Publication Date

Laura MacManus-Spencer, associate professor of chemistry, has been awarded an $88,185 Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Education and Human Resources (IUSE: EHR) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her collaborative research project “Groundwater Contamination in the Northeast: Improving STEM Education by Demonstrating How Science Matters.”

In 2014, the chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid (C8 or PFOA) was discovered in the public drinking water in the Village of Hoosick Falls, NY. As concern over this discovery grew, other communities began testing their water for PFOA. As of October 2016, PFOA has been discovered in unsafe concentrations in the groundwater of Eagle Bridge and Petersburgh, NY, Merrimack, NH, and in Bennington, North Bennington, and Pownal, VT. In response, select science courses at Bennington College and Union College will be redesigned in conversation with this unfolding contamination event. In these courses, undergraduate students will be trained in chemistry, geology, and environmental studies and equipped to apply that training in the production of independent data on a disaster in real-time. The project will craft new curriculum and teaching modules aimed at incorporating local environmental problems into science curriculum, as well as new methods for assessing the educational impact of doing so. The educational data produced by this project promises to inform and improve existing science curriculum at Bennington College and Union College as well as offer insights about what works in STEM education on a liberal arts campus more generally. This project will also produce key data on changing levels of PFOA in groundwater and regional soils that will provide a much-needed independent characterization of the contamination plume. This project, then, will showcase the civic value of an education in science for diverse undergraduate students and the local community.

The guiding educational research question of this project is: How can environmental research on a local public crisis enhance the STEM curriculum for undergraduate students? Specifically, this project will examine how training students in environmental chemistry and hydrogeology and equipping them to apply those discipline-based skills to help produce key data on a local crisis will influence student enrollment, fluency, retention, and vocational orientation in STEM fields. The researchers hypothesize that hands-on experience in meaningful environmental research will demonstrate the value of STEM fields in a liberal arts education and enhance student outcomes within STEM for both STEM and non-STEM majors. To evaluate this hypothesis, this project will produce data on changes in student attitudes towards and aptitude in chemistry, geology, and environmental studies while those students participate in environmental research on a nearby water contamination issue. Education assessment scholars will collaborate with project personnel to calibrate proven education assessment tools to this project. These evaluation tools include: pre- and post- assessments of discipline-specific knowledge, reflective prompts in Assessment Tools in Informal Science (ATIS) geared towards measuring students’ beliefs about and understandings of science, and the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey. This project will also develop a reflexive infrastructure of assessment designed to monitor the entire learning experience of students in these classes and incorporate preliminary findings into the overall pedagogy of the project. Together, these education assessment tools and methods will enable us to evaluate students’ mastery of disciplinary concepts and skills through practical application and exams as well as through self-assessments embedded in surveys, class discussions, and reflective writing exercises.