Three professors from Rutgers University Newark’s Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences (EES) recently secured a $4.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that links RU-N graduate students and faculty with the Newark community to work collaboratively on solutions to environmental issues.
Associate Professor Ashaki Rouff (PI), along with EES Associate Professor Kristina Keating and Distinguished Professor Alec Gates (co-PIs), were awarded the funding to build and sustain what they call a Newark Geoscience Ecosystem, a four-year education and workforce development initiative, starting in 2023, that builds on work each has been doing locally and regionally, while offering professional development to RU-N graduate students and bringing institutional knowledge to bear on local problems.
“We were very excited to receive news of the award from NSF,” said Rouff. “We’re happy they were so interested."
The project revolves around two cohorts of six minority EES graduate students, who will take a series of one-credit supplemental courses at RU-N on a variety of relevant topics, including best practices of community engagement. They’ll also do summer internships with government agencies, community organizations, local industry partners and K-12 schools; discuss geoscience and their own projects with K-12 and community college students; volunteer with local organizations; and mentor EES and GS-LSAMP undergraduates on their research projects.
The idea is to create a new model for geoscience education that helps all stakeholders.
“This project will enhance our graduate students’ skills; enable them to learn about and help solve local climate and environmental-justice issues; share knowledge with academic and non-academic community partners and their staffs; and recruit minority K-12 students into STEM study and careers,” said Rouff.
RU-N faculty and administrators will be the glue that holds the project together. Rouff hopes to draw on the experiences of RU-N staff from entities as varied as EES, the P3 Collaboratory, the School of Public Affairs & Administration (SPAA), the Department of Urban Education, the Office of Community Partnerships, and the Graduate School to develop the one-credit graduate courses and establish policies and procedures to support community collaborations.
“We’ll have a fixed number of graduate students participating, but the faculty/administration cohort will meet over the duration of the program and will evolve along with it,” said Rouff.
It made sense to draw on all of our knowledge and experience for this new NSF grant.
Rouff has been doing similar community-outreach initiatives as part of her research into soil contamination and remediation in Newark’s community gardens, and when she heard about NSF’s new grant program, titled, “Cultural Transformation in the Geoscience Community,” back in January, it got her thinking about how to provide more opportunities for RU-N students and integrate them into their overall academic experience.
“NSF has been thinking about how we can improve geoscience culture and make the academic geoscience community more diverse and inclusive,” said Rouff. “This opportunity was perfect for us.”
Rouff, who also leads REU, a summer research program for undergraduates, and STAR, a peer mentoring program for Black, LatinX and indigenous undergraduate students, reached out to Gates and Keating because they, too, have a long history of running community-based programs to disseminate knowledge and increase underrepresented-minority participation in STEM fields. Gates runs Garden State LSAMP, the Bridges to Doctorate program, and the SSTEM (Scholarships in STEM) initiative, while Keating leads GeoPATHS for local community college students and IRES, an international research experience that deals with water resources in Peru. All of these programs are NSF-funded except for STAR, which is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
“It made sense to draw on all of our knowledge and experience for this new NSF grant,” said Rouff.
The project also fits well with RU-N's campus Climate Action Plan and the role it plays as an anchor institution in Newark. Gates, who is no stranger to those institutional priorities, or to large NSF awards, is equally sanguine about the project.
“This is a huge grant for our department,” said Gates. “And this project is really about changing the culture of RU-N and the city of Newark. At RU-N this will infuse community-outreach work into our graduate studies, which doesn’t happen all that much, and at the same time the department and school will help the community of Newark with pressing environmental-justice issues. Everyone stands to benefit.”
Pictured above (L to R): Professors Alec Gates, Kristina Keating and Ashaki Rouff