COMPASS Outreach Spotlight: Students learn science policy impact through Sci4NY

Science for New York (Sci4NY) is an initiative that aims to bridge gaps between policy and scientific communities in New York City. We achieve this through project-based interaction to the mutual benefit of both groups and the city as a whole.

Through an ASCB Compass Outreach grant, we are developing a community science curriculum to help students develop literacy in science and civics while educating them on specific science policy issues facing their neighborhoods, and equipping them with resources to engage with their communities on these issues. The pilot lesson of the community science curriculum was developed and taught by Nancy Holt, Sci4NY co-founder, and Keeley Mui, a postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University.

To our knowledge, no such curriculum exists in NYC schools. Engaging students on local science policy issues allows them to connect with a subject that is often less familiar to them (i.e., science) with a topic that is familiar to them (i.e., the place where they live and interact on a daily basis). Teaching students how to employ scientific approaches to real world problems encourages them to think more critically and find solutions based in evidence.

To tailor lessons to where students live, we previously created a science policy map using open source data and community district reports to identify key science policy issues affecting each of NYC’s 59 community districts. Topics for future lessons in our Community Science Curriculum include but are not limited to renewable energy, urban farming, and climate resiliency.

We focused our pilot lesson on composting to help students understand how their decisions on waste and composting directly affect climate change and their local communities. Thirty-four percent of the waste generated in NYC is compostable material and amounts to 1.1 million tons per year. Of these 1.1 million tons, only 1% is composted while 99% ends up in a landfill. By diverting compostable materials from landfills, where they break down anaerobically and emit greenhouse gasses (e.g., methane, carbon dioxide), we can lessen our impact on climate change.

The city of New York has the goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030, and composting is a central part of the equation. However, composting at home doesn’t come easily in the city. A relatively costly pilot program for curbside composting residential waste—available only in certain parts of the city—was met with poor participation and has been suspended since May 2020. Grow NYC, a local organization, accepts food scraps at drop-off sites, but limited locations throughout the city mean that not all residents can participate easily.

We worked with a group of 20 eighth grade students at Parkside Preparatory Academy, a New York public school in Brooklyn. We provided materials for students to build compost bins and observe the decomposition of food scraps at home. Students recorded their observations over one month and formulated their own hypotheses on how varying conditions such as hydration and soil type optimize decomposition. We also encouraged students to keep a log of waste from their meals to help them understand their direct contribution.

It was important for students to not only understand the underlying science of composting, including the cellular organisms in composting (insects, bacteria, fungi) and the chemical reactions involved in aerobic and anaerobic decomposition, but also for them to make the connection between their decisions on food waste and the impact on the environment. Students learned about direct uses for compost in a city such as urban farming and community gardens, as well as indirect uses (fuel, heat, renewable energy). We informed students of local policy on waste management in the city and provided resources for how they can make improvements at home and in their communities to fight against climate change.

Investing in students by engaging them through science and local issues helps cultivate curious, engaged citizens who are more likely to give back to their communities. We hope students understand that they can lead the way forward and that they have the power to find solutions, and promote change in their communities.


About the Author:

Keeley Mui is a postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University where she studies how mechanical linkages on the nuclear envelope regulate cell behavior and 3D architecture in epithelial cells and in breast cancer.