OER in Science: Catching Up in STEM

Below is the ninth in a series of posts by participants in the Winter 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship.

Inayah Entzminger is a doctoral student in the Biochemistry program, specializing in biophysics. They research the translation mechanism of the BYDV, an RNA virus affecting cereal grains, at Hunter College. Their career focus is in science writing and communication, and they run a graduate student mental health newsletter called Scientifically Sound.

When someone thinks of open educational resources, their mind probably jumps to social sciences and humanities research. Open source collections of primary research, as opposed to expensive, selectively curated and often biased textbooks, make excellent resources for career academics and students alike. But OER access should not be restricted to non-science research. As a biochemist, I enjoy the challenge of adapting the tenets of a truly open access classroom to a class that necessitates often expensive resources.

When I was an undergraduate, my professors often encouraged us to go to the school library and photocopy relevant chapters from the resident textbooks to avoid spending money on our own copy. As of March 2020, that is simply not possible for CUNY students. They are expected to afford not only the usually required textbooks for their classes, they must also have access to adequate internet, quiet places in their homes to attend class, and computers that can run random programs they often only have to use one time. I think it should be not only recommended but required to incorporate open educational resources into classrooms from this point forward, through in-person and virtual learning alike.

I applied to the Open Pedagogy Fellowship hosted by the GC Library because I wanted to further develop my skills in open access research in a field that is dominated by $300 textbooks and a general lack of access to learning tools. Education publishers expect to earn billions of dollars per year through textbook sales, a figure that is mercifully dropping through a combination of smaller book publishers stepping in to provide lower-cost options and an increased interest in adapting OER to classroom settings.

STEM OER has always been about kind professors recording their lectures and posting them for a wider audience, or intrepid students explaining homework problems on YouTube. Khan Academy, founded in 2008, provides a huge repository of lecture videos and supplementary materials ranging from STEM subjects to humanities and is used both by teachers and casual learners. I believe that, by using these resources in the classroom, we can encourage students to seek out more OER and increase their understanding of the material.

Although I have not yet been able to develop a course that is zero cost and driven by OER, I have been able to apply a lot of the skills I learned as an Open Pedagogy Fellow to my spring semester class. I am now more focused on interrogating what it means to understand what experiments are being performed, instead of mindlessly following instructions on a page. I was able to adapt the lab class, a type of course that depends on physical interaction with the material, into one that focuses more on the theory of chemistry and science writing skills. Of course, I hope that one day soon we are able to return to in-person classes because “wet bench” skills can really only be learned by doing. However, researching video OER resources for showing my students proper lab etiquette and techniques will hopefully make it easier for them to transition into higher level lab classes.

Through my participation in the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, my dedication to OER transcends the classroom. I not only want to decrease the overall cost of earning a STEM degree when it comes to required class readings, I also want to advocate for more science resource access to non-scientists. Most primary resources on the latest research are behind journal publisher paywalls; during the COVID-19 pandemic, many websites that charge some of the highest per-article prices in the field have made special free content areas for scientists and the general public alike that want more information on the latest strides in SARS-CoV-2 research. It should not take the threat of a global pandemic for journal publishers to allow interested parties to discover primary resources for free.

Image: “Science Careers in Search of Women 2009” by Argonne National Laboratory is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.