Stony Brook faculty members Kate Aubrecht and James Hoffmann have experiential education down to a science — or in this case, two sciences. During the past three years, Aubrecht, a chemist, and Hoffmann, a biologist, worked collaboratively with Sustainability Studies Program faculty members Arlene Cassidy and Jim Quigley to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum that explores the connection between chemistry and sustainability.
The team was awarded a $195,524 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create materials for two lecture courses and a lab that explore the connections between the chemistry-related and non-chemistry-related aspects of sustainability. Aubrecht crafted material for the lectures; Hoffmann, who is director of the Ecosystems and Human Impact major, helped develop the lab; and Quigley and Cassidy contributed class sessions on risk assessment and environmental economics, respectively. Their goal? To prepare students for careers in developing solutions to the environmental challenges our planet faces.
“It’s all about getting people who see themselves more as science students thinking about some of the practical applications of their work, the big problems they need to solve and how to talk to policymakers if the implication of their work is policy,” said Aubrecht, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, who works closely with the Sustainability Studies Program.
“For people who are on the policy side in sustainability studies — students who are more activists — this is all about getting them more comfortable with science and talking to scientists.”
Chemistry major Tara Schinasi ’16, who took Chemistry in Technology and the Environment — one of the courses funded by the NSF grant — said she was surprised to learn that the class was relatable to real-life situations.
“I found it interesting to hear about global warming and how people are working on things to make the environment better,” she said. “The class had given me an understanding of the chemical applications of environmental problems, something I wouldn’t otherwise find in a regular chemistry class.”
A major component of the environmental chemistry courses centers on lab work involving two solar-powered algal turf scrubbers — water-purifying devices that grow and produce algae to remove nitrogen and phosphorus — that are housed in the Life Sciences Greenhouse.
Algal turf scrubbers are not a new technology: They were developed several decades ago by Walter Adey, director of the Marine Systems Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution, but they are a recent addition to Stony Brook. Hoffmann, who had worked on similar units years ago when he was on the faculty at the University of Vermont, said he became the “tech guy” for the Stony Brook project by designing the solar-powered units. The expertise of the skilled Physics shop staff, who support research initiatives in physics, chemistry and geosciences, made Stony Brook’s algal turf scrubbers a reality.
Hoffmann said that he and Aubrecht bring different skill sets to the table but together have created a strong interdisciplinary endeavor.
“We complement each other — Kate is the chemist, I’m the biologist,” Hoffmann said. “I’m kind of a handy guy but Kate should get the lion’s share of the credit because she wrote the grant entirely and is the principal investigator, and that wasn’t an easy grant to get.”
And as much as Hoffmann downplays his role, Aubrecht is quick to point out that the reason why the team received an NSF grant is because of his expertise.
“When I came to Stony Brook I knew that I was going to be teaching an environmental chemistry course in an interdisciplinary setting and was encouraged to make connections to other disciplines,” she said. “I knew that Jim had been involved in green wastewater treatment and had a background in algae, so I reached out to him. I may be the PI on the NSF grant, but I wouldn’t have written the algal turf scrubber section of it without knowing that I had Jim on my team.”
Aubrecht said she hopes to get publishable results from studies conducted with the turf scrubbers, but the main objective isn’t to use the devices for research — it’s to give students an important teaching tool through which they can gauge the effectiveness of the technology in removing excess nutrients from water and assess the feasibility of real-world solutions, such as using algal biomass as fertilizer.
It all comes down to giving “students a more authentic learning experience,” said Aubrecht.
Emily Nocito ’16 couldn’t agree more. The coastal environmental studies major said she was eager for a hands-on experience in a lab and got that opportunity by working with the scrubbers through a course titled Chemistry for Environmental Scientists.
“Where else can I get firsthand exposure to technology like algal turf scrubbers while coming up with my own experiments?” she said. “This class focuses on topics that I am passionate about from a chemistry-driven perspective.”
And that passion is reflected in the rich interdisciplinary curriculum that the team has built.
“I believe in the mission of sustainability,” Hoffmann said. “I think it is literally a movement that is out to transform societal values and to change our behavior and consumption so that we leave something for our children. We shouldn’t be destroying our planet.”
— By Susan Tito