Students from Tamarac Elementary School showcased posters they made after researching public health and environmental challenges facing New York’s counties. The research was conducted with the help of Rensselaer students enrolled in an EcoEd course.

This spring, Rensselaer undergraduate and graduate students tried their hands as teachers of young students as part of an innovative program that connects Rensselaer with the community. Students were enrolled in the undergraduate course Sustainability Education, and in the graduate course EcoEd, with connections to the EcoEd Research Group at Rensselaer.

Rensselaer students ran EcoEd workshops in first- and third-grade classrooms at Tamarac Elementary, and ran an afterschool research group for high school students at Tamarac. Rensselaer students also ran a nine-week research program on campus, for both upper elementary and secondary students. EcoEd programs are designed to equip younger students with the research skills necessary to approach environmental problems. “At each level, everything we do is focused around research skills,” said Kim Fortun, acting head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, who runs the EcoEd program. “Any environmental problem is a tricky problem and requires research-
readiness to tackle.”
This spring, Sustainability Education was taught by lecturer Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, a graduate of the Science and Technology Studies Ph.D. program.

Rensselaer students are challenged to find ways to share the expertise they are developing in their own majors, enhancing the interdisciplinary nature of EcoEd programs.”

EcoEd’s on-campus research program focused this year on the environmental health of New York counties. With the help of a Rensselaer student mentor, each of the younger students chose a county and analyzed relevant data from government and news sources. The research was presented in a poster session and research symposium during Rensselaer’s Earth Week Festival in April.

The EcoEd program is in its third year. Each spring, a new group of students join the effort to develop and deliver programs that enhance both research skills and environmental knowledge among younger students. Rensselaer students are challenged to find ways to share the expertise they are developing in their own majors, enhancing the interdisciplinary nature of EcoEd programs. This year’s program for third-graders focused on “systems,” and highlighted the ways different energy and food production systems work.

EcoEd“The Rensselaer students are really partnering with the K-12 teachers as researchers, not necessarily as future professional educators,” Fortun said.

Studying teaching methods and the public education system is a major component of the course. When they aren’t working with the elementary school students, the undergraduates enrolled in the Sustainability Education course are learning about the history of education, current educational trends, theories of language and learning, and how social factors like poverty impact education.

Another benefit: “They’re also learning to be better students by thinking about how learning happens,” Fortun said.The students enrolled in the Ph.D.-level course, which was added to the program this year, bring a different perspective to the program. “It’s been nice having them in the mix, because they will go on to become professional educators, if not in a K-12 setting then in higher education,” Fortun said. “For them, this is an opportunity to think deeply and theoretically about teaching, while experimenting with ways to meet the education needs of different kinds of students,” Fortun said.

Holding the attention of a roomful of students, whether they’re in first grade or high school, and imparting sometimes technical scientific knowledge to them is an eye-opening challenge for the Rensselaer students, Fortun said.

“It’s striking how incredibly well-spoken technically our students are; through this program they learn to translate that to students of different ages and abilities,” she said. “They can carry those lessons about how to communicate about science and technology into whichever field they go on to work in.”