Connecting Undergraduate Non-Science and Education majors with the public through social justice driven scientific investigations

Project No.
PI Name
MIke Barnett
Boston College


Abstract 1

Connecting Undergraduate Non-Science and Education majors with the public through social justice driven scientific investigations

Presentation Type
Michael Barnett, Boston College


Non-science majors and education majors far outnumber science majors in large introductory courses. It is critical, given the need for scientifically literate teachers and citizens, that large introductory courses provide such students an experience that supports them in understanding the nature and process of science. Our research group has focused on how to design scientific investigations grounded in a real world social justice issue to support students in understanding the broader value of science in society.


We are striving to engage non-science majors to become more interested to pay attention to scientific findings and to pick up and read the New York Times science section when thy come across it. We have students conduct analysis of air quality data from sensors we placed across the region of Boston and determine the variations of air quality and generate visualizations of the data that is visible on interactive screens placed in the community. The Air Quality mapping project entails (1) the analysis of existing data sets such as census, land cover, tree cover, and health (i.e. asthma rates) coupled with real-time air quality data (such as Figure 1), all of which is readily available and (2) the generation of visualizations and visual representations with appropriate descriptions of any relationships found between the variables under investigations. Students will accomplish this through an analysis of data from air quality sensors placed throughout the Boston area (see


his project is grounded in both the Participatory GIS (geographic information systems) movement (Jankowski, 2009) and the rising interest in citizen participatory sensing (Kuznetsov & Paulos, 2010). These two initiatives revolve around the concept of informing the public and eventually leading to the publicï¾’s participation in the use of data for increased community involvement and engagement of issues that impact their lives and the rising. We have been collecting student data regarding the understanding of the scientific inquiry process and by examining their research reports.


We have develop a suite of laboratory activities that scaffold students through the research investigations. We also have developed an outreach model where students share their work with the public. The latter is useful as it is now a standard practice in our course as we have partnered with local businesses to host kiosks where our students work will be displayed.

We have found that embedding technologies as
a central part of an environmental science course can be helpful in engaging students in thinking about
urban ecology concepts and the value of greenspace, particularly for urban students, as evidenced by
the performance on the written exams. However, we found that the students, despite performing well on
the written exams, still struggled to understand the relationships between ideas and concepts that would
lead to a deeper understanding of urban ecology (our primary content domain) and to connect the work they did using the geospatial
computational modeling software to their own knowledge and experiences. We speculate that part of the
reason for these results is that the written exam was written as an experience-near exam that was highly
correlated to what the students were learning as a part of the project. On the other hand, the interviews
were administered in order to gain an experience-distant assessment that tried to probe the depth and
robustness of student ideas.

We are scaling the work to include outreach work around setting us seismographs and to try to better directly connect the public with the students in our courses. We are particularly interested in having the general public provide feedback on the students visualizations and ask questions and have students investigate questions that are of interest to the public.

Broader Impacts

The number of non-science majors far outnumbers science majors at most universities, yet most research-based courses that have been developed has focused on STEM majors. However, non-science majors tend to have lower levels of science self-efficacy and lack skills regarding the scientific research process, yet often find themselves in need such skills (Laursen, Hunter, Seymour, Thiry, & Mellon, 2010). For example, more and more non-science careers are requiring scientific thinking and problem solving skills and more and more professions require the sorting of large amounts of data to identify patterns and trends (National Research Council, 2007, 2010).

We have published two book chapters and have received a number of news media outlets covering our work.

Unexpected Challenges

Our project focused on engaging students in collecting large data sets around air pollution and asking questions of that data. The students also were asked to design and conduct their own investigations. The major challenges revolved around the (1) developing the scaffolds to support students in being able to share their visualizations with the public, (2) developing scaffolds to support students in asking questions that could lead to an in depth investigation, and (3) supporting students in learning the technology.


Debay, D., Patchen, A., Cruz, A., Madden, P., Xu, P., Vaughn, & Barnett (in press). Coupling geospatial and computer modeling technologies to engage high school students in learning urban ecology. To appear in Improving K-12 STEM Education Outcomes through Technological Integration, Eds. M. Urban and D. Falvo. IGI Global.

Patchen, A., Debay, D., Barnett, M., & Strauss, E. (2014). Engaging students in scientific inquiry: Successes and challenges of engaging non-science majors in scientific inquiry (p. 271-289). In P. Blessinger & Carfora, J (Eds.). Inquiry-based Learning for Faculty and Institutional Development: A Conceptual and Practical Resource for Educators. Emerald Publishers.

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