On one level, the “Spidey Senser” project is about engaging the public in science. Community members, young and old, seek out, monitor, and then harvest the filter-like webs of funnel weaver spiders, bagging and labeling them before sending them off to be analyzed in a lab.
Yet, the project, led by Chris Hawn, an Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), could also fill an important gap when it comes to air quality monitoring. While expensive sensors provide data at the level of cities and regions, dust caught in these spider webs has the potential to provide insights into air pollution at the level of city blocks and individual homes.
These dual benefits are not accidental. They are the result of an approach to environmental research that takes inclusivity into account. Dr. Hawn sees it as part of an effort to reframe the notions of environmentalism and sustainability by placing the emphasis on “saving communities” instead of on “saving the world.”
This reframing makes an important difference. In Dr.Hawn’s experience, people of color are often drawn to “intersectional work” that focuses on solving problems in communities they care about. The Spidey Senser project demonstrates how research can mirror and amplify grassroots organizing, and it also takes seriously the environment as it is experienced by residents of Baltimore, a city that is more than 60% Black (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.).
Of course, many environmental challenges are global in extent. Fires across multiple continents this past year set records for their severity and focused attention on the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect vulnerable communities from the impacts of a changing climate. The virus that causes COVID-19 may have jumped directly to humans from an animal host, illustrating the potential for “spillover events” and how we are connected to the natural world and to each other (Mark, 2020).
Solving these and other environmental challenges will take time, creativity, and a commitment to asking difficult questions and valuing different perspectives. A strong focus on inclusion offers a chance to make meaningful progress by bringing more people from diverse backgrounds and experiences into this critical work.
Diversity is currently lacking among researchers and workers who focus on the environment, as it is across STEM areas. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans in 2019 made up less than 5% of those working as “environmental scientists and geoscientists,” though they accounted for 13.4% of the population (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). In 2017, according to the National Science Foundation, the vast majority of recipients of doctoral degrees in “natural resources and conservation” were White (78.0%) or Asian (14.2%), while relatively few were Black (2.3%), Hispanic (3.7%), or from other underrepresented groups (1.8%). Even fewer students from underrepresented groups completed doctorates in “geosciences, atmospheric, and ocean sciences” (1.4% Black, 3.0% Hispanic, and 1.2% other) (National Science Foundation, 2018).
The pattern of underrepresentation is similar when looking at environmental organizations and the various government agencies with environmental mandates. For example, Dorceta Taylor (2017) reports that, even with slight increases in the preceding years, people of color in 2015 accounted for 17.8% of employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and 13.3% of employees at the U.S. Geological Survey; in 2014, people of color held 22.5% of intern positions in a sample of 191 environmental organizations that were examined. By contrast, people of color in 2014 made up 35.3% of the federal workforce overall, exceeding slightly their representation (32.5%) in the civilian workforce (FEDweek, 2016).
One reason for the low level of representation in environmental fields is that young people, and particularly those from diverse populations, may have little idea what scientists and environmentalists do or what the work involves. A challenge for educators and scientists is showing that it is not about some scientist in a lab; instead, it is about students’ lives.
That is part of what makes the Spidey Senser project significant; spider webs are not just common, if sometimes spooky, aspects of daily life. They are also complex structures that can be used to track air pollution and assess possible health risks.
Making STEM More Inclusive
In December 2020, one of the authors (Hrabowski) gave a keynote at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual meeting in which he talked about the importance of promoting an inclusive culture in the environmental, earth, and space sciences, and shared lessons from three decades of doing this work at UMBC. He highlighted the AGU Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, which includes a call to increase the visibility of education and career pathways in these areas.
He also discussed the university’s broad approach to increasing representation in STEM, including the following actions.
Produced researchers: the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars Program, founded in 1988 to increase the diversity of research scientists, is based on the “four pillars of college success in science” – high expectations, building community, engaging students in research, and evaluating what works. The program, regarded as a national model, has been replicated at Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is supporting replication efforts now underway at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Diego.
Strengthened the pipeline: Recognizing the importance of preK-12 preparation for students to be successful in STEM disciplines, including the environmental sciences, UMBC developed the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program (SSP) to prepare STEM specialists to teach in under resourced schools, particularly at the middle school level. The program is part of a broad approach that emphasizes multi-level preK-12 partnerships based on strong relationships and shared values.
Developed models of success: Recognizing the importance of offering students a range of potential role models, UMBC is committed to diversifying its faculty through the UMBC ADVANCE program, which started in 2003 with an National Science Foundation grant to recruit and support women in STEM faculty positions, and a range of other diversity initiatives focused on hiring, retaining, and supporting the advancement of faculty from underrepresented groups.
Redesigned courses: STEM courses, particularly at the introductory level, are often referred to as “weed out” courses for their tendency to discourage large numbers of students from continuing. Faculty have focused instead on redesigning courses to promote group work, active learning, and the idea that students can succeed if they work hard and have access to support.
This focus on inclusive excellence in STEM has yielded results. UMBC is now first in the country in producing African American bachelor’s degree recipients who go on to earn Ph.D.s in the natural sciences and engineering, and the university leads the country in the number of graduates who go on to complete MD-Ph.D.s (National Science Foundation, 2020).
Preparing and Engaging Students
Producing high-achieving researchers with a commitment to diversity is a critical part of our efforts to make STEM more inclusive. Equally important is our focus on partnering with schools, including work with current and pre-service teachers. Our emphasis has been on exposing students to STEM career options and providing them with foundational skills in math and reading that they will need to be successful academically, whether they are interested in the environment, STEM more broadly, or in other disciplines. Too many students enter college lacking the preparation needed to do college-level work and have to complete developmental coursework in math, or even English.
UMBC’s activities connect at different points on the preK-12 spectrum. For example, the Sherman Center for Early Learning in Urban Communities, which focuses on the development of foundational skills for children ages 3-8, provides professional development for teachers, supports early learning research, and partners with a number of local elementary schools to provide resources and support. Some of these resources come from the center’s “Diverse Books Project,” which identifies and shares high-quality, diverse children’s books to engage young readers. The center’s list has more than 100 titles and a science curriculum developed by a teacher and UMBC alumna draws on books focused on ecology, the weather, and other topics.
Partnerships with schools across the region have taught important lessons about the value of developing multi-level connections sustained by strong relationships. In recent years, SSP has partnered with Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, a local Baltimore school close to campus, and has taken the same approach in working with a consortium of schools in the area. This effort has focused on understanding and responding to the schools’ needs, with an emphasis on professional development for teachers and providing extra resources, including sending teams of undergraduates to work with small groups inside classrooms as “math coaches.”
Students in this consortium are making significant progress; for example, at Lakeland, which serves mostly Hispanic (62%) and Black (33%) students, the percentage of students passing the PARCC exam in math and reading grew by more than 20 points in the five years of the exam, making it one of the fastest improving schools in the state (Bowie, Richman, and Zhang, 2019).
The partnership has led to other initiatives, including the Lakeland STEAM Center, which was created with substantial funding from the Northrop Grumman Foundation. The center serves as a hub for teaching and learning in STEM and the arts and a setting for community gatherings and programs offered by Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks. The center has a recording studio, a makerspace, and room for robotics teams to practice. It has enabled efforts that include professional development for teachers in creating hands-on environmental lesson plans. In addition, the center offers a way to involve families and community members, who can learn and share expertise about plant development and other topics.
SSP leaders understand the benefits of maintaining and developing relationships with schools over time. For instance, a connection with administrators at Baltimore’s Green Street Academy – a charter school focused broadly on sustainability – has grown deeper as several UMBC alumni have gone on to become teachers there, and the school regularly hosts SSP participants as interns.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
UMBC’s activities at the preK-12 level are closely tied to the university’s broad and sustained focus on inclusion and student success.
In the environmental area, this focus is reflected in teaching and research built around interdisciplinarity, student engagement, and problem-solving, particularly in the urban environment. Our Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education, for example, is focused on understanding relationships between human activities and natural processes as they occur in urban settings. At the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, a joint center involving UMBC, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, researchers focus on sustainable aquaculture, environmental remediation, energy, climate change, global health, and animal and human health.
A number of academic departments – from Geography and Environmental Systems and Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental Engineering, to Biological Sciences, Marine Biotechnology, and Physics – approach the study of the environment from different perspectives. A new National Science Foundation-funded master’s degree program known as ICARE (for Interdisciplinary Consortium for Applied Research in the Environment) involves many of these and aims to broaden participation in the environmental workforce by engaging students in research involving the Baltimore Harbor and surrounding environments.
For Lee Blaney, an Associate Professor of Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental Engineering, a focus on inclusivity means publishing papers with students from diverse backgrounds who work in his lab, which focuses on tracking contaminants in wastewater and finding ways to recover nutrients. At the same time, he works with colleagues and publishes research on the broad issue of diversity in environmental engineering (Blaney, 2018). His role as a mentor came to the fore when he supported a group of environmental engineering students as they developed an award-winning video for middle and high school students that answers the question “What do environmental engineers do?”
UMBC’s focus on inclusive excellence for more than three decades has convinced us of the importance of acknowledging progress. We were delighted in 2017 when Naomi Mburu, a Meyerhoff scholar completing a degree in chemical engineering, was selected for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study nuclear engineering at Oxford University.
This past fall, we received news that another Meyerhoff scholar was selected for the award. Sam Patterson, who is completing a triple major in mathematics, statistics, and economics, will study transportation economics in Oxford’s Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance Program.
The public rarely hears about high-achieving African American students like Naomi and Sam. When people hear about Black students, it is more often about academic deficiencies or disadvantages. That is part of what motivated Bob Meyerhoff, a Baltimore businessman and philanthropist, to begin working with us in the late 1980s to establish the Meyerhoff Program. He was concerned that the only positive portrayals of young Black people in the media, and particularly of males, involved sports and other forms of entertainment. Our country’s recent emphasis on social justice has everything to do with the fact that this is still the case, and most of the stories we read and see on television about Black children are negative.
We need more examples of success, because success breeds success. Children, teachers, families, and public policy analysts need to know that there are African American students who are excelling, and that we should learn from their experiences as we develop policies and practices to help more children succeed.
Naomi and Sam are products of our campuses work focused on sustainability, equity, and inclusion. Like Chris Hawn and many others, they are asking questions that resonate with them, and they are establishing impressive pathways leading toward research careers. Their achievements give us hope, even as we recognize the hard work of bringing about change must continue.
Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski is President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a consultant on science and math education to national agencies, universities, and school systems. He chaired President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans and the National Academies’ committee that produced the 2011 report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. His 2013 TED talk highlights the “Four Pillars of College Success in Science” and his most recent book, The Empowered University, examines how university communities support academic success by cultivating an empowering institutional culture.
, Deputy Chief of Staff at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, works on a range of academic initiatives, along with related articles and speeches. An expert on public policy, his research focuses on issues of underrepresentation in areas from science to teacher preparation. He has a background in outdoor education, and before starting at the university in 2010, he worked as a journalist covering science, the environment, politics, and other topics. While completing graduate work in journalism, he received support from the National Science Foundation as part of an interdisciplinary program in climate change science and policy.