The MDI Biological Laboratory will take a national lead in teaching data literacy to students and teachers though a five-year, $1.2 million SEPA (Science Education Partnership Award) grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health.
The goal is to establish a national learning model for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) secondary school education in data literacy. The project will focus on a major regional public health problem: the contamination of well water in Maine and New Hampshire by arsenic that leaches out of the bedrock.
“The MDI Biological Laboratory has a distinguished history of achievement in the field of environmental health,” said Hermann Haller, M.D., president. “We are pleased to be building upon this legacy with this project, which offers a huge potential reward in terms of building scientific literacy and promoting public health.”
Residents of Maine and New Hampshire rely heavily on private wells for drinking water, but few have their wells tested and standard assays do not test for arsenic, which has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the environmental contaminant with the biggest impact on human health.
Long-term exposure, even at low levels, can lead to severe health problems, including cancer; diabetes; heart disease; and reproductive, developmental and cognitive problems, including lower IQs in children. Arsenic is a particular problem in New England’s coastal “arsenic belt,” where up to 60 percent of wells have levels that exceed EPA limits.
Under the project, entitled “Data to Action: A Secondary School-Based Citizen Science Project to Address Arsenic Contamination of Well Water,” students will learn how to manage and analyze data about water collected from their homes and to communicate their results to inform action at the local, regional and even national levels.
“Students are more likely to expand their scientific inquiry skills and retain what they learn when the data have relevance,” said Jane E. Disney, Ph.D., senior staff scientist and director of education at the MDI Biological Laboratory. “The data they collect will be meaningful for them and their families, as well as for the larger community.”
The project will create student-teacher-scientist partnerships by recruiting scientist-mentors from the faculties of institutions of higher learning that participate in the federally funded Maine and New Hampshire INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) programs, which promote biomedical education and research.
“We anticipate that long-term relationships will develop as a result of the connections between these institutions and nearby secondary schools,” Disney said. “Our goal is for these informal STEM ‘satellite centers’ to inspire generations of students to become critical thinkers and to consider careers in science, medicine and public health.”
As an example, Disney cited the interest of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, in working with students and teachers from their local high schools.
“The scientists from these institutions are enthusiastic and so are the institutions,” she said. “They want to serve the communities that serve them. They also recognize the value of the interaction between students, teachers and scientist-mentors to furthering scientific inquiry and addressing the public health threat posed by arsenic.”
Disney, who directs the project as principal investigator, will collaborate with Bruce A. Stanton, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, the director of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program and a visiting scientist at the MDI Biological Laboratory.
The water samples that students collect will be tested by the Trace Elements Analysis Core at Dartmouth. Results will be provided to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to help monitor the extent of arsenic exposure and implement mitigation strategies.
The “Data to Action” project is an outgrowth of an EPA-funded environmental education project called “All About Arsenic,” on which the MDI Biological Laboratory also collaborated with Dartmouth. While that program succeeded in educating the community about the arsenic threat, it also identified a need for improving data literacy.
The new project will address this need by helping students and teachers make sense of the information generated through the process of scientific inquiry. By serving as a national model, the project will also help address a national need for improved STEM education by equipping students and teachers with next-generation science skills.
The project will also serve as a national model for engaging students and teachers in other types of citizen science inquiries, Disney said, including those involving other regional public health threats, as well as those involving environmental degradation and the effects of climate change.