UH Hilo alumna Katie Strong now teaches chemistry and the science of sustainability at her alma mater

Katie Strong’s curriculum is focused on real-world applications of chemistry, a perfect fit both for the integration of sustainability-related topics and for fun field trips for her students into the community to see chemistry in action.

Group photo of 11 students at mulch facility, surrounded by mulch and large crates.
Lecturer Katie Strong’s introductory chemistry class visits county mulching facilities, spring semester 2023. (Photo: Reed Takaaze)

By Evangeline Lemieux.

Katie Strong pictured.
Katie Strong

A lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is integrating the science of sustainability into her curriculum. In an introductory chemistry course entitled “Chemistry in Society” (CHEM 100L), which is open to all students, educator Kathryn “Katie” Strong is including sustainability-based field trips to sites around the island, where her students gather information and often physical objects to study back at the laboratory.

The course is focused on the real-world applications of chemistry, which makes it a perfect fit both for the integration of sustainability-related topics and for fun field trips into the community to see chemistry in action. It is also an ideal way for students—in particular non-science majors—to fulfill the Diversification Science Laboratory requirement, which is necessary for all students.

Another element of the course is place-based learning, specifically the integration of science with place.

“The goal of the course is to make science accessible and to also have a lot of local implications,” says Strong. “To see it hands-on, tangible, in front of your face, and then bring it back to the lab, talk about it, and see how it applies in the lab, ask what this represents in the real world.”

Strong’s own field experience lends itself to this way of teaching chemistry. She is a UH Hilo alumna, graduating in 2021 with a master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science. She arrived at the university with a bachelor of science in nursing from the University of Vermont. Before that, she served as a community health extension volunteer with the United States Peace Corps from 2011 to 2014.

Strong’s research interests, which she pursued as a graduate student at UH Hilo, include studying and identifying pollutants in the environment and their potential impacts on human health, for example, drinking water quality monitoring and chemical identification of beach plastics.

Group photo of class at coastal data collection site.
UH Hilo chemistry lecturer Katie Strong is a UH Hilo alumna, graduating in 2021 with a master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science. Above is a photo from 2018 of a class she took with Associate Professor of Marine Science Steven Colbert, entitled “Marine Debris in the Pacific,” where the students collected beach plastics at Kamilo Point for analysis. Front row from left, classmates Stacy Breining, Brianna Craig, Leah Sherwood, Nic Vanderzyl, Rose Crisione, Cole Nakachi, Aleysa Martin, Katie Strong, Catherine Neal, Judith Weitz, Ian Putnam. Back row, from left, Jon Allen Miranda, Kelly Goodale, and Colbert. (Photo courtesy of the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund)

That well-rounded education and experience made Strong a perfect fit to start teaching chemistry at UH Hilo in the fall of 2022, showing her students how the subject relates to communities and the environment.

“My goal at UH Hilo is to pass on skills and techniques I have learned along the way,” says Strong. “I think it is important for us all to understand how societal actions impact not only the health of our natural world but our overall wellbeing as humans.”

Field trips

Examples of this “real world” investigation are found in the field trips.

Last spring, Strong’s introductory chemistry class visited the county’s East Hawai‘i Organics facility, where organic materials are processed to produce mulch or compost for agricultural purposes. During the trip, students learned about the facilities’ community outreach including free mulch distribution, and viewed first hand the chemical process of mulch making.

“The facilities encourage us all to mālama ʻāina (care for the land), while supporting our island’s circular economy,” says Strong.

This fall semester, Strong’s introductory chemistry class visited a winery in Volcano to learn about the chemical aspects of fermentation and sustainable grape farming. The farm also cultivates olives and tea.

“We toured the vineyard, toured the tea fields, the orchards,” says Strong. “The students learned about the process from harvest to fermentation onsite.”

Group of students with huge vats behind them.
Katie Strong’s introductory chemistry class visits a winery in Volcano to learn about the chemical aspects of fermentation and sustainable grape farming, September 2023. (Courtesy photo)

One sustainable feature of the winery is its total reliance on local sourcing in its wine production, which includes partnerships with local farms to source fruit in addition to their own farming.

“Each one of those areas, whether it’s growing, harvesting fermenting, they all have chemical processes that go along with them, so (we’re) seeing the hands-on part of that,” explains Strong.

After field trips like this, the class learns to apply principles in the lab related to the outing.

“Fermentation almost seems like just a basic chemical process, but it isn’t, there’s a lot of nuance with it,” chemist Strong explains. “We’re going to experiment with temperature and sugar ratios. It always seems kind of simple but once you get out there, you see this is a science but it’s also an art.”

Full circle

Sharing her knowledge and experience gained during her own research as a graduate student, Strong is planning a future field trip for her chemistry students that includes a beach clean up and the collection of plastic samples to be analyzed back at the lab. Not only is this project a direct contribution to community sustainability, it will also provide information via the sample collection that can reveal some things about what kinds of trash end up on the island’s beaches.

Plactic debris on and in sand on beach.
Plastic debris in sand at Kamilo Point beach, Hawai‘i Island. (Photo: Gabriella Levine/flickr)

Strong explains the implications of this research, saying, “When you know what kind of plastic you’re dealing with on the beach, if you can identify it, which we can with our methods back at the lab, it has implications in terms of how you can recycle it and then also in terms of determining which plastics are better to use in general. Certain plastics, depending on their plastic type, degrade a lot faster than others, and you can actually see that in chemistry with infrared light, in the chemical signature of the compound type.”

By making experiences like these available to students, Strong is helping illuminate two important topics simultaneously: the importance of sustainability and the everyday applications of chemistry. With the experiences grounded in community, the students also learn about the importance of sustainability and chemistry to life not only on Hawai‘i Island, but everywhere on Earth.

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Story by Evangeline Lemieux, who is double majoring in English and medical anthropology at UH Hilo.

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