Scientists Win NSF Grant for Students, Faculty to Work With Newarkers on Environmental Issues

Rutgers-Newark researchers have secured a $4.3 million National Science Foundation grant for students to work with Newark community members on solutions to environmental issues.

Environmental Science professors Ashaki Rouff, Kristina Keating and Alec Gates were awarded funding to create what they call a “Newark geoscience ecosystem”  a four-year education and workforce development initiative that will focus on cultivating local high school and community college students while working to improve the environment. The effort begins in 2023.

“The National Science Foundation 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.”

For several years, Rouff has been leading community-outreach initiatives as part of her research into soil contamination and remediation in Newark’s community gardens. Gates has a wealth of experience mentoring minority STEM students, while Keating leads programs for local community college students and an international research project that deals with water resources in Peru. Both are NSF-funded programs.

In addition to improving the environment in Newark, the program will offer professional development to underrepresented RU-graduate students, who will work with K-12 students and community college students. They will also volunteer with community organizations and complete summer internships with government agencies.  

The goal is to create a new model for geoscience education, say researchers.

“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 recruit minority K-12 students into STEM study and careers,” said Rouff.

Rouff hopes to draw on the experiences of RU-N staff from 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. 

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 STEM (Scholarships in STEM) initiative, while Keating leads GeoPATHS for local community college students, in addition to her international research with students. All of these programs are NSF-funded except for STAR, which is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

The project complements 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, and at the same time the department and school will help the community of Newark with pressing environmental-justice issues. Everyone stands to benefit.”