Winter 2023: From the Editors

For the winter 2023 issue of this journal, we are excited to highlight a Teaching and Learning article on using climate justice and civic engagement to teach STEM. In addition, we are pleased to feature three project reports that include the development of a preparatory workshop for introductory mathematics courses; a campus-based research and service-learning project to use waste vegetable oil as a sustainable biodiesel fuel; and a creative approach to teaching botanical fieldwork under the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Climate justice, which exists at the intersection of climate change and social justice, is a pressing civic issue in the 21st century. In a collaborative project, Sonya Remington Doucette, (Bellevue College), Heather U. Price (North Seattle College), Deb L. Morrison (University of Washington), and Irene Shaver (Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges) have developed a repertoire of valuable resources for using climate justice and civic engagement as a framework for teaching STEM in a context that is relevant for today’s “climate generation” of students. The authors first introduce the principles of climate justice, focusing on the importance of equity in deciding whose voices are heard and who is represented in discussions of climate policy. In particular, the global communities who are most affected by climate change need to have a seat at the table. Drawing on research literature and a variety of reports, the authors make a convincing case that focusing STEM courses on issues of equity, justice, and civic engagement improves the retention of women and students of color in STEM majors, since the courses now become more meaningful to students and their communities. The authors’ presentation of using climate justice to teach STEM is an important contribution to current discussions within the STEM community about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. 

Mathematics is the cornerstone of STEM courses and majors, but many students enter college without the necessary skills to be successful in their foundational mathematics courses. These “gateway” courses can be an impediment that leads to attrition from pursuing a STEM major, especially for underserved students. A team of faculty members from New York City College of Technology, Sandie Han, Diana Samaroo, Janet Liou-Mark, and Laurie Aguirre, have developed an innovative support structure for students by offering free, non-credit preparatory workshops in mathematics, which are available to all students within their diverse undergraduate population. According to the authors, the key goal of the preparatory workshop is to improve student success in mathematics courses. Each workshop lasts for four or five days depending on student needs, and they are strategically scheduled right before the beginning of the fall and spring semesters. After assessing the impact of the preparatory workshops, the authors report that students who participated in these workshops during the summers of 2019, 2020, and 2021 earned a higher percentage of A, B, and C grades and a lower percentage of F grades in subsequent mathematics courses when compared to students who did not participate. These preparatory workshops provide a valuable model for supporting student success in gateway mathematics courses, which are critical for the pursuit of a STEM major. 

Guang Jin and Thomas Bierma, both of the Department of Health Sciences at Illinois State University, describe a project that integrates service learning with undergraduate research by using waste vegetable oil as a sustainable biodiesel fuel. Students collected waste vegetable oil from campus designing facilities, which was able to provide 50% of the biodiesel needed for campus vehicles. As the research component of their project, students learned how to (1) sample and analyze waste vegetable oil from various campus dining centers, (2) produce biodiesel fuel from waste vegetable oil, and (3) build a solar-powered device for the recovery of methanol and glycerin from biodiesel waste. In their feedback on course evaluations, students reported high ratings for their ability to apply knowledge and skills to benefit others or serve the public good.  This project provides an interesting example of using the college campus as a microcosm for civic engagement that is directly meaningful to students’ lived experiences.

How were faculty members able to promote ecological field skills during the social-distancing restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic? A creative solution to this challenge is described by a team of faculty colleagues from Truman State University (R. Drew Sieg, Joanna K. Hubbard, Madison Williard, and Zachary A. Dwyer) and Washington University in St. Louis (Rachel M. Penczykowski). Using the model of Course-Based Undergraduate Research (CURE), the faculty team designed authentic research activities based on an easily identifiable, plant species in the genus Plantago which could be observed by both in-person and remote students. New instructional videos were developed that introduced students to ecological research and plant species identification. After establishing an observational protocol, data collection about plant ecology within a local habitat was crowdsourced to all students in the course. All data were combined in a communal spreadsheet, which was then converted into a map displaying Plantago distributions within the city of Kirksville, MO (home of Truman State University). After training in statistical methods, students used the crowdsourced dataset to investigate their research questions. Survey responses indicate that students valued the real-world applicability of the project and the relationship of the course topics to everyday life. A comparison between student survey responses for the pre-COVID course and the COVID course demonstrated a statistically significant increase in the number of students who were willing to take other courses in ecology. The authors ascribe this increase to the development of the new lab module and the increased use of technological tools for the research investigation and hybrid instruction. This project illustrates how we can use the lessons learned from the exigencies of COVID-19 to inform the development of new course topics and pedagogical strategies.  

We wish to thank all the authors for sharing their scholarly work with the readers of this journal.

Matt Fisher, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Trace Jordan, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Marcy DubroffManaging Editor

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