Inclusive Innovation: Empowering STEM Students With Research for Social Change

Team photos - From left: Elyssa Serrilli (Northeast Biogas Initiative), Enrique 'Henry' Suárez (Education), Erica Light (iCons) and Martin Hunter (Biomedical Engineering).

From left: Elyssa Serrilli (Northeast Biogas Initiative), Enrique 'Henry' Suárez (Education), Erica Light (iCons) and Martin Hunter (Biomedical Engineering).

The shift towards renewable energy is accelerating, yet the transition risks excluding those communities most vulnerable to climate change. In this project, students will join local partners to drive a groundbreaking biogas research project. By implementing small-scale biogas systems in local agricultural organizations, students will bridge the gap between renewable energy and social justice, empowering them to see STEM as a means not just to understand the world, but to change it.

The impacts of climate change get harder to ignore every year – as do calls for a transition away from fossil fuels. Even as renewable energies expand rapidly, this transition risks leaving behind the same communities most severely impacted: low-income communities of color.

To ensure that the energy transition is just and effective, access to renewable energy must expand to those typically priced out by the prohibitively high costs of many renewables. With this in mind, small-scale biogas systems are emerging in the U.S. as a simple, low-cost solution. Biogas is a renewable energy source produced from organic materials, such as agricultural and food waste.

In this project, a UMass Amherst team will collaborate with the Northeast Biogas Initiative to pilot a student-driven research endeavor. Students will implement biogas systems in local agricultural organizations, bringing tangible benefits to the community while honing their abilities as inquirers and researchers.

Past research shows that students – especially underrepresented students – are most excited about pursuing science when it involves topics connected to social justice. By putting a diverse group of students in the driver’s seat of community-engaged research, this project aims to show a new generation of students that STEM research is connected to social good; it benefits real people on the ground who are most vulnerable.

This pilot study seeks to generate data to justify expanding the scope and length of this project in the future, engaging even more students in research at the intersections of STEM and social justice. This project thus aims to attract and retain more diverse students in STEM, both as interdisciplinary research innovators and socially conscious advocates.

Photos of the field research