Creating Space for Social Connection and Science
Humans crave connection and often fall in love with their peers’ interests through social contagion. Social contagion occurs whenever closely associated people involuntarily copy each other’s passions, beliefs, and behaviors. Consider your own interest in science. How did it develop? Perhaps you went camping with family or watched sci-fi shows with friends. And how have you sustained it? Perhaps you currently work as a teaching assistant or now go bird watching on weekends. No matter your response, people and activities—more so than textbooks and midterms—shaped your identity as a science-curious person.
Interest in science, in short, is contagious. College students could greatly benefit from joining or creating a community of practice (Community of Practice—CoP), united by a shared interest in science, to succeed academically and grow professionally.
Defined as groups of people who share similar challenges, interact regularly, and learn collectively, science-based CoPs empower students. For example, students who explore a topic with passionate peers are often themselves more likely to find the subject interesting, increasing persistence in the discipline. We also know that students who participate in science CoPs practice indispensable science process skills, including data collection, problem solving, and the ability to work well in groups. Yet participating in fun and authentic science-based CoPs can be challenging for some students, for the reasons we describe below.
First, as anyone who attended high school understands, students sometimes experience rejection based on who they are, how they look, and where they come from. This type of social exclusion triggers social identity threat or the worry one will be judged on negative stereotypes. Social identity threat compromises students’ ability to succeed academically because it induces a fight-or-flight response that some students resolve by exiting harmful educational environments.
Second, not all students had the same opportunities to explore science and nature as children. Cities have few free and accessible green spaces, and visits to state parks and science museums require both time and money
Mindful of these and other barriers, we developed the Nutty 4 Knowledge Club, a CoP for first-generation college students at the University of Minnesota. This club combined already-designed ecological classroom interventions with fun, science-based social programming
Forming a CoP at the UofM
Our team consists of former and current graduate teaching assistants (Jonathan and Katie), undergraduate research assistants (Tram, Paw, and Weli), education research faculty (Gillian), and the program director (Consuelo). We are all academically or professionally associated with TRIO Student Support Services (SSS), a federally funded, grant-based program for students who are the first in their family to attend college. Students in this program often hold multiple identities marginalized in higher education, including race and socioeconomic status. For example, 78% of our students are both first-generation and low-income, and 79% are students of color from immigrant families. Finally, while many of our students are considering careers in healthcare, they rarely major in science, and often feel apprehension about enrolling in introductory science courses with high failure/withdrawal rates.
With funds from the First-Generation Institute, we implemented an exploratory case study with two interacting components. The first component included the Squirrel-Net ecological modules, which we incorporated into our Integrated Learning in Biology curriculum. The second component included the social programming: (1) a guided nature walk through an autumnal forest, where students were encouraged to sketch, photograph, and otherwise engage with nature; (2) an outdoors mindfulness and meditation intervention, followed by a discussion on mental health in college; and (3) a liquid nitrogen ice cream event, where students competed to create the most creative flavor combinations. (The winner? Lemon Tajin. Very Berry was a close second). You can read a more detailed description of the social programming here.
Students are Nutty for Knowledge and Connection
Ecological Modules. Students worked in small groups to collect behavioral observations at our university. They later answered their own research questions using the Squirrel-Net dataset and presented their results at a large end-of-semester poster presentation open to the broader college community.
One student group compared the foraging behavior of Eastern Gray Squirrels on college campuses versus natural habitats. Those students were thrilled to share statistically-significant results with their audience—including the dean of the college, who praised them on their science-process skills! The modules succeeded at getting students involved in authentic research, and we personally appreciated seeing their confidence in science grow over time.
Social Programming. Students likewise really appreciated going on the nature walk. Admittedly, we heard some grumbling during the first ten minutes, but the disgruntlement quickly gave way to sheer curiosity and wonder. Rachel Carson was right when she suggested that “those who dwell […] among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.” We could see students develop a stronger sense of place over time. Some students wanted to identify as many trees and shrubs as possible, while others took pictures and videos for their social media accounts.
The ice cream event was also popular—with our students, their friends, and academic advisers. People enjoyed competing in teams; the academic advisers got particularly competitive. And who doesn’t love seeing a teacher dip a banana in liquid nitrogen before using it like a hammer? Both the nature walk and ice cream competition are now staples in our program.
The Powerful Potential of CoPs and Squirrel-Net
First-generation students with additional marginalized identities benefited from the nature-based academic modules and social programming described here. The ecological CUREs designed by Squirrel-Net immersed students in authentic scientific research; students not only gained science process skills and self-efficacy but were also more likely to contemplate applying to future research experiences and graduate school.
Students also enjoyed exploring nature and were more likely to view it—and their place in it—through a more positive lens. Social programming also helped students build community, an essential component of success in college. Squirrel-Net’s CUREs, when paired with exciting science-based communities of practice, appear to support first-generation students. We hope other members of the Squirrel-Net family start creating their own local Nutty 4 Knowledge Clubs so college students across the nation can explore and enjoy nature—together.
Jonathan Andicoechea**, Katie Krueger, Tram Tran*, Paw Shell*, Weli Ahmed*, Consuelo Gutierrez-Crosby, Gillian Roehrig