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As a high school sophomore at the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, Anjelle Martinez was interested in earth science, but had never had the opportunity for any hands-on experience with it. Then her earth science teacher told her about the Secondary School Field Research Program (SSFRP), run by the Earth Institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Since the program was founded in 2006, SSFRP has been bringing high school students, science teachers and undergrads to Lamont every summer to do field and laboratory research in wetlands ecology. Martinez immediately signed up and has been part of the program for seven years.
In the U.S., earth science is one of the least diverse of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Kuheli Dutt, assistant director of academic affairs and diversity at Lamont, found that almost 90 percent of the field’s doctoral degrees are awarded to whites, while faculty of color hold only 3.8 percent of tenured or tenure track positions in the top 100 earth science departments. At Columbia University, between 2015 and 2019, at least 95 percent of the department of earth and environmental science faculty members were white. There are still no Black faculty members. This racial imbalance in the field has persisted for decades everywhere. Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, recently acknowledged that science has been “part of the problem” of racial inequality rather than the solution. She urged the scientific community to commit to “initiating, expanding, and evaluating the effectiveness of programs to increase the representation” of people of color and Indigenous people in science.
Increasing diversity is not only about opportunity and representation—it also enriches the science itself. “When you have diverse participants and diverse stakeholders, you will have many more diverse perspectives, which definitely go towards strengthening any area of research that you look at,” said Dutt. She discussed a study of 2.5 million scientific publications, which found that those with ethnically diverse co-authors were cited much more often and gained more attention than those lacking ethnically diverse co-authors. Another study of over nine million scientific publications came to similar conclusions.
Dutt maintains that the various reasons for the lack of diversity in geosciences need to be addressed simultaneously. “The pipeline is broken at a very early age, and so one needs to invest heavily in pipeline programs,” she said. “But at the other end, these kids need to be able to see role models, they need to see people like themselves in senior leadership and faculty positions. And thirdly, the broader field of the geosciences tends to be very white-dominated, so the default culture in those fields mirrors the dominant culture. That means there is the issue of inclusivity for those who don’t belong to that culture.”
SSFRP, whose mission is to promote more diversity in the earth sciences, is an effort to get more young people of color into the pipeline. Eighty-five percent of the 400 students who have graduated from the program are Black, Latinx or South Asian. About 80 percent attended schools where the majority of students received subsidized meals. In past years, the program has partnered with public high schools such as The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, The Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens, The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, Bronx Latin, Bronx Center for Science and Math, Frederick Douglass High School I, Curtis High School, and the Manhattan Hunter Science High School. Science teachers from the partner schools help with the program, more students from the partner school attend, and SSFRP engages in science activities with partner schools during the academic year.
Bob Newton, senior research scientist in geochemistry at Lamont, founded and co-directs the SSFRP program along with former New York City science teacher Susan Vincent. Newton said that “40 to 50 percent of our alums attempt science or engineering majors.” A number have also gone on to graduate school. In any case, almost every graduate of SSFRP has attended college, with teaching, environmental science, environmental and/or electronic engineering, and social work being the most popular career goals. Many of SSFRP’s students have received merit scholarships, including five Gates Millennium Awards.
In the past, SSFRP has comprised a six-week summer session based at Lamont. SSFRP students and teachers, who receive stipends, are treated as “early career scientists” and are mentored by Lamont scientists. The students use Piermont Marsh, part of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, as their laboratory. Working in teams, they collect samples, do experiments, and study aspects of wetlands ecology such as sediment accumulation, groundwater chemistry, nutrient cycling, bacterial levels, fish species, fish feeding patterns, and invasive and native plant distributions. They also read scientific literature and take classes in data analysis and field science. At the end of the summer, the students prepare an oral presentation and poster about their project results.
For the past four years, the program has engaged 54 high school students (including recent graduates), 15 college students — most are graduates of the high school program — and 10 high school science teachers. The college students serve as team leaders, who plan and facilitate the field and lab work; most of them are young people of color.
This summer, because of COVID-19, SSFRP has moved online. Sixteen undergraduates — science or engineering majors who are alumni of the high school program — are serving as team leaders and conducting two-week online workshops for 43 high school students, with four to five in each. Ten high school science teachers from the Harbor School and Young Women’s Leadership are helping team leaders develop the curriculum. The workshops focus on environmental health, environmental justice, environmental racism, environmental and political activism, pandemics and zoonotic disease, wetlands nutrient data analysis, global warming and COVID, and green infrastructure and affordable sustainability. Equipment to measure air pollution or carbon dioxide is being delivered to the students so they can take measurements in or around their homes, and analyze the data.
In line with the Earth Institute’s mission to bridge the gap between the natural sciences and the social implications and policy issues related to the scientific findings, each one of the SSFRP workshops sits at the intersection between natural science and social issues and policy. “This year we took the opportunity to make our college kids really be responsible for the curriculum in these workshops,” said Newton. “We originally had a much more technical and traditional science-based curriculum and they just rejected it and asked for a chance to develop their own curriculum. So every single one of our eight projects takes some core piece of science and links it to the social issues that the kids care about.”
Remote learning, however, is actually the opposite of what SSFRP is designed to be: an experiential, hands-on, field and laboratory-based, group-oriented, leadership development program. But after the first week, Newton reported that it’s going quite well. “It’s an experiment,” he said. “But it might be a new model for how to build a multi-layered mentoring ecology [platform] online.” In any case, the students are very happy to be back with their friends from last summer.
And this is important because Newton believes the social aspect of SSFRP is key to increasing diversity. “I think the program is effective because we’re not taking one kid or even a pair of kids and dropping them into a very foreign setting of somebody else’s laboratory,” he said. “We put them in teams of four or five high school students, mentored by one or two college kids who came from the same neighborhood, and that group is mentored by a Columbia scientist. So wherever they’re working, they bring their culture to that setting. And it gives them a sense of ownership, of belonging, and a support group to fall back on.” Because these young people are maturing in the context of scientific research, “It makes that link for them that their personal development, their maturation, their social life, and their emotional well being are possible in the context of learning rigorous science and that creates a lifelong association with science that’s very positive,” said Newton.
Guadalupe Lazaro, who was a rising sophomore when she began SSFRP, is starting her third summer in SSFRP. For Lazaro, the best part of SSFRP is the connection she has forged with the students, mentors and scientists. “SSFRP is just such a welcoming place for everybody,” she said. “I instantly felt like I was part of a huge family the first summer there. And that’s what made me want to come back. Everybody’s so close with each other and so loving and so motivating. Nobody puts you down.” She recalled her first summer at SSFRP when she became discouraged because she was having trouble with her research. “At some point, I said, ‘Okay, well, maybe I shouldn’t be doing science. But the people around me said, ‘No, you have so much to give, keep going. This is science. You’re fine. You got it.’” Her experience is proof that SSFRP’s approach works; Lazaro will soon be entering Gettysburg College to major in sustainability and health science.
Anjelle Martinez graduated from SUNY Oneonta with a major in sustainability, and is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental education at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History. She also administers the SSFRP program at Lamont. “The program definitely put me in the position to want to go to college as a sustainability major,” she said. “Being out in the field and actually doing work in labs and working with real scientists, and working with my peers really encouraged me to pursue that path.” Now she is working toward becoming an earth science teacher for seventh through twelfth grade.
Martinez feels it’s critical to get underrepresented students exposed to science and science work at a young age, even if they don’t end up pursuing it in the future — this is her goal as a teacher. “I attended high-needs schools my whole life,” she said. “I feel like I should be giving back to the community that I’ve come from.”
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on July 22, 2020 to clarify the statistics around diversity in the earth sciences at Columbia.