Economist Researching and Drafting Policies for Better Retail and Public Health

Children and adults in the United States consume more calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods and fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These non-nutritious diets tend to elevate the risk of chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and some cancers.

A major reason for these nutritional deficiencies lies in how grocery stores market their products. Large supermarkets receive billions of dollars each year from food and beverage manufacturers to market to potential consumers. These tactics overwhelmingly promote unhealthy products like “junk” food by buying up product real estate inside stores and undergoing aggressive promotions, all to entice shoppers. Manufacturers have largely abandoned traditional television and print publication methods in favor of these aforementioned in-store promotions. In 1968, for example, 72 percent of food marketing budgets were spent on advertising (the remainder on in-store promotions). In 2010, that ratio was essentially reversed, with 70 percent spent on retail promotion).

A small but growing segment of supermarkets are dollar stores, which tout lower prices than their larger cousins. The rapid expansion of dollar stores has a considerable impact on local food markets, especially in terms of access to healthy foods. As these stores proliferate, they not only lead to a decrease in the number of independent grocers but also influence dietary choices by offering a limited selection, heavily skewed towards nonperishable and snack foods. This situation poses significant health implications, especially for low-income households, by reducing access to fresh produce and contributing to the creation or exacerbation of food deserts​

Karen Gardner is a senior policy associate for healthy retail at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Gardner, who is based in Pittsburgh, PA, has been at CSPI since April 2022 focusing on influencing federal, state and local policies that encourage access to healthy food, regardless of where people live and shop. To that end, CSPI has worked on improving the availability of healthy food options at dollar stores.

AP—Access to healthy foods can be a problem in certain areas. How do we know what’s being sold, and to whom?

Photo of Karen Gardner smiling in front of the outdoor steps leading to the United State Capitol Building
Karen Gardner in front of the United States Capitol Building

Gardner—Our research examines access to healthy foods, including the inventory and placement of stores, policies affecting store locations, and availability of produce and other healthier options. We contributed to a national research agenda led by Health Eating Research, a part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The agenda centers on formulating strategic questions that can guide studies to determine how best to support healthy eating. This agenda focuses on understanding what is stocked and sold within stores, where stores that sell healthier items are located, policies that influence store placement, and mapping food stores nationally. Through evidence-based research on these key areas, we aim to gain insights to promote access to nutritious food.

AP—How are scientists and other experts involved with your work?

Gardner—We work with a lot of scientists! We work with a diverse group of scientists, including public health researchers and experts in food safety. Our work also extends to partnerships with mapping specialists, particularly focusing on product placement and marketing strategies within grocery stores, as well as their location and how these factors correlate with race, income inequality, and other social issues. Additionally, we have joined forces with universities to undertake research projects, and we have initiated pilot projects aimed at promoting healthy eating choices in stores

AP—How did you come to work in healthy diet policy and research?

Gardner—I’ve always been interested in food: cooking it, eating it, growing it. This has been essential to my experience. In addition, I’ve been interested in looking at systems that result in inequity and inequality. I discovered economics in college as an interesting way to understand those systems, especially looking at the socioeconomic structures and levers that can either further, or solve, problems of inequality.

I got a degree in economics, started working in a food bank, and got into working in research on food policy, specifically focusing on state and local policy. I used to work for the National Young Farmers Coalition, where I managed organizing and advocacy in Pennsylvania to help beginning farmers get access to land, and funding. We advocated for farmers to be compensated for carbon capture on their farms and passed a bill which gives  tax credits to people who sell or lease farmland to beginning farmers.

AP—Could you describe your organization's policy advocacy efforts, specifically focused on dollar stores?

GardnerDollar stores are the fastest growing food retailers in the US. Two corporations, Dollar General and Dollar Tree, operate 35,000 stores nationwide. Research shows that dollar stores have limited healthy food options and are more prominent in rural, Black and Latino communities and areas of low income.

We ran a national survey of dollar store use and perceptions of 750 people. In that survey, 82 percent of respondents told us that dollar stores should stock healthier products, and three-quarters said dollar stores should do more to market healthier items, including placing healthy options in prominent areas of the stores.

Our report included recommendations for how dollar store corporate policy, federal policy, state and local policy, and research can contribute to a more healthful food environment. 

AP—How are you involved with these science-based policies?

Gardner—We developed a dollar store model ordinance deployable across multiple municipalities with a menu of options for dollar store policies. Additionally, we identified promising policy levers, including potential federal incentives and local zoning approaches, that could persuade dollar stores to improve their community impact by providing better food access and reducing oversaturation. We are also involved with ongoing campaigns across the country, such as in Baltimore, where we have supported research and community involvement in a conditional zoning ordinance that was introduced in city council.

Another major policy change that could improve offerings would be for the US Department of Agriculture to strengthen Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) stocking standards to better align the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Right now, SNAP-authorized retailers only have to stock a small number of foods, which isn’t adequate for a healthy diet. 

AP—Why should scientists and other specialists get involved with policy issues like yours?

Gardner—It’s important for scientists to be part of all of this. I think that scientists should get involved with public health campaigns and specifically with local and state campaigns because scientists are able to offer a key resource to these campaigns – an ability to sift through the evidence and research behind a policy change and effectively communicate that evidence to stakeholders and legislators.

Dive into the topic of local health initiatives through other ESAL article features.

Bridging the Gap: How Advancing Science is Reshaping STEM Education in Pennsylvania

In the heart of Pennsylvania at Gettysburg College, Ryan Kerney is both an associate professor and the program director of Advancing Science, a program at the forefront of a transformative movement in science education. Advancing Science is not just an educational initiative; it is a lifeline to struggling schools, providing them with scientific equipment, workshops, and mobile science educator expertise, all at no cost. Kerney's work extends to shaping the future of science education through the development of lessons and environmental literacy plans that align with Pennsylvania’s new K-12 state science standards, in collaboration with regional school districts and supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This innovative approach leverages NOAA’s educational model (the MWEE: Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience) to blend civic engagement with environmental literacy, creating a comprehensive educational framework that prepares students to tackle the environmental challenges of today.

JL: What inspired you to branch out from your established technical background in biology to engage in educational advocacy?

Photo of Ryan, Kerney, PhD, who is the program director for Advancing Science
Ryan Kerney, PhD, program director of Advancing Science and associate professor at Gettysburg College

Kerney: As an associate professor at Gettysburg College for many years, I have long been committed to advancing science education. This focus naturally aligns with my keen interest in education policy, particularly initiatives related to STEM fields. The intersection of these two passions has driven me to explore innovative ways to enhance science education and promote STEM literacy. My perspective on teaching and learning has also been greatly enriched by my wife's experience as an elementary school teacher, her insights have not only guided my interests but profoundly influenced my approach to classroom instruction. 

JL: How does Advancing Science function, and how does it align with the educational objectives of Pennsylvania?

Kerney: For the past three years, I have served as the program director for Advancing Science, focusing predominantly on securing funding and developing hands-on initiatives. These grew out of my wife's teaching experience, she helped me recognize the significant gap in the hands-on classroom experiences that were once a staple of education. While already present, these gaps became even more apparent during the pandemic, and addressing them is a key aspect of my work with Advancing Science.

Advancing Science champions equitable access to science equipment and comprehensive three-dimensional learning experiences, offering them free of charge to K-12 schools across south-central Pennsylvania. This initiative fosters collaboration with K-12 educators, supplying engaging classroom activities aligned with Pennsylvania's new science standards. Furthermore, it bolsters educators with professional development opportunities, ensuring they are well-equipped to inspire the next generation of scientists.

Advancing Science is a key member of the 'Science in Motion' consortium, and we are presently beneficiaries of funding from NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program. Additionally, our initiative is bolstered by numerous corporate partnerships that are funded through an Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) offered by the state. This encourages businesses to invest in our outreach work, as they receive 90% of their donation back through a state tax credit. After the credit, it only costs them a dime to give us a dollar. This synergy of support not only fuels our mission but also expands our impact, enabling us to reach a wider audience and foster a deeper engagement with science education.

JL: Advancing Science is also working to implement new K-12 educational standards. Could you elaborate on how you are actively working towards this objective?

Photo featuring two students using microscopes to complete a hands-on science activity
Students using Advancing Science equipment and hands-on activities

Kerney: Advancing Science is working to help teachers implement the new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Environmental Literacy and Sustainability (STEELS) standards for K-12 education in Pennsylvania. This is our state-specific version of the Next Gen Science Standards (NGSS), and incorporates civic engagement into novel Environmental Literacy standards, neither of which are typically included by NGSS. Both STEELS and NGSS represent a transformative approach to K-12 science education, intertwining three key dimensions—Crosscutting Concepts, Science and Engineering Practices, and Disciplinary Core Ideas—to foster a deep, integrated understanding of the complete scientific process. These standards are designed to bridge various scientific domains, encouraging students to develop a cohesive view of science that connects theoretical knowledge with practical application. These new approaches to teaching science emphasize student-driven investigations. This compliments our key goal and a personal mission statement of mine; find ways to do more real science at a younger age. 

JL: Could you elaborate on the implementation process for the STEELS standards through your program?

Kerney: Partnership for Adams County Environmental Literacy (PACE) is a team of educators, administrators, and community partners working to develop an environmental literacy plan using the new PA STEELS standards and supported by NOAA funding. Advancing Science Assistant Director Valerie Stone is leading a “dream team” of science teachers from Bermudian Springs, Gettysburg, and Upper Adams school districts to build collective knowledge, foster long-term partnerships between educators and community partners, and generate resources to advance environmental literacy in Adams County. These resources will be shared with other districts in our region and will provide lesson plans to engage students with locally relevant environmental science.

JL: Have you encountered any resistance or obstacles in the implementation of these novel initiatives?

Kerney: There is general teacher attrition. As teachers, especially those motivated to engage with programs like Advancing Science, aren’t compensated for their added responsibilities, they are leaving the workforce and cutting out our direct line to students.

Attracting STEM students to teaching positions is a considerable hurdle. For the effective promotion of STEM subjects in our schools, the presence of teachers with a solid STEM foundation is essential to stimulate student interest and engagement. Yet, the allure of more lucrative careers in the private sector often overshadows the teaching profession, resulting in a significant drain of potential educators to alternative career paths. To counter this, we are establishing a STEM educator workforce development program with Gettysburg College. This initiative is tailored to assist STEM undergraduates in their transition to teaching roles, offering them the essential funding and resources they need. Our aim is to bridge this gap, ensuring that the incentives for entering the teaching profession align more closely with the transformative impact educators can have in the STEM fields. 

If you want to learn more, or think you might want to get involved, you can visit our Advancing Science page www.advancingscience.org.

Dive into the topic of local STEM education through other education article features.

Evidence-Driven Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic

Earlier this year, ESAL hosted a panel discussion titled “Evidence-Driven Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic”.  The panelists provided a deeply informative and multi-faceted view of one of the most serious public health challenges in the United States. They drew on their complementary backgrounds and current roles in local policy, education, and advocacy to discuss their experiences bringing technical and scientific backgrounds to policy decisions in this discussion. 

The panel featured three experts working in public health and opioid addiction, and was moderated by ESAL.

Several major themes emerged as the panelist spoke about their backgrounds and answered questions from the event organizer and the attendees. 

1. Using real-time, granular data to inform local policy responses.

Herzfeld explained that aggregating data from the coroner’s office, the criminal justice system, and local hospitals prompted her office to hire more counselors from demographics similar to those disproportionately affected by overdose deaths. Additionally, these data led to her office advising physicians and social workers about the necessity of conducting extra outreach to patients with heart disease who use stimulants in addition to opioids, which increases their risk of overdosing. 

Sullivan discussed her recent findings from real-time opioid policy research conducted in the Colorado legislature focusing on the 2018 Colorado Senate Bill 18-022, which aimed to regulate opioid prescribing practices. She and her collaborators used data from Colorado’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to assess state opioid prescription rates from before and after the time the policy was enacted. They observed that the legislation had little impact on prescriptions for opioid-naive patients in the state This lack of significant impact can be attributed to two main factors. First, the bill's language was ambiguous, leaving room for interpretation and potential loopholes. Second, the legislation aimed to limit initial opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply, with the option for a second seven-day refill at the prescriber's discretion, which codified a practice that most prescribers in Colorado were already following. Sullivan's research highlights the importance of crafting clear, impactful legislation and considering existing practices when developing new policies to address public health crises like the opioid epidemic.

2. Guiding policy choices with compassion in addition to data.

Bilsky pointed out that there are many aspects of substance abuse disorders and other mental health issues that are still not well understood by policymakers – either because they are still not fully explained by science, or because they have not been personally affected by them. When communicating with policymakers, it can be effective to support claims based on data with individual, human narratives. Herzfeld pointed out that stigma is impactful in guiding who to help, and that legislators are not immune to that. Therefore, destigmatizing decisions for both the policymakers and for their constituents is necessary for policies that help vulnerable populations to be pushed through. One policy change that the panelists were optimistic about is Colorado’s recent removal of regulations to prescribe buprenorphine, a medication used to treat opioid addiction. These regulations acted as redlines for physicians to comply with, and further stigmatized addiction by making treatment more inaccessible than other medical interventions. Herzfeld mentioned that harm-reduction strategies, both those initiated within communities and encoded in legislation, are becoming more prevalent, and soon we will be able to determine whether these have a positive impact. 

3. Addressing the root causes of the crisis at all levels of society and government.

In Bilsky’s experience, policymakers were reactive in taking steps to address the opioid epidemic: legislative action was initiated once the issue became so devastating that many people had first- or second-hand connections with someone who had overdosed. In his view, it's crucial to focus on early strategic interventions that tackle addiction's underlying causes, especially challenging issues like widespread loneliness and the increasing sense of disconnection, emotions that are profoundly significant for humans and alarmingly common in today's society. These issues are often magnified by technology, which can amplify our feelings of isolation and anxiety about the future. Sullivan highlighted the essential need to develop effective pain management solutions, addressing the initial medical use of opioids, while ensuring these solutions avoid introducing the grave risk of addiction.

4. Anyone can be part of a solution.

Building relationships with the staff of lawmakers, volunteering at take-back programs, organizing as part of a business community that values its workforce, advocating for NARCAN® naloxone training and availability policies, and discussing relevant science topics to the public, are all actions that any one of us can take. Bilsky mentioned the Society for Neuroscience’s Early Career Policy Ambassadors program as one practical step that people can take to make a difference in this area, in addition to fellowships at organizations like the AAAS and university offices of communication. Sullivan shared that the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists has free resources for members and non-members for helping scientists improve their communication skills. 

A recording of the ESAL event, "Evidence-Driven Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic," hosted on February 8, 2024, is available on ESAL's YouTube channel here.

Dive into the topic of local health initiatives through other ESAL article features.

Event promotional image for ESAL's Evidence-driven Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic" event on February 8, 2024

ESAL Expands Steering Committee, Welcoming Three New Members

In December 2023, Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) elected three new members-at-large to its Steering Committee: Erin Partlan, Emily Schafer, and Lina Zhu. They are joining returning Steering Committee members Arti Garg, chair; Chris Spitzer, vice-chair; Chris Jackson, treasurer; Nick Anthis, secretary; and Laurie Chong, member-at-large.

Erin Partlan joined ESAL’s Events Team in August 2021 and has developed virtual events informed by her training in environmental engineering and non-profit experience fostering conversations about local government strategies for environmental protection and workforce development. Erin lives in Northern Virginia.

Erin: “ESAL is a unique organization that focuses on showing anyone, especially STEM-minded people, the myriad ways that we can engage with our local communities. I am a firm believer that healthy environments lead to healthy communities, a goal that takes the efforts of many to achieve. I look forward to sharing my perspectives as part of ESAL’s steering committee.”

Emily Schafer joined ESAL in September 2021. As a member of the Events Team, she has moderated conversations at the intersection of public health and local policymaking and has represented ESAL in conference sessions. She is currently a biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

Emily: “I’ve always believed strongly in the importance of scientists taking an active role in communicating science to the public for the purpose of improving scientific literacy, especially through local engagement. I’m looking forward to taking a leadership position in ESAL to increase our reach and include as many scientists as possible in this mission.”

Lina Zhu joined ESAL’s Content Team in 2019 and is the writer and publisher of ESAL’s monthly newsletter, as well as a contributing author to ESAL articles. Lina holds a M.S. in chemical engineering and works as a research scientist in San Francisco, California. 

Lina: “Too often, folks in STEM become siloed in their field and do not feel empowered to take on causes outside of their expertise. ESAL believes that not only should we make our voices heard, but that we can bring a unique set of skills and perspectives to our communities. I’ve enjoyed learning from my fellow volunteers over the past several years and am excited to now take on a larger role in ESAL.” 

Steering Committee members serve two-year terms and set ESAL’s strategy, legal and ethical oversight, organizational sustainability, and fiscal responsibility priorities. The Committee is ESAL’s highest governing board, and is currently overseeing the completion of ESAL’s first institutional strategic plan and accompanying fundraising strategy. 

ESAL is a national, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to increasing local civic engagement by people with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. ESAL's work is guided by core beliefs.

For more information about ESAL, visit esal.us or reach out to info@esal.us.

ESAL's 2023 Annual Report

ESAL is proud to share our first annual report celebrating the team, programming, content, and communications we have developed from June 2022 to July 2023. We have been enhancing our internal tracking, which will allow us to continue to share more annual progress from this year forward. In this report, you will be able to meet the passionate and talented people behind the work of the organization; walk through the year's programmatic highlights; learn about ESAL's Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion commitments and progress; see the reach of ESAL's work; and learn about some of our plans for the future.

We are grateful to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for financially supporting ESAL's work and to the many partner organizations and allied individuals who enhance and help realize ESAL's mission to increase civic engagement by people with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds. We do this work for you and with you and are excited for a transformative year ahead.

Click the image to view ESAL's 2023 annual report.

ESAL’s Annual Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Assessment

In 2021, ESAL looked inward to assess how our organization was addressing matters of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). The assessment was informed by perspectives from active ESAL volunteers and provided the foundation for an organizational JEDI statement and JEDI commitments that ESAL evaluates annually. In 2022, ESAL reported on progress to center JEDI in how we form partnerships, programs, create content, assess organizational diversity, and foreground intersections between Indigenous peoples and U.S. STEM networks. This year’s update shows an increase in programming that incorporates or centers JEDI, especially in regard to Indigenous peoples, within the work of people with STEM backgrounds and an increase in ESAL issue-focused content that uses a JEDI lens.

ESAL’s pursuit of these commitments requires intentionality and focus, as well as feedback, reflection, partnerships, and outreach. We want to hear from you if you want to partner, have conference or workshop opportunities, know people who should be featured in ESAL publications, and have topics you want ESAL to highlight. Reach out to us at info@esal.us. We want to grow in this work together. 

Electrical engineer cultivates resilience, adaptability, and balance within teams and individuals

Molita Sloan is an impassioned leader with a background in electrical engineering who champions organizational efficacy by eliminating obstacles to customer satisfaction and employee happiness. As a project leader and coach, she cultivates resilience, adaptability, and balance within teams and individuals by developing strategies that advance their progress. Sloan has devoted a considerable part of her career to the engineering and technology sectors, concentrating on project management, product supervision, and team effectiveness. She possesses an enthusiasm for assisting others in discovering their authentic selves in both career and life.

JL: How did your upbringing and early education influence your professional endeavors? 

Sloan: I was raised in a small, predominantly segregated town under the guidance of my grandmother. From an early age, I recognized my affinity for science and math, which aligned well with my family's professional history, including several uncles who were engineers. I enjoyed fixing things and observed that engineering and science fields were largely dominated by men. In fact, I was the only girl in my High School electronics class, which further fueled my motivation.

As I pursued my professional education, I soon discovered that the computer-heavy electrical engineering field did not play to my strengths. While I loved math and science, I also enjoyed interacting with people and inspiring them to reach their full potential. Consequently, I returned to college two years into my electrical engineering career to obtain an MBA, aiming for a more people-centered profession. This shift significantly influenced my trajectory and played a crucial role in shaping my aspirations for life, leadership, and coaching. 

JL: How have you combined your affinity for STEM and desire to uplift others outside of your professional career? 

Sloan: As a Black leader in a role typically occupied by people who don’t look like me, and with family members who influenced my career pursuits, I quickly grasped the importance of networking in developing a professional career. I had to learn to communicate effectively with diverse audiences who might not yet comprehend the challenges Black women in STEM face. I started by connecting students still in education to female role models and leaders at my workplace, Schneider Electric. Several of my female engineer co-workers coached these young students, equipping them with networking and STEM skills for a guided path toward a successful career. The objective was for businesses at the forefront of sustainability to advise students on ways they could make future workplaces more sustainable and understand the critical role sustainability plays in supporting a bright future for all.

I also hold a seat on the Nashville Mayor’s Sustainability Action Sub-Committee in Nashville. As a leader at Schneider Electric, I possess expertise on practical sustainability efforts that could be implemented by businesses and governments. 

Moreover, I assisted in coordinating the Adventure Science Center's annual conference Twister, an acronym for Tennessee Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research. I facilitated Schneider's sponsorship of the event, selected the keynote speaker, and supported women engineering workshops.

JL: How do you utilize your extensive experience uplifting voices in STEM to assist those who may not know how to begin or where to go in their professional endeavors? 

Sloan: Representation matters, but only if it is visible. That was my objective when I entered the life coaching space. In addition to my leadership role at Schneider Electric, I am a certified life coach, working one on one with clients and leading a 12-group coaching program for Women in STEM. The significance of this is multifaceted, as it aims to hold young professionals accountable, support their career goals and, most importantly, provide guidance for women who may lack role models. Currently, apart from these ventures, I serve as a role model to my twin daughters. I could not accomplish this without the support of my incredible husband, who has contributed significantly to many of my advisory and volunteer roles. He keeps me motivated, as does traveling!

Molita Sloan's story exemplifies the power of perseverance and the importance of promoting diversity within STEM fields. Through her professional accomplishments, community engagement, and mentoring, Molita has shown that elevating underrepresented voices is not only crucial for a more inclusive and sustainable future but also beneficial for inspiring the next generation of innovators.

Meet Our New Managing Director

ESAL is excited to welcome Taylor Spicer on board as our first managing director. We sat down with her to learn a bit about her background and new role.

CS: How did you first get involved in issues that relate to science and technology?

Spicer: My mother, who is an avid and gifted gardener, raised me in Memphis, Tennessee and cultivated in me an early appreciation for the natural sciences and human-nonhuman species relationships. After high school, I left Memphis to pursue a social sciences degree in cultural anthropology and international relations at the University of Arkansas. My thesis research focused on the political culture of Brazil and its impact on social movements in the state of Bahia. This work led me to pursue an international development master’s degree, through which I continued to explore the interplay of social, political, and environmental forces within local communities.

While studying, I interned with an administrative office working across Emory University and Emory Healthcare – the Office of Sustainability Initiatives. After graduation, I accepted a full-time offer with this team and spent the next seven and a half years learning to craft institutional strategies, policies, processes, and programs that aimed to make the sustainable and just choices the default choices by employing best practices in buildings sciences, land management, energy, local food procurement, climate solutions, water reclamation technology, waste management, and more. 

CS: People often think of many of the challenges we face - such as climate change - as national issues. What is the importance of local engagement?

Spicer: Many challenges we face are national and global in scale but are experienced in localities. Resiliency, preparedness, mutual aid, infrastructure, social services, protections for civil and human rights, and much more are determined by local governments, organizations, and networks of engaged community members. Local action is required to provide people and nonhuman species the capacity to thrive in all localities despite pervasive collective challenges, such as climate change. In the U.S., our opportunities and wellbeing are affected by the places we live because communities reflect historical and current disparities and differing governmental values, budgeting, regulations, and support services. 

CS: What role do you see for ESAL in supporting engagement at the local and state level?

Spicer: ESAL is building the collective will and capacity of STEM professionals across the country to find the most effective ways of positively influencing their local communities. ESAL is showcasing locally-engaged professionals, hosting conversations to raise awareness about opportunities for local engagement, and providing professionals with the tools to become active residents through tailored workshops and events. ESAL is uniquely filling these civic engagement gaps.

ESAL is also part of a larger evolution of the roles STEM professionals play in society. Typically, civic engagement training is not integrated into academic and professional credentialing in STEM fields; however, the specialized experiences and knowledge STEM professionals embody sets them up to be assets to their communities when they are engaging in civic processes and organizations. One of ESAL’s strengths is showing the myriad ways STEM professionals do and can contribute to local communities. 

CS: What will you be doing in your new position at ESAL?

Spicer: As the managing director, I will focus mostly on strengthening ESAL’s internal capacity to allow ESAL volunteers to have a meaningful and productive experience in the network. I’ll provide organizational management to streamline processes and to better connect work done across the organization, as well as operational support for keeping records, managing finances, and coordinating logistics. I’ll implement enhancements to the volunteer recruitment, onboarding, management, and engagement strategies utilized to set all ESAL volunteers up for success. Throughout all of this work, I’ll ensure ESAL’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion commitments are central, employed, evaluated, and adapted as needed. 

CS: What ideas do you have to strengthen or grow ESAL's programs?

Spicer: I see opportunities to formalize some of the internal processes to bring more ease to the ESAL volunteer experience, which I think will translate to more consistent and quality content and programming shared with the ESAL network. I am exploring ideas for growing the network overall and expanding opportunities for engagement with ESAL. I am especially energized to connect my sustainability and Southeastern networks to ESAL’s work. I am also exploring ways ESAL can help STEM professionals fill research and knowledge needs defined by local governments and community-based groups. 

CS: What advice do you have for someone who has a STEM background for getting engaged at the local level?

Spicer: For anyone looking to get involved locally for the first time, I suggest three main approaches. First, I suggest getting plugged into conversations that are already happening in your community. You can do this by following communications from your local governments, issue-based and advocacy nonprofits, community-based organizations, neighborhood associations, and your local representatives. You are joining a group of already activated residents who have been a part of shaping the work to-date and who most likely understand the history behind and nuances of a topical issue or proposed legislation. You can learn much about local engagement by following calls to action from others. Second, I suggest trying to narrow your focus to an issue or level of governance that is most closely aligned with your work or interest. The opportunities for engagement can feel endless, so narrowing your focus can make the first step into engagement more manageable. Third, I suggest being realistic about the time you have to share. You gain credibility and experience by showing up consistently. If you dive into too many opportunities too quickly or overcommit, you risk burnout, which is detrimental to your ability to engage locally for the long-term. One-off engagements can change an outcome, but developing a lifestyle of community engagement can lead to more connectivity to people and place, mutual understanding, personal agency, and hopefully healthier and happier communities overall.

Rebuilding Communities Devastated by Fire

Our “Stories from the Field” series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are making a difference in their communities

Tyler Pew puts his design and build skills to use rebuilding his hometown. The experienced designer, advocate, and civic enthusiast currently leads LMNOP Design, which specializes in commercial and retail branded environments. He is also the founder of KIDmob, a mobile kid-integrated design firm that seeks to utilize architectural problem solving in the classroom to improve collaboration and lesson retention. Pew has recently gained attention for his assistance and leadership in the rebuilding of rural Greenville, CA, following the devastation caused by the Dixie Fire in 2021. Originally, he traveled to Greenville to help protect his family's property, but upon observing the devastation firsthand and the challenges of reconstruction, he has taken an active role in the design, logistics, and recovery of lost land and property from natural disasters as the “[Re]Build Chair” for the Dixie Fire Collaborative.

JL: Before your rebuilding effort in local communities, you had experience at the K-12 education level supporting students with novel learning methods. How did you get involved there?

Pew: This began with a visit in 2011 to my hometown middle school to talk to students about architecture and design. When I was beginning my educational journey, I often felt like the teaching methods in schools didn’t integrate well into my learning process. I had the benefit of meeting an influential mentor that steered my professional and educational goals in the right direction, but a majority of students don’t receive the same wisdom.

I felt basic design concepts – teamwork, self-direction, collaboration, social emotional skills that are an integral part of architecture education – could improve student’s learning abilities and capacity to meet goals collectively. KIDmob was started, which visits K-12 institutions to present and provide new design-based learning pedigrees to students over a 3-day period. The course centers around skill building – from project inception to goal realization. Our objective is to push educational pedagogy toward a more hands-on and self-directed experience for the student. Since its creation in 2011, we have had several students, many of whom have gone on to pursue their own architectural or design-oriented career field, come back to lead workshops citing their own positive experience with the program.

Putting out a spot fire on Pews’ property, which was accomplished because the property was thinned in the last two years.

JL: How did you get started with the rebuilding effort following the Dixie Fire?

Pew: My family and hometown was threatened. I initially traveled to Greenville to help protect their property and put out spot fires. Unfortunately, we lost the town of Greenville and three other communities. However, the people were resilient, and I wanted to support them with the skills I had in leadership, logistics, construction, design, and community engagement. These skills augmented the existing resources and resilience held by the community.

JL: To efficiently rebuild a community, a myriad of infrastructural, economic, and philanthropic design principles need to work in tandem with local citizen needs. How did you research what goes into this Herculean task, and what did you learn?

Pew: There are a few examples of rural towns being destroyed by natural disasters, and then reconstructed to a post-disaster state, that helped guide the Dixie Fire rebuild. One such town we looked at was Greensburg, KS, which was severely damaged by a tornado in 2007. Rebuilding took 5-7 years just for basic infrastructure, and economic recovery is still finding its foothold. However, this story is largely a positive one; we saw that rebuilding isn’t simply restoring the town to the way it was, but an opportunity to build a more efficient, secure, and longer-lasting township. After the tornado, the city council passed a resolution stating that all city buildings would be built to LEED platinum standards, making it the first city in the nation to do so. Furthermore, we looked into Joplin, MO, which was devastated by a tornado in 2011. Since the disaster, this city has attracted more visitors, and now stands at a population greater than before the disaster. What these unfortunate accidents taught us was the resiliency of rural populations, and their ability to rebound if rebuilt correctly.

JL: What are the components needed to help rebuild?

Pew: We need experts alongside the local community. One thing that became obvious as we researched was that rebuilding is too big a task for those within the community. A multitude of firms and leaders are required. The Dixie Fire Collaborative has employed a variety of experts to help post-Dixie Fire recovery efforts. A few of their specialties included workforce housing and zoning policy, community experts and philanthropists, firms experienced in long term recovery, and leadership from government officials focused on rewiring old systems to a novel and secure state protected from future fallout.

JL: What are a few problems you encountered during the rebuilding effort?

Pew: Problems largely stemmed from the unfortunate trade-offs that occur during recovery. How do you prioritize getting a store up and running versus providing more housing? These issues are not simple, and require a view focused on the future success of the community. Another problem that came to light was basic infrastructure. While these systems may have been repaired over the years, installing brand new pipes or electrical wiring to fulfill basic needs is arduous. Several businesses were required to complete these tasks and get these communities back to a livable state. At the core we are always balancing process (thoughtful, planned, vision-oriented) with urgency (the current needs).

JL: What are you doing currently to help those impacted by the Dixie Fire?

Pew: I operate as the (Re)Build Chair for the Dixie Fire Collaborative. The Dixie Fire Collaborative is made up of individuals and groups who have made the commitment to work together to rebuild our communities and help them thrive after disaster. The collaborative includes consultants at the local, state, and federal level, community members, partner organizations and businesses all working together to make our communities whole again. We post updates on our rebuild progress, like county-approved housing plans.

Many residents are still hanging on without basic services or adequate shelter. The physical, mental and emotional toll of the Dixie Fire will continue to impact the people of the region for years and perhaps generations to come. Our organization accepts donations to support this work, and the vision-oriented work that seeks to be a leader in disaster recovery. We hope that we can support other survivor communities.

Tips for Scientists to Work Effectively with Communities

Scientists are expressing a growing interest in working with local communities. Effective engagement at this level can present a number of challenges. In support of these endeavors, I am sharing observations and lessons learned through the initiative I lead called Science for New York (Sci4NY). It brings scientists and policymakers together to work on issues that can benefit from problem-solving expertise.  

Some of our community-focused work includes mapping key science policy topics facing each of NYC’s 59 community board districts; presenting on climate impacts at community-level meetings; collaborating with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice to allow local groups to have a larger say in setting climate research priorities; and engaging in conversations on climate justice projects in neighborhoods of Brooklyn.    

Getting up to Speed: I find this kind of task is best learned as a real-life experiment where one ventures out as a “student of the community.” Taking a proverbial random walk, as well as a physical stroll from time to time, can provide a sense of the issue’s landscape. In this process:

Community bulletins, newsletters, social media and local newspapers can all produce valuable insights – giving topics to discuss with people. Furthermore, determine the key players, and, perhaps most importantly, who has power! Know the existing and proposed initiatives, projects and legislation that can impact the community. Seek out historical insights and other contextual information on how issues came to be, and have changed over time. Lastly, don’t just try to understand their issues, but also their collective resources. 

Finding Your Role: After you know more about a community, it is important to carefully consider what you can contribute. These offerings will likely evolve over time, so revisit them periodically. 

It is worth keeping in mind that communities are probably not expecting or waiting for you to show up. In addition, while people may see value in the idea of incorporating scientific input, they may not know how to engage with you either. Furthermore, a lack of interest in your contributions doesn’t necessarily translate to a disregard for science. Many people are simply too busy (many community roles are unpaid) to substantively consider these topics. Keep looking for the right opportunities and moments to demonstrate your skills and establish yourself as a trusted resource.

Other Items to Consider:

  1. Patience: Community engagement can often be a slow, arduous, iterative, and nonlinear process. People need to feel as if they are heard and conversations generally take place over longer periods of time.
  2. Consider Your Approach. It can often be better to ask insightful questions or add small points to enhance a conversation than provide information in long-form responses. Listening and learning will likely help the most overall, particularly at the beginning.
  3. Communicate Your Skills: Be able to clearly and succinctly relay what you might offer. Be open to feedback and suggestions.
  4. Listen for Community-Based Knowledge: People generally know a lot about the places where they live, classifying them as experts in their own right. This information is often relevant and can be very difficult to access as an outsider. 
  5. Adding Value is Different Than Having Expertise: Being the “scientist in the room” can be a difficult role to fill. What you know often isn’t directly applicable to local issues. Try to “meet in the middle” to the extent possible.
  6. Put Viewpoints in Context: Communities/individuals sometimes take paradoxical positions, either intentionally or unintentionally. Even in instances where people are well informed about their neighborhood, they may struggle to see the bigger picture around an issue. Try to understand their perspectives, as well as their motivations. 
  7. Be Diplomatic: Instead of “doubling down” on the science, consider potential win-win outcomes. This may include merging various inputs instead of trying to get people to understand and apply research findings to address local issues. Where possible, try to develop joint ideas. 
  8. Think Hyperlocal: While generalized guidance about how to work with communities can be helpful, matters can sometimes vary a lot over short distances, physical or otherwise. Furthermore, issues can get magnified in ways that may not seem to make sense without detailed situational insights.
  9. Understand Who Is Represented: Meet as many people as possible in various settings to help build a more complete picture of the intra-community dynamics and which voices are being heard.
  10. Know Who Isn’t Represented: Look for ways to acquire the perspectives of those not present. Keep in mind that outreach to these groups may be hampered by past negative experiences. Work to understand the challenges and carefully consider how to avoid repeating any adverse outcomes. Consider having something definable to offer in your outreach efforts, or not engaging until a point where you can maintain a sustainable relationship. 
Case Study: Catalyzing Outreach Efforts

During the 2021 NYC elections, Sci4NY offered a series of talks to candidates on timely science policy issues. A few approached us afterward to help them understand how climate change will impact their districts. This led us to develop “climate snapshots” where we collected, analyzed and summarized public data on the various aspects of this topic. The materials generated a variety of community engagement opportunities, some of which are ongoing. They included speaking at town halls, community board meetings, and in support of a community’s participatory budgeting efforts. With some modification, we were able to make the content useful for social media. We also wrote an op-ed on our experiences that garnered the attention of additional local communities.

One takeaway from these efforts was that synthesizing public information can be a useful starting point for outreach. It can build engagement on both sides – helping scientists to hone their skills, while promoting constructive ways to center conversations in communities. From there, new relationships can form, additional opportunities to collaborate arise, and important community insights can come to light.

Working with communities is generally a complex task. While there are no shortcuts, there is rhyme and reason. The more you learn and participate, the better. At least in a town as highly opinionated as NYC – where interactions can range from highly frustrating to rewarding, sometimes in the same discussion – seeing the humor in the process is sometimes the most important strategy of them all.

The guest author Nancy Holt holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and was an American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellow at the U.S. Department of State. She currently leads Science for New York.