STORY: Educational Partnership with Local Compost Company Grows Impact-Centered Education at Olin

December 19, 2022

In Jean Huang's Biology SCI1230 class, “Think Like a Biologist,” students and professor are engaged in a unique partnership with a local compost company - Black Earth Compost, who's sponsoring the lab portion of the class for the entire semester.

Students in this fall's "Think Like a Biologist,” are working on different approaches to analyzing compost tea - approaches that they've researched and developed themselves and are testing for performance as a sustainable fertilizer. Compost teas are liquid byproducts of the solid compost material and contain soluble plant nutrients and a complex mix of beneficial microorganisms.

The liquid teas can be used as soil drenches, foliar sprays or integrated into irrigation systems - removing a reliance on harmful environmental chemicals and helping to promote zero waste.

Huang, associate professor of biology, has helped to sow the partnership with Black Earth Compost - steering the novel educational approach that includes a financial model: Black Earth Compost is sponsoring the class with the lab expenses covered by the company.

Students in Jean Huang's Biology lab study effectives of compost tea in small planters.

Students of the SCI1230: Think Like a Biologist course examine the results of plant growth trials for their research projects for Black Earth Compost Company.

A Promising Approach

Working to create transformation and impact on complex challenges in the world - outside of Olin - may sound familiar. At Olin there is SCOPE, for example, and other experiences/partnerships with industry. But in the case of this fall's SCI1230, it’s an introductory level biology course (for sophomores through seniors) - with a sponsorship. A promising direction in terms of a financial model for higher education and an opportunity for Olin to learn first-hand what works and what might not.

The class partnership was formed when Huang, a compost enthusiast and existing volunteer with Black Earth's compost bin program in Brookline, made a further inquiry and discovered Black Earth was open to trying a partnership.

"They were willing to discuss design constraints for a sustainability-related project that would both help them explore a new potential area of development and that would fulfill learning objectives for the laboratory portion of my course," says Huang.

Those learning objectives were centered around development of technical skills in the laboratory, application of the scientific method, critical analysis of the scientific literature, development of skills of written and oral communication, student self-directed learning and teamwork.

After solidifying the sponsorship, remote and in-person interactions with Black Earth were built into the semester-long laboratory project, with Olin students visiting the Black Earth composting facility in Groton, MA at the start of the project and the Black Earth liaison, Andrew Brousseau, visiting Olin throughout the semester for discussions of project progress.

"Going to Black Earth’s composting site was very exciting and much more engaging to be talking to the company in person and to see their composting process first-hand," says Abby Omer '24, a junior in the class and member of the policy team. 

Three students in white lab coats watch as a worker from Black Earth Compost tests compost tea in little containers.

Andrew Brousseau (with hat) of Black Earth Compost working with students during a visit to Olin this semester to discuss student projects.

The student teams each developed and carried out a different experimental approach to address the design constraints of the challenge. For example, Abby and the policy team looked at any regulations that might apply to the project, such as the standards for human pathogen treatment.

"During the semester students were able to carry out their research plans, evaluate their results and discuss and compare approaches taken with other teams in the class," added Huang.

The teams are currently working on final presentations, with deliverables including  development of a report on the research that the student teams conducted over the course of the semester and a final presentation to Black Earth summarizing and highlighting each team’s findings.

A student in a white lab coat and round glasses looks at camera and gives a thumbs up in a lab setting.

Jackie Zeng '23, a member of the Biology foundation class “Think Like a Biologist," gives a thumbs up while working in the lab.

An Impact-Centered Education

Ultimately, a goal of the lab project is to decenter professor and students, instead aligning them both around purpose and meaning through making an impact in the world (e.g. in this case, on environmental sustainability.) This is done while also building the identity of the students as people who can create value in the world and who have the responsibility to do so. 

"Working with a company that's dedicated to sustainability has shown me a whole new area of work I could go into post-graduation. I’m at a point where I’m doing a lot of thinking about what I want to do next and this Bio class definitely made me think more about sustainability in my future decisions," says Jasmine Kamdar '23, a senior in the class.

This sense of purpose and meaning was front and center during the semester, agrees Huang. "Students were highly motivated by the authentic challenge and the potential impact of their research work for this [sustainability-related] project."

Part of the spark to becoming motivated comes from having an interest and enthusiasm in a subject - which Oliners (both students and faculty) have in spades when it comes to putting in the work to make change in the world.

"It was interesting to see how the things we were learning in the classroom during this lab project are being used in the real world and exciting to do work that is meaningful and has real world impacts," says Abby '24.

Three students in white lab coats discuss their testing of compost tea in little containers which have green sprouts coming from them.

A team of students in this fall's SCI1230 look over and discuss their plant growth trials.

Olin is looking to do more of this impact-centered work and to continue to share the variety of engineering-related topics and real science already being done on campus.  

And the idea of an Impact-centered Education is deeply connected to Olin’s learnings over the past two decades. It's a concept that builds on Olin’s history and strengths and willingness to try something new, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. Examples bound with a sense of joy, are evident more than ever today; borne out in the classroom and labs and in Olin's Strategic Plan

"The students overcame many challenges for carrying out work for this project, but grappling with real-world research challenges in a learning environment is so valuable and memorable as an experience and for skills development," says Huang.

Olin leadership agrees and have noted the partnership with Black Earth Compost as a prime example of the possibilities.

"This class is a great example of the potential of impact-centered education. From an educational perspective, the students in Jean's class were more engaged (because it was a real-world, important problem that they were working on.) From an identity perspective, students began to see themselves as engineers who can genuinely contribute to making the world more sustainable. And from a business model perspective, the company involved helped support the class, and got real value from doing so," says Mark Somerville, provost and professor of electrical engineering and physics.

Making the Connections

Similar to Jasmine's class experience, Abby also says the project helped to open a new path forward, seeing herself now making a difference in an area she's passionate about. 

"The lab work and class allowed me to connect biology more thoroughly to policy, an area that I am interested in." 

The partnership has the students thinking bigger, too.

"The project with Black Earth Compost taught me that composting really is the future for a circular economy, and the problems they're facing are fairly lo-tech at the moment (something that an Olin new graduate could easily work on)," says Karen Hinh '23, a senior in the class.

Anmol Sandhu '25, a sophomore, says that the work with Black Earth this semester highlighted an innovative solution for the large-scale problem of food waste and fertilizer inputs.

The team he was on was able to develop and propose a possible solution.

"It was really exciting to work on a solution for a real-world sustainability problem. We got really close to a working solution and are looking forward to more work being done to implement our proposed solution," says Anmol '25.

Multiple students stand outside, flanked by large piles of fertilizer-looking materials.

Students at a site visit to the Black Earth composting facility in Groton, MA. Students learned about operation of the facility and collected materials for research projects.

Expanded Opportunities

When asked about this type of educational approach, aligning around meaning and purpose through impact, students in Huang's class are on board, keenly spotting its value and mutual benefits.

"It would be really great for more classes to have this style of partnership. It felt good to work with a company that was genuinely trying to make the world more sustainable and not just fancy new tech sustainable," says Jasmine '23.

"I hope that Olin classes are able to make more partnerships like these, since Black Earth Compost is quite a meaningful company," says Karen '23.

Now’s the time, because aligned with its strategic plan, Olin is actively working to expand opportunities for students to integrate impact with their academic work.

"This spring we'll be running a number of exciting new impact-centered courses in domains ranging from design for the visually impaired to K12 mathematics education, and as we move forward with the strategy, we expect more and more students to engage in this type of work as a key part of their Olin education," says Mark Somerville.