grades 6–8) have the additional requirement of selecting General Chemistry 101 as their general education science requirement.

Course context
The Fundamentals of Life Science, Biology 114, is a required science course for all of Longwood’s Liberal Studies majors and is the only life science course they are required to complete in preparation for their teaching careers. As a four-credit hour course, students participate in three hours of lecture and two hours of laboratory each week. The course was first offered in the fall of 2004 following a curriculum change to science requirements in the major; prior to this term, students seeking K–8 teaching licensure were required to complete four-credit courses in zoology and botany. These courses were taught using a traditional lecture-lab format. As the primary instructor for the new course, I had the opportunity to design a new course model.

Building on student feedback from previous courses, relevant pedagogical research on the effectiveness of topic-focused and inquiry-based approaches (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005; Crowther and Bonnstetter, 1997), and my department’s involvement in the SENCER program, I structured Biology 114 around a number of focal topics. These topics involve timely, complex, and biologically relevant issues confronting society. Students are engaged in these topics from the start and are required to reflect on and inquire about these issues throughout the course. For example, we spend several weeks engaging the topic of cancer, a subject that most students consider interesting and important and one with a rich civic context. To build student interest in the topic, they are assigned context readings beforehand. These may be cancer survivor stories or articles on new treatment technologies. Along with discussions and reflective writing assignments over these readings, students analyze recent trends in cancer rates and are asked to generate hypotheses explaining them. Students then test their hypotheses, in effect, by writing a brief research paper that explores recent research related to the hypotheses. While engaging this topic and its broader impacts on society, students learn important biological concepts such as cellular chemistry, cell division, DNA structure and function, and cell regulation.

Other focal topics follow to sustain student engagement and interest in class and in their learning; these include genetic engineering and the stem-cell debate, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, human overpopulation, and the biodiversity crisis. Each topic is introduced with context readings and analysis of relevant statistics and data. Interest is sustained through additional readings, discussions, relevant news clips and videos, and short reflective writing assignments. While these focal topics function as umbrellas under which students learn much basic science content and make connections to live as citizens, they are also required to synthesize the material in the specific context of their chosen profession.

Students are further prepared for work in their future classrooms by participating in active, inquiry-based laboratories and through a novel assignment that requires them to reflect on biological content covered throughout a focal topic and then locate relevant K–8 Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs)that apply to the specific content (Virginia Department of Education, 2007). This encourages students to consider and make connections between the college-level concepts learned in class and the K–8 content they will be teaching in the future.

Assessment tools
To evaluate change in pre-service teachers’ dispositions I constructed a survey composed of twenty statements designed to assess attitudes related to science and the teaching of science at the K–8 level (Table 1, below). Students were asked to reflect on their level of agreement with each statement and respond using a Likert scale (Edwards, 1957), where 1 = strongly disagree, 3 = neutral, and 5 = strongly agree. The twenty survey statements were constructed around four categories focusing on different dispositions and capacities. Statements 1–5 addressed students’ level of confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts. Statements 6–10 assessed students’ awareness of the importance of learning and teaching science in a greater societal context. Statements 11–15 assessed students’ appreciation of scientific contributions to society and the importance of scientific research. Statements 16–20 addressed students’ feelings of achievement related to their personal development in how they think about science and science teaching. Additionally, students were solicited for comments regarding their feelings or attitudes about science in general and their ability and desire to teach science in their future classrooms.

The assessment plan and protocol was approved by the Human and Animal Subjects Research Review Committee of Longwood University prior to the initiation of data collection and was renewed annually. Students were informed of the study, assured the anonymity of their responses, and provided the option to participate. The disposition assessment and solicitation of comments were administered on the first day of class and again during the last week of class for four consecutive semesters (fall 2005, spring 2006, fall 2006, spring 2007). Of 309 students enrolled in the course during this period, 91 percent (n = 281) participated in the pre-course assessment and 84.5 percent (n = 261) in the post-course assessment. Of the participants completing the pre-assessment, 12.8 percent (n = 36) provided pre-assessment comments while 15 percent (n = 39) provided post-assessment comments. The student population in Biology 114 was predominantly underclassmen and female (95.8 percent). The majority of participants (84.6 percent, n = 238) planned to start a teaching career in the K–6 grade levels.

Disposition Assessment Tool Developed for Biology 114
Table 1. Disposition Assessment Tool Developed for Biology 114

Survey data were pooled from all four semesters into pre- and post-assessment groups. For this report on the project to date, I calculated means and standard errors of student responses to nineteen survey statements. One survey statement (number 16) was omitted from all analyses due to relevancy of the statement to the survey population. I also compiled summary data by disposition category and report pre- and post-assessment means of scores and the mean change in pre- and post-assessment scores by category.


Pre-service K–8 teachers participating in the Biology 114 pre- and post-course disposition assessments demonstrated a favorable change in their general attitudes toward science and science teaching. The mean of scores reported by students increased for all nineteen survey statements between the pre- and post-assessment (Figure 1). The largest positive mean change in response between pre- and post-assessment occurred in the personal achievement category (mean ∆ = 1.13), indicating participants felt more positive in their personal development of how they think about science and science teaching after completing the course (Figure 1). The second largest mean change in student response was in the category addressing students’ level of confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts (mean ∆ = 0.88).

I also found consistent improvements between pre- and post-assessment comments regarding participants’ feelings or attitudes about science in general and their ability and desire to teach science in their future classrooms. Students also responded favorably in post-assessment responses to the SENCER-style approach of the course. A representative sample of these comments is provided in Table 2. During the pre-assessment, 6.4 percent (n = 18) of participants indicated a career plan that included obtaining middle-school science licensure; in the post-assessment, that percentage had increased to 8.9 percent (n = 23).

Biology 114 Pre- and Post-Assessment Mean Scores and Standard Errors for Student Responses by Survey Statement and by Disposition Category
Figure 1. Biology 114 Pre- and Post-Assessment Mean Scores and Standard Errors for Student Responses by Survey Statement and by Disposition Category


Recent research suggests that college science courses that contain elements of inquiry-based and hands-on learning (Palmer, 2001), practical application to teaching (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005), and engagement with broader real-world issues (Middlecamp, Phillips, Bentley, and Baldwin, 2006) affect positive change in undergraduate students’ dispositions toward science. This preliminary study of the outcomes of Biology 114, a course that incorporates each of these elements in a SENCER teaching approach, lends further support to these positive effects on pre-service teachers. Though the recorded changes were uniformly positive in four semesters of data collection, the means and degrees of change varied among disposition categories.

Students’ self-reported feelings of achievement related to their personal development in how they think about science and science teaching (statements 17–20) showed the most change, while student confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts (statements 1–5) showed the second greatest change. These results demonstrate the course was successful at improving students’ confidence in their science abilities, which should translate into a more positive attitude toward teaching science in their own classrooms (Young, 1998).

Interestingly, though still positive overall, there was less cumulative change in dispositions related to students’ awareness of the importance of learning and teaching science in a greater societal context (statements 6–10) and in dispositions related to appreciation of scientific contributions and the importance of scientific research (statements 11–15). Mean scores for pre-assessment responses to statements in these two disposition categories were higher than were the mean scores for pre-assessment responses in the former two categories. Relatively high responses to pre-assessment statements in these categories suggest students entered the course with at least a perceived awareness and appreciation for the contributions and relevance of science. Exposure to intense media coverage of many controversial and capacious issues involving science may foster student perceptions of being informed and aware of these specific issues. This response trend may also be related to students’ previous science experiences, a possible covariate that will be explored in future analyses.

Representative Sample of Pre- and Post-Assessment Comments
Table 2. Representative Sample of Pre- and Post-Assessment Comments

The amount of change between pre- and post-assessment mean of scores reported by students increased over the course of four semesters. In fact, in consecutive semesters, students responded increasingly more positively to post-assessment survey statements in all four disposition categories. This temporal trend of improvement in science dispositions likely reflects the time required to develop and refine course content and context in this SENCER model. This consideration is important for others wishing to adopt this pedagogical approach.

Informal discussions with students further support post-assessment comments that students appreciated making science content relevant to teaching and to everyday living experiences: they find worth in studying science when they recognize it relates to their life and profession (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005). Many students found it challenging to match course content to K–8 SOLs and then provide a rationale for those connections, especially with the more abstract or complex college-level concepts that had no obvious K–8 counterpart. As these assignments had direct connection to their future teaching, students found them useful and helpful, even if difficult (Table 2). For an instructor with little formal training in teaching methodologies, these structured assignments provided an intentional link between content and teaching; yet by placing the burden on the students to make and justify their own connections to elementary course content, I was able to maintain class focus on subject content and context instead of on teaching methods.

Future plans for this endeavor include a continuation of the assessments in Biology 114 and discussions with colleagues on expanding the use of the pedagogical methods discussed here to other science courses required in the Liberal Studies major program. Also, as this dataset grows, I will examine the roll of covariates on assessment responses; factors such as the number of previous science courses the student has taken prior to Biology 114 and the grade level the student plans to teach may function to determine the degree of change in assessment responses. Additionally, I intend to broaden the use of these assessments to test the hypothesis that dispositions toward science, science teaching, and civic engagement continue to improve, first, as pre-service teachers move into their pre-professional education training and second, as new teachers gain actual experience in their own classrooms.

Biology 114 continues to evolve as a course as I modify content and context to reflect new trends and research in focal areas and discover alternative ways to engage future teachers in biology and science teaching. Future teachers who enter the workforce with an appreciation of and sense of excitement for the sciences will help to break the cycle and ensure that our children leave school with a better understanding of our world and the immense challenges and opportunities we face.


This research was supported through an Educator Preparation Program Effectiveness Grant from Longwood University’s Professional Educator’s Council. I thank my colleagues, Dr. Enza McCauley, for providing her guidance and expertise in the development of the assessment tool, and Dr. Alix Fink, for her encouragement and advice on the challenges and rewards of teaching through focal topics.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Fink is an Associate Professor of Biology at Longwood University. His research at Longwood focuses on basic and applied questions relating to the ecology of birds. His current research focuses on aspects of avian reproductive ecology and understanding the impacts of habitat alteration on reproductive success and population dynamics of early-successional birds of the Virginia Piedmont.

He is also interested in pedagogical questions relating to how undergraduate students, especially pre-service teachers, best learn science concepts and appreciation. He is currently examining the influence of existing science courses at Longwood University on dispositions toward science and science education among pre-service and in-service K–8 teachers.

Dr. Fink has been at Longwood since 2001. He has a doctoral degree in biology from the University of Missouri and Master of Science degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Texas A&M University.


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