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Research Projects

Youth Development and 4-H

In this study, we aim to better understand professional development experiences that center equity and justice in science education for educators and students participating in and staffing 4-H programs at UMass Amherst. Specifically, we seek to examine the relationship between the designed experiences and learning on the part of undergraduate students, graduate students, 4-H and other out-of-school educators, and the impact on their students’ learning. Our research questions include:

What do undergraduate students, graduate students, 4-H and other out-of-school educators learn through science professional development experiences, and how do specific instructional designs provide opportunities for these participants’ engagement and learning?

How do undergraduate students, graduate students, 4-H and other out-of-school educators view the usefulness, quality, and impact of science professional development experiences?

What experiences provide opportunities for undergraduate students, graduate students, 4-H and other out-of-school educators to develop a commitment to equity- and justice-oriented science education?

How do these professional development experiences shape the science learning of the youths who participate in 4-H programs?

 

There is an alarming under-representation and exclusion of racially minoritized peoples in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields in the United States (Fry et al., 2021). One approach to remedying this systematic exclusion appeals to the moral failure these gaps represent and the need to reimagine the STEM fields, rather than the geopolitical and socioeconomic needs of the US (Suárez & Beatty, 2022). There is also an economic need to address this injustice, as the US was projected to need approximately one million more professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by the year 2022 (Long & Henderson 2022). These demands are felt more acutely in urban and rural areas, as the numbers of minoritized students have increased (Census Bureau, 2020), while culturally-sustaining services continue to lag. Based on these realities, 4H programs have made strides to make diversity and inclusion essential elements of their youth programs, given that youth from historically marginalized groups benefit from intentional policies and practices that disrupt the systemic oppression (Sumner, Turner, Burrow, 2018).

One mechanism for redressing these injustices lies in strengthening partnerships between universities and local communities, particularly as a means to increasing the enrollment of youth from historically under-served groups in STEM majors (Alcéna-Stiner & Markowitz, 2020; Foster et al., 2010; Gilmer et al., 2005). Recent policy documents, like the K-12 STEM Education Report (Holdren et al., 2010) and the Undergraduate STEM Education Report (Olson & Riordan, 2012), emphasize the role that colleges and universities should play in reducing the systemic inequities that underlie the under-representation of certain groups in STEM majors, such as developing robust after-school programs where youth can experience authentic STEM (Laursen et al., 2007). As the proportion of Black and Latinx US PhD recipients in science and engineering has barely changed from 2008-2017 (Black: 4.9-5.4%; Latinx: 5.6-6.5%; NCSES - NSF), it is imperative for colleges and universities to address the many barriers to STEM careers that differentially affect participation by students in marginalized groups, such as lack of early access to STEM content and relatable role models (Ong et al., 2011).

Though usually developed by STEM faculty, it is common for graduate and undergraduate students to be the ones implementing and managing STEM outreach programs (Ufnar et al., 2012). Leading and teaching in STEM outreach programs can have positive outcomes for participating college students. For example, one study who examined the role of biology undergraduate students as docents in a natural history museum (Pyatt, Rosser, Powell, 2009). Specifically, the authors designed a docent training program that addressed the science-specific content knowledge and leveraged a small-group structure within which undergraduate students observed, reflected on, and practiced effective pedagogical strategies. When surveyed, all participating students reported an increase in their understanding of the content and, most importantly, the majority of respondents agreed that small groups helped them learn how to engage with museum visitors. Similarly, graduate students who participated in an outreach program at CU Boulder reported benefits along three dimensions: (1) specialized knowledge and pedagogical skills needed to succeed in the profession; (2) direct involvement with the profession’s activities, such as developing materials they could use in future positions; and (3) personal investment in the role and status of the profession, particularly through developing confidence as scientists and in supporting youth learning about science (Laursen et al., 2012).

While the outcomes for undergraduate and graduate students were encouraging, many questions remain about how to best support them in rising to the challenge of enacting equitable pedagogies and curricula, as well as acting as agents of change that disrupt systemic injustices in STEM. The field of P-12 science education has been undergoing a transformation, prioritizing learning that is student-centered and engages students in the processes and practices of scientists to learn about the world, rather than following lectures or recipe-like experiments (NASEM, 2018; NASEM, 2021; NRC, 2012). Specifically, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) emphasize an approach to learning where teachers and curricula support students to develop their conceptual understanding through engaging in science and engineering practices, such as posing questions, interpreting their observations, and proposing evidence-based explanations. This “practice turn” differs from the pedagogies undergraduate and graduate students often experience in their STEM programs, which leads them to assume that high-quality teaching entails transmitting knowledge to students who are framed as empty vessels (Gardner & Parrish, 2019). While seemingly preferable, these transmission-based pedagogies underlie inequitable learning environments, especially for youth of color, by limiting their agency for learning (Freire, 2005; Morales-Doyle, 2017). Recent studies have shown that academic scientists seldom receive professional development on how to make their STEM courses more equitable through their teaching and curriculum (Hazari et al., 2020).

Against this background, our proposed research aims to understand the necessary elements of a professional development (PD) program for undergraduate students, graduate students, 4-H and other out-of-school educators that supports the development of more equitable pedagogies. These teaching practices will invite youth to be agents in the process of investigating the natural world and build on youth’s cultural experiences to make the learning more meaningful. We recognize that participants may bring a deep content expertise that is foundational, while also acknowledging that they will need additional support to develop a set of core practices to support youth from under-served communities to learn science and see themselves as scientists. Specifically, our research will focus on participants’ engagement, discourse, publicly expressed ideas about equitable teaching strategies, the role of asset-based pedagogies when planning lessons, and the importance of learning about the natural world through engaging in science practices. These pedagogical skills will prepare undergraduate students, graduate students, , 4-H and other out-of-school educators to teach in a broader range of educational contexts, and them to become agents of change who can transform their institutions through equitable teaching and learning.

Energy

Department of Project: Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Plant seed oils have tremendous potential as environmentally, economically and technologically feasible replacements for petroleum, but the relatively low oil yields from existing crops limits the commercial viability of seed oil-based biofuels. Therefore, a primary issue of concern with biofuels and bio-products is the ability to produce enough feedstock oils without displacing food crops. A second major concern is that environmental stresses such as drought, salinity, heat, and exposure to toxic metals adversely affect the growth and productivity of crop plants and thus are serious threats to crop production for food as well as biofuels. Additionally, increase oil contents and composition of fatty acids in edible oil not only improve the food security but will also improve the health of millions of people globally. Our proposed study addresses these fundamental concerns with research to enable the growth of high yield biofuel crops on contaminated and marginal lands without displacing food crop production. Molecular and biochemical approaches are proposed for improving the tolerance of plants to multiple abiotic and oxidative stresses, which will enable biofuel crops to grow on marginal and nutrient poor lands.

Department of Project: Environmental Conservation Dept.

Agrivoltaics (or dual-use solar) research has ramped up in the U.S. and worldwide over the past five years.  UMass Amherst is a pioneer in this research with an early site trial established by Prof. Stephen Herbert with support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm.  In 2020, UMass received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office to research the Impacts of Dual-Use Solar on Crop Productivity and the Agricultural Economy in Massachusetts and Beyond.  Under this research grant, UMass will conduct research site trials and economic evaluations across 5-7 commercially agrivoltaics sites install in Massachusetts.

Over the past two years, the U.S. Department of Energy (U.S. DOE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have held Joint USDA-DOE Workshops on Agrivoltaics, recognizing the opportunities, challenges, and research needs in this area.  Nationally, agrivoltaics research has been led by the U.S. DOE Innovative Solar Practices Integrated with Rural Economies and Ecosystems (InSPIRE) which provides an open sources access of research across the U.S. and globally.  For outreach information to the solar, agriculture, and policy communities, the AgriSolar Clearinghouse provides an information-sharing, relationship-building, public communications hub for all things agrisolar.

Department of Project: Microbiology Dept.

Although considerable research has been performed focused on the conversion of biomass to useful products, to date we still have no functional bio-refineries in the US or globally. One of the key problems in the conversion of biomass is known as the "lignin recalcitrance barrier". Lignin is a tough "plastic material" produced by plants that, at the molecular level, coats the "cellulosic" components of biomass that are used to produce most bio-based products and biofuels. Currently some very harsh chemical and heat pre-treatment systems that release cellulosic components from the surrounding lignin barrier are used in pilot scale research for most bio-refineries. To date however, these have been shown to be so harsh that they either damage the cellulose components, they are so polluting that they generate problematic or hazardous wastes, or they simply are so expensive that they cannot be used practically. What our research focuses on is harnessing and utilizing the CMF system that was developed millions of years ago by fungal organisms (a system that has largely been ignored by most scientists interested in biomass conversion). We hope that by harnessing the system that these unique "brown rot" fungi have evolved over the millennia that we can mimic and apply their chemistries to produce biorefinery systems that are more effective, and in particular that are highly energy efficient, cost efficient, safe and non-polluting.

Food Science

Department of Project: Food Science Dept.

The incidence and prevalence of chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), obesity, and other inflammation-related human disorders, have risen dramatically in recent decades in United States and other countries. These alarming trends suggest that it is of critical importance to develop novel strategies for preventing these chronic diseases. In this project, the effects and mechanisms of food-derived bioactive compounds on development of the chronic diseases will be investigated. Furthermore, the metabolic fate of food bioactives will be characterized following oral ingestion to inform innovative strategies to enhance their biological efficacy. In aggregate, these efforts will yield fundamental knowledge critical to develop safe and effective diet-based strategies for disease prevention and maintenance of health.

Department of Project: Food Science Dept.

This proposal involves a collaborative effort between researchers at multiple institutions in the US and includes basic and applied research over a wide range of food commodities with a goal of risk-based research and outreach to address the safety of food from farm to fork. The principal investigators (PIs) of many different institutions across the US meet annually to foster and cement collaborations, and expand their many regional and national connections in food commodity production, processing, distribution and retailing across the US. The PIs have, and continue, to work to standardize microbiological methods among laboratories so that results may be directly comparable and reproducible. Whenever appropriate, standard methods such as those from the Compendium of Methods for the Microbiological Examination of Foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Bacteriological Analytical Manual (BAM), International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or other applicable sources (AOAC, USDA, etc.) are used for the enumeration or identification of foodborne pathogens. Additionally, records of the specific source of materials and reagents used will also be compared in cases where notable differences are identified, as inconsistencies or differences in the production practices of different suppliers can affect the observed results. The use of standardized, validated methodologies--and the materials used to perform them--are often overlooked but critically important aspects of collaborative studies. PIs of this group have already previously developed and validated many of the methods that we propose to use here. However, additional cross- laboratory validations of new and emerging methods are continually evolving and include: evaluation of strain, inoculum preparation and concentration method, impact of laboratory humidity, and recovery methods.

Department of Project: Food Science Dept.

A growing body of evidence supports that early-life nutrition plays a critical role in predisposing individuals to chronic diseases later in life. In the recent years, studies on maternal-paternal nutrition and factors during the first 1000 days have been the subject of much investigation, whereas work on the impact of exposures during childhood and adolescence, largely the grade school and pubertal age, on health outcome later in life is limited. Colorectal cancer (CRC) is one of the most prevalent cancers worldwide. Epidemiological evidence shows that the incidence rate of CRC among adults ≥ 50 years of age has gradually decreased in recent decades while the rate continuously rises in young adults (young-onset CRC). Along with the rise of CRC in young adults, a significantly increasing trend in obesity is also being observed in youth. Emerging evidence suggests that childhood obesity is associated with CRC risk and cancer-specific mortality in several cohort studies. Additionally, lifestyle factors in childhood and adolescence such as energy-dense, high-fat, sugar-rich diet and physical inactivity are significantly correlated to childhood and adolescent adiposity as well as adulthood CRC risk. However, the understanding of this connection between young obesity and the development of CRC in adults remain poorly understood. Particularly, it is entirely unknown how the current increase of obesity in childhood and adolescence may be contributing to the temporal rise of young-onset CRC. This proposal aims to understand how diet-induced obesity in early life during childhood and adolescence shifts the gut microbiome and promotes intestinal inflammation that will extend to later in life and contribute to the development of young-onset CRC.  To accomplish this objective, we propose to utilize a preclinical murine model to mimic the impact of diet-induced obesity during childhood and adolescence, and utilize it in pursuit of the following specific aims: 1) to investigate how diet-induced obesity in early life shifts the gut microbiome and promotes intestinal inflammation later in life; and 2) to determine how diet-induced obesity in early life promotes young-onset intestinal tumorigenesis. Our ultimate goal is to contribute to the development of dietary recommendations for individuals in early life stages to promote public health later in life.

Department of Project: Food Science Dept.

This research project addresses the growing global demand for protein through the exploration of alternative sources by also considering environmental sustainability. The focus is to optimize single-cell protein cultivation approaches, design efficient downstream processes for protein-rich extracts, and evaluate structuring processes for alternative proteins. In the first objective, the project aims to produce protein-rich biomass using gas and fungi fermentation techniques. Advanced computational models, combining machine learning and first principle-based simulations, will enhance understanding and optimize reactor designs. The second objective involves designing efficient downstream processes to produce protein-rich extracts, considering various raw materials such as bacteria, fungi, and plants. Outputs will include protein isolates, sidestream utilization, and high-yielding extraction procedures. In the third objective, the research evaluates structuring processes for alternative proteins to obtain desirable textures in meat and dairy alternatives. Model foods will be created that will deliver insights into structure formation and formulation optimization. The methods involve a mix of physical, chemical, and biotechnological laboratory techniques, integrating advanced modeling and simulation. Computational models include machine learning-assisted kinetic modeling and first principle-based multiphysics simulations.

The significance of this research lies in contributing to the design and formulation of sustainable foods with alternative proteins. The outcomes will demonstrate the establishment and optimization of novel protein supply chains, efficient extraction processes, and the utilization of these ingredients in model food matrices. These contributions are anticipated to benefit biotechnology, ingredient, and food companies seeking opportunities in the alternative protein market.

Department of Project: Food Science Dept.

Nanotechnology is defined by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as "...the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling and manipulating matter at this length scale" (http://nano.gov/). Facing various challenges in complex food systems, nanotechnology embraces great opportunities to solve these challenges innovatively. Here in this proposal, we aim todevelop four nanotechnology enabled solutions to improve food quality, safety and nutrition: 1) develop food-grade nanoparticles to enhance the beneficial properties of lipophilic bioactives; 2) investigate the impact of the nanoscale water-lipid interfaces in bulk oil on the oxidation of edible oils; 3) determine the sensory attributes and consumer acceptance of prepared food-grade nanoparticles; 4) develop an innovative detection platform for micro/nano particle contaminants in food. The assembled principal investigators are well suited to perform the proposed studies with the multidisciplinary skills and knowledge required to conduct these researches. The research findings will be delivered to educational, industrial, and governmental audience through reports, dissertations, papers, conference presentations, and patents. Our project will significantly enhance the quality, safety and nutrition aspects of our food, thus to improve the long-range sustainability of U.S. agriculture and food systems.

Department of Project: Food Science Dept.

The short-term goal of this project is to increase the understanding and mitigating risk factors associated with cleaning,sanitation, cross contamination, detection, and worker behaviors in food production. The long-term goal of this work will help to reduce the overall risk of foodborne illness.

• Objective 1: Understanding of the parameters needed for effective delivery of natural food-grade antimicrobials for use infoods and food processing environments

• Objective 2: Identifying the genetic determinants of Listeria monocytogenes persistence in the food processing environment using genome-wide association (GWA) analysis.

• Objective 3: Mitigating and controlling viral risks to food safety and food production.

• Objectives 4: Conduct applied research relevant to food safety, design supports for adopting practices that will reduce the overall risk of foodborne illness, increase food safety knowledge of producers and processors, and increase access to local and national wholesale markets.

Climate Change

We will employ a suite of quantitative and qualitative methods to accomplish our goals of determining whether and how the Mass ECAN programs have increased peer to peer learning and knowledge exchange, increased adoption of best practices, and fostered new relationships and collaborations among climate change practitioners or researchers. For this project, we will use a combination of surveys, focus groups and semi-structured interviews. 

Baseline surveys will be conducted with Mass ECAN members (Program Participants), Work Group members and leaders to establish baselines in a variety of areas including use of existing resources, levels of knowledge, degree of collaboration and peer-learning. A series of follow-up surveys will be implemented over time to facilitate a repeated measures analysis of the data.  Participants will engage periodically in facilitated focus groups to generate additional data and feedback on the type and degree of peer learning that is occurring, whether specific products and activities facilitate networking, and emergence of collaborative programming and adoption of practices. Structured interviews will be conducted with work group leaders to obtain alternate perspectives on program approaches and resources and how they influence learning and collaboration. Focus groups and interviews will be transcribed and a content analysis will be conducted to consolidate key themes and synthesize results. Survey data will be combined with qualitative assessments to generate a feedback loop for program improvement and to build our understanding of effective processes and pedagogical approaches to be incorporated into the design of future programs.

Department of Project: UMass Extension

This project investigates new sustainable markets for New England seafood. Climate change challenges the socio-economic and environmental sustainability of New England's seafood industry. A warming Gulf of Maine compounds the complex puzzle of ecosystems, fish population dynamics, and catch limits for specific fisheries. Cascading effects on fishermen, seafood processors, markets, and restaurants provide a network of challenges that are difficult to disentangle. This multifaceted challenge highlights the need for collaborative, cross-disciplinary research to build sustainable new markets for seafood. This proposal brings together a team with diverse expertise in ecology, climate change adaptation, economics, stakeholder engagement and product development. We aim to support the fishing industry by investigating consumers’ seafood choices, sustainable fishing practices, and seafood products that contain lesser known yet abundant species.   

The work will obtain new data to support ongoing pilot-work and support future proposals. Pilot data include:

  1. Fisherman’s perspectives on local and underutilized fish species and preservation methods,
  2. Consumer acceptability of new artisanal preserved fish products. Seed grant funds will be used to execute semi-structured interviews with New England fisherman, an online consumer survey, and a consumer sensory experiment. These funds will support the collaborative relationship between team members, building an interdisciplinary working group to pursue larger research funds.

Department of Project: Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Increasing environmental stresses make crops ever more succeptible to the impact of plant viruses. Plant viruses affect plant functioning and, specifically, the root system. For example, virus infected cover crops may hamper root growth and activity. This may influence the effect of cover crops on the cycling of carbon and other nutrients in soils. Consequently, virus infections may undermine the beneficial use of cover crops to improve soil health, with unclear consequences for soil carbon storage, greenhouse gas emissions, and nutrient status. This project therefore tests how plant virus infection influences the impact of cover crops on soil carbon and nutrient cycling.

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