Category Archives: Science & Environment

S.T.E.M. Success Initiative tells students “You are S.T.E.M.”

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

In 2014, the S.T.E.M. Success Initiative (SSI) was launched to “empower Wooster S.T.E.M. faculty, staff and students in cultivating an inclusive community to better support the academic success S.T.EM. identity development for students from underrepresented groups.” While this is the stated mission of the SSI, it is a far cry from capturing the broad ideas and unique goals of the faculty who lead the initiative. The SSI takes a three-pronged approach to achieving its goal of empowering the Wooster S.T.E.M. community: academic support, professional development and inclusive excellence. Encompassing each of these areas is a robust effort to cultivate external relationships with like-minded groups throughout the College. The SSI, composed of various working groups and an advisory board with a yearly, rotating membership, encourages students to see themselves in S.T.E.M. You can break down barriers.

 In the area of academic support, the SSI operates the S.T.E.M. Zone. The Zone and its student employees, Zone Interns, have developed an exceptional reputation across all departments. Relationships cultivated at the Zone between young students and interns are about more than homework help. Each relationship could be the difference between a student walking away from the Zone with a feeling of belonging or the all too familiar — but extremely false — perception that S.T.E.M. is not for them. 

Kara Melrose, the SSI coordinator, says that the pandemic has made growing these relationships much more difficult. Face-to-face interaction is invaluable to the SSI and the success of the Zone. Melrose elaborated, saying “the informal mentoring environment is hard to create virtually.” However, Melrose, along with Professor Niklas Manz of the physics department, have leaned into this loss. Both Melrose and Manz believe that the pandemic has given them more opportunity to reach out to students virtually. Moving forward, these new virtual capabilities will aid and abet their mission — especially in the area of academic support.

The SSI aims to create an inclusive community. Professor Megan Pollock, chair of the SSI advisory board, stated that “the complexity of issues students face requires diverse groups” to apply their minds and experiences to the evolving fields of S.T.E.M. Over 84 percent of the current S.T.E.M. workforce in the United States is composed of white males, according to the National Science Foundation. Encouraging students from all backgrounds to see themselves in S.T.E.M., breaking down these barriers is intrinsic to the mission of the SSI. 

The advisory board, consisting of staff from CDI, the Learning Center, the SSI coordinator and professors, meets weekly to discuss ways in which they can nurture a more inclusive environment in the classroom. Missy Schen, director of educational assessment and another member of the advisory board, explained that the board reviews best practices each week that make the classroom a more congenial space. These practices include “think-pair-share questions and promoting group work” after careful review of peer-reviewed literature in relevant areas, said Schen. In addition to reviewing best practices, professors attend workshops that help them to make their classrooms open to all people of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and gender identities.

 S.T.E.M. identity development, directly mentioned in the initiative’s mission, seeks to not only develop a deep sense of “you are S.T.E.M.” in underrepresented groups, but also to instill this sentiment in all students working toward their bachelor’s degree. Manz, when asked how this applies to students who may feel that they are obligated to obtain a doctorate to become a scientist or mathematician, immediately identified how troubling this idea is. “To say that you are not a physicist, geologist, biologist or mathematician because you don’t go to grad school is very problematic,” Manz explained. S.T.E.M. is a mindset. It is not a credential to be waved around. Instead, scientific and mathematical reasoning are a basic approach to life’s most troubling questions about who we are, where we’re going and why the world functions in all of its weird ways. This identity development is part of SSI’s professional development goal, but S.T.E.M. is much more than a job title, a salary or career acumen. SSI, the faculty, staff and your fellow students want you to know that you are S.T.E.M. and always will be.

NASA goes from bunsen to back-burner

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

The privatization of space by large companies like SpaceX and a thriving ecosystem of startups including Relativity Space, Firefly and Made in Space has forced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to reconsider the role it plays in space exploration. Some argue that the privatization of space poses a threat to the hopes of democratizing space. Yet, NASA has been hamstrung by budget cuts since Challenger exploded in 1986 — reminding people how dangerous and perhaps insane it is to strap humans to a rocket that pulls upwards of eight g’s. Now Elon Musk and co. can do it in reverse, landing an orbital class rocket on a dime as it falls through 80 kilometers of sky at Mach 10.

Meanwhile, NASA has spent $18.6 billion on their new Space Launch System (SLS), which they have been working on since 2011. It costs SpaceX just $62 million per launch to toss Falcon 9 into low-earth orbit and land it again as many as 25 times a year. SLS has yet to leave the shore of our little blue dot. 

Then, in 2019, NASA announced that it would allow private citizens to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). These private citizens are not the average Joe. They are wealthy billionaires capable of paying for the $60 million it would cost SpaceX to launch them to the ISS — just as they launched actual NASA astronauts this past November. Prior to contracting out their launch capabilities to SpaceX, NASA had been hitching a ride aboard Roscosmos — Russia’s state-run aerospace company. Opening up space to commercialization as part of the process of democratizing the last frontier is a noble cause. NASA contradicts this sentiment, and in the process has resigned itself to a sort of space authority emeritus.

Instead of leading the space wave, NASA has taken to awarding space contracts and posting YouTube videos about returning to the Moon by 2024. However, the space industry is thriving and we most certainly have NASA to thank for the complex ecosystem of startups that have sprung up around it. Perhaps this is the proper role. Large government organizations simply can not compete with the innovation of agile startups with venture capitalist backing.

This past year, various startups were awarded one billion dollars as part of NASA’s mission to return to the Moon. The agency says that it hopes this new role will allow them to catalyze space in preparation for new markets. In addition to funding the technological and scientific advancements coursing through the veins of young space companies, NASA has agreed to fund some private companies in training their own corporate astronauts. For all of its storied history, the agency has gone to extremes to prevent corporate interest in outer space — especially in the ISS. Last year, Axiom Space agreed to repurpose the ISS when its operational budget runs out in 2022. The space infrastructure company plans on transforming the ISS into a massive space hub — literally a Star Trek-esque spaceport between the Earth and Moon.

NASA’s shift to space catalyst is not a bad thing, but it may represent a dangerous transfer of power in space from a democratic agency to for-profit interests. For now the relationships are very healthy. SpaceX and NASA have worked incredibly well together for many years now; a relation around which hundreds of startups have infused a new space race with nostalgia and innovation. The beloved agency no longer operates at the forefront of space exploration, but it most certainly will continue to surf the space wave as it breaches old stigmas, creates new markets and anchors each endeavor in science.

The big mystery behind climate models: aerosol particles and clouds

Melita Wiles

Science & Environment Editor

 

For what seems like ages, scientists have tried to get a better grasp on climate change and the primary factors causing global warming. We are certain that greenhouse gases are a main contributor, but we still do not fully understand how clouds and aerosols — the tiny particles that create clouds — factor into this picture. Clouds can reflect incoming solar radiation away from the Earth, but also can absorb and hold onto that heat.  

In her talk at The Science Café, Jennifer Faust, a professor of chemistry at Wooster, said, “The biggest uncertainty in modeling global temperature change comes from the interaction of aerosol particles and clouds,” and many scientists would agree with that statement. The complexity of this issue stems from the very beginning: the formation of a cloud. Aerosol particles create clouds with many small droplets, fewer larger droplets or ice particles. Each cloud reflects light differently. Usually the smaller the droplet, the more reflective the cloud. It is still unclear what reflective properties clouds formed from ice particles have. Faust says the science becomes even more complex when considering the chemical composition of the aerosol particles, which will also cause the cloud to reflect differently depending on the type of aerosol. Some aerosols work as reflectors to incoming sunlight, and some absorb it.  

Anthropogenic aerosols can seed cloud formation in the same ways that biogenic aerosols (natural particles) do. The chemical composition of these aerosols dictate what they become — a cloud or something else. If the particle contains hydrophilic particles, then they are more likely to take in water vapor from the area and create clouds. As stated before, ice clouds are more complex to understand and scientists do not yet fully know what properties are attributed to them. Their behaviors, when it comes to reflectiveness and contribution to warming, are commonly made from bacteria and pollen. These tiny particles can be concerning when it comes to climate change, but aerosols can also contribute negatively to the air quality and can harm human respiratory systems. 

Because of these complexities, cloud models are the biggest uncertainty when it comes to larger climate models. As climate models become increasingly more accurate with our newer understanding of clouds, it is not impossible to think that clouds could become thinner or completely burn off in a warmer world. This could add, at a minimum, a degree Celsius to global warming.   

A new technology has come into play to possibly combat this issue, but it also brings concerns of its own. Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification that alters the amount of precipitation that falls from clouds. This is done by shooting substances like silver iodide or dry ice into the clouds to create more precipitation. This modification has many benefits and drawbacks — it can create rain if needed and could help with climate regulation, but it requires the use of harmful chemicals and is expensive. There are also concerns with how this technique could cause potential issues in the future. This technique is man-made and could negatively impact natural processes. 

Our future depends on understanding how our climate changes. The big mystery is cloud formation and the composition of clouds. As Faust said, this task is not simple, but vital to human life and success. Accurately predicting future temperature changes affects science, but also migration, international relations and social justice issues.  

The Science Café holds monthly lectures on Zoom that are open to the Wooster community. The next talk, “Do you have hydroponic produce on your plate?” will be held on March 24. 

 

NASA’s new rover ushers in new era of science

Megan Fisher

Contributing Writer

 

On Feb. 18, the next Mars Rover, Perseverance, will have landed near the Jezero Crater on Mars after a more than six-month journey to the red planet. Preceding Perseverance are the Rovers Spirit and Opportunity (almost known as Rock and Roll), which launched in 2003. Another rover, Curiosity, launched in 2012, and then a stationary lander, Insight, launched in 2018. All rovers take up the mission of exploring the viability of life on Mars, specifically the history of water near the surface, other life sustaining elements like oxygen and the seismic activity of the planet. The rovers get their name from NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest where students in kindergarten through 12th grade can submit essays behind the name they propose for the next rover. The name Perseverance was submitted by Alexander Mather with an essay stating that perseverance is the most important quality of the human race, and that “not as a nation but as humans, will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.”

Perseverance will use a landing approach affectionately called the “seven minutes of terror.”  The descent and landing of the rover will take seven minutes, but information in the form of radio waves will take 14 minutes to transmit from Mars to Earth. Therefore, the process must be completely automated and mission control will not know the outcome until the whole process has already taken place. At the top of the Martian atmosphere, Perseverance will deploy a parachute to begin to slow it down, and a heat shield to protect the vehicle from getting scorched during landing. The Perseverance computer and artificial intelligence system will examine the terrain when it gets within meters of the surface to determine the optimal landing spot. The parachute will be released, and the rest of the landing will be powered by rocket boosters to (hopefully) safely land at the surface.

The Perseverance rover hopes to make many scientific advances toward the goal of humans habituating Mars. It features a drill that will collect core samples of rocks and soils to look for evidence of microbial life in Mars’ history. Perseverance will also be hosting an experiment to see if oxygen can be produced from the Martian atmosphere. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (M.O.X.I.E.) is looking to turn the Martian atmosphere, made of 96 percent carbon dioxide, into oxygen in order to both sustain human life and use liquid oxygen as fuel. The mechanism works very similarly to plants on Earth; the machine breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen.

 Perseverance is also home to a new kind of smaller rover never before used to explore Mars. Ingenuity, the new, smaller rover, is a helicopter that will demonstrate test flights on Mars. While not directly related to the Perseverance science objectives, Ingenuity’s flight demonstration could be pivotal for future transportation after landing on Mars for both robots and humans. Flying on Mars is more difficult than expected because of the very thin atmosphere. The movie “The Martian” contends that dust storms on Mars would have much force, but in reality, there are so few air particles present on Mars that even when moving fast, they muster very little force as a whole. This has to be taken into account when designing Ingenuity. Engineers had to design a base both lightweight but sturdy, and wings that could generate enough lift to carry this base through the Martian air. This resulted in two propellers with a rotational diameter of four feet rotating 2,400 times-per-minute to be able to create enough lift to carry the only four-pound base.

New geoscience courses emphasize career readiness and diversity

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

Melita Wiles

Science & Environment Editor

 

This year has brought a number of disruptions for all of us, but some changes have been innovative and welcoming to students. The Earth Science department has added a new course this semester specifically for major students called “Geoscience Careers,” and another new course, not yet named for first- and second-year students to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) fields. Megan Pollock, associate professor of earth sciences, and her colleagues have created these smaller classes to develop a cohort — a community of students — within the field of geoscience. The goal is to make students in this cohort feel supported academically and professionally and allow them to speak their minds and ask questions freely.  

Pollock said the inspiration for the class, directed towards juniors and seniors within the major, stemmed from the realization that students were struggling with connecting their academics to their plans outside of Wooster; either to their time between school years or their time after graduation. In these courses, they will learn what their options are, whether it is an internship, graduate school or a job in industry.  

The class takes a four-pronged approach to achieving its goal of connecting students’ Wooster experiences to life after graduation. First, a close partnership with A.P.E.X. was seen as necessary to help geoscience students “think about their professional brand,” said Pollock. This is something that all students need to consider before they graduate. Working closely with A.P.E.X. ensures that students seamlessly connect what they do in the classroom to their resumes, interview skills and overall professional development.   

In addition to building a professional brand, students also have the unique opportunity to work alongside scientists and staff of Environmental Design Group (EDG), an Akron-based company, through what Pollock called the Community Partner Project. Students work with EDG in the community of Wooster on a stormwater runoff project. In addition to gaining professional experience, students get to sharpen their technical skills and nurture interpersonal skills, while making a tangible difference in the broader Wooster community. Stormwater management is becoming more relevant to small cities as climate change causes more severe rain events. A good stormwater management program not only maintains the overall health of infrastructure, but also lessens the impact of crises caused by severe storms.  

In addition to working with EDG, students work with the Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) as another way to tailor their work to Wooster on a more local level. Beyond the work with EDG and OARDC, students can also obtain a stormwater certification online through StormwaterONE, which has credentialed more than 15,000 professionals in the fields of geoscience, engineering and construction.  

Lastly, the class encourages reflection. Students across all disciplines can attest to the confusion that learning at the college level induces. To ameliorate the confusion that sometimes accompanies learning, this course builds students’ confidence by engaging students in a reflective component of the class. Pollock insightfully mentioned that students often overlook how far they have come, and said she wants all S.T.E.M. students to recognize the impact they can have based solely on the value they have created in themselves.   

The other class that is being offered this coming fall semester is primarily for first- and second-year students. It is directed at students who do not know a lot about geosciences but want to explore their options.  

This summer, there is also a geoscience program through the Applied Methods and Research Experience (AMRE) with priority given to first year students, specifically BIPOC and other underrepresented groups. The aim is to get more students from diverse backgrounds interested in S.T.E.M. Through the AMRE program, students can gain hands-on experience, learn about potential paths in geoscience and create a strong S.T.E.M. community. The AMRE project, which is similar to the project in the Geoscience Careers class, will help students develop hard geoscience skills and make connections between S.T.E.M. and the community. This summer program is especially important to Pollock, as she believes there are many different problems to solve in geoscience, making it necessary to have a diverse group of people studying these problems in order to make progress as a science.   

When asked about how she plans to create a welcoming, supportive community, Pollock said that she plans on having third- and fourth-year students as peer mentors, who have completed the Geoscience Careers course, to guide first- and second-year students. This will not only add to the supportive cohort Pollock mentioned, but also build confidence in the younger students looking to continue in the geoscience major.  

As stated before, Pollock’s goals include focusing on professionalism while teaching and helping students improve their hard and soft geoscience skills throughout the class. This is to ensure they are well-versed in the discipline of their choosing before graduating. Pollock’s response to a question about what motivated her was a call to action: there is a lack of diversity in geoscience. Although there have been a lot of resources and funding directed towards improving this problem, there has been no explicit movement in the geosciences to fill this gap; she believes it to be her responsibility to do something about this.   

While Wooster has such a multi-faceted population, there is still room for more diversity in the geosciences and S.T.E.M. in general. Pollock is pushing for the development of a culture where everyone knows how diverse the S.T.E.M. community needs to be. This push is just the start and needs to grow quickly. The problems in our world are urgent; they include climate change, myriad natural hazards and many others. Solutions to these problems will benefit from the thinking of a diverse group of minds.  

The geosciences continue to be one of the least diverse science disciplines. A recent study from Nature Geoscience found that 90 percent of doctoral degrees were awarded to white people, and faculty of color hold only about four percent of tenured or tenure track positions in the top 100 geoscience programs across the United States. These alarming statistics should be a wake-up call to geoscientists and have been to Pollock. Greater diversity leads to better science, innovation, decision making and a better representation of community needs. Science affects everyone, so representation must be broad with people from a multitude of backgrounds in these fields. It can be difficult to choose a discipline to which one does not have a personal connection. Therefore, by involving more diverse groups in S.T.E.M., others can be inspired to become a part of the S.T.E.M. community.  

The Earth Science department at The College of Wooster is helping diversify their field and other S.T.E.M. fields by fostering a safe and inclusive environment for people to excel at science during their time at Wooster and beyond. Pollock wants to show every student that there is a place for everyone in S.T.E.M., even though the science can be daunting and difficult given the environmental and industrial problems associated with the field. There is a stigma within the geosciences that it is the “easy” science. But is fixing the problem of climate change or preventing a natural disaster that simple? It has become clear to the world that the former is not that simple to solve. Pollock wants to bring students who are diverse, smart, and hardworking into the major. As she said, “We are not rocks for jocks. We are not all old white men in flannels.”  

While Pollock would love for all students to come out of their first-year classes as declared geoscientists, she believes that she will have succeeded if the students pick any discipline in S.T.E.M. By incorporating these classes into the geoscience curriculum. Pollock hopes that juniors and seniors will feel more prepared for life after Wooster — in terms of professionalism and their science skills — and that younger students will learn more about the field of geoscience. Her advice to any student potentially interested in any aspect of science is to reach out and communicate with her. She is happy to talk about science with all students. Pollock can be contacted at mpollock@wooster.edu

The ivory tower meets the masses: responding to science denialism

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

The astronomers Galileo and Copernicus found themselves at odds with the Catholic Church centuries ago as they postulated “heretical” ideas about the solar system. Yet, Christianity still runs strong through the hearts of over two billion people. To the Church, science and objective truth were seen as degrading to the profound spiritual connection it had worked to cultivate with God. Even today, the rigidity of the scientific method and the reality of the lived experience clash over topics as simple as the shape of our planet.

This gap must be bridged. Reason must replace cold logic and staunch denialism. Scientists must come down from their ivory towers and denialists from their world of information saturation to engage one another — a walk in the other person’s shoes. And no, Twitter is not a forum for genuine engagement.

Denialism is often associated with the grieving process, but in a world of talking heads, science denialism is generally rooted in the idea of questioning everything — yes, scientists’ curiosity has been inverted and turned on them. Where questioning everything becomes denialism is the point at which the mentality overrides the response people have to being presented with a reasonable argument and conclusion.

Curiosity and the process of peer-review are the forces that create and push back against science denialism. The world of scientific research and publishing remains out of reach to all but the Ph.D. It would do scientists good to recognize that the same mistrust of establishment politicians fuels the mistrust of science. People feel disconnected from science the same way they feel disconnected from the elected officials they chose to represent them. The average peer-reviewed research paper published in well-respected journals is often too complex for even an undergraduate student to understand without spending hours researching every word in the abstract.

Science communication and the implementation of scientific policy are key to solving this problem. The normal academic response to denialists is to engage the denier in debate. However, these debates often devolve into arguments that do little more than highlight differences in beliefs, lifestyle and selective arguments that nitpick. Instead of pointing out the ignorance of denialists, scientists and those in positions of influence should identify the process denialists take to reach their bizarre conclusions. Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee argued in a paper published in the European Journal of Public Health that scientists ought to sidestep the denialist’s rejection of evidence and involve the general public in “exposing the tactics the denialists employ.” Consensus, not cold logic and scientific “bible beating,” can overcome denialism while the majority of people are reasonable enough to accept strong evidence.

Attention drives much of human behavior, especially in a democracy where every voice counts. Flat-earthers (flearthers) are a prime example. Much of their denialism is fueled by eccentric thoughts. Flearthers pose no real threat to our existence or survival. Paying no attention may well be the best course of action in cases like this.

 On the other hand, climate change poses a very real and immediate threat to our species. The process by which climate denialists most often arrive at their conclusion is rooted in greed (oil tycoons and beneficiaries). They are also masters of selective argumentation — nitpicking the most minute detail, taking it out of context and twisting it to accommodate their worldview. There is no quick fix to climate change or the denial thereof. A Nature article published in 2019 suggested that steady perseverance in exposing the flawed arguments will ultimately give way to the progress we are now seeing in industries such as renewable energy.

In 1999, the former president of South Africa, Thambo Mbeki, drew international attention when he continually argued that HIV did not cause AIDS despite the overwhelming amounts of scientific evidence suggesting otherwise. Mbeki prevented many people from accessing drugs to treat the condition. Instead, the government recommended herbal treatments. The denialism in this case has been estimated to have caused over 300,000 deaths.

These situations and understanding the diverse worldviews that lead to science denialism are integral in informing and confronting the issues at hand. A walk in the other person’s shoes should always be the first step in understanding where a denialist comes from. Then, exposing the tactics they employ instead of scientific bible beating should lend itself consensus and reason. From harmless flearthers to presidents to the keyboard warrior on Twitter, we all have a profound responsibility to be curious, ask questions and reason through dialogue.