Nagarajan is ‘Course Hero’

Subha-Nagarajan
Subhalakshmi Nagarajan (right) will use her fellowship grant to enhance her service-learning chemistry course.

By Bonnie Blankinship

Part of the study of chemistry involves learning what happens when different elements are combined. BGSU Firelands instructor Dr. Subhalakshmi Nagarajan has found a way to combine chemistry classes, research, service-learning and community engagement to produce learning that students will not soon forget. Her methods take them out of the classroom to address water quality problems facing not only their area but the world.

Nagarajan’s innovative approach has earned her a Course Hero-Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a one-year grant of $20,000 she can use to enhance her teaching and research activities. She is one of only four faculty selected in the non-tenure track category from several hundred applicants and 12 finalists nationwide.

“The fellowship, created by Course Hero and administered by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, is a ‘genius grant’ for outstanding teachers in higher education,” said Andrew Grauer, cofounder and CEO of Course Hero. “This fellowship highlights college educators who are using innovative, forward-thinking methods to teach their students.”

For Nagarajan, BGSU Firelands’ location and the growing problem of toxic algal blooms that threaten drinking water sources add up to a perfect teaching and research opportunity. The college is close to Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of the few remaining natural freshwater wetlands on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. Research has shown that algal blooms can be stimulated by nutrients from fertilizers that run off into streams and lakes, and because wetlands can serve to reduce nutrient concentrations, they hold great promise for playing a role in reducing these blooms in Lake Erie and other freshwater sources.

Nagarajan’s research focuses on measuring and understanding the role of wetlands in altering nitrogen and phosphorous content and the ratio of the two elements. With the funds from the fellowship, she can purchase chemicals and equipment and support student research assistants.

She is partnering with Dr. Kristi Arend, research coordinator at the Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Reserve, to engage undergraduate students in the research. Arend wrote a letter in support of Nagarajan for the fellowship.

“Working collaboratively, we will develop analytical methods to study and quantify nutrient concentrations at the estuary and understand how nutrient concentrations change with time,” Nagarajan wrote in her fellowship application. “Undergraduate students who take part in this research will have an experiential learning experience since they will work with researchers at the national estuary.”

“I also integrate the results from research into the chemistry laboratory,” Nagarajan said. In a five-week service-learning project, students in the chemistry lab analyze nutrient concentrations at Sawmill Creek and Old Woman Creek Estuary, using EPA-approved methods. The data are then added to the ongoing body of research.

“Students love it because it’s relevant to their lives,” she said. “It promotes critical thinking by taking learning outside the classroom and connecting it to a broader, global theme. It’s an immersive learning experience for them where they can apply theories and concepts to life. It builds student confidence in the subject and helps them learn to utilize scientific equipment, and creates learning communities beyond the classroom. And if students are interested in a career in science, having a research experience can help them immensely.”

As part of the fellowship, Nagarajan will participate in the Course Hero Education Conference in July in California, where the awards will be announced.

Nagarajan is a hero in another way as well. Passionate about promoting diversity and women in science, she collaborates with Sandusky City Schools, as part of the Dorn Fellowship program, to work with fifth- and sixth-grade students in the gifted program. Her goal is to develop an accelerated curriculum in chemistry for gifted learners.

“It’s service to the community, but it also feeds directly into my teaching and helps my own understanding of how students learn,” she said.

Course Hero is an online learning library where members can access more than 25 million course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators. It promotes learning by providing models that can be used by other faculty and suggesting practices to be adopted.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, founded in 1945, identifies and develops the nation’s best minds to meet its most critical challenges. The foundation supports its fellows as the next generation of leaders shaping American society.