Ever since the 2015 expedition of course 1.092 (Traveling Research Environmental Experiences, or TREX) returned from the Big Island of Hawaii in January, a handful of students have persisted throughout the spring semester in their exploration of the impacts of Mt. Kilauea’s volcanic plume on the surrounding environment.
On May 11, this group of undergraduates from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) took their data and research out of their labs and into the Boston Museum of Science (MoS), to present their findings to curriculum and educational researchers for grades K-8.
“The students gathered their data out in the world beyond MIT, and we wanted the class to have the opportunity to share their findings with a new audience outside of the MIT community as well,” said Jared Berezin, communications instructor for TREX, which is part of the Course 1 undergraduate environment program. “The students effectively relayed the significance of their research, and provided clear explanations of complex issues and processes associated with the vog [volcanic smog] and its effects.” The group worked together to tailor their content to the museum audience, he continued.
“Our team gained an understanding of the types of field research that the students conducted,” said Melissa Higgins, director of curriculum development at the MoS. “Understanding this type of real science and engineering work is a great starting point for us as we think about the potential engineering activities we might develop for young learners.”
According to Higgins, the museum group attended the seminar with the hope of gaining comprehensive insight into the positive impacts of contextualized learning — education that’s situated in a real-world setting. TREX, she said, is the epitome of contextualized learning brought to life.
Berezin and Higgins met earlier this spring to discuss how her team could harness the knowledge gained from the TREX students' work, and turn their research into new educational activities for young students across the country.
The objective, Berezin said, was to couple the students’ memorable field and lab practice with an equally meaningful communications experience. Further, to end the semester in this way bolstered the course’s underlying purpose and fostered the students’ commitment to the research and its implications.
The power of presentation
The event, an hour-long presentation followed by open discussion, was open to all MoS curriculum developers, educational researchers, and professional development facilitators. This unique perspective allowed for a very distinctive question-and-answer session, and mutually rewarding conversation on the method of study exhibited by the TREX course.
Senior Julia Longmate affirmed that the opportunity to integrate her group's research into future curricula for young learners was an exciting way to watch their work come to life. “One of the aspects that makes this class so unbelievably special for us is that we become incredibly invested in this research,” she said in her presentation remarks.
The students’ presentation skills and ability to convey all of their work in Hawaii, as well as their translating how their analysis and reflection continued when they returned to MIT, gave the museum team a full picture of the goals of TREX’s work and the remaining questions to explore, Higgins said.
Out of the field, into the lab
The TREX team began their exploration of Mt. Kilauea’s plume throughout MIT’s January Independent Activities Period (IAP), with 10 students continuing on to analyze the collected data during the spring semester.
Located on the southeastern side of Hawaii, Kilauea is regarded as the most active Hawaiian shield volcano and a principal source of sulfur dioxide pollution for the island. CEE Associate Professor Jesse Kroll, who teaches in the area of atmospheric chemistry, led the course, which involved a series of three studies: creating portable, homemade sulfur dioxide sensors to monitor volcanic smog levels in real time; installing an air quality monitoring station to determine the changes of the particle-chemical composition of the vog during its time in the atmosphere; and collecting soil samples to analyze their properties (acidity, sulfur, ammonia, and aluminum concentration).
“We returned from the field with a whole lot of data, including a lot of stuff that we hadn't analyzed or simply didn't understand,” said Kroll. “From their work, they really advanced our understanding of the effects of vog — how to measure it, how it changes in the atmosphere, and how it might affect soil quality — which was the main goal of the fieldwork in the first place.”
As is typical for field research, the students encountered a number of analytical challenges, setbacks, and unexpected results. However, the group of 10, broken up into three lab groups, made adjustments to their original research plans and were able to advance the analysis of the field data considerably.
All of these moving parts worked in tandem to produce tangible explanations of Kilauea’s effects on the surrounding air and soil quality.
The “sensor” team, responsible for the data collected by the custom-made sensors, isolated sulfur dioxide (SO2) readings through an in-field calibration technique that removed any artifacts caused by high temperatures. The “soils” team uncovered clear evidence in the highly acidic soil of elevated aluminum levels, yet no trace of elevated levels of other heavy metals. The “air quality” group confirmed that the effects of the Kilauea are highly dependent on the meteorology, and that the two big chemical processes of the volcanic plume — oxidation of the SO2 and neutralization of the sulfuric acid — are essentially uncoupled.
For the participants in TREX, students and faculty alike, both the fieldwork and the lab analysis opened up a range of innovative and educational possibilities — whether experiencing a real-world investigation or broadening horizons for the next generation of environmental engineers. Senior Shanasia Sylman affirmed: “Through TREX, I was offered the opportunity to watch my work come to life. All of our research, the good and the bad, evolved right in front of our eyes.”