Growing the SEAS Gala Learning Platform with NSF Support
The School for Environment and Sustainability celebrates notable funding successes that advance environmental and sustainability-related learning in the classroom, community, and beyond. Gala, named for a popular variety of apple commonly grown in Michigan, is a co-designed platform for multimodal learning that was created by School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) students and faculty but is now in use among several broader National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded communities.
Responsively designed for use on cell phones, tablets, or laptops, Gala leverages virtual resources including podcasts, maps, interactive data sets, narrative case studies, and digital media to encourage place-based and experiential sustainability science learning. According to the website, Gala seeks to emphasize problem-driven discovery and to foster “openness, experimentation, and collaboration across the world.” With sustainability still emerging as a formal field, the platform allows contributors to revisit previous modules to integrate greater depth and cutting-edge knowledge as it emerges. This process lends itself to “content that is constantly getting smarter and smarter,” according to SEAS Associate Professor Rebecca Hardin, Gala founder and director.
Four NSF grants speak to the impact the platform has on users in distinct knowledge communities—more specifically big data learning, tropical ecology and conservation, and innovations for sustainability in engineering fields.
The first grant for Innovations in Food, Energy, and Water (or INFEWS), now in its final reporting stages, involved Hardin and principal investigator (PI) Nancy Love of U-M Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), to investigate urine-derived fertilizers (now used on a pilot basis in the U-M Nichols Arboretum peony gardens). It enabled SEAS graduate students Audrey Pallmeyer and Malavika Sahai to work with CEE faculty on a learning case about urine-diverting technologies for toilets, which links to actual urine-diverting toilets installed in the U-M College of Engineering.
A second NSF grant came from the NSF-funded Midwest Big Data Hub. The seed money of nearly $20,000 enabled a pilot study, “Data Learning Innovation Fellows Program,” which was renewed this academic year based on early success. A third grant, for $500,000, is through the NSF Biology Directorate for Undergraduate Biology Education (UBE) and builds on a successful partnership and library of prototype learning materials on Gala created by the Research Collaborative Network OCELOTS (Online Content for Experiential Learning Of Tropical Systems). That five-year grant recently launched in a webinar with Hardin and co-PIs Ann Russell of Iowa State University and Suzanne Macey of the American Museum of Natural History.
Most recently, a fourth grant, from the NSF Directorate for Distributed Chemistry, provides $2 million dollars toward Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Grant (or EFRI) to Hardin and others working with PI Johannes Schwank of U-M Chemical Engineering in support of innovations in solar catalysis for the production of agricultural inputs at scale on local farm sites. That discovery process in U-M labs will be recorded, curated, and shared as learning materials for partners without access to expensive lab equipment, using the open-access Gala learning platform.
All of these recent funding opportunities support Gala’s organic growth in content and community, both by supporting faculty and graduate students from U-M and other campuses to collaborate toward enhanced online offerings, both through new models of mentorship and through the actual coding of cutting-edge integrations with software such as Rshiny, Jupyter Notebooks, and more. The platform thus becomes a community where software skills, sustainability content, and socially inclusive learning and professional development combine to create more adaptive, accessible tools for learners of many backgrounds. Current resources, such as those relating to Michigan’s spectacular freshwater resources, and even a new crop of cases from users at North Carolina State University on the microbiology of biofuels processing, are being translated into other languages through a partnership with the U-M Language Resource Center and its “Translate-a-thon.” Making case studies available in additional languages invites diverse learners to take part in the program’s cross-cutting collaborative sustainability research.
As a low-barrier-to-use platform, Gala connects people from non-traditional careers working in a wide range of areas. Flexible education tools make way for more collaborative knowledge production and content review by communities with shared interests. “We have only begun to think about the connection of this work to everything that we do; what is clear is that NSF is more committed to outreach and broader significance than ever, and perhaps especially in a pandemic, we offer great tools for that,” Hardin said.
Gala also is working to elevate sustainability equity studies, braiding together some of SEAS' strong Environmental Justice program areas: energy, Indigenous, and digital justice. Pending grants include a Public Interest Technology proposal on small water utilities like Flint and Benton Harbor, as well as alliance proposal linking to Tribal Colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.The future of Gala continues to explore how a generous digital footprint can make SEAS a leader in lifelong learning for our graduates, and widen the pipeline of those coming to study at SEAS as leaders for innovation to improve environmental and sustainability practice.