Faculty Member Continues Research Project with New Jersey Youth

Faculty member Andrew Steen will travel to Pennsylvania this month to continue a research project that allows inner-city New Jersey teens to experience hands-on science.

This is the third year of the project, which started when Steen learned from a friend—Patrick Murray, a teacher at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey—about his students’ need for academic inspiration. Murray lamented that a very low percentage of the school’s students were going on to four-year colleges or universities.

Andrew Steen, working on the water enzyme project with students from Malcolm X Shabazz High School at the Poconos Environmental Education Center in 2014.

Andrew Steen, working on the water enzyme project with students from Malcolm X Shabazz High School at the Poconos Environmental Education Center in 2014.

Steen, an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences, and his wife, Karen Lloyd, an assistant professor of microbiology, decided they could do something to change that trend. So Steen, Lloyd, and two teachers from the high school created the Aquatic Biogeochemistry Team for interested students enrolled in math and physics courses.

In 2013 Steen and Lloyd led the team to the Poconos Environmental Education Center in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, to conduct scientific research in the waters of the Delaware River. The students thrived in the research atmosphere.

“This is the real deal,” Steen said. “Students are making new scientific discoveries.”

This year, Steen will work with the students to gather additional data.

Some students have participated in the program for multiple years, and Steen said their growth is obvious.

“You can tell they really retained both subject knowledge from the year before as well as some memory of the procedures,” he said.

In addition to boosting their biology grades, student participants are also learning leadership skills. Older, more experienced students have begun to mentor the younger ones who are newer to the project.

The program has had a significant effect on college acceptance rates for students involved. Three of the students who worked on the project while in high school are now attending Rutgers University–Newark, two are attending Rutgers–New Brunswick, and two others are at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Lloyd credits much of this success to the dedication of the students and the influence Murray has had on them in the classroom.

Although the research is taking place in Pennsylvania, the project has also reaped benefits for UT.

Steen said the students have been a big help, providing much-needed labor to further the research. And the findings have been interesting enough to merit an expansion of the project to the waters of East Tennessee.

Steen is working with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont to develop a program similar to the one in Pennsylvania.

“I think it’s a really good educational service,” Steen said. “We are exposing a lot of high school students to research opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Steen thinks the research field experience for high school students could recruit students to UT and ignite their interest in doing undergraduate research when they get here.

Steen made presentations about the research program in February at the International Meeting of Limnologists and Oceanographers in Grenada, Spain, and this spring at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He hopes to submit the research for publication by the end of the year.

CONTACT:

Andrew Steen (865-456 0851, asteen1@utk.edu)

Poconos Environmental Education Center, (570-828-2319)

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

Sarah Strong (865-974-2225, sstrong4@vols.utk.edu)