Making sense of introductory STEM courses with sustainability – Pennsylvania State University | Team Cansler

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – For some students, especially those who do not plan to major in science, the prospect of taking a college-level math course to meet a general educational requirement can be quite daunting. But what if students could take a sustainability course instead? A course that carefully integrates mathematical concepts into the curriculum? As it turns out, students at Penn State have just that option with the Mathematics for Sustainability course, and for those who take the course, it can be a much more engaging experience.

“Students come to the course with a lot of interest, concerns, and questions about sustainability issues, so it’s an opportunity for us to connect their existing interests with quantitative reading and thinking skills,” said Russ deForest, assistant professor of mathematics who has taught the course since 2015 informed. “We help them develop quantitative skills and see those skills as part of their toolbox – skills that they will carry beyond the course and apply in contexts outside of the classroom.”

The idea for MATH 33: Mathematics for Sustainability came from the late John Roe, who was Professor of Mathematics at Penn State for more than 20 years, including 5 years as a department head. He wanted to create a general math course to help students who would not be learning math or going into science.

“We want to teach quantitative literacy skills in a way that’s as engaging as possible for students, many of whom are frankly skeptical about math,” said deForest.

But the course is more than a vehicle for mathematics. Passionate about sustainability, Roe designed the course to prepare students to become active and engaged citizens. In a 2015 TEDxPSU talk, Roe described the natural connections between math and sustainability.

“When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about math,” he told the crowd. “Sustainable means that it lasts a long time. Math asks, “How long?” When we talk about environmental change, the math asks, “How fast?” When we talk about risk, the math asks, “What are the odds?” When we talk about ecology, about the interconnected web of life, mathematics asks, “How connected?”

Roe first offered the course in 2014 along with then PhD student Sara Jamshidi. In the first semesters the course had about 20 or 30 students, but it grew quickly and this semester the course has more than 100 students. As interest in the course grew, Roe and deForest, with support from the college, hosted two workshops for math departments on other Penn State campuses. And as demand for resources grew, the trio adapted the course notes of Jamshidi — now an assistant professor of computer science and mathematics at Lake Forest College — into a full-fledged textbook. Now, Mathematics for Sustainability and related courses inspired by the text are running on several campuses at Penn State and at least a dozen other universities.

This year also marks the launch of a Chemistry for Sustainability course at the college, designed and taught by Mary Beth Williams, Senior Associate Dean for Science Education and Professor of Chemistry, who was inspired by the math course.

“Students have been asking for this for a long time,” said Williams, who holds the James and Alvina Balog Faculty Fellowship in Science. “They want to see topics that interest them in our introductory courses. Chemistry for Sustainability is listed alongside CHEM 110, which is required for approximately 4000 students each fall semester, so it must meet the rigor sufficient for CHEM 110 and place it in a context that makes sense to students. I was very inspired by the work that John Roe and Russ did in mathematics. They were absolutely groundbreaking in rethinking how you can talk about sustainability while introducing math and science.”

content and ethics

Many topics related to sustainability involve the discussion of very small or very large quantities – at the micro and macro scales – so both the Mathematics for Sustainability and Chemistry for Sustainability courses start by putting these quantities in human terms .

After this “dimensional analysis”, the mathematics course introduces concepts related to modeling, starting with climate and ecosystem models. They also investigate how these models can be used or adapted to model systems with similar dynamics. Then they turn to the issues of probability and uncertainty and how these affect risk. Ultimately, the class applies the learned skills to decision-making.

“Over the last three years we have worked to integrate ethical considerations into more aspects of the course, and we use case studies to explore relevant ethical issues,” said Raymond Friend, a graduate student who started and is a teaching assistant for the course has been working as a trainer for three years now. “I believe the course has matured into a course that challenges students to consider ethical issues related to sustainable development and how to formulate and answer quantitative questions to investigate these issues.”

Meanwhile, the chemistry course explores topics such as the carbon cycle and atmospheric warming, plastics, and freshwater purity. This course is framed by case studies that use sustainability topics such as the construction of gas pipelines in Pennsylvania, plastic pollution of the oceans, and lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, to then dive deep into chemistry concepts. Williams sets the stage for the course with a documentary titled “The Human Element,” written by photographer and activist James Balog, son of Eberly alumnus James Balog and benefactor of both the faculty scholarship Williams holds and the integrated BS/ College MBA (Bachelor of Science/MBA) program.

“‘The Human Element’ refers to the four traditional Greek elements of earth, air, water and fire, and the structure of the course corresponds to these elements: atoms, gases, liquids and solutions, and reactions, including combustion,” Williams said. “Balog argues that the fifth element is man and his influence on the world. This course focuses on these human elements to connect with the world and students’ experiences, and motivates them to learn the chemistry that will help them answer the whys and hows.”

An unusual approach to teaching

Mathematics for Sustainability is an unusual math course, deForest acknowledges, and teaching a course like this may be unfamiliar to some math departments. This idea prompted the instructors to create the workshops and eventually the textbook that has inspired similar math courses across the country.

“The hallmark of the course is that we really help students move beyond the superficial level to real-life problems, even though they may only come to the course with a background in high school algebra,” said deForest. “A lot of math courses are designed around what we students can ask with the skills they have, but instead we’ve really tried to start with the questions that students care about and go from there. We have given ourselves permission to engage students with challenging problems without requiring numeracy.”

Both deForest and Williams said designing and teaching these courses involves trimming some content or changing the way some content is covered compared to a typical course. This approach can be challenging for some faculty, but both agree it’s worth it.

“Recently published research suggests that student learning actually increases when you decrease course content,” Williams said. “If students are very engaged and the content is meaningful to them, letting go of a little of the content is okay for student learning. Spending more time on how important chemistry is to sustainability pays dividends when students not only persevere but want to learn more.”

DeForest added that cutting content allowed students to have “real exploration” rather than asking them to learn a set of topics that they need to apply to the next class. The level of commitment, he said, is well worth it.

“The students make this course a spectacular experience,” said Friend. “When students realize that this course is not their ‘normal’ math class and that they are encouraged to pursue issues that are important to them, they feel very motivated to practice the math and ethical decision-making skills and to engage in discussions on our case studies to participate . As a general education course, we attract students from almost every other discipline at Penn State, which means they come with a variety of perspectives and skills. I was surprised by the insights they brought to our discussions.”

Friend fondly remembers his Spring 2021 students who created a list of resources to help University Park students and community members who are struggling with insecurities around food, health care, clothing, money or housing.

“The list was distributed across Eberly College of Science thanks to two classrooms full of civic-minded, compassionate MATH 33 students,” he said.

Teaching the course has also allowed deForest to explore active learning methods and, he said, develop approaches that have transformed the way he teaches math.

Williams also acknowledges that in addition to the book Mathematics for Sustainability by Roe, deForest and Jamshidi, she has benefited greatly from the teaching community at Eberly College of Science, particularly the college’s Center for Excellence in Science Education (CESE).

“The course is a different way of teaching general chemistry—a direction I’m only just brave enough to try given the years rooted in CESE and our broader teaching community,” she said. “I would love to work with other faculty that are inspired to consider deeply embedding sustainability into their courses. Perhaps one day the college will offer a range of sustainability-focused courses across all our disciplines as an alternative and inclusive route through introductory science and math courses! Because the jobs of the future for all natural and engineering sciences! – Students will have some focus on tackling the challenges of sustainability in our world.”

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