Faculty Research and Creative Activities

Professor Alan Young on a beach in Hawaii

Biology Professor Alan Young

I spent nine very enjoyable and very rewarding weeks of a fall 2014 sabbatical in Hawaii, during which time I collected beach samples that I am now sorting and analyzing for tiny bits of plastic. Once my analyses are complete I will submit a paper for publication, most likely in the peer-reviewed Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Since Captain Charles Moore first made the general public aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997, concern has grown about the amount of land-based trash that enters the world’s oceans. Plastics do not biodegrade but instead just break up into smaller and smaller pieces. In some plankton tows taken in the middle of the North Pacific, bits of plastic outnumber plankton 7:1. Some of this plastic debris washes up on Hawaii’s beaches.

I collected samples from remote Kamilo Beach on the southeast tip of the Big Island (the Hawaii Wildlife Fund transported me in a 4-wheel drive truck over a 7.5-mile unbelievably rough “road” traversing old lava fields), Kahuku Beach on the northern tip of Oahu and Ka’ehu Beach on the northern coast of south Maui.

I sieved quantities of beach sand into a tub of water and then skimmed off any floating debris to obtain all plastic bits plus, unfortunately, thousands of tiny bits of wood and seeds that also float. Since returning to Salem State last December I have been painstakingly separating the plastics from the non-plastics under a dissecting microscope. I then run them through a series of sieves to separate them into size categories and I further divide them into color groups, each of which is counted and weighed.

During my stay in Hawaii, in addition to collected beach sand samples, I observed and took photos and videos (on land and snorkeling) of a variety of geological and biological subjects. I have already incorporated videos of sea turtles and monk seals into my Biological Oceanography lectures.

Professor Reva Kasman

Mathematics Professor Reva Kasman

In the years leading up to my fall 2015 sabbatical, I found myself working frequently with elementary and middle school teachers. My career trajectory as a mathematician had always included interactions with mathematics educators, but I had not foreseen the ways that I would become deeply involved in professional development for teachers at these lower grade levels, or how much I would enjoy facilitating mathematical activities and discussions with this particular community. Motivated by these experiences, I chose to spend my sabbatical immersing myself in both research and classroom activities related to K-5 mathematics education.

Joining a research group based at TERC in Cambridge (with members from the Educational Development Consortium and Mount Holyoke College), I became involved in a project which engages students in grades 2-5 in algebraic reasoning and argument - what mathematicians would call “proof”. Using age-appropriate language and representations, these young students participate in mathematical activities that allow them to extrapolate general patterns from examples, articulate conjectures, support their ideas, and collaborate as a group to critique and refine their work and conceptual understanding.  In other words, the students in these classrooms behave like mathematicians. This became the focus of my project, and after my sabbatical I was invited to present a session at a professional development conference in Portland, Oregon on “Creating a Community of Mathematicians in the Elementary School Classroom”. I was also asked to be one of the authors of a book which will make these lesson sequences accessible to a general audience of elementary school teachers.

Overall my sabbatical was an incredible chance to deepen my knowledge and inspire my future endeavors in this area of scholarship - and to spend time in a 5th grade classroom for the first time since actually being in 5th grade. Having stress fractures in both feet did curtail my planned productivity for quilting projects, but significantly increased my awareness of floor-based yoga routines!