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Monitoring water quality through citizen science while teaching STEM undergraduate courses during a global pandemic

Published: 20 July 2021
Science of The Total Environment , Volume 779; doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.146547

Abstract: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities struggle to engage students while implementing a distance-based teaching/learning approach and to provide hands-on activities to students enrolled in STEM classes. Implementing service-focused activities that can be conducted by the students remotely can overcome these struggles. The goals of this study were to 1) implement citizen science activities focused on water quality using three commercially available low-cost test strips (2:1, 5:1, and 16:1) while teaching four undergraduate engineering courses at the University of Mississippi (UM) during a pandemic event, and 2) evaluate the acceptability and validate the results obtained. Eighty-five undergraduate students (citizen scientists) and five research scientists (control group) collected two water samples (with triplicates) after receiving detailed step-by-step written guidelines and video tutorials. One hundred twenty tap water samples were collected from private households across Lafayette County and its surrounding counties and multiple buildings on campus. Five laboratory fortified blank (LBF) samples were implemented to validate the results. While the academic background of the participants did not impact the results (p > 0.05), the results obtained using the different test strips were statistically different (p < 0.05). In fact, results obtained using the 2:1 and the 5:1 test strips were close to the LFBs, while, except for the higher concentration of Total Alkalinity (40 mg/L CaCO3), results obtained using the 16:1 test strips were significantly different than the LFBs. Results (in terms of pH, Nitrate, and Total Chlorine) obtained by the citizen scientists using the 2:1 and 5:1 test strips were consistent with those reported in the annual drinking water quality reports from UM and municipalities included in the investigated region. Overall, this activity was well received by the students. Approximately 75% of them agreed that this hands-on activity was a positive experience while struggling to attend face-to-face classes.
Keywords: Citizen science / Tap water / Undergraduate STEM education / Test strips

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