Integrating Undergraduate Research in STEM with Civic Engagement


Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) are part of an expanding toolkit of experiential learning experiences that can help students engage with the practices and processes of STEM. Civic engagement is another type of experiential learning experience that can offer students meaningful interactions in the wider community, thus leading to greater relevance and application of their work.  Research studies suggest that both civic engagement and UREs are high-impact practices. 

Much of the work to date on experiential learning has been discipline based.  This may be due to challenges in getting faculty members from different disciplines to work together, or because of issues with infrastructure, budget policies, credit hours, incentives, and/or the reward systems in higher education.   This paper aims to help readers better understand the potential for UREs that integrate civic engagement to enhance learning.  To illustrate how the obstacles might be surmounted, an example of an interdisciplinary URE that is coupled with civic engagement is provided.


Undergraduate Research Experiences (UREs)

Traditional introductory laboratory courses at the undergraduate level generally do not capture the creativity of STEM disciplines. They often involve repeating classical experiments to reproduce known results, rather than engaging students in experiments with the possibility of true discovery. … Engineering curricula in the first two years have long made use of design courses that engage student creativity. Recently, research courses in STEM subjects have been implemented at diverse institutions, including universities with large introductory course enrollments. These courses make individual ownership of projects and discovery feasible in a classroom setting, engaging students in authentic STEM experiences and enhancing learning and, therefore, they provide models for what should be more widely implemented. 

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012, pp. iv–v

This statement precedes a recommendation from a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, 2012), which urges the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) higher education community and funding agencies to “advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.” When the report was published, limited but potentially promising evidence was emerging about their value to enhance learning and understanding of the processes and nature of STEM. Much of the research on undergraduate research experiences (UREs) has focused primarily on STEM. The purposes of this paper are to 

Provide an overview of some of the evidence for the efficacy of using both apprentice- and classroom-based research experiences to enhance, broaden, and deepen student learning. 

Discuss how UREs have great potential to enhance learning about science and other disciplines and how integrating STEM learning with civic engagement may enhance the efficacy of student learning in both areas. 

Introduce readers to resources about UREs that are freely available and help readers to better appreciate some of the opportunities and challenges that individual faculty, departments, and institutions may encounter when attempting to introduce or expand UREs, especially those which are classroom based.

STEM Learning and Evidence for the Efficacy of UREs

There have been many efforts to improve undergraduate STEM education. Research about the science of learning provides extensive and robust information on how people learn as well as the teaching practices, strategies, and approaches that have been shown to be most effective (Blumenfeld et al., 2000; Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund, 2007; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2015, 2017a, 2018a; National Research Council [NRC], 2012 a,b; President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). When students are engaged in experiential learning that piques their curiosity, they are motivated to investigate the world around them and improve their understanding of scientific concepts (Cook and Artino, 2016). However, these student-centered approaches are not always applied in the college classroom. Partly in response to this research, increasing numbers of courses and other learning experiences are now incorporating aspects of active learning, which research has demonstrated can significantly improve learning and academic achievement (e.g., Freeman et al., 2014), and high-impact practices, which serve as specific manifestations of active learning (Kuh, 2008; Brownell and Swaner, 2010; Kuh and O’Donnell, 2013). 

An important example of active learning has been the increasingly widespread use of UREs to increase interest in science and engineering, to help students understand the processes and nature of science, and to empower students to “do” science and engineering rather than just reading about it or listening to others provide instruction.  UREs can provide students with some combination of experience in designing and conducting research, troubleshooting, analyzing and writing the results and implications of their work, and presenting their projects to the scientific community through publication, or oral or poster presentations at professional meetings. They can help students internalize and accept that failure is often a normal component of the process of science and engineering research and that such failure often leads to new questions and sometimes to new insights, advancements, and breakthroughs. There also is evidence that learning gains can be similar for both STEM majors and non-majors who undertake UREs early in their college careers (Stanford, Rocheleau, Smith, and Mohan, 2017).

While undergraduates have long had opportunities to pursue research by working with faculty at their home institutions or through various kinds of apprenticeships or internships off-campus, relatively few students have been able to take advantage of such opportunities. Associated with limited access are the problems of which students are selected and how they are chosen. Much has been written about the tendency to offer these experiences primarily to certain types of students to the exclusion of others. For example, faculty may be inclined to seek students with the best grades (but who may not necessarily be best suited to undertaking original research). Students whose families have research or other scientific backgrounds may be more attuned to the kinds of URE opportunities that exist on their campus and thus may be better poised to pursue them. Students who attend institutions where faculty are not expected to undertake research and thus may not have the equipment and financial support to make such opportunities apparent or be readily available to them will be at a distinct disadvantage compared with their counterparts at research-intensive institutions. Thus, issues of equity and access become paramount when considering institutional policies for instituting, maintaining, or expanding these kinds of undergraduate research experiences (Laursen, Hunter, Seymour, Thiry, and Melton, 2010; NASEM, 2015; Hernandez, Woodcock, Estrada, and Schultz, 2018; see also the recent literature review in McDonald, Martin, Watters, and Landerholm, 2019). 

More recently, increasing numbers of individual faculty, academic departments, and institutions have attempted to assuage these issues through the promotion and development of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs).  When appropriately structured and implemented, CUREs can provide research experiences of varying lengths and levels of sophistication to much larger numbers of undergraduates than is possible with apprentice- or internship-based UREs (Dolan, 2016; Frantz et al., 2017); many CUREs are targeted to first- and second-year students (e.g., Harrison, Dunbar, Ratmansky, Boyd, and Lopatto, 2011; Rodenbusch, Hernandez, Simmons, and Dolan, 2016) in addition to juniors and seniors. Such experiences may help non-traditional and underrepresented students (Bangera and Brownell, 2014), especially in community colleges (e.g., NRC, 2012a; Hensel and Cejda, 2014), better engage with science and engineering and increase their chances of transferring to a four-year institution and becoming part of the STEM workforce (Felts, 2017). Indeed, some institutions have opted to use CUREs as an important tool toward improving retention in STEM (e.g., Locks and Gregerman, 2008). 

Importantly, education researchers have followed the development of many types of CUREs from their inception. Some researchers have attempted to measure their efficacy in various dimensions and combinations, examining potential impacts on students’ understanding of the processes and nature of science, development of specific research skills, increased interest in STEM, and viewing themselves as contributors to the STEM community. Others have focused on effects of CUREs on retention of students in STEM degree programs, especially students from populations that historically have been underrepresented in these disciplines. It has become increasingly clear that when there are clear goals and expectations for CUREs coupled with departmental and institutional support, these approaches to active learning can have profound effects on student learning, affective behaviors, and deeper connections with and greater appreciation of STEM (Laursen et al., 2010; Peteroy-Kelly et al., 2017; although see cautions expressed by Linn, Palmer, Baranger, Gerard, and Stone, 2015). 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has published two reports about UREs. One report summarizes a convocation that considered the roles, structure, opportunities, and challenges of CUREs (NASEM, 2015; see also Elgin et al., 2016). The second report is based on the work of a committee that for almost two years examined the evidence base for the efficacy of both CUREs and apprentice-based research experiences in STEM and which produced its findings in a consensus report (NASEM, 2017a). Two of the coauthors of this paper served as the staff directors for these projects (Labov for NASEM 2015, Brenner for NASEM 2017a), and each worked as support staff on the other project.  The third coauthor (Middlecamp) was invited to give a presentation at the convocation to describe her efforts to offer a CURE at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, because of its emphasis on and integration of both scientific research and civic engagement; that course is described in greater detail below. 

Additional overviews of the efficacy of CUREs are available in NASEM, 2015. In addition, an important online resource (CUREnet, offers invaluable assistance to faculty who are seeking to engage their undergraduate students in research experiences through courses, especially in the life sciences. Many of the ideas on CUREnet are evidence based, with some of the preeminent education researchers in this realm contributing.  Table 1 provides along with other selected  resources that offer guidance to instructors who are looking to initiate or expand opportunities for UREs.

The report from the National Academies’ convocation (NASEM, 2015) provides an array of examples and descriptions of different types of CUREs, including several national consortia in different STEM disciplines. Brief descriptions of all of these examples along with links to the original sources can be found in Table 1 of Elgin et al., 2016 (reprinted here as Table 2). 

Synergistic Benefits of Integrating UREs and Civic Engagement

Readers of this journal understand well the mission as well as many of the dimensions and logistics of civic engagement, so we will not focus in this essay on the basics of this approach to teaching and learning.  Rather, the purpose of this section of the paper is to emphasize how combining and integrating more traditional aspects of UREs with practices of civic engagement can enhance the breadth, depth, and value of teaching and learning experiences in both dimensions. 

The first quote from Ehrlich defines the nature and dimensions of civic engagement. The second quote describes the characteristics of people who are civically engaged. 

Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

Ehrlich, 2000, p. vi.

A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.

Ehrlich, 2000, p. xxvi

The definition of civic engagement emphasizes that it encompasses “…developing the combination of knowledge, skills, and values” that can make a difference in the vitality, health, and vibrancy of communities.  Research questions directed toward the improvement of communities and the skills needed to provide answers and insights to critical questions that a community faces can all become critical components of UREs. 

This definition of a civically engaged person can also be applied to ethical researchers. Thus, civic engagement can help undergraduate researchers better appreciate the need for both basic and applied research, to approach both kinds of research with integrity, and to follow up on important questions both as scientists and as citizens (e.g., Clements et al., 2013). The final sentence in this definition (“. . . to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate”) also suggests the need for the development of empirical questions and experiments to evaluate those questions as a critical component of civic policy- and decision-making. 

Too often community-based decision-making and actions may be based on finances, emotion, and conventional wisdom about ways to address a given set of challenges. It is here where UREs can be especially effective by helping students as well as the other members of a community with whom they interact to appreciate the roles of scientific inquiry and processes and the importance of bringing data to the table when decisions are being made. CUREs especially can be used as an opportunity for larger numbers of undergraduates working collectively to learn practices and approaches of science and can be designed to provide an opportunity for civic engagement, making them more interesting and relevant to students. 

Taken from the website of SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities), Table 3 provides an additional set of rationales for instructors to consider when developing UREs that integrate civic engagement and for helping to convince departmental and campus faculty colleagues and other academic leaders about the importance of initiating interdisciplinary experiential learning experiences for undergraduates.  

The research literature suggests that, to date, much of the development of UREs, both apprentice-based and course-based, has focused on individual disciplines in STEM (including the social sciences) and the humanities. The National Academies symposium on CUREs (NASEM, 2015) featured several models of research-based courses that have promoted interdisciplinary teaching and learning, both across STEM disciplines and between STEM disciplines and the arts and humanities (see Table 2). Integrating civic engagement either with apprentice- or course-based research would add an important additional impetus for some students (especially non-STEM majors) to engage with research and for faculty from different academic departments to work with each other in developing such opportunities. 

UREs that integrate STEM with civic engagement can also benefit institutions of higher education in the following ways:

Research can be directed toward addressing problems on the campus itself. For example, “The Campus as a Living Laboratory” developed into a system-wide initiative at the California State University, has provided small grants to faculty who engaged their students with addressing campus-based issues after funding from the state was severely restricted. Since then, many campuses have embraced this concept in a variety of ways. For additional information, see,47&q=campus+as+a+living+laboratory. See also Lindstrom and Middlecamp, 2017, and  Lindstrom and Middlecamp, 2018 below. 

Civic engagement can be integrated with UREs into programs that help communities surrounding the campus address local issues. Focused attention to community-based issues can help improve relationships between a campus and the community in which it resides.

The integration of civic engagement and UREs may help with recruitment and retention of students from populations that historically have been underrepresented in various STEM disciplines. For example, research on improving retention of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering has indicated that many of these students are seeking to solve real-world problems that help their communities (National Academy of Engineering [NAE], 2008, 2013a). Based on this research, the NAE has helped lead a campaign to change messaging about and images of engineers and engineering (NAE, 2012, 2013b, 2014). 

Interdisciplinary education is becoming more widespread in higher education. Importantly, there is increasing evidence that interdisciplinary approaches, combined with various forms of active engagement, can enhance student learning in multiple dimensions (NASEM, 2018c). UREs that involve civic engagement can serve as both a lens and a catalyst for institutions to encourage greater interdisciplinary cooperation across academic departments or clusters of faculty with differing but complementary areas of expertise. 

While the benefits of integrating UREs in STEM with civic engagement are apparent, there are fewer examples and exemplars of these kinds of programs than for disciplinary UREs,  and actually implementing such integrated programs may seem daunting. Thus, the next section of this paper provides details about one such URE that has successfully encompassed this kind of integration. Readers  also may be able to seek assistance and resources from on-campus offices that focus on research opportunities for undergraduates (e.g., Kinkead and Blockus, 2012).

Research on Campus Waste: An Experiential Learning Experience That Integrates URE with Civic Engagement

Trash audits determine what is being thrown away, allow auditors to assess whether or not waste is properly sorted, and help to pinpoint incorrectly recycled items. Ultimately, audits are powerful tools for helping other entities to analyze the results from their facilities and provide feedback on areas of improvement. (La Susa, 2018)

Almost a decade ago, one of the authors of this article (Middlecamp) accepted the assignment of teaching a large introductory environmental science course at her state’s flagship research university where she is a member of the faculty, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The 4-credit course included both weekly lectures and a 3-hour laboratory period and counted toward fulfilling a requirement for both the environmental studies major and certificate.  For the past four years, the course has counted toward the sustainability certificate as well.

Seizing the opportunity, she designed a new course that was place-based, drawing its content from the campus on which students studied, lived, worked, and played.  Although officially titled “Principles of Environmental Science,” the course quickly earned the nickname of “Energy, Food, and Trash” because it addressed these three topics using campus data sets, food supply chains, and waste protocols.  The course used the university campus as a “living laboratory” for sustainability (Lindstrom and Middlecamp, 2017; Lindstrom and Middlecamp, 2018).

By design, the new course was interdisciplinary from its inception.  Not only do the topics of energy, food, and trash draw from the natural sciences, but they also touch on topics from the social sciences and humanities, including social psychology and environmental history.  The sustainability-related course content includes dimensions that are environmental, social, and economic. The laboratory activities for this course are interdisciplinary as well.  

This section describes the use of trash audits as a URE that connects to civic engagement. In essence, a trash audit is research to learn something about what is in the garbage.  For example, some audits are of the contents of “general” trash bins to determine which or how many items are heading to the landfill that could have been composted or recycled instead.  Other audits are of “specialty” bins, such as plastic recycling bins, to determine to what extent the recycled items are contaminated.  Still other audits might determine what is in the trash that should not be there, such as silverware, cups, or plates.  The use of trash audits at UW-Madison was reported in NASEM 2015:  

At first, the projects may not appear to be “real” research. A trash audit, however, gives students the opportunity to follow a protocol, collect data, and ask research questions of their own. For example, an unexpected finding in the study described above was that this trash also included 20 pounds of cups, dishes, silverware, and even a tray from a campus dining hall. This finding in turn catalyzed a future research agenda for the undergraduate students. (p. 32)

The rationale for the use of trash audits in an undergraduate course that integrates scientific research with civic engagement is threefold.  First, trash audits are a low-cost way to involve large groups of students in a meaningful research project. Required is an enclosed space (i.e., an enclosed loading dock) to carry out the audit, protective gear for students who dig in the trash (i.e., Tyvek suits, Kevlar gloves, safety goggles), and some nearby safety equipment (i.e., a portable eyewash) for the use of all.  Second, this type of research is a form of civic engagement because it provides useful data to campus officials, including those in charge of dining halls, athletics, hospitals, and residence halls.  And third, this type of research engages students.  

Trash audits typically are carried out by a team, with each student performing a different role. For example, in a team of four, one person may open the bags and sort the trash.  This person wears protective gear. Two other people might hold bags to receive trash items, perhaps one for recyclables and another for landfill.  A fourth person records the data and receives “unusual” items found in the trash, e.g., money, plates from the cafeteria, or medical records. 

Trash audits also need to be conducted with proper safety protocols. Students and staff need proper training, appropriate personal protective equipment, and clear guidelines for emergency procedures. Table 4 lists the safety precautions given to students. 

Finally, and most important to this article, trash audits couple undergraduate research with civic engagement.  Here are four possible ways for a campus to utilize the data that students obtain, thus opening avenues for civic engagement by a broad range of stakeholders:

Cost saving – Some items may be found in the trash that do not belong there (and have value), signaling the need for a change in the policies at campus eateries.  Examples include knives, forks, spoons, dishes, and plates.  

Recycling protocols – An audit of a recycling bin can show the degree of contamination; similarly, an audit of a trash bin may show items that should have been recycled.  Examples include food and trash in recycling bins and aluminum cans in trash bins.

Student life issues – If items that connect to student health and well-being are found in residence hall trash, these items may signal the need to reassess campus policies.  Examples include alcohol bottles and cans.

Environmental issues – If prescription drugs are found in audits of residence hall trash, this may signal the need to set up collection stations or to change the protocols for existing ones, thus providing proper disposal instead of releasing drugs into the local environment.

Each of these can serve as the start of a campus conversation involving different stakeholders.  In addition, if students or campus staff design and implement an intervention, each of these can serve as the impetus for future audits to assess the success of the intervention.

Over the years, some students have chosen to continue their research projects after their course ended.  For example, Figure 1 shows a new recycling sign displayed at a campus library where the food items brought in by student produce a lot of waste.  The project was run by a team of staff and students who had completed a course in life science communications (Jandl, 2018).  Again, UREs can not only benefit the students but can also serve their campus and the local communities in which they live.

Image courtesy of Carrie Kruse
Policy Issues and System Challenges

Development, implementation, or expansion of UREs presents opportunities as well as challenges at the levels of individual facuty, teams of faculty, academic departments and programs, and institutions.  Much has already been written about how to address and surmount many of these issues, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a comprehensive review of the literature. For such summaries we recommend that readers consult NASEM, 2015 and 2017a and Dolan, 2016.

Integrating civic engagement with UREs adds additional layers of complexity to an already complex system because such research necessarily will be more applied than basic, will likely involve multiple faculty or departments, and may also require collaboration with organizations outside the college or university. Thus, we conclude this section with several points that initiators of UREs that include civic engagement may wish to consider.


The good news about the development of UREs in STEM is that they have attracted the attention of the STEM education research community. Many such references are cited in this paper. Thus, there is a great deal of guidance in the literature about how to assess the efficacy of UREs and how to incorporate various kinds of assessments into program design from the beginning (e.g., Shortlidge and Brownell, 2016). However, there is greater debate about what to assess and whether or not those criteria should be standardized to facilitate comparisons across programs. 

These issues, and especially what variables to measure, are compounded when interdisciplinary UREs or those that involve civic engagement are attempted. At a minimum, faculty who are planning such programs need to discuss openly, as critical components of the initial planning stages, what they value and what they expect their students to learn and be able to do, as well as the methods they will use for assessment.

Professional Development and Departmental Support 

Many faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students, especially at research-focused institutions, have experience in providing individualized or small group UREs to students in their laboratories.  Adapting these kinds of experiences to CUREs can present challenges to faculty who have little teaching experience or who have not engaged in various kinds of active, high-impact practices in their courses. Here again, an additional layer of complexity is added when either apprentice- or course-based UREs involve interdisciplinary foci such as civic engagement.  Thus, providing these kinds of experiences to undergraduates will require investment of time and departmental or institutional funds for programs as well as professional development for instructors (faculty of all ranks and career paths as well as postbaccalaureate assistants). Such departmental and institutional investments could significantly enhance the quality and efficacy of such programs (e.g., NASEM 2018; McDonald et al., 2019; Huffmeyer and Lemus, 2019). The institution’s teaching and learning center may be able to offer such programs. Many professional development workshops and other programs are currently offered by disciplinary and professional societies as well as other national organizations that can help faculty and other instructors become more comfortable with and adept at initiating more active, high-impact practices. Given the large increase in the number of adjunct faculty who are now involved with undergraduate instruction, including them in on-campus professional development programs or supporting their registration and travel to attend off-campus offerings could also greatly enhance the capacity of the institution to offer UREs. Providing these opportunities to adjunct faculty could also allow them to undertake original or applied research with students in their courses to enhance their own publication record, thereby offering a path toward professional advancement in academia.

Financial and Other Incentives

Much has been written about how incentives drive faculty productivity, retention, and motivation. It is difficult enough to address these issues within individual disciplines. Extending the discussion to include multiple departments makes the required discussions and actions that much more difficult. Money is not the only consideration. Faculty time to develop UREs, sufficient space, equipment and expendables, and professional recognition and credit for such participation (including serious consideration during decisions about tenure and promotion) are all essential if UREs involving civic engagement are to be successful. Who “owns” the course? How are FTEs assigned to what are still unconventional approaches in many academic settings? Who should be responsible (and appropriately compensated) for seeking out and engaging off-campus community organizations?

Student Considerations

The demographics of undergraduate student populations have changed a great deal during the past two decades (summarized in NASEM, 2016). These changing demographics can pose challenges to the successful development of integrated UREs. For example, the age of the average undergraduate is now in the mid-twenties. Many of these students are working at full- or part-time jobs. Increasing numbers of students have children, and a significant component of these students may be single parents. Today’s students are also much more likely to complete their degrees across multiple institutions and take much longer than four years to complete their degrees, often due to the aforementioned contingencies (NASEM, 2016).

If UREs are to be successful, then they must account for these kinds of exigencies. Even within disciplines, if a URE requires additional fees, many students may be unable or unwilling to pay them. Due to high interest rates on student loans, those undergraduates who pay tuition and fees actually end up paying much more to enroll in these courses than students who do not have these kinds of financial burdens. If a URE requires students to be engaged with research outside of class time such as in the evenings or on weekends, students who are parents may be excluded from taking advantage of such opportunities. (For additional student considerations related to the designing of CUREs, see NASEM, 2015). 

If UREs are to incorporate civic engagement, then additional barriers and challenges may ensue. For example, while such experiences could greatly benefit both STEM majors and non-majors, non-STEM students may not be willing to participate if they have to pay any additional lab or equipment fees, since many majors outside of STEM don’t require them. 

Finally, the issue of assessment and evaluation of student learning is germane to this discussion. Because many students’ choices for courses during college are driven both by requirements and by the need to maintain a high grade point average, they will often opt to enroll in courses where standards and expectations for grading are clear. Thus, for example, instructors need to consider as part of their approaches to grading how they will assess students when their data are ambiguous or they don’t obtain experimental results that match the hypotheses that they’ve originally proposed. Unless such expectations are established well in advance, agreed upon by all instructors, and conveyed clearly to students in the college catalog and course syllabi, some students who might benefit most from challenging themselves through undertaking a URE may opt to instead enroll in courses with more traditional approaches to grading. Of course, this challenge becomes magnified when instructors from different disciplines or academic traditions are working together on courses or other programs that integrate more traditional disciplines with civic engagement. 


Efforts to expand participation in UREs have shown promise, and the strongest evidence for their benefit comes from studies of students from groups historically underrepresented in scientific fields (NASEM, 2017a, 2017b). Additional expansion of opportunities for students to participate in traditional formats of UREs are likely to benefit their learning. CUREs can bring research experiences to classrooms, transform more traditional laboratory and field venues into broader learning and discovery experiences, and decrease the importance of requiring students to bring prior knowledge and connections to a course, which also increases opportunities of access and equity for a broader array of students (NASEM, 2015). Other types of experiential learning can be obtained from service-learning projects and internships in industry or the community (NASEM, 2017b, 2018b).

The potential for engaging a broader spectrum of students, instructors, departments, institutions, and communities in the support of UREs may also be enhanced by integrating learning in the STEM disciplines with civic engagement. This melding of learning can help students better understand and appreciate the importance of challenging themselves, sometimes failing at what they are trying to do, and seeing how the subjects they learn can be applied to real problems that face society and the planet. We encourage readers who care about and currently involve their students in civic engagement to work with colleagues from the STEM disciplines (both on- and off- campus) to develop richer learning and more exciting teaching experiences through the integration of these approaches. As we have tried to articulate, the challenges for successful integration are many and may be more difficult to address than when we seek to improve teaching and learning within a discipline. However, the rewards can be many. The SENCER Guidelines (Table 3), coupled with serious consideration of an institution’s mission statement, can become valuable guides for proceeding. Given the challenges that the current generation of students will face during their lifetimes and the critical need for using evidence to address problems, the importance of integrating STEM and civic engagement through undergraduate research experiences has never been greater. 

About the Authors

Jay Labov

Jay Labov-Before retiring in November, 2018, Jay Labov served as Senior Advisor for Education and Communication at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, DC. He has directed or contributed to some 30 National Academies reports on K–12 and undergraduate, teacher, and international education. He was a Kellogg Foundation National Fellow, currently serves as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and was recently appointed as a Fulbright Specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is a Lifetime Honorary Member of the National Association of Biology Teachers, an Education Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a recipient of NSTA’s Distinguished Service to Science Education award. He served as chair of AAAS’s Education Section and now represents the section as a member of the AAAS Council and the Council’s Executive Committee. He has been deeply involved with SENCER since its inception. 

Kerry Brenner

Kerry Brenner is a senior program officer for the Board on Science Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. She was the study director for the 2017 consensus report Undergraduate Research for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities and the 2017 workshop as well as the recently released report Science and Engineering for Grades 6–12: Investigation and Design at the Center. She is the director of the Roundtable on Systemic Change in Undergraduate STEM Education. She previously worked for NASEM’s Board on Life Sciences, serving as the study director for the project that produced Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Biology Education for Future Research Biologists. As an outgrowth of that study she participated in the founding of the National Academies Summer Institutes for Undergraduate Education. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and her PhD in Molecular Biology from Princeton University.

Cathy Middlecamp

Cathy Middlecamp, a chemist by training, is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  As a longtime member of the SENCER community, she is a senior associate, a model developer (2004), and a member of the National Fellowship Board.  The recipient of SENCER’s William E. Bennett Award for Extraordinary Contributions to Citizen Science (2011), she has received three national awards from the American Chemical Society (ACS) for her work in chemistry education; she also is a fellow of the ACS (2009), of the AAAS (2003) and of the Association for Women in Science (2003).


The authors thank Matthew Fisher for inviting this paper and for providing helpful comments and suggestions for improving it. 


While Kerry Brenner is an employee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine or any of its constituent units.


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Incubating the SENCER Ideals with 
Project-Based Learning and Undergraduate Research: Perspectives from Two Liberal Arts Institutions


Maintaining undergraduate interest in STEM is a formidable challenge. Numerous studies have reported that structured, authentic research experiences in the classroom increase retention rates and introduce students to the skills needed to conduct independent research as upperclassmen and beyond. Most importantly, these strategies are inclusive, enabling all students, regardless of their backgrounds, to be exposed to and involved in research. However, few reports are available on the efforts of SENCER faculty to grow and support inclusive undergraduate research at small liberal arts institutions. Here we describe approaches being taken and challenges being faced by SENCER faculty at two liberal arts institutions while they strive to achieve the SENCER ideals and to promote civic and scientific engagement at their institutions through research and project-based learning. 


Classroom-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) and Project-Based Learning (PBL) have been shown to enhance the career development and readiness of students and can substantially impact retention in STEM disciplines (e.g. Strobel and van Barneveld, 2009; Bangera and Brownell, 2014; Jordan et al., 2014). CUREs and PBL are inclusive, exposing a greater number of students to high-impact experiences (Bangera and Brownell, 2014). Projects can also be designed to generate meaningful data that can inform further student research projects as well as the research agenda of the faculty member (Shortlidge, Bangera, and Brownell, 2017). 

At Mercy College and Young Harris College (YHC), the faculty define PBL as a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge (Eberlein et al., 2008) and a CURE course is one in which students are expected to engage in science research with the aim of producing novel results that are of interest to the scientific community (Corwin, Graham, and Dolan, 2015). We use an inclusive definition of undergraduate research (UGR) here as being an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline. 

With careful and thoughtful design, these experiences can help students gain exposure to research while enhancing their critical thinking, communication, and quantitative reasoning skills (Auchincloss et al., 2014). Providing authentic experiences also improves student confidence, motivation, and attitudes about research in comparison to “cookbook” labs (e.g. Brownell, Kloser, Fukami, and Shavelson, 2012; Brownell et al., 2015), which can prompt greater retention in traditionally challenging disciplines. For instance, students in an open-ended research laboratory course reported greater project ownership and a desire to discuss materials and collaborate with other students, in contrast with students who followed predetermined lab protocols from a manual (Brownell et al., 2012). A CURE approach also significantly increased the likelihood that undergraduates would want to pursue independent research (Brownell et al., 2012) and their ability to correctly analyze novel datasets during exams (Brownell et al., 2015). Numerous models and resources to implement CUREs and PBL have been described, and there are several faculty and institutional networks that encourage and foster collaborative experiences between students and faculty to tackle real-world problems. CUREnet: Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences ( hosts a plethora of CURE examples and a detailed compendium of funded projects (with faculty contact information, objectives, and lab overviews). SEA-PHAGES: Science Education Alliance – Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science ( is designed to isolate new viruses from soil samples and expose undergraduates to research methods in microbiology, genomics, bioinformatics, and evolutionary biology. Two antibiotic discovery networks, the Small World Initiative ( and Tiny Earth ( task students with isolating bacteria from soil samples to screen for antibiotic production and resistance while promoting science literacy and training in microbiology, molecular biology, and genetics lab techniques. 

The learning outcomes of CUREs and PBL clearly overlap with SENCER ideals. Both invoke complex, open-ended problems that challenge students to recognize the limits of scientific knowledge and apply quantitative reasoning to address global issues. These key learning outcomes will help us improve civic and scientific literacy among our students, which we define as literacy that deals with  accessing and assessing basic scientific constructs required to generate informed public policy decisions involving science and technology. By first understanding the relevance of wicked problems and then striving to solve them, students construct skills for independent learning, develop intrinsic motivation, and are prepared to be engaged 21st century citizens. At both institutions, we are scaffolding the experiences and approaches throughout our curricula so students gain relevant training that can be reinforced as they progress towards capstone courses and independent research. While students from Mercy College and YHC have not directly interacted, faculty from both institutions have recognized overlapping goals regarding the implementation of UGR at small liberal arts institutions. This has led to ongoing discussions during SENCER meetings between the schools to build on existing initiatives. Given their different demographics and mission statements, we felt that contrasting approaches undertaken by both institutions would illustrate unique strengths and challenges associated with implementing pedagogical reform within diverse liberal arts environments.

Leveraging SENCER at Two Small Liberal Arts Institutions

Mercy College is a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution with about 6300 undergraduate students, 62% of whom are underrepresented ethnic minorities (UMs), with three main campuses in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Dobbs Ferry. Admission to Mercy is SAT/ACT optional. The biology program enrolls approximately 250 students and attracts a high percentage of UMs. Many are transfer students, of nontraditional age, and/or commuters, and the majority receive federal Pell grants. In the biology major, many students hail from high-needs high schools, are of first-generation college status, and/or care for a dependent. 

National data trends show that the biology program has had a substantially higher attrition rate at Mercy than at colleges with similar admission standards. When asked, most often Mercy students have concerns regarding the biology major; worries about getting a job post graduation, about the impact of negative course outcomes on their GPAs, and about the workload associated with STEM courses (both the rigor and extent of work required). Analysis of our students has shown that they are most often transferring to majors that they perceive to be less arduous (psychology and health sciences), regardless of whether or not they are, in fact, less difficult. While there are great opportunities for students to engage in research in upper-division courses, we tend to lose students in their first year, since many students fail or fail to continue introductory biology and chemistry courses. This indicates that our efforts need to target the introductory sequence and improve our pedagogy and outcomes therein.   

Our concerns about student success and retention in STEM majors like biology have led to major efforts within our college, our school, and the Natural Sciences Department. The Maverick Success Toolkit (a college-wide initiative of our President Timothy Hall is targeting “High-Impact Practices, including undergraduate research” (AAC&U, 2008). In Natural Sciences, the high-impact practices (HIPs) we are focused on includ CUREs and PBL, which address key program outcomes for the biology program at Mercy, include students being able to (a) critically examine basic, applied, and societal problems in the biological sciences and through the lens of life sciences professionals, (b) propose problem-solving strategies to address these problems, and (c) work as effective team members on collaborative projects. By engaging our students in collaborative projects and improving their problem-solving strategies with PBL and CUREs, we could reach our desired programmatic outcomes. Other initiatives and activities supporting the growth of UGR at Mercy include regular Faculty Seminar Days, when all faculty across the college participate in faculty development, a Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) site visit, a monthly seminar series featuring local researchers, a yearly STEM day open to local high schools, and regularly co-hosting the Westchester Undergraduate Research Conference with Manhattanville College. 

Young Harris College is a rural, residential, Methodist-affiliated liberal arts institution with just under 1,000 undergraduate students, over 80% of whom are white. The vast majority (93%) of students are Georgia residents, with an average SAT score of 1083 in 2017. Biology is consistently one of the top majors at the institution, comprising 15–18% of the total declared majors in a given year. As at Mercy, there is a drop in declared majors following the introductory biology and chemistry sequence, as they are perceived to be challenging courses. 

YHC has a mixture of established initiatives in place to promote UGR and scholarship among upperclassmen. Biology majors are primed for research via a two-semester course sequence on experimental design and analyzing scientific literature. In their senior year, majors can choose between conducting an independent research project or a literature review. Only about a third of majors conduct research projects, and students who elect to do research typically spend one semester on the project before presenting it as a senior capstone. The college holds an annual campus-wide Undergraduate Research Day, which provides students the opportunity to present original research in a low-stakes environment. The Biology Department also provides travel stipends to students who conduct UGR to present findings at the annual Georgia Academy of Sciences meeting, but travel by students to national conferences is less common.

 YHC has had a minor SENCER connection since transitioning from a two- to a four-year institution in 2008, including a site visit and an interdepartmental team trip to a SENCER Summer Institute. However, campus-wide knowledge of SENCER is low, even though several faculty members actively promote civic engagement in their classrooms. Many of these initiatives are conducted independently, without extensive intra- or inter-departmental knowledge of the projects. This issue stems from a high teaching load and limited course release options, reducing the ability of faculty to apply for fellowships and grants.

What we have done at Mercy 

Currently our efforts are focused on making UGR more inclusive. One approach is to integrate research across the curriculum, thereby serving more students. Particular focus has been placed on engaging students earlier on in the curriculum such as in introductory courses. Internal funding from Mercy has been directed towards the CURE project, to help the faculty attend professional development opportunities such as the PBL Institute at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and to bring experts to the campus, including Dr. Monica Devanas of SENCER. A new position, the Undergraduate Research Coordinator, was created in the department to support UGR. Figure 1 shows our progress towards the incorporation of CUREs or PBL across the curriculum. To reach across the disciplines and to break down the discplinary silos, our approach to defining research has been broad and inclusive, and we have included aspects of the research process (literature reviews, poster presentations, designing experiments in silico) in our scaffolded approach. Here are some examples of our SENCERized efforts across the curriculum:

At the General Education level

Students in the Environmental Science class for non-science majors self-assign into teams and engage in student-chosen and student-driven projects aimed at solving environmental problems visible and meaningful to the Mercy community. At the end of the semester, they present proposals to solve a particular problem. In Fall 2016, students surveyed the college community on recycling, and generated an interdisciplinary proposal to reduce plastic use in the Mercy cafeteria. It was presented to the Mercy administration and helped make the case to reduce plastics in the cafeteria. 

At the Introductory Level

In General Biology 1, students choose to research topics of civic and scientific importance relevant to the biology course (climate change, emerging infectious diseases, GMOs). The students generate posters, and learn how to cite and produce a bibliography. Librarians help us print and present the posters in the library and we hold poster sessions in public spaces, such as the corridor outside the labs, allowing the greater community to witness and engage with student work. 

General Chemistry 1 also involves public poster presentations of the students’ work. The projects are constructed around the theme of isotopes and nuclear chemistry, and students choose a project topic linking nuclear chemistry to societal issues such as radioactive accidents, global warming and evolution. As with biology, the students work in teams and are peer-assessed on their teamwork. The General Chemistry laboratory has also been redesigned to include a project, the theme of which centers on connecting acid-base chemistry to commercially available antacids. Antacids provide a perfect entry point for freshman students to understand the concepts of acids and bases and their relevance to health and biology. Students generate their own hypotheses to test, and in consultation with the instructor, design experiments, collect and analyze data, and submit a comprehensive lab report on their project. 

Introductory Physics is a two-semester sequence, with embedded exploratory laboratory modules. It is project based, with students posing their own inquiries and making inferences based on analysis of their own data. Initially, student inquiries focus on biomechanics with emphasis on experimental design and collaborative execution. Then, inquiries expand to the physical mechanisms underlying biological processes, normal and impaired physiological functioning and/or medical diagnostics and treatment. Every student creates an ePortfolio of their final project work, which is viewable by the entire college community. Students self-assess and peer-assess their progress, and final projects are used to evaluate their competence in their inquiry, modeling, quantitative analysis, and communication skills.

At the Intermediate Level   

We’ve previously reported on the development of a SENCERized elective CURE course called the “Microbiome of Urban Spaces” (Smyth, 2017), which began in Spring 2016. The microbiology lecture course was also redesigned to help students be more civically engaged using PBL. Students were instructed in aspects of policy and regulations (clean air and water acts, the EPA), health care disparities, and the rise of antibiotic resistance. They prepared educational materials (brochures, infographics, posters) that would be accessible and promote awareness of various topics of civic import in their communities, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food, climate change, and emerging infectious diseases such as Zika. 

PBL was introduced in the Organic II lab curriculum in the Fall of 2017. The topic chosen was sunscreens, as they are organic compounds that absorb solar radiation and can minimize UV damage or sunburn. Recently Hawaii banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate as active ingredients (these ingredients have a high sun protection factor). Divers use these on their faces, but the compounds are insoluble in water and can cause coral bleaching and disruption of marine ecosystems. The topic has societal implications and would appeal to students going into medical fields, as it links the study of organic chemistry to cancer, a topic usually restricted to biology students. Students chose to analyze the different active ingredients present in commercially available sunscreens to measure their UV absorbance/antioxidant properties. Currently the students are synthesizing organic compounds and are going to evaluate these for sunscreen properties. 

At the Advanced Level

Our efforts at the introductory and intermediate levels have prepared students for more advanced research experiences in developmental biology, neuroscience, and in a new “Research in Biology” course. The capstone course has also been redesigned from a literature review course to an authentic lab-based research course in which students can conduct independent projects. Faculty who work with students on independent projects have benefited from students progressing through the scaffolded curriculum, as these students are more confident, capable, and dependable in the lab. Their successes at conferences and meetings and acceptances to prestigious Research Experiences for Undergraduate programs (REUs) and internships support these observations. Student presentations at local conferences (such as the Westchester Undergraduate Research Conference, the SENCER SCI Mid-Atlantic Meeting, and the Metropolitan Association of College and University Biologists Conference) have increased from one in 2012/2013, two in 2013/2014, three in 2014/2015, nine in 2015/2016, six in 2016/2017, 28 in 2017/2018, and 11 in 2018/2019. There were no student presentations at national/international conferences (such as ABRCMS, ASM, SACNAS, and CSTEP) from 2013–2015, but there were eight student presentations in 2016/2017 and four in 2017/2018. Students have also increasingly been rewarded for their work with poster awards at CSTEP (in 2017 and 2018), travel awards to attend ABRCMS (in 2016), and an ASM Capstone award (in 2017), and they have been accepted to prestigious REUs for the first time in many years, such as SURP at Albert Einstein (in 2017), SURP at Rutgers (in 2018), and at SURP at NYU (in 2018). One of the most significant changes is the increase in chemistry-focused research involving undergraduates at Mercy, which had been stagnant for many years. 

What We Have Done at YHC 

The teaching load at YHC provides challenges and opportunities for incorporating SENCER ideals across the curriculum. In biology, most courses are developed without substantial input by other faculty. Faculty who choose to implement novel pedagogies are encouraged and have free rein to do so. However, the benefits of these designs can go unnoticed by administrators or colleagues unless explicitly promoted. In recent years, subsets of the division have applied for educational grants (e.g. NSF S-STEM) but have not received an award thus far. Therefore, although financial support for developing a cohesive departmental initiative is minimal at present, a scaffolded, SENCERized curriculum is certainly feasible in the future.

At the General Education and Introductory Levels

Arguably the area of greatest need for promoting civic engagement and scientific literacy at YHC is within non-majors courses, as these students generally fail to see the relevance of or are disinterested in biology. Similar trends have been observed at other institutions (e.g. Cotner, Thompson, and Wright, 2017). To combat this, one non-majors course (Exploring Life) was redesigned to promote the civic value of biological literacy in addition to content-related learning objectives. Instead of a traditional exploration of molecular biology, genetics, and evolution, these concepts were built into a modular approach. Each module was selected by students and used four weeks to explore a critical biological issue, such as epidemics, vaccinations, GMOs, or the antibiotic resistance crisis. Whenever possible, community connections were brought into each unit to promote a civic outlook in the topic, such as instilling awareness of disease agents on campus or considering the prevalence of GMOs in local markets. One unique element of the Exploring Life redesign was that students in the course were offered a choice between six potential modules at the beginning of the semester, of which the three topics with the highest number of votes were used as topics for the course.  This design provides greater flexibility to other instructors, as they can select which six modules they are most comfortable offering each semester, or they can develop a new panel of modules to add to the course portfolio, provided that they meet established content guidelines. 

 During redesign for non-majors biology, a concerted effort was made to expose social challenges, embrace statistical analysis, and analyze peer-reviewed articles using established, student-centered teaching practices. Final projects for each theme were designed to promote scientific communication to non-scientists, such as designing a board game to illustrate how viruses spread through a community, or constructing a college flyer to highlight contributors to antibiotic resistance. Labs used an inquiry-based approach to demonstrate modern research techniques, although more structure was provided in comparison to recently redesigned open-ended labs in majors’ introductory biology courses. Some lab modules were based on previously established CUREs (such as Tiny Earth), while others were developed following workshops with Research Experiences in Introductory Laboratories (REIL)-Biology.

Our non-majors chemistry course also explores subjects that enhance student awareness of globally relevant topics, such as green chemistry. Introductory courses at the majors level are moving towards student-centered practices, but arguably lag behind efforts at the non-majors level. The degree of active learning within a section of introductory biology varies widely depending on the instructor of record; however, groups of faculty have collectively restructured lab activities to include inquiry elements, including a multi-week student-designed authentic research project for our introductory organismal biology course.  

At the Intermediate and Advanced Level

In addition to department-wide initiatives to reinforce scientific literacy and training for biology majors (see examples in the institutional profile), most faculty promote a student-centered teaching environment to some degree, such as utilization of kinesthetic models in cellular biology, analysis of public environmental science data, preparing students for the workforce by utilizing discipline-relevant, open source statistical software (e.g. the R Project), and flipped classrooms. When possible, YHC faculty tie course content into their own research interests or connect topics to the rural, montane environment where our campus resides. Many YHC students hail from the Atlanta suburbs, and finding ways for them to connect to the YHC community is critical for retention.   

Over the past five years, the majority of biology faculty teaching upper division courses have shifted from “cookbook” labs to incorporate greater inquiry-driven pedagogical approaches. The rationale for this is twofold. First, group-based projects prime sophomores and juniors for the rigors of independent research, and second, concepts illustrated in previous courses on experimental design and statistics can be reinforced. As an example, half of our Invertebrate Zoology labs were removed last year to make room for a student-designed project on chemoattractants to beehive pests. This project tied into the YHC community, as we have established beehives and an annual course on beekeeping that is among the most desirable courses on campus. Students wrote a proposal and budget, managed the project, designed a scientific poster, and orally defended their research one-on-one. The end product was of sufficient quality to be presented on campus during YHC’s Undergraduate Research Day. Projects of similar complexity can be found among many upper-division science courses at YHC, but this is a bottom-up movement by faculty who see the value in reinforcing research methods and/or SENCER ideals in their courses. Table 1 demonstrates how these activities across the curriculum synergize between Mercy and YHC. 

Student and Faculty Benefits and Successes

We’ve demonstrated that there are many ways to bring research to our students. By scaffolding research across the curriculum at Mercy, we enable our students to gain the skills and experiences they need at several stages throughout their academic careers, and across multiple disciplines including biology, chemistry and physics. This cross-disciplinary approach, spanning introductory to advanced courses, ensures that their learning is reinforced through multiple and varied exposures to research and authentic questions/projects that are of interest to them. At YHC, faculty are supportive of one another’s efforts to incorporate research in the classroom. There has been minimal resistance to this approach, although greater communication and institutional support is needed at this time to transition from independent efforts to a cohesive, scaffolded approach that reaches across the curriculum.

What did we find at Mercy? 

Feedback from our students enrolled in these modified courses has demonstrated that the students themselves feel that they have benefited in the areas of teamwork, communication, and in their appreciation of the course and of science in general. Many Mercy faculty have now adopted the SALG as a means of assessing student perceptions of their own learning. Students in microbiology reported “the projects were great, especially the microbe Digication project. I heard from past classes that they just wrote a paper for a project grade and I much preferred the Digication project that my class did.” Digication is an online platform for electronic portfolios (DIGI[cation], n.d.). A chemistry student commented, “I think working as team with my peers and professor was great because we all learned from one another and each made great suggestions that contributed to the success of our project,” and a physics student wrote, “Having the whole semester for a project of our choosing gave us the power to pursue our interests while learning physics instead of focusing on memorizing formulas and regurgitating ideas.” Faculty themselves are enjoying teaching the courses and having more engaged students. 

A barrier that remains for us is a means to assess the specific gains in the areas of civic engagement and scientific literacy. We are currently focused on developing assessment tools and metrics for determining our impact across the curriculum. Despite this we have demonstrable evidence of student successes both in the classroom, outside the classroom, and beyond, after graduation. Since Fall 2016, more than 40 students have participated in the Microbiome of Urban Spaces CURE, resulting in more than 27 posters and presentations at local, national, and international conferences by Mercy students. A pilot of the URSSA survey (Westin and Laursen, 2015) in Spring 2018 demonstrated that students are considering graduate school after participating in this CURE (Table 2). Additionally, participants have received honorary mentions, research fellowships, and travel awards from the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), American Society for Microbiology (ASM), and Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and several have been accepted to research-intensive internship programs such as at Albert Einstein, NYU, and Rutgers. 

We’ve also increased the numbers of engaged and interested faculty. We started with eight engaged faculty and have grown to include more than 20, including visiting and adjunct faculty. While it is too soon to determine if we are affecting the graduation or retention rate, the number of students enrolling in the biology major has increased to 236 in Fall 2017 (3.5% of total Mercy College enrollment, 22.8% of the School of Health and Natural Sciences) compared with 216 in 2017 (3% of total Mercy College enrollment, 20% of the School of Health and Natural Sciences) and 213 in 2016 (2.7% of total Mercy College enrollment, 18.8% of the School of Health and Natural Sciences). 

What Did We Find at YHC? 

Early feedback from the redesigned non-majors biology course is encouraging. We are using the Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG), Test of Scientific Literacy Skills (TOSLS; Gormally, Brickman, and Lutz, 2012), and the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey for Biology (CLASS-BIO; Semsar, Knight, Birol, and Smith, 2011) instruments to track whether the redesign has affected non-majors’ views on their ability to conduct scientific research, interpret it, and apply it to their lives, although post-implementation data are still being generated. Informal feedback confirms that students (a) appreciate that course material is relevant to non-scientists, (b) overcome misconceptions about the scientific method, and (c) apply a global outlook regarding solutions to the challenges associated with each topic.

 One assignment clearly illustrated that the SENCER approach promotes biology as a globally relevant topic to non-majors. Pre-course surveys suggested that most students had not considered the socioeconomic or biological challenges associated with disease. While discussing HIV/AIDS, Dr. Sheryl Broverman’s work with WISER was used as an example of an initiative that grew to have a huge impact. Students were tasked with writing a reflective response after investigating the WISER NGO. Their submissions illustrated how their perceptions of the world had changed over just a few months. As two examples:

 “People like Dr. Broverman are impressive and can make a big difference…what would happen if all of the privileged people could help all of the non-privileged people?” and “I am so impressed by the efforts [of WISER] that I plan to pitch this NPO as my sorority’s next philanthropy. While I am aware that the dent that a small-town sorority is able to make may not be huge…I have held steadfast to the idea that small changes can be monumental.”

As the course has progressed, these sorts of reflections have become more commonplace. What is needed at this stage is to expand on this vision for non-majors and apply it to majors-level courses. If students can be motivated early on and if faculty receive support for classroom initiatives, YHC could promote active research opportunities continuously throughout the major. 

Recently, several STEM faculty have engaged in pedagogical research and civic engagement endeavors, resulting in travel awards and presentations at national educational conferences, including the SENCER Summer Institute (SSI), Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE), American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), and National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), where two faculty were trained on CURE development through the Research Experiences in Introductory Laboratory in Biology (REIL) program. These faculty represent a minority at YHC, but there is a growing interest in building interdisciplinary connections among disparate majors. 

Future Directions

While we have been able to champion “SENCERized” CUREs and PBL at our respective institutions, for many faculty, there remain several considerable barriers and challenges. What these challenges are, and where and when they arise, can often impede buy-in among reluctant faculty and administration. Despite the challenges, there are several strategies that we have used to achieve buy-in:

  • Show the data – One of the most successful strategies to encourage your colleagues to participate or gather administrative and financial support is to show the results of your efforts. Take every chance to present your efforts at departmental meetings, school meetings, conferences, and in journals such as this one. Even preliminary data can serve to bolster your argument for your efforts and can greatly serve to encourage others to join you. We have presented our ongoing efforts to the broader community at SENCER meetings and at Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) and Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis (QUBES) meetings. These efforts not only help us identify allies at other schools and institutions, but also help our colleagues who may be struggling to find ideas, methods, and strategies for success. Communication between faculty at Mercy and YHC is one such example of the community building that can occur by sharing one another’s efforts through SENCER. In the case of this particular project, D. Sieg and D. Smyth met as new attendees to the 2014 SENCER Summer Institute (SSI) in Asheville and saw mutual alignment in their pedagogical interests. They built on these connections over the years, leading to collaborations for SSI workshops and Leadership Fellow opportunities. These initial connections led to recruiting more faculty into the fold, culminating in this article.
  • Program Assessment – At Mercy, we have strategically placed PBL and CUREs at the forefront of achieving our programmatic goals. Tying PBL and CUREs to program outcomes can serve as a means of directing funding towards the efforts. Better yet, there can be direct funding and support when PBL and CUREs are tied to assessment, including expertise from assessment coordinators for generating tools and rubrics to help measure impact. 
  • Provide the support – If you are an administrator or dean, consider providing technical support for your faculty. Even small amounts of money can make all the difference when considering these types of projects. Fund opportunities for your faculty to attend workshops and training sessions. Better yet, consider lines that support the efforts directly. Hire technical staff, or train graduates of the program to support the efforts.  
  • Support Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) for promotion and tenure – An effective way to both support and encourage faculty is to align promotion and tenure expectations with Boyer’s model, which places value on SOTL (Boyer, 1990). Many teaching institutions lack adequate research facilities for faculty to engage in high-impact research analogous to what they conducted during their PhD and postdoctoral training. When the practice of implementing and assessing evidence-based and effective pedagogy in the classroom is valued and is tied to promotion and tenure, faculty will also benefit from engaging in these types of efforts.
  • Build community from within – Often, the greatest support for new initiatives comes from one’s peers. Upon our return from WPI, Mercy gathered as a learning community to continue the efforts to develop PBL. While this was not always fruitful (we often could not meet due to scheduling, and we differed in our approaches), it reinforced a common language and helped continue the momentum of our efforts beyond WPI. Recent efforts by YHC opened doors between departments by providing a forum for “Lightning Talks” where faculty can promote classroom initiatives to colleagues in a low-stakes setting. 
  • Bring the support to you – A more successful and inclusive approach was to bring the support to us. Our second collaborative community at Mercy involved Monica Devanas. She supported and bolstered our efforts to integrate CUREs into introductory courses by visiting the campus and using Skype to meet with us monthly. Her constant support and encouragement helped our CURE working group stay on track. We have also hosted Erin Dolan and CUREnet at Mercy in Spring 2018 and the Mid-Atlantic and New England PULSE network in October 2017. These efforts not only helped Mercy faculty develop curricula and innovate, but also helped support peers at neighboring institutions who are also dedicated to improving undergraduate education in STEM.
  • Leadership – To garner faculty collaboration and administrative support of initiatives, having someone with a SENCERized vision who takes on a leadership role can be invaluable. Someone with the resources and experience with pathways to curricular reform can seek out others with a similar outlook to start a collaborative effort, encourage the nascent interest in others to grow, and be poised to confidently provide the needed rationale to administrators. Having the support of the SENCER community (or other similar communities) can provide campus leaders with the tools, support, and confidence they need to help make a difference at their institutions. 

Despite our efforts, barriers and challenges remain. At many teaching-intensive institutions, the overreliance on contingent or adjunct faculty can be a barrier to implementing CUREs and PBL. At Mercy College the Department of Natural Sciences hires approximately 60 adjuncts each semester, to supplement 18 full-time faculty, teaching upwards of 200 sections. Often, these adjunct faculty are hired at the last minute and are insufficiently prepared or trained to implement high-impact practices (HIPs), and few if any have ever had any training in implementing or teaching PBL or CUREs. Having lectures and lab classes taught by different instructors (full-time or adjunct) can also cause difficulties, if students are not adequately prepared from lecture to be successful in the lab, and ensuring synergy of lab and lecture courses can be difficult. There are very few models available that address this issue. In Fall 2018, Mercy was awarded an Inclusive Excellence Grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; among other things, the awardees aimed to develop an Adjunct Academy, the goal of which is to recruit, train, and retain adjunct faculty who will support teaching with PBL and CUREs at the college (HHMI, 2019). There are often small numbers of full-time faculty who make sustained efforts to incorporate HIPs, constraining efforts to expand and integrate these HIPs across the curriculum. By encouraging more full-timers to engage with SENCER and supporting them to attend the Summer Institutes and regional meetings, we can bring more full-time faculty to the table. 

Lab support and lack of time can be another major barrier. Faculty at teaching-intensive institutions often teach four or more courses a semester (such as at Mercy and YHC), and part-time faculty generally have no access to active research programs or laboratory space. Technical support is often lacking and graduate assistants or technicians may not be available, meaning faculty must prepare materials for these courses themselves. Our pilots were supported by grants and faculty awards, as well as with funding from our deans and administration that helped purchase reagents and provide technical support to faculty. While pilots may be feasible, sustaining funding may be a challenge.

Infrastructure remains a significant barrier for many faculty, as we often lack dedicated research labs or areas for group work. When courses are taught across several campuses or buildings such as at Mercy, access to research space to support the CURE can be an issue. At Mercy, we’ve rearranged the teaching schedule to accommodate access to laboratories for preparation to make the teaching laboratories available for research when class is not in session. At YHC, we recently renovated a classroom into a shared research lab for chemistry and biology. While the space is functional, it is limiting to have only a single space for all undergraduate researchers. Since Mercy had no room for the poster sessions, we bought boards and easels and did our poster session in the corridors outside the labs. Currently we’re trying to rearrange the available research space to make it more equitable and supportive of all faculty.

While a plethora of assessment tools are available for assessing the impact of CURE and PBL experiences on students (Shortlidge and Brownell, 2016), there are limited resources tailored to determine whether students make specific gains in SENCERized classes in the areas of civic engagement and scientific literacy. More tailored assessment tools could help faculty present a data-driven and evidence-based case for SENCERized approaches to the administration and faculty. 

About the Authors

R. Drew Sieg

R. Drew Sieg is an assistant professor of biology who recently transferred to Truman State University from Young Harris College. He is a SENCER Leadership Fellow whose traditional research interests examine chemically mediated ecological interactions among plants, fungi, algae, and herbivores. He is also increasingly involved in educational research, particularly examining how authentic research experiences and other novel pedagogies affect student engagement in STEM.


Nancy Beverly

Nancy Beverly is an associate professor in physics at Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Her pedagogical work focuses on the development of engaging and relevant curricular materials, activities, and approaches for the introductory physics for life science (IPLS) students. Her contributions to the national IPLS physics education community include organizing many national IPLS workshops and conference sessions, as well as being a part of multi-institutional collaborative NSF grants in this area. She is particularly interested in assessment and in guiding students to frame and investigate their own inquiries to make their own data-driven inferences. 

Madhavan Narayanan

Madhavan (Madi) Narayanan is an assistant professor of chemistry and a biophysical chemist at Mercy College. He is the Undergraduate Research Coordinator of the Natural Sciences Department and the Adjunct Academy Team leader for the Mercy Inclusive Excellence award from Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He uses both computation and experiments to understand structure and mechanisms in biological molecules. His current research interest is in developing and characterizing novel molecular probes which can serve as useful reporters of structure and dynamics in biomolecules and for applications in biological imaging. 

Geetha Surendran

Geetha Surendran is an associate professor of chemistry in the Department of Natural Sciences at Mercy College. She teaches general chemistry and organic chemistry. Her research focuses on sunscreens as well as on antioxidants from natural sources. Currently she is developing active ingredients to be used in sunscreen formulations for the UV as well as the blue light region. She is also involved in developing Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE) projects for General Chemistry students.

Joshua Sabatini

Joshua Sabatini is a new member of the faculty at Passaic County Community College and former instructor at Mercy College. His main work is leading students through all the finer points of general and organic chemistry. As a former organic chemist in the pharmaceutical industry he also seeks to pique students’ interest in chemistry through work in the laboratory. Joshua led the students through the general chemistry CURE-based lab at Mercy in Fall 2017.


Davida Smyth

Davida S. Smyth is an associate professor of natural sciences at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School in New York. She has previously served as associate professor and Chair of Natural Sciences at Mercy College. A SENCER Leadership Fellow, her research focuses on the genomics of Staphylococcus aureus, and the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in clinical and environmental strains of Staphylococci. She is also interested in pedagogical research in the area of student reading skills in STEM disciplines, classroom undergraduate research experiences and Peer-Led Team Learning in biology. 


The authors would like to acknowledge the hard work and diligence of the students and faculty at Mercy College and Young Harris College as well as their research collaborators at CUNY, Professors Jeremy Seto (New York City College of Technology), Avrom Caplan (City College), and Theodore Muth (Brooklyn College). We are grateful to the librarians at Mercy, especially Susan Gaskin Noel, Hailey Collazo, and Andy Lowe, who assisted with the generation and printing of research posters. Our CURE courses were initiated and sustained through a Mercy Senate Micro-Grant for Course Redesign (to D. Smyth) and a Mercy Faculty Development Grant (to D. Smyth). We are very grateful for the support of our school dean Dr. Joan Toglia (who provided funding for the CURE initiative and for professional development of the faculty including support for the Project-Based Learning Institute at Worcester Polytechnic Institute). Initiatives at YHC were supported through Faculty Development funds to D. Sieg and J. Schroeder, both of whom were also trained in CURE design during an REIL-Biology workshop at NABT. Lastly we would like to thank our colleagues at SENCER, especially Monica Devanas, who worked with Mercy College faculty, and Eliza Jane Reilly, Stephen Carroll, and Kathleen Browne for their constant support, guidance, and assistance with our projects to date, and for supporting D. Sieg and D. Smyth as SENCER Leadership Fellows.


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Local to Global: Civic Engagement with Education, Awareness, 
and Global Health


Global Public Health is a course that allows students to learn about the complexity of communicable and non-communicable diseases, determinants of health, and delivery of health services.  The Global Public Health course partnered with the Center for International Students to co-host International Education Week in November 2017.  Specifically, the course held a “global successes” poster presentation event highlighting various initiatives including disease reduction, cash transfer programs, health system comparisons, and emergency preparedness. The project encouraged a dissection of the biological aspects while also focusing on the socioeconomic contexts, geo-political partners, and advocacy efforts to determine the factors that played into successful health initiatives.  Quantitative and qualitative data were collected to assess project outcomes.  The reach of the event was with the campus and local communities.  Students reported that the project allowed them to develop an appreciation for the vastness of global health, while also identifying the importance of sustainability.  


Global health courses offer excellent opportunities for students to learn about issues outside of their local, state, and national communities. By developing projects that allow them to transcend their texts and engage with the content, they can begin to step out of their local contexts and apply their learned global knowledge.  Along with learning about global health issues, students often feel disengaged to such “wicked” or massive global problems that exist.  Wicked problems, including climate change, gender inequality, famine, human trafficking, and complex humanitarian issues, are defined as such because there are many stakeholders with differing opinions, and ultimately, “each attempt to create a solution changes the problem” (Kreuter, De Rosa, Howze, and Baldwin, 2004, p. 443).  Focusing on a massive problem like climate change, studies have demonstrated that students are disengaged with the science regardless of their knowledge about the topic, because they lack action and self-awareness about their roles with the issue (Wilson and Henson, 1993; Cordero and Abellera, 2008; Feldmann, Nisbet, Leiserowitz, and Maibach, 2010; Wachholz, Artz, and Chene, 2014; Pfautsch and Gray, 2017).  According to Reimers (2017), leaders in multiple fields including business, diplomacy, and military science were interviewed regarding their views on student readiness to address challenges with a global mindset. It was consistently reported that gaps among students exist for awareness of global issues (National Research Council, 2007; Reimers, 2017).  Using case studies in the classroom has been demonstrated to assist students in identifying the “solutions for real-world scenarios . . . to raise self-awareness and improve sustainability literacy” (Pfautsch and Gray, 2017, p.  1168; see also Remington-Doucette and Musgrove, 2015). 

Although global challenges exist, successes in addressing these issues are evident as maternal and child mortality have continued to decrease along with a more pronounced focus on diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2011; Jacobsen, 2014; Merson, 2014; Glassman and Temin, 2016).  New medications are being developed along with lifesaving technologies and vaccinations, and via enhanced surveillance and reporting efforts, preparedness for global threats continues to be strengthened (CDC, 2011; Jacobsen, 2014).  By highlighting that achievements are possible, we can assist future generations in identifying how to harness their knowledge and incorporate moral and ethical reasoning to enhance their competency in addressing issues that need sustainable solutions (Pfautsch and Gray, 2017). 

Identified in the texts, Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health (Levine and Kinder, 2004) and Millions Saved: New Cases of Proven Success in Global Health (Glassman and Temin, 2016), are over 35 different examples of interventions that have lasting health education and promotion effects.  Using these case studies, college students can embark on an educational journey to better identify the roots of disease, disability, and death from a global perspective.  In the Global Public Health course, students were challenged to find a global health endeavor that was “successful” and define, using multiple lenses, what “success” means.  Students had to go beyond reading a case study and dissect the topic to gain a better understanding of factors such as the physiology of disease and the impacts of economic policies on effective health measures.  

Project Description

Six student groups, ranging from two to four students per group, researched case studies including neglected tropical diseases and successes of the Deworm the World Initiative (, global vaccination perspectives in Cameroon and Southern Ethiopia, and behavior modification to eradicate guinea worm.  Incorporating an interdisciplinary approach to understanding their chosen case studies, students identified underlying causes of disease (or health issues) using an agent, host, environment model to better explain how the interventions and/or successes broke the chain of causation.  Specifically, students focused on disciplines including public health, health education, epidemiology, and biology.  To display their case study outcomes, students developed professional 3×4 posters. In a partnership to co-host International Education Week with the Center for International Students (November 2017), students in the Global Public Health course held a poster presentation focusing on global health successes. The event was the kick-off feature, and all of campus and the local community was invited.  Goals of the event were to invite discussion about pertinent global health issues that transcend national borders.  To encourage attendee participation, international coffee, tea, and food items were served. All materials and supplies were purchased with funds from the Missouri Campus Compact mini-grant.  For project assessment, student groups were evaluated on the guiding research questions developed for their topic, the historical and health background, elements for success (including impact, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness), the organizations involved with continued efforts, policies in place to address the issue, and finally, ways for individuals to get involved locally. To evaluate the poster event, attendees completed a short survey with 5-point Likert-scale questions from strongly agree to strongly disagree regarding the presenter knowledge, enthusiasm, professionalism, and preparation.  An open-ended question was added to seek what attendees learned from attending the poster event.  At the end of the course, student feedback was obtained via a short survey with a 5-point Likert-scale regarding their development of the poster content, impacts of the project on their learning, and three open-ended reflection questions. Open-ended questions were analyzed using a content-analysis procedure for patterns and themes (Altheide, 1987; Merriam, 2009), and quantitative data were analyzed using IBM SPSS 25.  IRB approval was obtained in Fall 2017 before any data were collected.  

Project Outcomes

Six different posters were presented. Student presenters interacted with attendees (n=~40) including members of campus administration, faculty, staff, and students from various majors.  Overall, feedback from presentation attendees (n=20) was positive, with 90% strongly agreeing that presenters were prepared and knowledgeable about the material.  Regarding enthusiasm and professionalism, over 95% of attendees either agreed or strongly agreed that students were excited to present and were credible regarding the content.  Attendees’ comments for learning outcomes were positive and varied about what they gained from the experience. Themes from those outcomes included being unaware (n=9), identifying keys to health successes (n=8), and that successes have global outcomes (n=1). A sample of quotations for each theme is available in Table 1. 

For project impacts for students in the course, 100% of students who completed an evaluation agreed or strongly agreed that focusing on global health successes was important, and over 90% agreed or strongly agreed that providing service-learning opportunities in global health was important.  Overarching themes students reported focused on their surprise for the vastness of global health successes (n=5), different ways to measure success (n=4), personal gains acquired from the project (n=1), and that we are all global citizens (n=1) (Table 2). 

Discussion and Suggestions for Future Practice

By engaging with the broader campus community, students participated in open discourse to identify the importance of partnership, science, sustainability, and global citizenship to address the issues.  To promote the events of International Education Week, a local news station also attended the poster presentation to learn more about the topic and provide awareness.  As previously stated, students may be disengaged in the classroom if lectures and assignments lack an action or self-awareness component (Wilson and Henson, 1993; Cordero and Abellera, 2008; Feldmann et al., 2010; Wachholz, Artz, and Chene, 2014; Pfautsch and Gray, 2017). This course project was an attempt to combine students’ awareness for these massive problems and research the failures and successes of the efforts to address these real-world issues. An additional component for the case study was to suggest ways in which we can advocate for these topics. Students developed ideas including identifying NGOs that are continuing to work on the issues, specifying ongoing research studies and ideas for further research, and ways in which we can expand community-based programs. 

With the knowledge gained from implementing this project, instructors should build in more class time for posters to be developed and for students to reflect and to determine their questions as they navigate the research process.  Students should also engage in peer review frequently throughout the semester. Peer review only occurred one time, at the mid-point of the project, and everyone would have benefitted from hearing regularly about each other’s topics, challenges, and strengths. Another interesting learning outcome would be to prepare students on how to present at a formal poster event and explain who might be in attendance.  According to one student, “I was caught a little off guard when [the Vice President] and [Department Chair] showed up.”

To broaden this type of project, as Merson (2014) demonstrates, universities can engage in global health endeavors by acting as springboards for interdisciplinary collaboration of faculty and students from various institutions.  Next steps for more transformative student experiences and value-added projects would be to build existing projects by partnering with different disciplines and other institutions (domestic and international).  According to Ehrlich (2000), civic engagement is defined as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our common unities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference” (p. vi).  As this project started in the classroom and expanded to the campus and surrounding community, this definition of civic engagement was followed, demonstrating that global successes are evident and that we should celebrate them.

About the Author

Alicia Wodika

Alicia Wodika is currently an assistant professor in Health Sciences at Illinois State University. She currently teaches Program Planning and Evaluation and Introduction to Public Health. Previously, she taught Global Public Health, Research Methods for Health Sciences, Program Planning, and Environmental Health at Truman State University.


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At the Intersection of Applied Sciences: Integrated Learning Models in Computer Science and Software Engineering and Communication Disorders


The use of innovative technologies in speech-language pathology is revolutionizing diagnostic and treatment approaches for individuals with communication disorders.  This evolution has required educators to integrate the use of technologies into the clinical training pedagogy.   Phonetic transcription is a foundational skill presented early in the undergraduate speech-pathology curriculum and serves as the basis for advanced course work in clinical diagnostic decision-making.  Mastery requires regular practice and performance feedback.  One factor that impedes the provision of more practice opportunities is the widely agreed-upon problem of grading phonetic transcription assignments by hand. The development of a computational tool that automatically grades transcription assignments served as the mechanism for an integrated learning opportunity between the departments of Communication Disorders and Computer Science and Software Engineering at Auburn University.  


The use of innovative technologies for clinical practice in speech-language pathology is revolutionizing practices for diagnosis and treatment of communication-related disorders across the lifespan. This evolution has also required educators to integrate the use of technologies into the clinical training pedagogy. One such area is in the teaching of phonetic transcription (Abel et al., 2016; Mompeán, Ashby, and Fraser, 2011; Sullivan and Czigler, 2002; Titterington, and Bates, 2018; Vassière, 2003 Verhoeven and Davey, 2007).  Phonetic transcription allows speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to (1) create a visual representation of the status of speech production skills and (2) to interpret the coded speech in order to make diagnostic decisions for individuals at risk for communication disorders. 

Phonetic transcription is a foundational skill presented early in the undergraduate communication disorders curriculum (Howard and Heselwood, 2002; Randolph, 2015). Students of communication disorders must become experts in phonetic transcription, which involves capturing the sounds of speech in written form in order to create a transcript that represents how words were produced by an individual speaker (Knight, 2010).  This written phonetic transcript is important for continued assessment and clinical diagnostics.  However, phonetic transcription requires the development of the ability to categorize speech sounds perceptually into phonemic categories and to write what was perceived using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) coding system (Howard and Heselwood, 2002, Ladefoged, 1990). The IPA coding system contains over 100 symbols representing consonants, vowels, diacritics, accents, and suprasegmentals. This is a substantial number of symbols to become familiar with, learn to identify, and use, within a single course.  As in other scientific disciplines such as chemistry and computer science, a universal code allows for the standardization of the documentation, analysis, and interpretation of the code by specialists in the field, and just as the periodic table or JAVA Code may seem at first to be a foreign language to novices, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) presents as a new language as well (Müller and Papakyritsis, 2011).  Many students find this written code to be challenging, as it requires a cognitive shift from the standard written alphabetic code system to a perceptual system that captures the contrastive distinctions between the sounds in language (Knight, 2011). For example, although the words ‘coat’ and ‘king’ start with different letters in the standard written alphabet, phonetically, there is no distinction, and so the IPA characters are the same (‘k’).  Similarly, a single alphabetic character, such as the ‘s’ in ‘sing’ and ‘has,’ may be represented by different IPA characters (‘s’ and ‘z’, respectively, in the previous example). In some cases, such as the words ‘ball’ and ‘light,’ the IPA characters have to be further notated with additional symbols (diacritic [ł] versus phoneme /l/, respectively) that describe the variation in how these two same sounds are produced in different places in the mouth although they are the same sound.  This challenge is compounded as phonetic transcription tasks increase in complexity from individual sounds to full words and sentences. Advanced skills are required to transcribe using diacritics.  

Students who want to become speech pathologists typically receive one semester of instruction in phonetics; however, recent attention has been drawn to whether this provides students with enough opportunities for learning (Randolph, 2015). Recent evidence supports the idea that additional opportunities for practice may positively affect student success (Hillenbrand, 2014; Hillenbrand, Gayvert, and Clark, 2015).  Conversely, “the less experience students have in conducting phonetic transcriptions, the less apt they are at becoming proficient in this skill” (Randolph, 2015, p. 1). Surveyed practicing clinicians have also expressed the need for additional practice opportunities as students and for meaningful opportunities to extend their training further as practitioners (Knight, Bandali, Woodhead, and Vansadia, 2018).  

The Real-World Issue

When learning methods for the transcription of disordered speech, it is beneficial for students to receive regular feedback on their progress and to have opportunities to collaborate with peers to understand the flexibility of speech perception during the transcription process. One factor that limits the provision of such experiences is the widely agreed-upon problem of grading phonetic transcription assignments (Heselwood, 2007). Traditionally, phonetic symbols are taught sequentially in a face-to-face instruction model, the students are assigned phonetic practice assignments on paper, and the assignments are graded later by hand. Students rarely get immediate feedback on transcriptions since grading by hand is time intensive. Additionally, when trying to provide timely feedback to students, it is often difficult for an instructor to get a clear picture of the overall types of mistakes students are frequently making and to utilize this feedback to inform instruction. The teaching of phonetic transcription therefore presents a unique pedagogical opportunity for enhancing student learning with the support of online learning platforms that could automate some of these processes (Titterington and Bates, 2018).  The lack of an automated grading model for phonetic transcription assignments presents an important gap in the existing teaching tools. To address this gap, faculty from the Auburn University Department of Communication Disorders proposed the development of a computational tool, the Automated Phonetic Transcription Grading Tool, to automatically compare students’ phonetic transcriptions of speech samples to their instructor’s transcriptions.

Operationalizing and automating the phonetic transcription grading process through the implementation of such a computational tool has many benefits, including (1) decreasing instructor time and effort in grading phonetic transcription accuracy, (2) reducing scoring bias, (3) facilitating learning by providing students with immediate feedback, (4) informing the teaching process by providing data on student performance, and (5) increasing engagement and dynamic learning. Also, the ability to visualize summative class results allows students to see differences between their transcriptions and those of their peers. This visualization can promote discussion about differences in human speech production and perception and replicate real clinical cases where clinicians have differences in perception and clinical decision-making.

Interdisciplinary Learning Model 

The development of the Automated Phonetic Transcription Grading Tool (APT-GT), served as a mechanism for an integrated learning opportunity between the departments of Communication Disorders (CMDS) and Computer Science and Software Engineering (CSSE) at Auburn University. Faculty in the CMDS department challenged the CSSE department to create a user-friendly, aesthetically pleasing web-based interface for practice transcription assignments (Norman, 2002), and to implement an algorithm to automatically grade the assignments.  An answer to this challenge was the integration of student learning in CSSE and CMDS to inform the design and implementation.  This service-learning opportunity allowed students in a User Interface Design course, a software engineering upper-level undergraduate and graduate course, to connect engineering science with the public issue of effective and efficient identification of individuals with communication disorders.

To design the APT-GT, the CSSE team first gathered requirements from the subject matter experts in the field (the CSDS team), then crafted user scenarios for the Student User, Teacher User, and Admin User of the system.  The scenarios were captured utilizing Unified Modeling Language (UML) to capture a pictorial description of the system and cataloging roles, actors and their relationships, system interaction, and flow (Booch, Rumbaugh, and Jacobson, 2005; Rumbaugh, Booch, and Jacobson, 1998). Operation Logic was codified through simplified class diagrams to inform the design and describes the structure for the users of the system as illustrated in Figure 1 (Sparks, 1995).

Once the system scenarios were captured, software requirements created, software language identified, and environment identified, the software development team began iteratively developing software to instantiate this software system. The initial development began with the creation of low-fidelity drawings (i.e., paper prototypes) of our vision of the system and the creation of quick wire-frames of the envisioned system (Bailey, 1982; Shneiderman and Plaisant, 2010). In the second stage of prototyping, these images were refined to make them more detailed and to improve aesthetic appeal (Norman, 2002).

Keyboard development

One special requirement of the system was the design of the IPA keyboard.  Many of the other features that we have developed in the APT-GT system are available in existing course management systems, but one unique aspect was the development of an interactive IPA keyboard. Students typically are required to complete assignments by hand, download special fonts, or copy and paste symbols from websites (Small, 2005, p. 4–5).  Students who are initially learning IPA may be additionally encumbered by the need to search for symbols in texts or online.  In the design process, key placement and size were considered to reduce the time searching for keys.  Multiple versions of the keyboard were implemented to engage students in basic American English broad transcription (“Keyboard 1”), advanced narrow transcription of disordered speech using diacritics (“Keyboard 2”), and a complete set for full IPA implementation for international and multilingual use (“Keyboard 3”).  Scaffolding the keyboard complexity was considered in order to reduce confusion for the novice user and build confidence in the task incrementally. 

Outcomes of the Integrated Learning Model

CMDS course

Implementation of the software tool was supported by the first and third authors’ articulation and motor speech disorders courses in CMDS. CMDS students collaborated through the participatory design process (Bailey, 1982; Shneiderman and Plaisant, 2010) to aid in the development of the first version of APT-GT.  Students (n=67) in undergraduate and graduate course work were used as beta testers to provide ease of use feedback to the student-led design team.  Student feedback was used for refinement of the software to meet identified instructional needs.  The students were surveyed at the beginning and end of the semesters to determine if the applied computer-supported learning environment with automated performance feedback increased confidence in their mastery of transcription when given additional practice.  Students were asked the following: What is your greatest concern in transcribing disordered speech? What do you think you need to learn to be a more confident transcriber? If your level of confidence is different now compared to the beginning of the course, what aspects of the training modules do you think affected your level of confidence? What components of the transcription modules seemed helpful to you in learning phonetic transcription? The data were analyzed qualitatively to understand student sentiment following transcription practice modules.   Open-ended responses were collapsed into themes independently by two research analysts. Themes were further collapsed into broad categories agreed upon by the two researchers.


Students’ greatest areas of concern in transcribing disordered speech were in their ability to understand disordered speech (38%), to transcribe accurately (39%), to transcribe speech sounds (20%), to transcribe quickly (1%), and their general lack of experience (1%).  To be a more confident transcriber, students expressed the need for increasing their knowledge of the phonetic symbols (39%) and additional opportunities for practice (35%).  Levels of confidence were reported to have increased as a result of additional practice opportunities (32%), the variety of speech samples, which included talkers with different disorders (31%), automated feedback (13%), and comparison of peer results (13%). Others commented on the ease of use of the keyboard and the frequent opportunities for practice.  When asked which components of the transcription modules were most helpful, students rank-ordered the following items (one being the highest): (1) access to real clinical speech samples, (2) the ability to compare transcriptions with those of classmates, and (3) obtaining automated transcription feedback (see Figure 4).  A few (six) students indicated that they did not think the transcription modules increased their confidence, and one student did not feel that they benefited from the modules.

CSSE course

This User Interface Design course helped CSSE students integrate the theory of user interface design by engaging in practical software development projects through a fully elaborated real-world case study. This course model typically gives students a solid understanding of the user interface design process (Wolf, 2012; Holtzblatt and Beyer, 2014; Caristix, 2010). The current learning episode included the following components: gathering of requirements, task analysis, development, testing, and a project presentation of findings from preliminary user evaluations pertaining to the analysis of user satisfaction and system effectiveness.  It also gave them real-world experience in teamwork, as they collaborated with a team of four to eight individuals, as well as additional practice in important programming skills.  


Through this collaborative and multifaceted effort, we aimed to create a rich learning experience for students in both departments to increase the efficiency of CMDS and CSSE instruction.  Students in both classes had opportunities that increased engagement and interaction with science-based applied methodologies for addressing current public health issues. This marriage of computer software engineering and communication disorders learning objectives met two major goals: (1) to provide increased student engagement and (2) to increase applied science by addressing real-world problems.  Instructors were able to close the theory-to-practice gap in two different disciplines through interdisciplinary collaboration. 

Future directions

We are currently working on making the learning management system more widely available to allow for testing by faculty at other institutions, particularly within the CSD profession, but also by teachers of linguistics and foreign languages and teachers of English to speakers of other languages.  We also aim for further development and refinement to improve the user interaction experience and to improve technical support for usage with other languages.

About the Authors


Marisha Speights Atkins

Dr. Marisha Speights Atkins is an assistant professor at Auburn University and Director of the Technologies for Speech-Language Research Lab. Her work focuses on the development of innovative technologies for diagnosis and treatment of speech disorders.  Her research interests include child speech production and disorders, acoustic-based technologies for assessment and treatment of speech disorders, speech intelligibility, and remote assessment of speech disorders through telepractice.


Cheryl Seals

Dr. Cheryl Seals is an associate professor in Auburn University’s Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering. Dr. Seals directs the Auburn University Computer Human Interaction Lab, which develops computing applications to improve the usability of products for many different populations (4-H, K-12 Teacher Education, introductory computer programming, and mathematics education and reinforcement applications). Lab efforts include development of educational applications to support advanced personalized learning tools and testing applications to determine instructional potential and design usability for a population, with the goal of universal usability.

Dallin Bailey

Dr. Dallin Bailey’s clinical research efforts primarily involve using linguistic tools to enhance treatment outcomes and patient satisfaction for aphasia and apraxia of speech treatments. His research focuses on the development and testing of treatments and treatment outcome measures for aphasia and apraxia of speech, kinematic measurement of speech motor learning, abstract word processing, verb processing, and single-subject research design.


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Disease and the Environment: A Health Disparities CURE Incorporating Civic Engagement Education


Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) offer a novel avenue for engaging students in the scientific process (Bangera and Brownell, 2014). In contrast to traditional laboratories, CUREs are designed to foster autonomy through student-driven hypothesis generation, experimentation, data analysis, and dissemination of findings (Auchincloss et al., 2014; Spell, Guinan, Miller, and Beck, 2014). Current evidence suggests that participation in CUREs in the biological sciences leads to significant increases in students’ development of scientific process skills, ability to “think like a scientist,” and affective dispositions in the domain (Brownell, Kloser, Fukami, and Shavelson, 2012; Brownell et al., 2015; Jordan et al., 2014; Olimpo, Fisher, and DeChenne-Peters, 2016). Despite the importance of these documented benefits, few studies (e.g., Ballen, Thompson, Blum, Newstrom, and Cotner, 2018) have examined the mechanisms for establishing connections between students’ research and the larger community—what, in the CURE literature, is referred to as broader relevance—as well as the impact of those connections on cognitive and non-cognitive student outcomes. Review of published CUREs, including those cited in the CUREnet database (, further suggest that this is especially true when considering civic engagement as a form of experiential learning and capacity building with the local community.

In this article, we describe the development and evaluation of the BIOL 1108: Health Disparities in the Border Region II CURE, which represents our efforts to address the aforementioned concerns through purposeful integration of civic engagement education into the CURE curriculum. A health disparities course theme was identified given the widespread health inequalities along the U.S.-Mexico border that have posed a challenge to the U.S. healthcare system (Bastida, Brown, and Pagán, 2008; Rosales, Carvajal, and de Zapien, 2016). In this context, civic engagement “encompasses actions wherein individuals participate in activities of personal and public concern that are both individually life-enriching and socially beneficial to the community” (AAC&U Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric, 2018). While the incorporation of civic engagement instruction into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pedagogy is not unique to our work, the research presented here is novel in several ways. First, the limited number of studies focusing on civic engagement within course-based research experiences have largely been conducted in inquiry- or discovery-oriented contexts (rather than in environments adopting a CURE model) (e.g., Ahmed et al., 2017; NASEM, 2015); conversely, the CURE may be structured such that it has public health implications, but students are not directly engaged with the public (e.g., Smyth, 2017). Secondly, our efforts and findings are responsive to recent work in the field (Ballen et al., 2018); we contend that this work provides a significant first step in examining broader relevance but that, due to methodological constraints, it misconstrues the level of importance of broader relevance in CUREs as being “insignificant,” particularly for non-major (i.e., non-biology) populations. Finally, we present robust assessment of student outcomes following engagement in the BIOL 1108 CURE in a manner that serves to highlight the strength of civic engagement as an alternative mechanism for achieving broader relevance beyond commonly employed approaches within CUREs, such as student co-authored publications or presentations (e.g., Kloser, Brownell, Chiariello, and Fukami, 2011; Laungani et al., 2018).

Specifically, a quasi-experimental, mixed methods design was used to examine the following research questions:

  1. What impact does engagement in the BIOL 1108 CURE have on students’ development of public health outreach skills?
  2. To what extent does participation in the BIOL 1108 CURE influence students’ sense of project ownership, science identity and networking skills development, and researcher self-efficacy?
  3. What perceptions do students hold of the BIOL 1108 CURE experience, particularly as it relates to their understanding of the relationship between science and society?

We hypothesized that student involvement in the BIOL 1108 CURE would lead to a significant increase in their public health outreach skills development and perceptions regarding the connections between science and the public, given the explicit focus on civic engagement within the context of the CURE. This assertion is supported by prior evidence in the field, which suggests that students highly value opportunities to engage with their community and report feeling equipped to do so following formal civic engagement instruction (Ahmed et al., 2017; Donovan and Schmitt, 2014). Furthermore, in concordance with empirical studies on the efficacy and benefits of CUREs in the biological sciences (e.g., Brownell et al., 2012; Fisher, Olimpo, McCabe, and Pevey, 2018; Mader et al., 2017; Olimpo et al., 2016), we anticipated that participation in the BIOL 1108 CURE would result in enhancement of students’ science identity and researcher development.

Course Description: Health Disparities in the Border Region II (BIOL 1108)

Health Disparities in the Border Region II (BIOL 1108) is the second course in a year-long, research-driven sequence within the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Eighteen two-semester CURE series exist within the department and university as part of the Freshman Year Research-Intensive Sequence (FYRIS;, an NIH-funded program modeled after the University of Texas at Austin’s Freshman Research Initiative ( Each course sequence possesses a distinct topical focus aligned with the lead faculty’s area of scholarship and enrolls a maximum of twenty-four students per section per term, with the intent of retaining the same cohort of students throughout the duration of the experience. Building upon the structure of Health Disparities in the Border Region I (BIOL 1107), which emphasized development of technical skills and experimental design (see Appendix 1 for the course syllabus), BIOL 1108 was developed to meet six core course objectives, as described in Table 1. During the 15-week term, class sessions occurred twice weekly for an average of 120 minutes each session. Students predominantly spent class time continuing to iteratively and collaboratively engage in the research projects that they had initiated in BIOL 1107, receiving feedback from their peers and the course instructors (J.T.O. and J.A.) about their progress, and outlining and implementing their civic engagement initiative as deemed feasible. This latter component of the BIOL 1108 course is unique in comparison to all other CUREs at the institution and was purposefully designed to connect students and their research with the communities in which that research occurred and which that research, at least in part, was intended to benefit (see Table 2 for alignment of student research interests and their corresponding civic engagement component).

In order to increase the fidelity of implementation of student outreach initiatives, research teams first constructed a community engagement plan during week #11 of the course (see Appendix 2 for the BIOL 1108 course syllabus). Specifically, this plan required that each group: (a) identify the individuals within the community with whom they intended to interact during the initiative; (b) describe what role those individuals would have in the outreach process; (c) articulate how contact would be made with external partners; and (d) generate an outline detailing how the outreach event would be organized, executed, and monitored. At the conclusion of the first session, students were invited to participate in a gallery walk, which allowed them to observe other team’s engagement plans and to provide feedback on those plans. Similarly, this allowed the course instructors to formatively assess student progress and address any questions or concerns that emerged. Research teams then used the constructive criticism provided by their peers to revise their community engagement plans during the second weekly session. 

Revised plans required subsequent approval from the course instructors, and, once finalized, teams could proceed to the implementation phase. In this context, it is important to note that the majority of research teams (n = 3) elected to initiate contact with community partners with minimal guidance and facilitation from the course instructors. For instance, members of the air quality monitoring team directly e-mailed the local organizer for the UTEP Earth Day Celebration to express their interest in the event and to request a table for their outreach activity, which included an “adverse effects of air pollution” matching activity for children and opportunities for adults to view and discuss existing air quality data for the region. Likewise, members of the HAI team identified and contacted a clinical professor in the UTEP School of Nursing, who provided them with access to collect data from and speak informally with nursing students who were currently participating in clinical rotations. Notably, all student groups were successful in executing one or more components of their outreach plan (see Table 2 for an overview).

We contend that this success is attributable to several factors. First, BIOL 1108 is a continuation of BIOL 1107. Accordingly, students have already established relationships with one another and are already invested in their research projects, with moderate to high levels of perceived project ownership reported (see Methods and Results sections below). Second, the BIOL 1108 CURE convened, on average, for four hours each week, which provided substantial time for peer-peer and peer-instructor discussion to occur with respect to each student team’s research and outreach agendas. Course deliverables, including weekly updates and the final civic engagement presentation, likewise held students accountable for their efforts and promoted metareflective practices among both the students and the instructors. Lastly, the course’s central focus on place-based health issues within the Paseo del Norte region likely encouraged students to formulate outreach plans that primarily necessitated interaction with individuals at UTEP or in the community, with whom they were already at least somewhat familiar.


Participant Recruitment

Participants (N = 16) represented a convenience sample consisting of all students enrolled in the BIOL 1108: Health Disparities in the Border Region II CURE at the University of Texas at El Paso in the Spring 2018 semester. As discussed previously, this course is a successor to BIOL 1107: Health Disparities in the Border Region I (Appendix 1) and is intentionally designed to provide students with opportunities to connect their independent research initiatives to the local community (see Course Description: Health Disparities II [BIOL 1108] and Appendix 2). The majority of the students (n = 13) completed BIOL 1107 prior to entering BIOL 1108; however, none of the participants had prior civic engagement or service-learning experience. Participants were predominantly female (62.5%) and majoring in STEM (93.8%), although the course was open to any individual whose degree requirements included BIOL 1108. Approval was received from the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institutional Review Board prior to conducting research involving human subjects.

Public Health Outreach Flowchart (PHOF)

Given the explicit focus of BIOL 1108 on research and civic engagement, we sought to examine the degree to which students were successful at constructing public health outreach plans prior to and following their participation in the course. To accomplish this objective, a modified version of the Scientific Process Flowchart Assessment (SPFA; Wilson and Rigakos, 2016), the PHOF, was developed and validated (via expert-panel review). Specifically, the PHOF presented students with a hypothetical scenario in which two introductory biology students were tasked with creating an outreach program to address the high incidence of asthma in their community due to widespread public exposure to pesticides. Participants were prompted to create a flowchart diagramming their plan and could use any text, arrows, and objects to accomplish the task (Appendix 3). Responses were blinded and scored using a modified version of the SPFA rubric (Wilson and Rigakos, 2016), which was likewise subjected to expert-panel review for the purposes of content and construct validation (Appendix 3). Each response was evaluated by two individuals with expertise in the social sciences and bioeducation research. High interrater reliability was achieved (K= 0.93; p < 0.001), with all disputes being resolved through discussion among the coders. Aggregate data were then entered into SPSS (v.23, IBM) and paired t-tests used to assess for pre-/post-semester shifts in performance.

Persistence in the Sciences (PITS) Survey 

As a complement to the PHOF, the PITS (Hanauer, Graham, and Hatfull, 2016) was utilized to assess the impact of the BIOL 1108 CURE on students’ sense of project ownership (content- and emotion-related), researcher self-efficacy, science identity development, scientific community values, and networking skills (post-only). An adapted version of the PITS was created for pre-semester utilization, in which the question stem was modified, where appropriate, to inquire about students’ initial beliefs and expectations (e.g., “I believe that the research I conduct this semester will help to solve a problem in the world”). Psychometric analyses indicated a high degree of construct validity (as established via expert-panel review) and reliability for both the pre-test (Cronbach’s  α= 0.943) and post-test (Cronbach’s  α = 0.857) versions of the instrument (Cronbach’s  α≥ 0.754 for each individual subscale). Given that all students in the course intended to continue to engage in research in subsequent semesters (as indicated in an end-of-semester one-minute response paper assignment), we did not inquire about their interest in persisting in conducting scientific research on the post-semester PITS diagnostic. Data were entered into SPSS (v.23, IBM), and, with the exception of the Networking scale, a series of paired t-tests were used to examine pre-/post-semester shifts in response. Descriptive statistics were tabulated for all Networking items.

Student Perceptions of the Course (SPC)

To better understand how the BIOL 1108 CURE impacted students’ beliefs about the relationship between science and civic engagement, we asked participants to respond to three open-ended prompts at the end of the term (Appendix 4; adapted from Lancor and Schiebel, 2018). Responses were analyzed using a descriptive interpretive approach (Tesch, 2013), with emergent themes identified via iterative cycles of open and axial coding. Each response was scored by two individuals with expertise in the social sciences and bioeducation research. High interrater reliability was achieved (K= 0.97; P < 0.001), with all disputes being resolved through discussion among the coders.


Participation in the CURE Results in a Significant Increase in Students’ Development of Public Health Outreach Abilities. 

A series of paired t-tests were performed to examine pre-/post-semester shifts in participants’ PHOF responses with respect to the six rubric dimensions (Appendix 3). Results indicated a statistically significant increase in the total number of items reported (t(15) = 3.463; p = 0.003) and total flowchart rating (t(15) = 3.218; p = 0.006), as well as in the number of connections made between concepts (t(15) = 2.259; p = 0.039) and interconnectivity (t(15) = 2.360; p = 0.032), following engagement in the BIOL 1108 CURE (Figure 1). Significant increases in all other categories were likewise observed with the exception of the Measures of Success dimension (Figure 2).

Engagement in the CURE Enhances Students’ Sense of Project Ownership and Researcher Self-Efficacy 

Paired t-test analyses of student responses to the PITS revealed a significant, pre-/post-semester shift for both the Project Ownership (Content) scale (t(15) = 2.841; p = 0.012) and Researcher Self-Efficacy scale (t(15) = 3.381; p = 0.004) (Table 3). Remaining comparisons were not statistically significant. Descriptive analysis of networking data indicated that students engaged in research-related conversation most frequently with friends and least frequently with faculty external to the course (Figure 3).

Research-Civic Engagement Connections Are Evident in Students’ Post-Semester Written Questionnaire Responses 

In addition to examining the above cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes, we sought to understand the more globalized perceptions students possessed regarding connections between their research and the broader community. Qualitative analysis of SPC responses revealed, in a collective sense, that students valued the need for increasing community awareness of public health issues in the region and that this could be accomplished both through practical means (e.g., increased communication) and through professional means (e.g., students pursuing careers with a civic engagement focus). Furthermore, several students (n = 10; 62.5% of the participants) noted that the research projects that they initiated in the course could serve as a platform for engaging in future scholarship that served to “bring science to the public.” One student stated, for instance, that she “wanted to become a primary care physician one day” and hoped she could “continue doing research in the field of public health so [she could] better advocate for [her] patients’ lifelong health.” Another, in documenting what he believed he learned in the course that could enable him to effectively connect the broader community with issues in science, wrote that “among all of the typical things [he] discovered in the course (e.g., how to write a research proposal; laboratory methods), [he] learned not to hesitate to communicate ideas about the direction of research and how to make progress.” In doing so, he could then also “better communicate any possibility of something bad or beneficial [about his research] to the public in an effective manner.”  Comprehensive analysis of student responses, including identified themes, is presented in Tables 4A – C above. In interpreting these outcomes, it is important to note that across all open-ended prompts, more than 81% of responses were identified as belonging to two or more coding categories. 


Since their inception, CUREs have sought to extend the benefits of research to an increasing number of undergraduates at all academic levels (Bangera and Brownell, 2014). Indeed, efforts within the discipline indicate that CUREs have the potential to promote the development of cognitive and non-cognitive student outcomes ranging from increased science literacy to science identity formation and persistence in STEM (e.g., Brownell et al., 2012; Brownell et al., 2015; Jordan et al., 2014; Olimpo et al., ,2016). While this is the case, few studies (e.g., Ahmed et al., 2017; Ballen et al., 2018) have expounded upon the extent to which those outcomes are fostered by purposeful integration of civic engagement education into the CURE curriculum.

In this article, we describe the structure of the Health Disparities in the Border Region II CURE, highlighting connections between student-driven research that examines health challenges within the students’ local community as well as the civic engagement/public outreach initiatives that course participants developed to connect their research to the broader society. Furthermore, we present both quantitative and qualitative evidence suggesting that participation in the CURE positively impacts students’ development of public health outreach skills, researcher autonomy and self-efficacy, and affective dispositions toward the role of science in society. These findings are consistent with several prior studies, which note that targeted instruction that establishes tacit links between student research projects and the public good increases students’ attitudes about the role of science in society, their understanding of the nature of science, and their appreciation and value for “doing” scientific work (e.g., Ahmed et al., 2017; Smyth, 2017).

In considering the outcomes reported here, we also wish to acknowledge the limitations associated with our work. Specifically, the structure of the FYRIS program and the resources allocated for the Health Disparities sequence (e.g., physical materials, financial incentives) were only intended to support a single implementation with a relatively finite population of students. There currently exists no opportunity to repeat the course sequence, although we are in the process of exploring alternate strategies to sustain and scale the CURE. In addition, although we believe it would be ideal to conduct a comparative examination of CURE and non-CURE courses with embedded civic engagement opportunities, no parallel non-CURE course presently exists within the department that incorporates direct outreach to the local community. While these caveats should be considered when evaluating reported outcomes both here and more broadly within the CURE literature (Brownell, Kloser, Fukami, and Shavelson, 2013), they also promote meaningful contemplation of future research directions in this area.

For instance, what factors are required to ensure that CUREs incorporating civic engagement education into the curriculum are both sustainable and scalable? Are these factors the same as those that are necessary to support sustainability and scalability of CUREs that do not integrate civic engagement experiences? In what ways do CUREs that promote civic engagement through science-society connections (ProCESS CUREs) allow us to examine as yet unexplored benefits of student participation in course-based research, and how do we effectively measure those outcomes? 

With specific regard to our own work, and in response to those limitations cited above, we likewise seek to engage in future studies that: (a) examine the replicability of the findings reported here (e.g., through analysis of outcomes in course iterations with larger student sample sizes); (b) implement multiple sections of the course in the same semester and vary whether or not students participate in civic engagement experiences, which will afford us an opportunity to more closely understand the direct impact of such experiences; and (c) collaborate with other UTEP CURE faculty to promote incorporation of civic engagement into their curricula and to conduct CURE-CURE comparative studies using similar methods as those described in this article. Pursuing these and other relevant areas of inquiry is a critical step toward understanding how CUREs can continue to foster growth in the classroom and beyond.

About the Authors

Jeffrey Olimpo

Jeffrey T. Olimpo, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in Biological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), is a discipline-based education researcher with more than five years of experience in the development, implementation, and evaluation of CUREs. His current research focuses on the cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes associated with novices’ participation in authentic research opportunities as well as the impact of professional development experiences on the career growth of graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty instructors. He is currently PI of the NSF-funded Tigriopus CURE and Ethics/RCR in CUREs initiatives and is a Tips and Tools Section Editor for the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. E-mail:; Phone: (915) 747-6923.

Jennifer Apodaca

Jennifer Apodaca, Ph.D., is Lecturer and Lab Coordinator in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she teaches classes covering topics in introductory biology, microbiology, molecular biology, comparative genomics, animal physiology, animal behavior, and evolutionary biology. Her primary research interest in bioeducation involves curriculum development and evaluation of course-based undergraduate research experiences and civic engagement in science activities that employ genome-scale experimental and computational approaches to topics in public health, microbiology, and genetics.

Aimee Herandez

Aimee A. Hernandez is an undergraduate Forensic Biology student at the University of Texas at El Paso, whose research experiences cover areas from virology to biology education. After completing her doctoral degree, she aspires to work as a forensic DNA analyst for the FBI. In addition to her interest in forensics, she plans to eventually teach at the high school or undergraduate level, ideally to inspire young scientists who are often underrepresented or underestimated to make a name for themselves in the scientific community.

Yok-Fong Paat

Yok-Fong Paat, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her interests focus on family well-being, community participatory based research, and social integration.


We wish to thank the undergraduate researchers in the Health Disparities course sequence for their diligence and willingness to participate in this study. This research was supported in part through the HHMI PERSIST initiative, award no. 52008125. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and/or its constituents.


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Teaching with Technology: Using a Virtual Learning Community and Peer Mentoring to Create an Interdisciplinary Intervention



This paper describes the development and implementation of engaging and supportive experiences to promote student engagement, persistence, and success at a commuter, open enrollment, public, minority-serving institution. Project components included faculty development at the SENCER Summer Institute (SSI) 2016, attended by a team comprised of an academic administrator, full-time faculty from English and math, and part-time faculty in chemistry; creation of a virtual learning community of freshmen enrolled in chemistry, English, and math, linked by the specific theme of the environmental impacts of de-icing roads with salt and the overarching theme of the impacts of human activities on the environment; and peer mentoring in chemistry. Faculty reflections and grade distributions indicate this is a promising approach and suggest strategies for overcoming challenges.


This project was designed to use evidence-based interdisciplinary tactics to support a student population that is underrepresented in STEM. New York City College of Technology (City Tech) is a minority-serving institution, enrolling 17,279 full- and part-time students (Fall 2017). Over a third of our students were born in any one of 110 countries other than the United States, and nearly three-quarters (73%) report that a language other than English is spoken in their homes. Students self-report as 33% Hispanic, 30% Black (non-Hispanic), 20% Asian and 11% White; 61% report household income less than $30,000 (2017–2018 Fact Sheet). 

Project Development

Participating math, English, and chemistry faculty and an administrator worked together, and with colleagues at other institutions with a similar charge of developing an interdisciplinary intervention, to develop this project. Team activities were formally launched through participation at the SENCER Summer Institute (SSI) 2016, in Chicago, Illinois. In addition to an opportunity for faculty professional development, we hoped that the shared experience of participating in SSI 2016 would help the team form a sense of community, similar to the one anticipated for the students. This was the first SSI for two faculty members and an introduction to the concept of integrating civic engagement into the curriculum and the resources available through SENCER, and it was one faculty member’s first exposure to the idea of structuring a learning community. By attending several lectures on the subject, she was able to reflect on just how important this could be for our students, especially concerning the construction of a sense of belonging to a community. During project development, we continued to meet with other similar teams at other institutions to learn about their experiences and to share ideas.

 Project components included an early intervention modeled on the successes of learning communities and integrated by a shared focus on civic engagement with peer mentoring for academic support. While our college has several resources in place to support such a project, including an interdisciplinary culture, an established Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) program, and an administration that supports curricular innovation, our project nonetheless met with some logistical challenges. As explained below, we used an extant technological resource, City Tech’s OpenLab, to help us overcome these obstacles. We achieved several successful outcomes. 

Why These Courses?

The three courses participating in the project represent foundational courses in their disciplines. English Composition I is the first semester of a two-semester composition requirement. It is the only class required of all students at City Tech. Its goals include ethical research methods and uses of source material, awareness of audience and of generic conventions, and the process of academic writing itself (drafting, peer review, revising). These skills are critical to success in STEM disciplines. English professor Rebecca Mazumdar chose to participate in this learning community, because she wanted students to see the importance of effective communication and the joy of curiosity. While this course is designed to deliver the former message, the latter is sometimes more of a stretch, especially since so many students do not self-identify as strong writers. 

College Algebra and Trigonometry is part of the College’s required STEM math sequence. Strong analytical skills are a must for success in STEM disciplines. Project participant Professor Nadia Benakli reported that students struggle to grasp algebra concepts and often fail to see the practical purpose of learning these concepts. They also have significant difficulties with trigonometry. While many of the students taking this course are STEM majors, they often do poorly on exams, with one-third of registered students typically not passing the course. Because this course acts as a gatekeeper of sorts, including it in this project potentially offered a greater likelihood of impact on student success. 

General Chemistry I is an introduction to the principles of general chemistry for STEM majors. This course includes lecture and lab and has a pre- or co-requisite of College Algebra and Trigonometry or higher. Some of the enrolled chemistry students had already taken these English and Math classes in previous semesters. For this project, an adjunct instructor, Prof. Medialdea, taught the chemistry lecture and lab.

All three courses contribute important components to a successful college education. Moreover, all three often pose difficulties for  students as shown by Fall 2017 pass rates (D or better).

Why a Learning Community?

Research has demonstrated that learning communities are one of several high impact strategies that improve student success (Kuh, 2008). Participation in learning communities is positively linked to increased engagement, stronger relationships with instructors and peers, self-reported gains in academic skills and interpersonal development, higher grades, increased persistence, and overall satisfaction with the college, even at commuter campuses (Zhao and Kuh, 2004; MDRC, 2012). Learning communities can be used to target the problematic parts of the curriculum that act as gatekeepers for student progress (Lardner, 2005).  While many models of learning communities exist, common features include co-enrolling students in two or more courses to promote community through shared intellectual activities (Zhao and Kuh, 2004; Tinto, 2003; MDRC, 2012; Ratcliff et al., 1995; Rao, n.d.). This model encourages students to connect ideas from diverse perspectives and different disciplines. Learning communities often include a common theme. Successful learning communities may also include additional academic and counseling support for students. Other common attributes include faculty professional development on effective pedagogical strategies that allow the development of assignments utilizing group work and joint or overlapping assignments. Because of their demonstrated success, learning communities often target at-risk groups with identified low persistence and low graduation rates (Zhao and Kuh, 2004; Tinto, 2003; MDRC, 2012; Ratcliff, 1995; Smith, 2001; Rao, n.d.).

Challenges to implementing successful learning communities include increased cost, staffing, and support structure needs (Smith, 2001). It may be difficult to recruit students willing to agree to block programming, particularly if they have family, employment, or other commitments. Sections with low enrollment risk cancellation. Enrollment Management may not want to link dual enrollment in courses with different class size limits, particularly at campuses where space is an issue, as the linked enrollment reduces the number of available seats in the larger class. Another challenge is that without deliberate faculty professional development to enhance the learning environment, learning communities can devolve into little more than block programming. Even at campuses with established learning communities there is also the challenge of sustaining them as initial champions move on or as resources become scarcer (MDRC, 2012; Smith, 2001). 

Why Peer Mentoring?

We incorporated peer mentoring in chemistry. Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) is a national model of student support where more advanced, successful undergraduate students are trained as peer leaders to facilitate small group learning (Dreyfuss, 2013) Peer leaders do not provide answers, but instead ask leading questions to encourage students to work together to solve problems that are structured to help the students develop conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills. PLTL has been demonstrated to lead to increased student success, particularly among minority students (Snyder, Sloane, Dunk, and Wiles, 2016). We chose to include PLTL as an additional social and academic support structure to again promote social interactions and a community of learners. Peer meetings occurred during the chemistry lab sections after hands-on work was completed. Thus, students were already physically present, optimizing the opportunity for impact. We were able to take advantage of a peer mentor training course already established on campus: MEDU 2901 Peer Leader Training in Mathematics (MEDU 2901, 2019).

Using Technology to Overcome Initial Obstacles

City Tech has a long-standing robust learning community program for first-year students, and Professor Mazumdar in English had participated in those linked-enrollment learning communities for several years. We planned to link enrollment of the sections participating in the learning communities; however, student recruitment was difficult and the low enrollment resulted in cancellation of the LC. The Fall 2016 implementation of our project was thus delayed by a semester. The enrollment challenges motivated our decision to create a virtual online community, using the College’s OpenLab, a “digital platform where students, faculty and staff can meet to learn, work, and share their ideas. Its goals are to support teaching and learning, enable connection and collaboration, and strengthen the intellectual and social life of the college community” (OpenLab, 2018). These sections would meet in person like traditional classes but would include a virtual learning component for students in all three courses, providing asynchronous social and intellectual connections. The delay allowed us to hone the civic focus of our learning community; inspired by the winter weather, we decided to focus on the environmental effects of the salt used to de-ice snowy roads. Students in each course would work on projects related to this theme.


Our learning community was launched in Spring 2017. It was unique because it would not be a shared-enrollment LC; our three distinct classes would need to find ways to interact through OpenLab, a digital shared space in which our students could share their work and ideas with each other, while still fulfilling the goals of each course. 

Before the semester began, we agreed that we would make OpenLab participation 5% of our students’ semester grades. We included the same instructions in all three syllabi. Students were provided with a step-by-step explanation of how to set up their OpenLab accounts and join the project; they also received an explanation of what was expected of them. These expectations are quoted at length here:

Here’s what’s expected of you:

1. Each week, you’ll comment on a post to the blog.  These blog posts will be authored by the professors participating in the project (Prof. Devers [now Prof. Mazumdar], Prof. Benakli, and Prof. Medialdea), and occasionally by the students enrolled in those professors’ classes.  To receive credit for a comment, the comment must be around 100 words, and should be a thoughtful response to the ideas, issues, or problem contained within the original post.  You can also respond thoughtfully to the comments other students have posted to the original item.  By the end of the semester, you should have at least 13 comments, at least one a week.  Multiple comments in a single week will be considered 1 comment. (In other words, don’t leave all 13 for the final week of the semester!) 

“Thoughtful responses” include specific academic maneuvers, like the following: 

  1. comparing/contrasting the ideas in the blog post
    to the ideas you’re discussing in class; 
  2. offering a solution to a potential problem; 
  3. identifying complications to potential solutions; 
  4. selecting a quotation from the original text with which you agree or disagree, and using interpretation and analysis to defend your position; 
  5. providing a solution to a problem and explaining your work; and 
  6. applying the ideas in the reading to a real world problem

2. Once this semester, you’ll be asked to post to the blog yourself, so that others can comment on your post.  Your post could be an article you’ve found in recent news media, or a problem you’d like help solving.  Your professor can help you brainstorm the types of material that would be appropriate for a blog post.

3. A word about online etiquette:  write as though you’re face-to-face with other students and faculty.  Present your ideas with confidence, while maintaining respect for the ideas of others.  Check your work for grammar and typos before posting it.  And have fun!  This project will allow us to discuss big issues with students in multiple classes across disciplinary boundaries.  

We began with most posts coming from the instructors, with the hope that students would begin to post on their own. As the learning community started in the winter, the first OpenLab posts were about the chemistry of snow, ice control methods, and the impact of these methods on the environment such as manhole explosions due to road salt corroding electric wires. Students discussed eco-friendly ice melt alternatives such as beet juice. The students then moved to examine a broader theme, “the degree and nature of humans’ impact on the environment.” They shared posts on air pollution, plastic pollution, and climate change. They discussed possible solutions such as wind energy. In the math class, they solved problems with applications related to the themes discussed on OpenLab. By the end of the semester, there were 77 published posts, and 523 comments. The project site had 69 members (plus the three administrators); 33 members posted at least once. 

In English Composition I, an assignment asked students to perform light research to locate a recent news article about a topic related to human impact on the environment. They were to post a summary and a link to the article on our project blog on OpenLab. Since the blog allows for comments on posts, students were also assigned to comment on other students’ articles, to begin to make connections. The assignment allowed them to practice essential skills important to composition (synthesis of ideas, clear communication, reading comprehension) and to participate in a community of learners discussing common ideas. The collection of articles on OpenLab also became a shared library of relevant sources for students’ research projects. 


Below, the grade distributions of students in the virtual learning community are compared to all students taking the course in Spring 2017. There is some evidence that the goal of promoting persistence was achieved, as the withdrawal rate in all three learning community courses was lower than the overall withdrawal rate for the course. The higher chemistry grades of students receiving PLTL in lab suggest this support did help students succeed (no separate lab grade is given—there is just a grade in lecture with 25% of the grade based on the lab). There were significant improvements in College Algebra and Trigonometry grades in the LC section compared to all students, suggesting that incorporating civic engagement and interdisciplinarity was particularly effective here.

Observations Successes and Challenges

English professor Mazumdar, who has worked with linked-enrollment Learning Communities before, compares this one to previous ones. In linked-enrollment LCs, students form peer bonds or cliques. Sometimes, that can hinder their ability to pay attention in class, but the benefits are that they have the chance to form supportive friendships with classmates. This can be hard to do on a non-residential campus where students are often present only for the duration of classes. However, she did not see that cross-course bonding happening this semester. Students could respond to each other on OpenLab, but they likely never saw those screen names IRL or in-real-life. As the project continues, she would like all three classes to meet, perhaps for some ice-breaker/meet-and-greet activities, and to give the three instructors the opportunity to deliver essential information about the project. She hopes that this would encourage OpenLab participation, since they would be interacting with recognizable peers. 

Math professor Benakli noted that initially, many students expressed unwillingness to participate in the project. Some of them were not happy that they had to “write” in a math class. Others complained that writing was not something they “do in other classes.” With some encouragement, and a reminder that 5% of their grades depended on their participation in the blog, Professor Benakli had almost 100% participation. Many students did enjoy sharing and having someone else (other than a friend) read, listen, and comment on their posts. Several students submitted more comments than the required weekly contributions. The end of the year feedback was very positive.

Professor Benakli also observed another benefit of the project. Sometimes, she and her students would spend the first five minutes in class discussing one of the recent posts. Using the blog as a “warm up” activity helped the students to feel relaxed (which is unusual in a math class) and mentally prepare to focus on the lesson. Professor Benakli notes that she found herself enjoying teaching this section more than previous ones, and that students did much better on their exams. She admits that perhaps this had nothing to do with the virtual learning community, but it speaks to the benefit to both students and faculty of linking classroom activities to larger issues in the community. In the future, she hopes to recruit other colleagues to participate in such a virtual learning community. 

Chemistry professor Medialdea was pleased that her students expressed a strong interest in learning more about the environmental impacts of human activities, which seemed to enhance their interest in chemistry. She also noted that several students commented on an increased appreciation for the value of learning math and English as well as enrolling in additional chemistry courses.

Responding to Challenges
Recommendations and Future Plans

Several aspects of the project showed promise and will be retained as we repeat the project in a future semester. The use of OpenLab was one of the project’s successes. Students found confidence in the blog, as a safe environment for contributing to discussions and as a source of like-minded peers. Furthermore, the project’s common thread (road salts and their environmental impact) expanded to the broader topic of human impact on the environment, which enhanced student interest in it. The OpenLab site allowed the project to be flexible enough to respond to this student interest. Several topics like climate change involve multiple academic disciplines and would work well with this type of shared learning environment. Future permutations of this project face no limitations on the possible civic issues that such an interdisciplinary approach can address. 

The team looks forward to implementing the project again, and to revising some elements of the intervention. In our self-reflections on the project, team members have considered the possibility that a different math class, like statistics, may be better suited for the project, as well as the possibility that students in a more advanced chemistry class, General Chemistry II, may have a better grasp of basic concepts and may therefore be better prepared to engage with larger themes. A benefit of this virtual learning community model is that the shared class blog sidesteps logistical challenges presented in linked-enrollment situations. Participating classes aren’t restricted by prerequisites. 

One significant change we want to make moving forward is the implementation of a single, overarching project. We didn’t have one in place when the semester began, and it proved impossible to establish it as the semester progressed. We believe a “traveling” project could fit nicely with this type of learning community. Students in chemistry could collect data through lab work, send those data to students in math who can determine the implications of the data and how best to present them. Then, that information can be sent to the English students who use it to write persuasive pieces to local community leaders. To complete the circle, students in chemistry could then act as peer reviewers to help the writers refine and edit their formal assignments. The success of such a project relies on starting the first step, data collection, early enough in the semester so that each student group will have ample time with the information and can produce discipline-specific work in response to it. Professor Mazumdar would like the students to meet each other in person in order to develop a sense of community and shared experience; this would also mean that students would have a better sense of whom they were accountable to when passing data and information along to the next class. 

Related to that sense of community, participating faculty learned that it also invites some interesting pedagogical questions. Specifically, the OpenLab site, which operates like a blog on which students can publish both original posts and comments, became a venue for discussions that were not relevant to course content. One student in particular used it to advertise his band’s events. This activity raised issues concerning the policing of this virtual world, one which we admittedly had hoped would be a safe and welcoming community space where students could create the sort of learning environment that can be so elusive on a commuter campus. To address this, the next iteration of the project will include a social page where students can share and comment on extracurricular topics. This will keep the academic blog focused on class topics but allow the overall project site to remain amenable to the community building that supports student retention. 

To get a better sense of our impact, assessment of future iterations of the project could take place at both the beginning and end of the term, and—if possible—perhaps a year or more after students take the class. Students could answer questions or submit a writing sample on the first day of the semester, so that instructors can gauge their knowledge and skill levels. The same assessment instrument could then be used at the end of the term to collect comparative data (pre/post knowledge checks). Outcomes related to other items, such as critical thinking, abilities to integrate course content with real-world scenarios, and collaboration/teamwork improvements could also be evaluated. To compare this project with other sections of the same courses, the same assessment procedure would need to be used in those sections as well. Instructors can also use the SENCER-SALG to assess students’ interest in STEM courses as well as in the larger project theme: human impact on the environment. Another option is adoption of reflection exercises that unify course goals, where students could write in a journal (or other medium) to demonstrate their thinking, learning, and personal growth. Instructors could also qualitatively code the student responses, and identify emergent themes within their responses as well as evidence of intellectual growth as the semester progressed; additional quantitative assessment of the blog posts could include the average number of posts per student and the overall percentage of student participation. 

Longer-term assessment could be one or both of the following: another follow-up SALG to determine persistence of interest in STEM classes or themes, or the collection of retention and graduation rates for enrolled students (compared with those of students in other comparable sections, for example). 

One of the biggest advantages of this form of learning community is scale-up; therefore, part of our continuing work on the project will include recruiting other faculty to participate. 

Broader Implications

By using OpenLab, or another platform such as BlackBoard, instructors of different courses across the campus can establish a virtual learning community without the logistical challenges of linked enrollment. This can even be expanded to cross-campus collaborations.

About the Authors

Rebecca Mazumdar

Rebecca Mazumdar, PhD, is Associate Professor of English at New York City College of Technology, as well as a Co-Coordinator for Writing Across the Curriculum. She earned her PhD at the University of Connecticut in 2010. Her research focuses on fictional domestic spaces in Cold War American literature and popular culture. At City Tech, she teaches courses in English composition, fiction, law through literature, and graphic novels.



Nadia Benakli

Nadia Benakli, PhD, is Associate Professor of Mathematics at New York City College of Technology, the designated college of technology of the City University of New York (CUNY). She received her doctorate in Geometric Group Theory from Paris-Sud University in France. Her thesis advisor was M. Gromov. Before coming to City Tech, she taught at Columbia University and Princeton University. She was also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mathematical Sciences and Research Institute (MSRI), Berkeley. She organized the Group Theory Seminar, and the Trees and Related Topics Seminar at Columbia University, 1998. She was also the organizer of the Topology Seminar at Princeton University, 1993–1994. Benakli is the Quantitative Reasoning course coordinator, the Quantitative Reasoning Fellow program coordinator, and the Applied Mathematics and Computer Science internship programs coordinator. She has also participated in the READ, SENCER, and Learning Community programs. Benakli’s research interests are in geometric group theory, graph theory, and in pedagogical issues in mathematics.


Pamela Brown

Pamela Brown, PhD, PE, is Associate Provost at New York City College of Technology of The City University of New York, a position she has held since 2012. Before assuming this position, Dr. Brown served for six years as dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and was a Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011-2012. She is a chemical engineer by training.


This work was made possible through funding from the Helmsley Foundation. We are very thankful for the work of Victoria Medialdea, whose insights during project development and instruction in the chemistry arm of the intervention were instrumental in getting this project off the ground. We gratefully acknowledge the support and inspiration of Wm. David Burns, Executive Director Emeritus of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, who was instrumental in developing this concept, obtaining funding, and guiding the project over the inevitable hurdles. To say David was amazing does not do justice to his contributions. We are also grateful to John Meyer, project coordinator, for his tireless support and to the participants at other campuses, who initiated a parallel project through Helmsley Foundation funding, and who provided insights and valuable suggestions. Specifically, we thank Candice Foley from Suffolk County Community College, Duncan Quarless from SUNY Old Westbury, Brett Branco from Brooklyn College, Anna Rozenboym form Kingsborough Community College, and David Ferguson from Stony Brook University.  Lastly, we thank the reviewers, whose insights improved this article.


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Summer 2018: From the Editors

We are pleased to announce the Summer 2018 issue of Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal.

Highlighting the value of international service, Courtney Cox, Sarah Lenahan, Patricia Devine, and Panagiotis Linos (Butler College) describe collaboration among the College of Pharmacy and Health Science, the College of Liberal Arts and Science, and Barnabas Task, a non-profit organization. Students have the opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic to participate in service activities with medical and dental professionals. They work with community leaders to convey public health information on topics such as nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation, and mosquito-borne illnesses, so that the knowledge can be disseminated throughout the community using local networks. This experience enables students to develop their cultural awareness and illustrates the importance of local knowledge and collaboration in promoting social change.

Susan Huss-Lederman, Prajukti Bhattacharyya, and Brianna Deering (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater) describe their participation in the Do Now U Project, a collaboration between the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement and KQED Public Media. The project paired two courses, Environmental Geology and College Writing in English as a Second Language, and required students to write blog posts on environmental topics. After all the posts had been read and analyzed, one was chosen for publication on the web. This project provides students with valuable opportunities to research open-ended questions with important social impact while learning to collaborate and to communicate effectively.

Ellen Mappen (National Center for Science and Civic Engagement) provides an interesting case history of the beginnings of the SENCER-ISE project, which is a structured collaboration between SENCER and practitioners of informal science education (ISE) based on issues of civic engagement. This account describes the mutually beneficial synergies between formal and informal education and includes evaluation results that demonstrate the effectiveness of project partnerships.

The issue concludes with an insightful review by Katayoun Chamany (Eugene Lang College, New School) of a report from The National Academies entitled “Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Branches from the Same Tree.” The review situates this new report in a historical context and examines how the integration of disciplinary perspectives from the arts and humanities can enhance science education and motivate students to persist in their scientific studies. We wish to thank all the authors for sharing their accomplishments with the readers of this journal.

– Matt Fisher and Trace Jordan

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Review of National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Report, 
Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Branches from the Same Tree

On May 7, 2018, The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report, Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Branches from the Same Tree,  which champions the integration of arts and humanities with STEMM (STEM + Medicine).  An ad hoc committee, comprising 22 experts spanning education, industry, and policy, met over three years gathering best practices and hosting workshops and open meetings. The committee developed a consensus report and a compendium of more than 200 examples, some of which are SENCER-related projects. Kristin Boudreau, Professor and Department Head of the Humanities and Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is at the helm of SENCER’s New England Center of Innovation and was a member of the committee charged with developing the consensus report.

The timing of this project and the publication of the report are of import. The project was launched on December 2, 2015, when Obama was in office and a strong focus on STEM education in community colleges was established as a priority. The December workshop, funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and hosted by the National Academies of Science Board on Higher Education and Workforce (BHEW), was attended by 110 artists, engineers, educators, policy makers, and industry experts. The ensuing project garnered additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Despite cutbacks under the new administration, the project endured and included an investigation of a wealth of resources, models, and institutional examples of organizational and pedagogical change to determine how integrated learning can serve all students. Perhaps, now more than ever, given the growing chasms in our society, integrated learning is essential if we are to provide our students with the tools to address social change, and the findings of this report are useful. During the question and answer period of the meeting that launched this  NASEM report, James Grossman, the Executive Director of American Historical Society, commented that “thinking about teaching in and beyond a discipline has to become as important as thinking about research in and beyond a discipline.” He argues that the challenge of promoting interdisciplinary teaching may require educators and students to reconsider how they identify; that we need to rethink about ourselves (NASEM, 1:12 min time stamp).

The project was spearheaded by the BHEW and other divisions and units within the NASEM, with the specific goal of providing an evidence base for the integration of humanities and arts and STEMM to inform “new projects aimed at improving the understanding and application of STEMM toward the social, economic and cultural well-being of the nation and planet.”  The committee analyzed evidence to determine how STEMM experiences enhance the knowledge base of students studying the arts and humanities, so that they make sound decisions across all professional fields and contribute to a vibrant democracy. Likewise, the committee also analyzed evidence regarding the value of including arts and humanities perspectives in STEMM academic programs to produce more effective communicators, problem solvers, and leaders, who recognize the broad social and cultural impacts of STEMM. In both instances, the hypothesis being tested was that student populations could expand their skills of critical thinking, creativity, and innovation using these complementary perspectives and different ways of knowing to develop meaningful lives and careers (see Chapter 6 for examples).

One example in particular stood out because of its effect on retention of the diverse student population served by the City University of New York (CUNY) community colleges.  The Guttman Community College’s two-semester City Seminar, fulfills the general education requirements of quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, writing, and reading and has a 27% completion rate as opposed to the 4.1% completion rate of other CUNY community colleges. They credit this success to their interdisciplinary approach, which meets all the general education requirements in one course, rather than distributing them among many.   

A closer look at the charge of the NASEM committee suggests that on a national level we are finally beginning to address the criticisms of social science and humanities scholars regarding the 1945 report titled Science: The Endless Frontier. This report championed the unfettered advancement of STEM with no attention given to the valuable insights provided by humanities and social science perspectives. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, authored this six-chapter report as a response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to expand the goals and benefits of science beyond its wartime focus on the military. Additionally, the report argued that science learning should be more accessible and that scientific research should be more transparent to the American public. The report led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation, with the goal of ensuring national security, economic progress, and cultural growth, akin to the current charge by BHEW.

Some of the criticisms of the Science: The Endless Frontier report are contained in a collection of papers published by scholars in the humanities and social sciences on the 50th anniversary of its publication.  Highlights appear in Science the Endless Frontier: Learning from the Past, Designing for the Future, which presents papers from a conference series held between 1994 and 1996 and includes responses and updates to the Bush Report, arguing that a lack of integrated knowledge would mean the demise of a STEM-centric approach to learning. Similarly, in “Is it possible to just teach biology?” (Horton & Freire, 1990), educational philosopher Paulo Freire and founder of the Highlander School Myles Horton also argue that to teach STEM without social context is a mistake. At the NASEM meeting to launch the Branches report, some committee members remarked how these sentiments led to Leadership in Science and Humanities opportunities funded by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the NEA in the 1990s, which were not sustained but must now be renewed.

The NASEM report recognizes those early criticisms and acknowledges that change is underfoot.  The evolution of their charge is apparent with its emphasis on looking at integration as a two-way phenomenon that will improve the cultural well being of not only the nation, but also the planet. Over the last thirty years, curricular resources for integrated learning have moved beyond the social sciences to include the necessary perspectives that are central to the arts and humanities. The STEAM (STEM +Arts) and STEAMD (STEM+Arts+Design) movements take steps in that direction, with concrete collaborations and multi-institutional efforts underway. Examples include the Vertical Integrated Projects Initiative (VIP), with a strong focus on research, innovation, and design; Creativity Connects, funded by the NEA in 2016, which connects academic institutions with community partners, businesses, and artists; and the Bridging Cultures initiative, launched in 2012 by the NEH.  That two of these successful programs—Georgia Tech VIP and Montgomery College Global Humanities Institute —have connections to SENCER is no surprise

Though curricular resources are emerging, a quick review of the archived video footage of the meeting that accompanied the launch of Branches from the Same Tree reveals two things. Committee Chair David J. Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian, chuckled multiple times as he revealed that the committee was governed from the ground up, reflecting the horizontal nature that often accompanies interdisciplinary learning.  He claimed to have little authority to rein in the committee members, and instead allowed their collective expertise to guide the process. The second interesting reveal is that the committee found little research in the way of  “controlled” studies regarding how integrated learning influences student learning outcomes. In response to an attendee’s question regarding challenges (see Chapter 4 and the video link), Chair Skorkin mentioned the number of confounding variables that are part of each student’s life and make controlled studies impossible. In Chapter 4 of the report, the authors also remark that implementation of integrated courses can involve multiple variables that are difficult to tease apart or control, as they are distributed across different institutions and adapted/adopted by different faculty members. Moreover, the integrated course is not always a single treatment or intervention, but instead involves multiple factors, such as content, methodology, pedagogy, and assessment. Despite the limited evidence, the committee members believe that what they have seen is promising for students at two-year and four-year undergraduate institutions, as well as those in graduate programs. Ashley Bear, the NASEM Study Director, feels that evidence gathered from the responses to the “Dear Colleague Letter” provide a rich collection of different methods and approaches to showcasing student learning, as do the comments gathered from employers and alumni, which are encapsulated in Chapter 6 of the report.

In Chapter 3 of the Branches report, “What is Integration?” the authors are careful to point out that disciplinary knowledge without synthesis does little to support the understanding of emergent ideas. Stephen J. Kline’s work on multidisciplinary learning is cited and his attention to emergence reminded me of another important piece of work, by David Edwards, artscientist and author of Artscience: Creativty in a Post-Google Generation (2009).   Kline and Edwards advocate thinking more creatively about how arts, social science, and natural sciences can lead to new ways of doing and thinking. Yet many examples of integration remain at the level of service to one or the other discipline, which the report describes as “superficial.” For example, many courses seek to use the arts to communicate scientific knowledge or practice, or they use scientific methods to illuminate art practices as seen in art conservation. As the chapter illustrates, integration is a developmental process. As one moves from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary to transdisciplinary, the emergent practice, method, or ideas can transform and morph an existing discipline or field, or produce a new one, or use a wholly different integrated approach to addressing a crisis, as seen with Mary Beth Hefferman’s work on the PPE Portrait project, which is designed to address the lack of humanistic interaction in highly contagious infectious disease treatment centers (p. 13 of the report).

Many attendees at the meeting that launched the report’s publication on May 7, 2018 were interested to learn of any potential opposition to the proposed integration model. Committee Member Bonnie Thorton-Hill remarked that many of the best models could be found outside traditional department structures, in institutes and centers. Because investment in infrastructure to support these initiatives may be a significant hurdle for some institutions, many authors of the report and attendees at the meeting saw this as an opportune time for the federal government to take the lead and stimulate implementation and research through funding streams and new initiatives.  Further, the committee stressed the need to refrain from draining disciplinary resources but instead to build upon them.  Another concern raised by attendees was how this work would be valued in promotion and tenure reviews, federal funding, and national accreditation standards, and some suggestions designed to address these inquiries are provided in Chapter 5 and on pp. 7–8 of the summary report.

Perhaps what was most refreshing about the attendees and the authors of the Branches report was the diversity of disciplinary perspectives, lived experiences, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and attention to the changing nature of our student populations. Many of the examples presented in the chapters and mentioned at the meeting highlighted the ways in which integrated learning can lead to the development of sound decision-making, empathy, and awareness and tolerance for different ways of knowing and different points of view. These approaches align with the SENCERized approach to teaching and learning.

I would like to end this review with the compendium of more than 200 examples that is provided as a supplement to the Branches from the Same Tree consensus report and the “Gallery of Illuminating and Inspirational Integrative Practices in Higher Education.” The latter includes boxes and images scattered throughout the report, as well as a large collection appearing at the end of the report offering images and descriptions of artistic and humanistic scholarship, education, and practice that have been inspired, influenced, or supported by STEM knowledge, processes, and tools. A few SENCER projects are included in the compendium; some notable exceptions are highlighted below.

In keeping with the proposed next steps presented in the Branches report, Gillian Backus and Rita Kranidis, SENCER Leadership Fellows, have launched a STEM-Humanities Consortium effort.  I encourage our SENCER community to take up the charge of contributing to this effort and to think carefully about how best to organize a multi-institutional research effort to assess the effect of integration on student learning, as described in this report.  A list of possible research questions to drive such projects appears on p. 92 of the report.

Some examples:

From SENCER Hawaii ( Traditional Hawaiian values align closely with SENCER’s ideals and objectives for sustainability and stewardship of our community; curricular resources draw on ethics, culture, and history.

From SENCER Northern Virginia Community College ( “The Creative Mind: The Intersection of Art and Science.”

From SENCER College of Liberal Arts Auburn University ( The impact of music on health.

About the Author

Katayoun Chamany

Katayoun Chamany is the Mohn Family Professor of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School and a Senior SENCER Leadership Fellow. She is the author of Stem Cells Across the Curriculum  which has been selected as a SENCER model course.  She is the recipient of the John A. Moore Award for Science as a Way of Knowing from the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology and the William E. Bennett Award for Extraordinary Contributions to Citizen Science from the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement.


Edwards, D. (2009). Artscience: Creativity in a Post-Google Generation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). Is it possible just to teach biology? In Bell, B., Gaventa, J., & Peters, J. M.  (Eds.), We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change (pp. 102–109). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. (Video link to Meeting held on May 7, 2018. ( Q &A is rich in ideas for implementation and next steps.)

Wightman, J.  (2012). Winogradsky Rothko: Bacterial ecosystem as pastoral landscape. Journal of Visual Culture, 7(3), 309–334.  Retrieved from

Wightman, J. (2012). Gowanus Canal Timelapse. Retrieved from

Wightman, J.  2012. Winogradsky Rothko: Bacterial Ecosystem as Pastoral Landscape. Journal of Visual Culture. 7(3):309-334. Link

Wightman, J. 2012. Gowanus Canal Timelapse. Link  Video of dynamic bacterial sculpture and her website for Gowanus BoxSet.


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Learning Without Borders: 
Qualitative Exploration of Service-Learning


For the last four years, pharmacy, physician assistant, pre-medicine, and nursing students enrolled or associated with Butler University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (COPHS) and College of Liberal Arts and Science (LAS) have partnered with Barnabas Task to travel to the Dominican Republic (DR) for an annual medical mission trip. Barnabas Task, a nonprofit organization founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana, conducts multiple service trips every year with dental and medical professionals, as well as other volunteers, to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, or Guatemala. Barnabas Task’s mission is “community transformation through leadership development” (Barnabas Task, 2013), and they utilize community health evangelism (CHE) to accomplish this goal. During these mission experiences, students have the opportunity to assist medical providers through patient triage, medical scribing, and medication dispensing.  Students also work directly with community leaders to educate them on public health topics including nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation, dental hygiene, and mosquito-borne illnesses. These community leaders can then educate others and spread the knowledge through grass roots. This philosophy of developing a relationship with host communities mirrors the work of Olenick and Edwards (2016). Their article in Nursing for Women’s Health concludes that short-term health missions are more effective when they focus on a “long-term commitment rather than a quick fix.”

Students and volunteers work to form long-term commitments not only by educating community leaders in the DR, but also by working with local students who act as translators within the clinic. Most of the students who made the trip lacked fluency in Spanish, and all volunteers are therefore provided with a translator. Every clinic day, students from Oasis Christian School, which is a part of Santiago’s private school system, help translate for the students and medical volunteers. Students from the local Catholic medical school, Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM), also join the clinic daily to translate, triage patients, and fill prescriptions. Some students keep returning to the clinic even after they graduate medical school and volunteer as healthcare providers to help their community. This includes a provider who has made a commitment to visit the clinic quarterly to follow up with patients whose medications for chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension may require adjustments. Interactions with the DR students and providers adds another layer of collaboration, where students can learn from one another while caring for underserved populations.

To strengthen these long-term commitments, Barnabas Task turned to Butler University Fairbanks Center for Communications and Technology in 2015 with the goal of developing an electronic means of carrying medical information during the mission trips and accessing these records during future medical trips, thus starting the relationship between Barnabas Task and the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) course at Butler University. Computer science and software engineering students enrolled in this course meet biweekly to complete a “supervised team software project for a local charity or non-profit organization” (Linos, 2012). This relationship initiated the development of an Electronic Medical Records (EMR) application prototype, which runs as an iOS app. Students in the EPICS course collaborated with Barnabas Task to meet their needs to provide continuity of care and formed a relationship with healthcare students from COPHS to format the iPad application. Currently in the fifth semester of collaboration between EPICS, Barnabas Task, and COPHS, the application continues to be updated and built upon and is now a stable prototype of a bilingual EMR that can preserve patient records, transcribe prescriptions to the clinic’s pharmacy, and maintain medication inventory.

Data on the benefits of EMRs are plentiful. A systematic review published in September 2017 established how EMRs significantly improve documentation of clinical information and enhance quality outcomes in the long-term acute care setting (Kruse et al., 2017). Similar effects can be seen in the inpatient hospital setting. Khalifa and colleagues found that after EMRs had been implemented in their health system, there was “an increase in information access, increased healthcare professionals productivity, improved efficiency and accuracy of coding and billing, improved quality of healthcare, improved clinical management (diagnosis and treatment), reduced expenses associated with paper medical records, reduced medical errors, improved patient safety, improved patient outcomes and improved patient satisfaction” (Khalifa, 2017). A comprehensive review by Keasberry, Scott, Sullivan, Staib, and Ashby (2017) ascertained that EMRs enhance patient safety by including alerts about drug interactions and adverse drug reactions. The utilization of an EMR also improves patient outcomes by increasing to guideline recommendations. EMRs stateside improve hospital processes and patient care, which explains the DR clinic’s need to obtain an EMR to improve clinic processes abroad.

We conducted a thorough search and determined that there are no similar efforts currently described in the literature. However, there are publications that discuss collaborations and active learning as well as the benefits of these types of interactions. A group at the University of Wisconsin created interprofessional groups that served both a local community and a global community in Malawi. They concluded that students had increased their level of understanding in values and ethics, roles and responsibilities, and teamwork as a result of the experience (Dressel et al., 2017). Johnson and Howell (2017) also discuss the benefits of service-learning and interprofessionalism. Healthcare students from different programs including pharmacy, medicine, physical therapy, and nursing traveled to Ecuador for a service-learning opportunity. The authors explain how the students had to work through communication barriers both with their patients and with other healthcare professionals, all of whom spoke a different language. Increasing cross-cultural and interprofessional learning will be crucial in the future due to the diversifying healthcare system. A nursing cultural simulation developed by Carlson et al. (2017) connected nursing students in Hong Kong and Sweden and ultimately ascertained that the intercultural experience developed collaborative skills, including communication, between the two groups of students as they worked to complete a case study. In our literature review we found plenty of interprofessional articles; however, the literature lacks information on students from different colleges collaborating on a project to better the community they plan to serve. Professionals in the healthcare field are being exposed to a wide array of people with different educational backgrounds, and it is important to confront these language and knowledge barriers.

This study was developed in order to (a) assess how information technology affects clinic processes, (b) identify student learning and cultural awareness when collaborating with students from different colleges and globally, and (c) understand how global missions are viewed by the communities being served.


When commencing this project we hypothesized that students would gain knowledge about how to work with other professionals, increase their skills within their various areas of expertise, and develop cross-cultural awareness while helping to improve a community’s health with the creation of an EMR. The institutional review board approved the anonymous survey that was sent to all sixty-five volunteers who worked in the underserved clinic in the DR and the EPICS students who helped develop the EMR but were unable to go to the DR. Using Qualtrics (Qualtrics, Provo, UT, May 2017), an online survey platform, the survey was created to consist of multiple choice and free response questions regarding demographics, role in the project, and experience in the clinic. Utilizing skip logic, participants answered questions written specifically for their role in the clinic (for example, healthcare student; computer science student; translator; etc). The original survey questions are listed in appendix 1. Results from the open-ended questions on the survey were analyzed based upon common themes and similar wording found throughout the participants’ answers. The institutional review board also approved an anonymous quality survey all patients at the clinic eighteen years of age and older had the opportunity to take. Those who participated answered four questions about their time spent in the different stations of the clinic, whether they would recommend the clinic to their friends or family members, and whether they believed the clinic brought hope to the community. If an entire family came to the clinic, one person from the family could complete the survey for their household. In total, 95 patients completed the survey using SurveyMonkey.


Of the 65 clinic volunteers who were sent the survey, 51 elected to complete it for a response rate of 78.5%. The specific roles for each of the responses are illustrated in Figure 1. Starting with student learning, knowledge was gained through this experience through the various collaborations. The EPICS team, healthcare professionals, and Dominican volunteers all had participants who reported their top learning experience was in communication. Three out of five of the EPICS team members stated their top two non-technical learning experiences were in communication and teamwork. Students are also retaining the knowledge from this experience, as five out of five responses by the EPICS team stated they have used the knowledge gained in this course outside school or in another class. One EPICS member conveyed the importance of this class being able to “bridge the gap between those who are very technical, with little healthcare experience, and healthcare clinicians who possess little technical expertise.” Examining the development of technical skills, all of the EPICS students grew in both Xcode (Apple’s software development environment) and Swift (Apple’s programming language) (Apple, 2018). One EPICS student gained experience in setting up an onsite clinic with WiFi to make sure the EMR application could work within the clinic and the iPads could communicate with one another. Not only did EPICS members learn technical skills to be used in their future careers, but students also reported an improvement in their Spanish and an increase in knowledge about the Dominican healthcare system and culture.  Similarly, half of the healthcare students reported an increase in knowledge about the Dominican culture, lifestyle, and healthcare system as one of their top three learning experiences. Not only did American students learn from the Dominican students, but four of the six Dominican students who took the survey noted that one of the benefits of the clinic was being able to practice their English, while three of six students stated their main benefit from the clinic was refining their medical skills with the collaboration of American and Dominican providers.

The survey also included questions about the students’ experiences in intercultural and interprofessional relationships. Five out of six EPICS students reported a positive interaction when working with students with a healthcare background. One student, when asked to comment on his or her overall experience with the COPHS and EPICS students, remarked that it “was extremely fulfilling to witness how the efforts of a variety of students can put their knowledge and skills together to make something special happen.” Eleven out of thirteen healthcare students reported a positive experience when collaborating with the EPICS team and one stated specifically that the EPICS team is “important for our clinic running smoothly.”

While healthcare students, the EPICS team, and Dominican students gained great knowledge while working together, so did the healthcare professionals who helped run the clinic. Half of the providers stated there was a benefit to working in a different scope of practice in a different culture and stated that their biggest challenge was language barriers between their patients and sometimes their translators. However, the EMR application may have reduced this language barrier by means of prototype through an English-Spanish toggle. All of the providers who took the survey would be interested in using the application in the future. Three out four healthcare providers stated that the application improved the efficiency of the clinic, and one of the providers stated that the EMR improved patient safety by forgoing legibility issues of doctor’s handwriting and by allowing the provider to see previous visit history and ascertain a past medical history.

Improving clinic operations was important, but so was seeing the hard work come to life.  From one of the EPICS students who attended the trip: “There aren’t any words to put in for the experience of the trip. It was incredible and even better on our end to see the work we put in over the semester at work in real time helping people in need. It really gives us a different perspective. It has made me want to go back again next year.”

Both healthcare and EPICS student teams appreciated the each other’s knowledge base and were able to learn from one another. Seven out of seventeen students from EPICS and future healthcare providers suggested there be more meetings between the two student teams to allow more communication and form better relationships and to improve collaboration on the application prior to the trip. One student conveyed his or her suggestion for improved interactions by stating: “I wish the healthcare students could have had a larger impact when it came to some of the formatting in the app.” Another stated, “we could have been helpful when it came to inputting drug names and formatting it the way that most resembles a prescription.”

One example of the collaboration between the two groups was a simulation clinic on Butler University’s campus before heading to the DR. One EPICS student stated: “Witnessing and collaborating with the students who would actually be using the application was vital.


We were able to together identify the most effective and efficient designs for the app, as well as locate bugs throughout the app that we may not have otherwise noticed.” Four of thirteen healthcare students who attended the simulation said the simulation helped students learn how to use it before traveling to DR and six out of thirteen healthcare students noted there was value in the simulation because it worked out issues beforehand and allowed the EPICS team to add more features to application. More collaboration is necessary because while 10 out of 16 users of the EMR said it was a positive experience, five out of the 16 said there was need for improvements. While the EMR needs improvement, all of the 13 healthcare students who took the survey stated that their overall experience was positive.

Finally, knowledge was gained through this experience but so were friendships.

“The trip felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was incredible to witness both teams’ work and preparation pay off. Our group of students formed a tight-knit group with relationships that will likely last a lifetime. We were also able to form friendships with people there and share our cultures with one another. I greatly enjoyed the activities outside of the clinic—they provided inspiration on how we can continue to make a difference.”

While the application and learning is important for the students, for healthcare professionals the patient is the top priority, and for engineers the customer is the top priority. To ensure our patients were satisfied and to see how an EMR effects clinic processes we interviewed 95 patients to assess where there is room for improvement with our application and clinic in the future. Figures 2–5 represent how patients responded when asked about the amount of time it took to enter the clinic, register at the clinic, see the physician or healthcare provider, and receive their medications. Responses concerning the amount of time it took to enter the clinic were the most evenly distributed of the four figures, ranging from “very fast” to “normal” amount of time. The amount of time to be registered as well as to see a provider were very similarly distributed, with only a small percentage of patients reporting “too long” of a wait. The amount of time to receive medications followed a similar distribution to Figures 3 and 4; however, it was the largest report of “too long” a wait. Patients were also asked if they had attended the clinic previously, which 46 out of the 95 patients who completed the survey had.  Of the 60 patients who responded to the question about whether this clinic brings their community hope, all answered “yes” and all 95 patients who answered the survey said they would recommend this clinic to their friends and family.


The professional world becomes more intertwined each day with professionals obtaining multiple degrees, technology advancing at a rapid pace, and the increased need for multiple professionals to be working together to achieve a common goal. Students with healthcare or computer science backgrounds will work together once they enter their careers, because healthcare is constantly in conjunction with, and reliant on, technology. Learning about other disciplines through collaboration towards a mutual goal helps prepare students of both colleges and disciplines to better communicate with people who have different educational backgrounds.

Beyond communication, other lessons learned through this experience included collaboration and teamwork. This project began through collaboration, as Barnabas Task has been collaborating since 2008 with people from varying cultures to facilitate CHE. Butler University began helping staff and supplying clinics in 2014, and the EPICS team was introduced in 2015 to create the EMR application (Barnabas Task, 2013). Similar to the mission trip described by Dressel et al. (2017), students reported an increase in their teamwork skills. The application continually evolves as innovative ideas develop from communication and teamwork between the EPICS and healthcare students. To improve both this learning experience and the application, the EPICS and healthcare teams need more collaborative meetings and communication, which have been set up via live simulated clinic days in the United States. The team views the application working in real time and can modify the application before arriving at the clinic. The need for more simulations was reiterated in the survey results: almost half of students wanted an increase in the number of meetings between the two groups prior to the trip. More meetings will allow for the healthcare students to help update the prescribing and diagnostics parts of the application and to provide recommendations for further clinical functions in the prototype application, including drug interaction reporting and other patient safety features.

It is important that the students gained knowledge from this collaboration, but ultimately the goal is to help the patients in the DR. An EMR application is warranted for helping track past medical records; over half of the patients who took the survey reported being seen in the clinic previously. With patients returning each year, there is clearly a need for the clinic, and the clinic is being utilized as routine care for many people. The application allows past medical records to be viewed, to see progression of disease states and to ensure that the patient is receiving the best care possible. The application improves patient safety by allowing allergies to be documented and viewed through their prior visit history. The support for EMRs improving patient safety has been shown in the work of Khalifa (2017), as there were fewer occurrences of medical error. Providers can also access medication histories to track clinical progression. Not only does the application help prevent medication errors, it also improves the processes of the clinic. Patients are quickly registered and triaged and then sent to see a provider, without the hassle of paper charts. Only two of the 95 patient respondents commented that any step of the clinic took too long. Future development and evolution of the application could help further streamline clinic processes and improve patient satisfaction.

Not only is the application evolving, but so is the EMR EPICS project. There has been a growing number of EPICS students interested in the collaboration with healthcare students. The EMR project continues to attract new and returning Computer Science and Software Engineering (CSSE) students, who find this project intriguing and realize the potential it has for experiential learning. The EMR project has spanned over six consecutive semesters and has currently attracted and engaged 35 CSSE students. The trip teaches students to collaborate with students of different educational backgrounds and helps students discern their future career paths. One of the EPICS students changed his major after exploring his passion for computer programming while working on the EMR project. All participants in the application collaboration group reported some form of educational growth.

Beyond their own education, this experience also exposes students to the education styles of the Dominican Republic. Medical school in the DR takes six years to complete as opposed to the eight years required to achieve a medical degree in the United States. Cultures differ not only in education but also in communication styles and language. Learning to respect the cultures and healthcare systems of other countries will help students become more adaptable and knowledgeable as they embark on their future careers. It is also beneficial to familiarize oneself with other cultures, because many medical professionals are obtaining their degrees abroad, while still wishing to practice in the United States. This trend was voiced by many of the medical students who acted as the group’s translators during the clinic in the DR. As of 2006, approximately 25% of physicians practicing in the United States obtained their medical degree abroad, a number that has been increasing since the 1960s (Boulet, Cooper, Seeling, Norcini, & McKinley, 2009). Not only are physicians with different educational backgrounds practicing medicine in the United States, there has also been an increase in the number of foreign-born United States citizens. With almost 13% of the United States’ population being born in another country, providers will be encountering patients with a variety of backgrounds (Singer, 2013). It is important for healthcare providers to adapt and be knowledgeable of cultures different from their own.  Cultural awareness is the main experience gained from clinics where US and DR students volunteering together.

In the future, it would be beneficial to continue to track patient surveys to ensure that the application keeps improving patient satisfaction and clinic efficiency. However, it is reassuring to see that a majority of patients did believe that their wait times were acceptable and that the clinic is currently working at an efficient pace. Looking forward, it would also be appropriate to start examining clinical outcomes of patients, as the EMR is able to track them on a yearly basis to see whether medical interventions are making a long-standing impact on patients’ disease states. As Kruse et al. assert (2017), EMR systems can improve quality outcomes for patients in the acute setting. Data collected from the DR clinic could be examined to determine whether these same improvements can be repeated. Overall, the collaboration between healthcare students and computer science students has led to the production of a functioning, affordable EMR application prototype to improve patient safety and satisfaction. It has also expanded technical and communication skills for students across Butler’s campus and among the DR students that Butler University connects with while in the DR. The goals of this project in the future would be to keep improving the application and eventually provide access to the application to other non-profit organizations to help them serve their patient population.


These data were presented at the National Center for Science & Civic Engagement Conference for Science and Engineering for Social Good in Atlanta, Georgia in February 2018. At the conference many people, including Edward Coyle, co-founder of both the Vertically-Integrated Projects (VIP) program and the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) gave us advice for proceeding with our project.

About the Authors

Courtney Cox

Courtney Cox is a current pharmacy student at Butler University and has traveled to the Dominican Republic three times with the team. After graduation in May 2018, she hopes to pursue a career that allows her to continue to work with an underserved population both in the United States and abroad.



Sarah Lenahan

Sarah Lenahan, Class of 2019 PharmD candidate at Butler University, has traveled to the Dominican Republic twice working with the Electronic Medical Record application and will be going again during May 2018. She hopes to pursue a career in pharmacy that allows her to integrate her passions of faith, learning, and pharmacy to help underserved patient populations.


Patricia S. Devine

Patricia Devine is an Associate Professor and Campus-Based Experiential Education Director at Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Her passion and research interests are in improving health globally.



Panagiotis K. Linos

Panagiotis Linos has been a professor of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Butler University since 2001. The birth of the EPICS program at Butler is the result of his passion for community service and experiential learning. Before joining Butler, he was the Chairperson of the Computer Science department at Tennessee Technological University.


Apple. (2018). Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Retrieved from

Barnabas Task: Story-Teller of Many. (2013) Retrieved from

Boulet, J. R., Cooper, R. A., Seeling, S. S., Norcini, J. J., McKinley, D. W. (2009). U.S. citizens who obtain their medical degrees abroad: an overview, 1992–2006. Health Aff (Millwood), 28(1), 226–233. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.28.1.226

Carlson, E., Stenberg, M., Chan, B., Ho, S., Lai, T., Wong, A., & Chan, E. A. (2017). Nursing as universal and recognisable: Nursing students’ perceptions of learning outcomes from intercultural peer learning webinars: A qualitative study. Nurse Educ Today, 57, 54–59. doi: 10.1016/j.nedt.2017.07.006

Dressel, A., Mikandawire-Valhmu, L., Deitrich, A., Chriwa, E., Mgawadere, F., Kambalametore, S., & Kako, P. (2017). Local to global: Working together to meet the needs of vulnerable communities. J Interprof Care,, 20, 1–3. doi:10.1080/13561820.2017.1329717

Johnson, A. M., & Howell, D. M. (2017). International service learning and interprofessional education in Ecuador: Findings from a phenomenology study with students from four professions. J Interprof Care 31(2), 245–254. doi: 10.1080/13561820.2016.1262337

Keasberry, J., Scott, I.A., Sullivan, C., Staib, A., & Ashby, R. (2017). Going digital: a narrative overview of the clinical and organisational impacts of eHealth technologies in hospital practice. Aust Health Rev 41(6), 646–664. doi: 10.1071/AH16233.

Khalifa M. (2017). Perceived benefits of implementing and using hospital information systems and electronic medical records. Stud Health Technol Inform, 238, 165–168.

Kruse, C. S., Mileski, M., Vijaykuma, A. G., Viswanathan, S. V., Suskandla, U., & Chidambaram, Y. (2017). Impact of electronic health records on long-term care facilities: Systematic review. JMIR Med Inform, 5(3), e35. doi: 10.2196/medinform.7958

Linos, P.K. (2012). Ten Years of EPICS at Butler University: Experiences from Crafting a Service-Learning Program for Computer Science and Software Engineering. In B. A. Nejmeh (Ed.), Service-Learning in Computer and Information Sciences: Practical Applications in Engineering Education (pp. 39–75). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Olenick, P., & Edwards, J. E. (2016 ). Factors to consider when planning short-term global health work. Nurs Womens Health, 20(2), 203–209. doi: 10.1016/j.nwh.2016.01.003

Singer, A. (2013 ). Contemporary immigrant gateways in historical perspective. Daedalus, 142(3), 76–91. doi:10.1162

Appendix 1:


Is this your first experience with Barnabas Task?

a. No

b. Yes

How many times have you worked with Barnabas Task?

a. 1-2 times

b. 3-5 times

c. 6 or more times

What was your role with the EMR app?

a. Healthcare Student

b. Healthcare Provider

c. EPICS Team

d. Translator (PUCMM or OASIS Student)

e. Clinic Organizer

Describe your major.

a. Pharmacy

b. Physician Assistant

c. Nursing


Why did you select this project? What was your motivation behind selecting this project?

Name the top three non-technical learning experiences that you took away from the EMR project.

Name the top three technical learning experiences that you took away from the EMR project.

Comment on your overall assessment and grading of your performance throughout this project.

Did you participate in the trip to the DR?

a. No

b. Yes

Comment on your overall trip experience.

What did you learn from the PUCMM/OASIS students while working in the clinic?

Comment on the amount of time spent on devotions and reflection.

Did your faith change or grow? Comment on this.

Were you interested in going on the trip to the DR?

What prevented you from going on the trip?

Comment on your experiences of interacting with the healthcare students.

What suggestions do you have to improve the way the two teams interacted?

Did you participate in the EMR simulation in March?

a. No

b. Yes

What value did you find in this simulation?

How have you used the knowledge and skills from this course outside of the classroom?

Healthcare Students

Why did you decide to participate in this trip?

Name the top three learning experiences that you took away from this experience.

Comment on the amount of time spent on devotions and reflections.

Did your faith change or grow? Comment on this.

Comment on your experience with the EPICS team (those that went on the trip and those that did not).

What suggestions do you have to improve the way the two teams interacted?

Comment on your overall experience in the DR.

What did you learn from the PUCMM and OASIS students while working in the clinic?

Comment on your experiences using the EMR app to automate the patient care process in the DR.

What did you like about the EMR app? What would you improve or change?

Did you like the text boxes used for diagnosis?

a. No

b. Yes

Did you participate in the EMR simulation?

a. No

b. Yes

What value did you find in this simulation?

Healthcare Providers

What is your role and capacity of involvement in the clinic? Comment on your previous involvement with Barnabas Task medical clinics.

Comment on any benefits and challenges you had from your participation in this clinic.

Did you utilize the EMR app?

a. No

b. Yes

Describe your overall experience and impression of the EMR app. How did you find it useful? How could it be improved?

How do you think the app affected patient care?

Would you be interested in using it in the future?

a. No

b. Yes

Clinic Organizer

What is your role and capacity of involvement in the clinic?

Comment on any benefits and challenges you had from your participation with this clinic.

42. Did you utilize the EMR app?

a. No

b. Yes

Describe your overall experience and impression of the EMR app. How did you find it useful? How could it be improved?

44. Would you be interested in using it in the future?

a. No

b. Yes

Translators (PUCMM or OASIS students)

What was your role in the clinic? Comment on any previous experiences with Barnabas Task.

46. Comment on any benefits and challenges you had from your participation in the clinic.

47. What did you learn from the American students?

48. Did you use the EMR app?

a. No

b. Yes

49. Describe your overall experience and impression of the EMR app. How did you find it useful? How could it be improved?

50. Would you be interested in using it in the future?

a. No

b. Yes

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Building a Model for Collaboration 
between Higher Education and 
Informal Science Educators: A Case History of SENCER-ISE and the 
Application of a Civic Engagement 
Cross-Sector Framework in STEM Learning


This article provides a case history of the beginnings of SENCER-ISE (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities – Informal Science Education), an initiative that encouraged structured partnerships between higher education and informal science educators using civic engagement as a unifying framework for the collaborations. The article provides background on why SENCER-ISE was a natural progression for the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement (NCSCE) to pursue and how SENCER-ISE was implemented. Partnership projects and specific outcomes are provided as examples of the civic engagement cross-sector work and evaluation results are given of the overall efficacy of such partnerships.


  • Formal partnerships
  • Long-term relationships
  • Audiences served by informal and formal educators expanded
  • Civic engagement focus as a strategy for learning
  • Partners’ areas of expertise respected

These are some of the positive outcomes expressed by educators who participated in SENCER-ISE (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities-Informal Science Education), the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement’s (NCSCE) cross-sector pilot project to bring together individuals from the higher education (HE) and the informal science education (ISE) sectors through civic engagement partnerships (Randi Korn & Associates [RK&A], September 2015). The initiative was a natural outgrowth of NCSCE’s fundamental emphasis on framing teaching and learning around real-world problems and experiences. Civic issues, whether related to water quality, invasive species and habitat loss, or education, formed the underpinnings of the projects developed through SENCER-ISE, an initiative that benefited from the infrastructure provided by NCSCE.

As one informal science education partner noted in an evaluation report from Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A, September 2015),

From just looking at the other projects and learning about the other projects in my cohort, it seems like [our] project was true to what SENCER’s philosophy is, the way SENCER first started. We’re not going to keep science in a bubble or a laboratory, but we’re going to actually apply it. … We went to the workshop before the project really kicked off to learn more about the philosophy,… and how it’s been used to add another dimension to college courses, that was cool, and that’s what made this class so successful, that idea, that philosophy.

This case study will examine the experience of implementing the first stages of SENCER-ISE and will review the initial results. The study will outline the partnership projects to provide the context of how building an initiative around a civic issue can focus implementation efforts, meet actual challenges, and provide benefits to the educators and to the audiences served.

Background: Developing a Concept

In October of 2008, the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement (NCSCE) began a journey that continues as of this writing. Interest in exploring the practicality of civic engagement cross-sector partnerships heightened for NCSCE leadership, a number of informal science educators, and external funders, and they could see potential benefits to justify investing in infrastructure support to strengthen nascent or more casual collaborations. The setting was a MidAtlantic SENCER Center for Innovation regional meeting held at Franklin & Marshall College (NCSCE, MidAtlantic (October 4, 2008) The meeting focused on the critical role of K-8 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education as a “gateway” to STEM achievement.

One of the speakers, the late Alan Friedman, presented on a variety of topics that day, including a breakout session on communicating science to the public. Friedman had been the longtime director of the New York Hall of Science. At the time of the Franklin & Marshall meeting, Friedman was a consultant in museum development and education. He became the founding director of SENCER-ISE.

Through discussions at the meeting about the work of SENCER in engaging students with real-world civic issues, Friedman began to form a kernel of an idea that became the SENCER-ISE initiative. In an email to then NCSCE Executive Director David Burns and others on November 9, 2008, Friedman noted that “informal science education is open to the lessons of SENCER,” in that citizen science and science centers were paying “increasing attention to social issues.” He thought that a “working” conference to investigate the point of view of each sector towards civic engagement and to develop effective strategies to make collaborations work would be a next step. Others at the time wrote about the importance of seeing the formal and informal sectors as a continuum for learning through formal classroom use of “free-choice science learning resources and opportunities … for field trips or … guest speakers” (Liu, 2009). Friedman had something more in mind, in that he saw how SENCER’s model of learning through the lens of civic issues could impact the outcomes of potential partnership projects.

The following October, another MidAtlantic Center meeting at Franklin & Marshall focused on how informal science education experiences could improve college readiness. Friedman was one of the key speakers, along with David A. Ucko. Ucko was then Deputy Division Director, Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings, at the National Science Foundation; he, along with Marsha Semmel, are both independent consultants and became senior advisors for informal science education at NCSCE after Friedman’s untimely death. Both Friedman’s and Ucko’s presentations focused on the world of informal science education and its relationship to K-12 and higher education.

Over the next two years, other discussions, presentations, and proposals culminated in SENCER-ISE, an invitational conference held in March of 2011 (funded by the NSF, DRL1001795, and the Noyce Foundation) that brought together 20 SENCER faculty members and other NCSCE staff, with 20 professionals from informal science education institutions, such as science and nature centers, museums, and science media (NCSCE, 2011). As a result of this meeting, the “cross-sector partnership” concept developed into the SENCER-ISE II initiative (aka SENCER-ISE). Six partnerships were funded by the National Science Foundation (DRL1237463) and four by the Noyce Foundation. Eight of these ten partnerships continued with some type of collaboration at least through the end of the funding period.

The purpose of SENCER-ISE, to paraphrase what Ucko noted during a presentation at the 2017 SENCER Summer Institute, was to show that through the framework of civic issues, we could find common ground and “leverage synergies” for cross-sector partnerships that could “foster STEM learning and public engagement” (Concurrent Session on SENCER and Informal Science Education, Summary Slide found here. Ucko had previously written about SENCER synergies with informal science education in the Summer 2015 issue of this journal, which served as a tribute to Alan Friedman and focused on informal science education connections to formal education.

Background: NCSCE’s Path to Cross-Sector Civic Engagement Partnerships

Although there are many differences between formal and informal science education learning environments, there are commonalities between SENCER Ideals, its approach to learning, and the informal science education community’s goals. For NCSCE staff and colleagues, the timely publication of the 2009 NRC report, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits, fueled the notion that the underlying possibilities of higher education faculty and informal science educators working together collaboratively could evolve into enduring civic engagement partnerships. The NRC report postulated “strands of learning,” which in many ways reflected such SENCER Ideals as starting the learning process with matters of interest to students, beginning with projects that are practical and engaging to students, and locating the responsibilities of discovery in the work of the student (Friedman & Mappen, 2011, p. 32).

The March 2011 invitational conference, with its goals of sharing the strategies higher education and informal science education (HE-ISE) communities used to “implement the civic engagement approach” and “mapping possible collaborations,” found a mutual interest by professionals from both sectors in developing “science-enabled citizens” and in using civic engagement platforms as a bridge across the sectors. Another important focus of discussion at the conference was the importance of “a continuum of engagement to address learner interests and needs from K-12 through higher education and adult learning, including both in-school and out-of-school learning opportunities” (McEver, Executive Summary, 2011). The conference evaluator’s report concluded that “there was a need to build awareness of the value of using civic engagement as a platform to advance science understanding, including what each sector brings to a potential collaboration…” and that “the SENCER-ISE conference successfully sparked ideas and built momentum for collaboration” (RK&A, 2011).  The evaluators noted that sustaining the momentum after the conference was a challenge given daily responsibilities, not an uncommon factor in developing and maintaining meaningful partnerships. Two articles by Friedman and Mappen detailed the path to SENCER-ISE through 2012.

The first, published in this journal in 2011, focused both on the idea of differences and commonalities in learning environments and goals between these educational sectors and also on the 2011 conference. The second one, a chapter published in 2012 as part of an edited volume on the expanded use in science education of the SENCER model of learning through the framework of civic issues, looked more deeply into the idea of developing an infrastructure to support partnerships between informal and formal higher educators and the potential benefits and challenges of collaboration “across the HE-ISE divide.”

The 2012 chapter also noted that most interactions between formal and informal education occurred at the K-12 level. The value of this connection between the two sectors can be seen in some earlier works, which also speak to the need to make these relationships more meaningful. An article summarizing two research studies about Informal Science Institutions (ISIs) published in the International Journal of Science Education in 2007 highlighted that these institutions “support K-12 education in the United States in important and varied ways” through field trips and other outreach programs but concluded ISIs had at that time “yet to determine how best to support students and teachers in terms of the actual curriculum and materials used in the classroom,” which could have “rich potential” for school science education (Phillips, Finkelstein, & Wever-Frerichs, 2007). To paraphrase Bevan and Dillon (2010), the “ubiquitous use of field trips” hid the gulf between creating substantial partnerships for learning in formal and informal contexts and one-shot experiences (pp. 176–177). Rivera Maulucci and Brotman (2010) summarized an in-service and preservice teacher training seminar that utilized trips to a museum “as a place to learn science connected to mandated science curricula” in NYC that began to “bridge” the gap between formal and informal science learning by including a local natural history museum, local public schools, and an undergraduate teacher education program as the partners.

From 2008, Friedman’s developing vision for collaboration between higher education and informal science institutions was based on his analysis that the SENCER approach to learning, which engaged “students with real civic and social issues,” could shape students’ understanding of “how important science, technology, engineering and math [was] to their own lives and to their communities.” At the same time, he thought that the informal science education community that he knew so well was “discovering the importance of this strategy” (Friedman, email, November 9, 2008).

That Friedman could imagine the future direction  the informal science education community would take is evidenced by a May 2016 report by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE, May 23, 2016) that highlighted the expanding landscape of informal science education over the previous ten years. SENCER-ISE was certainly part of this development, with its emphasis on collaborative work across the sectors and the involvement in most of its projects of students at different educational levels communicating science to targeted audiences in schools, science centers, and citizen science organizations. As noted, Friedman saw early on the possibilities of these types of collaborations. One conclusion of the CAISE report for the ISE community is the need to “build greater awareness of the values and goals of universities and academia, e.g., graduate student professional development and undergraduate enrichment experiences” (p. 15). Friedman foresaw this possibility a decade ago, and he also saw how much the higher education community could learn from informal science educators, especially in terms of communicating science to a diverse audience.

Background: From Vision to Implementation

While the major goals of the second phase of SENCER-ISE were to form enduring partnerships around compelling civic issues that could “provide models for others in the wider educational community to follow,” there was an interest in “building the knowledge base” to improve “the fields’ understanding of the nature (challenges and high potential) of HE-ISE partnerships” (email from Wm. David Burns to Alphonse DeSena and Myles G. Boylan, June 6, 2012). NCSCE would provide the infrastructure support to launch new or enhanced partnerships. SENCER Ideals and informal science education’s learning strands offered the intellectual framework for this “experiment.”

From the 2011 conference on, there were certain elements that those involved in creating and implementing the next phase of SENCER-ISE thought necessary for it to succeed. Appendix A lists key themes of discussions that began with the March 2011 conference and continued through a November 2011 follow-up meeting, the December 2012 Leadership Team meeting held after the NSF funding was received (the team included Burns, Friedman, NCSCE staff, representatives from RK&A, Advisory Board members, and others), and into the partnership recruitment and selection process. While not all of the strategies that emerged from these discussions were incorporated into SENCER-ISE, they do provide suggestions for an implementation framework from which to develop and sustain collaborative efforts for those interested in creating or enhancing cross-sector partnerships. The themes include

  • sharing information, both in person and remotely, including program outcomes;
  • creating joint experiential opportunities and new learning and work environments around civic engagement that contributes to problem-solving of compelling issues;
  • securing funding for test beds;
  • mentoring for project leaders/partners;
  • demonstrating respect for all partners and their different organizations;
  • providing institutional leadership support for partnership; and
  • meeting the challenges of working across sectors.

As a result of outreach to formal and informal science education communities, NCSCE received 30 applications for the initial six partnerships of $50,000 funded by the NSF, payable over a three-year period. Each of the applications was reviewed by at least five members of the Leadership Team and then discussed on a review call in April. When funding from the Noyce Foundation was awarded in July to support four additional partnerships, a decision was made to review again the top-ranked applications that were not selected in the first round.

Table 1 provides an overview of the ten partnerships and the civic issues that were proposed. The reviewers thought that these projects had the potential for longer-term relationships. Appendix B provides project titles and more detailed descriptions about the projects. See also for more background information about the original partners, institutions, and activities.

Getting Started – Introducing Partners to NCSCE, SENCER, and SENCER-ISE

SENCER-ISE objectives included building connections and relationships between partners, across partnerships, with the SENCER-ISE staff, and with the larger NCSCE community while applying SENCER’s civic engagement framework. An orientation to SENCER-ISE and participation in a SENCER Summer Institute were two activities planned as part of the implementation process. Given the differences in the award timeframes, the NSF-funded partners attended the institute in the summer of 2013, where they participated in a pre-institute orientation session; the Noyce partners participated in an orientation program in October of 2013 and then attended the institute in 2014, where they also interacted with the NSF-funded partners.

Both orientation sessions provided guidance on the planning process, discussions about known obstacles to cross-sector collaborations, ideas about developing strategies to overcome challenges, and workshops on evaluation planning (clarifying project outcomes, developing indicators, and choosing data collection methods). To continue communications beyond the orientation gatherings, group video conference calls, individual partnership calls with SENCER-ISE staff, and a website for shared information were offered.

Planning and Implementing
Cross-Sector Partnerships: Challenges

Amey, Eddy, and Ozaki’s “Demands for Partnership Collaboration in Higher Education: A Model,” published in 2007 in New Directions for Community Colleges (NDCC), noted that “partnerships in academe are becoming more common” but that “relatively little is known about them.” Thus, these types of collaborations are “often challenging to develop and hard to sustain.” The authors raise questions about each participant’s motivation for engaging in collaborative efforts, differences in the organizational context of the partners, the departure of “critical” personnel, and differences in desired outcomes (pp. 5, 12–13). The focus of the chapter was on K-12 schools and colleges, but the content is highly relevant to the work between informal science education institutions and colleges and universities.

The Executive Summary for the March 2011 conference report, the project proposal, and subsequent experience with implementing SENCER-ISE echo some of the themes and questions raised in the NDCC chapter. Conference participants identified “potential obstacles,” that ranged from mutual misunderstanding about the work of the other sector, conflicting cultures and reward systems, different work patterns and crunch times during the year, and different views of the role of civic engagement. Higher education “participants saw civic engagement with science and technology-based issues as a means towards the end of science learning, while most of the ISE participants saw civic engagement with such issues as a valuable end in itself.”

NCSCE’s grant proposal to the NSF (2012) highlighted some of the key challenges Friedman and others saw in forming non-profit partnerships, especially between higher education and informal science education institutions. These challenges, along with some potential proposed solutions to how they might be overcome, included the following:

Difficulties in establishing and sustaining non-profit partnerships. Initial responsibilities, decision-making prerogatives and commitments from both sides need to be clearly defined from the start, although some flexibility is needed.

Differences in culture. These are rarely accounted for initially and can lead to misunderstandings as the partnership develops. Both sides need to begin to understand the different constraints and values.

Friction caused by time and other resource commitments. These should be defined and agreed to in writing at the beginning.

Institutional vs. individual commitments. These are often not appreciated at the beginning of a partnership.

Ad hoc relationships rarely are sustained. Organic relationships with goals that meet the mission needs of both partners are more likely to succeed.   

In designing the plan for SENCER-ISE, the above broad challenges were taken into account. It was thought that they could be mitigated by

  • setting up a small central office to support the partners;
  • having partner institutional representatives sign a Memorandum of Understanding about requirements for receiving funds;
  • providing opportunities for communication between the partnerships through a website that contained information about the partnerships and milestones for activities (timelines) and also through scheduled video conference or telephone calls;
  • offering evaluation guidelines and training at the beginning of the partnership implementation period;
  • awarding start-up funds; and
  • attempting to integrate the partners into the larger NCSCE orbit.

As the partnerships got underway and as they progressed, other challenges cropped up, some more difficult than others to solve, some unique to individual institutions, and some related to reporting requirements and schedules proposed by SENCER-ISE staff.

The partners spoke about some of their challenges in their final reports. For example, faculty sabbaticals and staff changes occurred in over half of the partnerships. In one case, the partners maintained telephone contact, while the faculty partner’s students continued at the ISE facility. There was some scaling back of the project and the ISE educator took on more of a supervisory role. In the other sabbatical case, the program was refocused a bit. In both of these cases, flexibility was important. For the most part, staff changes were overcome, except in two of the partnerships. Both of these involved a faculty member and/or a staff person changing institutions. For one partnership, the changes occurred several times and the final change did the project in. For the other, the missions of each partner were too disparate. Still other challenges, more related to specific institutions, included Institutional Review Board issues, travel for participants, securing additional funds, teacher attrition, attracting sufficient audiences, and for some a concern over the quality of student-collected data. Fortunately, the two partnerships that relied on student data collection reported that the data collected were authentic and of good quality.

Evaluating SENCER-ISE

To evaluate the SENCER-ISE infrastructure and follow partnership progress, both external and internal evaluation methods were employed. RK&A was engaged to undertake both formative and summative evaluations. Annual reports and quarterly group video or individualized calls with each partnership provided updates about partnership activities. Each partnership also evaluated the impacts of their efforts on populations they served (students, teachers, communities), and these results were reported in final partnership reports.

Formative Evaluation

The formative evaluation examined partner perceptions of the SENCER-ISE infrastructure. RK&A conducted in-depth telephone interviews of 20 participants, representing all ten partnerships, between June and September 2014. About one-half of the interviewees were from higher education and the other half from informal science education. The interviews produced descriptive data that were analyzed qualitatively, “meaning that the evaluator studied the data for meaningful patterns and, as patterns and trends emerged, grouped similar responses” (RK&A, April 2015).

Five trends emerged when the strengths of the SENCER-ISE infrastructure were examined: (a) funds, which helped secure personnel for the project; (b) structure, which for some helped the partners focus on quarterly progress; (c) inspiration, which for some helped to establish a connection with colleagues; (d) encouragement and feedback, which for some provided moral support; and (e) flexibility, which for some meant that the reporting process was adjusted based upon partner feedback. There were no discernible differences in responses by sector.

There were four major challenges: (a) partner relationship, which included for some communication issues and differences in schedules; (b) lack of clear expectations, which for some meant not knowing how much reporting was necessary, even with the Memorandum of Understanding listing reporting dates; (c) limited funds plus workload, which some thought should be adjusted so that some of the administrative work could be lessened; and (d) internal issues, which for some included personnel leaving the institution or a partner being on academic leave. There were few differences by sector.

Summative Report

For the summative evaluation, RK&A employed a “mixed-methods approach to explore the …[evaluation] objectives—in-depth interviews and standardized questionnaires.” Eighteen interviews were conducted with SENCER-ISE partners. As with the formative interviews, these interviews produced descriptive data (RK&A, July 2015).  The summative evaluation explored four evaluation objectives. The first three focused on whether the partners: increased their understanding of each other’s field of expertise; appreciated the value of each other’s work and expertise; and increased their understanding of what creates a durable partnership.

The fourth objective explored whether colleagues of the partners realized “the value of the formal/informal education collaboration.”

The evaluators noted that “while these are the evaluation objectives, one can easily see what the project aspired to achieve in how the objectives are expressed. As such, the evaluation objectives can also serve as a list of the project’s outcomes” (RK&A, September 2015).

The responses are summarized in Appendix C, which provides statements made by the interviewees. Overall, the partners did increase their understanding of each other’s work and expertise, did appreciate the value of each other’s work and expertise, and did understand elements of durable partnerships. Some interviewees noted that others at their institutions were drawn to the efforts.

Partnership Results, Impacts, and Sustainability

The work of the partners on their individual initiatives was really the backbone and strength of SENCER-ISE. It is through the lens and words of the partners that we can see the benefits of cross-sector collaborations to learners (students, citizen scientists, community members) and to faculty members and informal science educators. The sections below contain excerpts from the final reporting of eight of the partnerships (October 2016) that were still in existence, starting with some of the reported results.

The partnership reports also provide insight on how cross-sector partnerships can impact science education and educators, including pedagogical methods of the partners and their colleagues and how the involvement of students from different levels of education (graduate, undergraduate, K-12) was a benefit to the work of both sectors.

In terms of the sustainability of cross-sector partnerships the eight were still hoping to keep the partnership relationships going in a variety of ways, even if different from their original projects.

Reported Results

Brooklyn College and the Gateway National Recreation Area of the National Park Service

Awareness of the marine plastic debris issue is growing in the school community. Schools/teachers are engaged in data-driven civic engagement. The marine plastic debris protocols developed through the project are used in undergraduate classes.

Cornell University and the Sciencenter 

Sciencenter staff trained students from the Cornell lab on methods in informal science education.  Students then came to [the Sciencenter] Head Start family engagement events, and helped facilitate activities with parents and their children. …The students contributed to family engagement events by providing examples of current research about how children learn and how that research can be applied to the activities [the Sciencenter] offered to the parents and their children.

Fordham University and the Wildlife Conservation Society

The content evaluation indicated participation in Project TRUE [Teens Researching Urban Ecology] caused a significant increase in students’ understanding of the scientific process and scientific bias. …After participation in Project TRUE, there was a  51.36% increase in students’ understanding of the scientific process, and a 76% increase in students’ ability to recognize types of bias sampling.

New Mexico EPSCoR and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History

Hosted three successful retreats with keynote speakers (John Falk, Jamie Bell, and Rick Bonney). Provided funding for regional gatherings through a mini-grant program.

Paul Smith’s College and The Wild Center

As part of the “Communicating Climate Change” course offered in 2014 and 2015, students were given the opportunity to receive certification as Interpretive Guides through the National Association for Interpretation. … In 2014, eight of the 15 students …participated. In 2015, all 15 of the students received certification.

Raritan Valley Community College and the New Jersey Audubon

Recruited and trained fifty-five … volunteer citizen scientists . … [and] involved … eighty students through participation in course work and volunteer training [over the course of the project]. …Students [for example] led a training session for …citizen scientists in invasive plant identification and gave presentations to local stakeholders.

St. Mary’s College of California and the Lindsay Wildlife Experience

A smartphone app creation was both an instructional experience and it yielded LWE [Lindsay Wildlife Experience] a tool to educate the general public on how to interact with wildlife.

The University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Science Center

During the course of the project two genomics program/exhibit formats targeted at family audiences were designed and tested. One component focused on “Mutations-DNA Matching Pairs” and the other on “STEM Cells.” … Based on a random sample of visitors informally surveyed, …visitor’s post engagement demonstrated a 67% increase in the ability to answer a series of six questions about mutations correctly, and a 75% increase in the ability to select the correct response from a series of four questions about STEM cells.

Reported Impacts

Brooklyn College/Gateway National Recreation Area of the National Park Service

The project helped to extend notions of place-based environmental education, in particular the ways to connect students who live in urban areas to the environment and related issues through authentic science learning activities. It also provided an example of how schools and teachers could contribute to and use scientific data in the classroom.

Cornell University/Science Center

The ongoing impact will be in the pedagogical methods of the Sciencenter. … Research from the [Cornell] lab … [led to a] new practice of open exploration and sharing research-based content with guests.

Fordham University/Wildlife Conservation Society

One of the major contributions that Project TRUE can have in the field of science education is that a program for students from under-represented populations in STEM fields [using] urban ecology research (i.e., place-based field research) with near peer mentors, as well as mentors from both informal and formal learning environments, can be effective in increasing knowledge [and] increasing student engagement in a sustained topic. …

New Mexico EPSCoR/New Mexico Museum of
Natural History

One of the major outcomes of this project was uniting the informal science  educators within NM ISE Net. … Keynote speakers provided opportunities for learning and … starting points for dialogue. …The educators were connected to  local NM EPSCoR researchers with the broad goal of improving engagement with the public around energy research.

Paul Smith’s College/The Wild Center

Many of the gatekeeper audiences … were empowered by the student presentations in measurable ways, helping them better engage their broader communities about mitigating the regional impacts of climate change and making more environmentally informed decisions. …The students themselves also  represent an important gatekeeper audience. … Environmental science, natural resource, forestry, and outdoor recreation students preparing to enter the workforce are uniquely positioned to be useful interpreters of this information.

Raritan Valley Community College/New Jersey Audubon

The project has demonstrated the success that is possible when sufficient resources (time, energy, money, and expertise, etc.) are devoted towards reaching the goals of conducting research and fostering civic engagement in first- and second-year science students. …These kinds of investments from both parties…are not always available, so it helped [the faculty member] refine and streamline his teaching methods to focus on the essential skills and lessons needed to make student participation in this kind of integrated education-research-engagement project a success. … NJA [New Jersey Audubon] staff have grown to appreciate the value of this type of partnership and working with students and faculty to address conservation issues. …The SENCER model [is] likely to be used in future projects.

St. Mary’s College of California/Lindsay Wildlife Experience

Before SENCER-ISE, LWE did not look beyond its own inside sources for research or sharing. By utilizing student interests in environmental topics, the topics of interpretation to the public have opened up to include an emphasis on the bigger picture of major themes such as conservation, environmental impact, and loss of ecological habitats.

University of Connecticut/Connecticut Science Center

Two areas of the project that are likely to have significant interest among science educators and exhibit developers are the process of engaging high school students in the design and development of science education programs and exhibits, especially in collaborative teams with formal and informal educators and content experts from the research community (typically through universities and colleges). … and the use of  improvisational training for team building and enhancing the communication skills of program staff and high school students. …The project [also] reframed the methods used by the Co-PI in both classroom and non-classroom settings for genomics discourse.


Brooklyn College/The Gateway National Recreation Area of the National Park Service

[Brooklyn College plans] to continue to collaborate with the NPS [National Park Service] on the marine debris plastic and other science and science education initiatives. The plastics protocol and associated activities will continue to be implemented in the Macaulay Honors Seminar, with plans to integrate it into Introduction to Environmental Science at Brooklyn College.

Cornell University/The Sciencenter

Absolutely! This partnership will continue. The actual research projects will change from year to year.

Fordham University/The Wildlife Conservation Society

Expanded Project TRUE through the funding of an NSF AISL [Advancing Informal STEM Learning] collaborative research grant …, which builds on the SENCER-ISE funded work, [and] will continue until 2019.

New Mexico EPSCoR/New Mexico Museum of
Natural History and Science

NM ISE Net working with NM EPSCoR. … currently discussing ways to build the network. …considering a distributed leadership model.

Paul Smith’s College/The Wild Center

The Co-PIs will look for ways to co-teach again, using the model developed by the project. The Paul Smith’s Co-PI will continue to be an important partner for The Wild Center.

Raritan Valley Community College/New Jersey Audubon

Will likely continue and expand the research, outreach and management efforts in the future. The data set … will provide valuable baseline monitoring data to determine the effectiveness of management efforts (e.g., deer enclosures, hunting programs, invasive removals, etc.).

St. Mary’s College of California/Lindsay Wildlife Experience

The partnership will continue since the College has a Community Engagement requirement as part of the Core Curriculum. Faculty are indeed looking to find various methods to collaborate with community partners. …. The Environmental Science faculty are considering numerous senior capstone projects … in collaboration with LWE. … A Pre-service Teaching Program faculty member has begun planning a collaboration to start in Spring 2017. …A Spanish faculty member has been encouraged to start a collaboration with LWE, and this Spanish translation course will help LWE generate appropriate materials in Spanish starting in 2017.

University of Connecticut/The Connecticut Science Center

The Science Center is still planning on installing and opening a genomics exhibition and program space in 2019-2020. … Retirement of the CSC (Connecticut Science Center) Co-PI … will require transition planning to determine the fesibility of establishing a sustainable collaboration that connects CSC program staff and audiences with the … University.

Building Upon SENCER-ISE 

Partnership Champions

The importance of personal relationships in developing sustainable collaborations is one of the lessons learned from the evaluation of the work of the original ten partnerships. While face-to-face meetings are most preferable, efficiency and costs need to be considered. With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), NCSCE implemented “Partnership Champions,” a project that added five additional cross-sector partnerships to SENCER-ISE, this time with a professional development component conducted virtually and with a shorter funding period. (See Appendix D for the listing of partnerships and project titles). Five of the original SENCER-ISE partners took on the role of “eMentors” to a new group of partners and provided guidance, based on their own experiences, on forming and enhancing collaborations. Interim results were reported by Semmel and Ucko (2017) in an overview of SENCER-ISE for the informal learning community. The authors noted the importance of jointly creating an action plan and timeline for completion of project activities. In addition, they cited the need to understand and adapt to the respective organizational cultures and constraints of the HE and ISE partners.

The “Partnership Champions” summative evaluation (RK&A 2018) concluded that the project was a positive experience for the partners, though not without challenges. Factors that supported successful outcomes included ideological alignment, flexible scheduling, openness to each other’s ideas, and alignment with organizational missions. Challenges included prioritizing projects along with other job responsibilities, communication issues, and project administration requirements.

For the new eMentorship component, the RK&A report noted that

…overall, Participants’ experiences with eMentorhsip varied. The eMentorship seems to have been most useful for Partners and most rewarding for eMentors towards the beginning of the project, when Partners needed clarity on SENCER’s vision and help articulating intended outcomes for their projects. …Overall, almost all Partners were grateful for their eMentors help at this stage of the partnerships. …most eMentors said Partners were “open” to hearing their advice, which they appreciated.

For future initiatives that include an eMentoring component, the report suggests that the role of the eMentor needs to be more clearly defined than it was for this short “demonstration” project. Does eMentoring work best for new projects and at the beginning of a project, and how best can eMentors be matched with projects? And, while virtual communication is efficient, some face-to-face interactions are needed.

Broadening the Network

During the 2015 SENCER Summer Institute at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, discussions about the next iteration of SENCER-ISE began. In a follow-up meeting in September, SENCER staff focused on the idea of collaboration with other established networks as a way to scale up the initiative. A Collaborative Planning proposal was submitted to the NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program. to maximize the collective impact of two well-established national STEM learning networks, Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net) and SENCER, by stimulating civic engagement and public understanding of science.

The one-year project was designed in three phases. In Phase I, leaders from SENCER and NISE Net focused on intensive exploration of their own and each other’s networks to map regional hubs and identify pre-existing relationships between individuals and institutions of the two networks, evaluate existing communications strategies, and collect, analyze, and compare evaluation and research findings from both networks. Phase II commenced with a two-day participatory planning workshop attended by leaders from NISE Net and SENCER as well as practitioners, researchers, and administrators with a range of backgrounds and perspectives on network building in both informal and formal education. One of the outcomes of that meeting is an article in this journal by Larry Bell, senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Museum of Science in Boston and, at the time, principal investigator and director of NISE Net, articulating the role of informal learning institutions in civic engagement (Bell, 2018).

Evaluation by RK&A following the workshop revealed the following insights regarding development of network collaboration, many of which reinforced findings from the evaluation of the SENCER-ISE partnerships. Sufficient time must be allowed for the prospective partners, no matter how willing and well meaning, to learn about each other’s cultures, processes, and future plans. Trust takes time to establish, as does understanding how different organizations and networks function. More time spent working together will encourage stronger relationships between the networks’ leaders and practitioners. In addition, collaboration must mesh with existing plans for each network. Sufficient capacity is also required. Finally, it is critical to clarify terms, goals, and purpose before entering a partnership.

Phase III included a survey of the SENCER and NISE Net networks. The survey proposed a new collaborative project involving SENCER undergraduates who would develop informal learning resources with an ISE partner based on civic engagement. Results from 158 respondents were overwhelmingly positive, indicating strong support from both sectors for future collaboration. Fifty-seven percent of college/university/faculty/staff selected “strongly agree” when asked if participating in the project would enhance student learning; 41% were “very interested” in participating, and 47 respondents asked to be considered as a pilot institution. Among ISE professionals, 57% of respondents indicated they were “interested” in learning more about the project; 46% indicated they were “interested in participating,” and 24% indicated they were “very interested.”

Conclusion – Elements of a Civic Engagement Partnership

In sum, for SENCER-ISE, the following factors influenced partnership development positively:

  • having the appropriate levels of decision-making authority and organizational support to make the partnership work (including a Memorandum of Understanding);
  • identifying and sharing common goals and missions;
  • allocating and devoting adequate time to build the partnership and project;
  • developing from the start and continuing to update long-term action and evaluation plans;
  • leveraging the strengths of each partner through clearly articulated roles and responsibilities; and
  • maintaining regular communication.

Even with challenges, we found important benefits that can accrue to faculty, informal science education professionals, and learners of all ages. These are

For faculty and informal science education professionals:

  • deepened understanding of the structure and constraints of each other’s professional practices and organizations;
  • increased respect for the unique skills of professionals from each sector;
  • expanded access to new audiences;
  • enhanced pedagogical methods;
  • increased involvement in civic engagement partnerships and expanded networks; and
  • heightened view of the role that students, particularly undergraduate students, can play in informal science educational programs.

For learners:

  • increased engagement in learning through connections to real-world contexts, authentic research opportunities, community activities, and place-based education;
  • improved communication skills for students at all levels of education; and
  • increased involvement in and knowledge of compelling civic issues.

As Amey, Eddy, and Ozaki noted in 2007, “sustainable partnerships are based on being flexible to new inputs and adjusting accordingly. …” Flexibility in responding to changes and challenges, along with adepquate funding and a sufficient time frame to plan and then to work together were certainly relevant to the endeavors of the SENCER-ISE partners and will be for similar collaborations in the future.

About the Author

Ellen F. Mappen,
National Center for Science and Civic Engagement

In June of 2017, Ellen F. Mappen retired as a senior scholar and the project director for Informal Science Education Programs at NCSCE (SENCER-ISE). She was the founding and long-time director of the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science and Engineering (1986-2003). Under her direction, the project received the 1999 National Science Foundation’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. In between the women in science program at Douglass College of Rutgers University and NCSCE, she served as the director of the Healthcare Services Program at the New Brunswick Health Science Technology High School. She holds a Ph.D. in History from Rutgers University (1977), with a focus on women’s history. Her dissertation focused on attitudes towards women’s work in late nineteenth and early century London.


Many individuals, only some of whom are noted here, were involved in bringing about SENCER-ISE. The late Alan J. Friedman and the then Executive Director of SENCER Wm. David Burns provided the impetus, theoretical framework, and practical ideas for implementation. The initiative could not have taken shape as it did without the initial involvement of a number of people: SENCER faculty members who came together at the March 2011 conference, along with a group of informal science educators, to examine the feasibility of cross-sector collaborations; Randi Korn of RK&A; Emily Skidmore; Cathy Sigmond; Jonathan Bucki of the Dendros Group, the conference facilitator; and Patrice Legro, who was then at the Marian Koshland Science Museum. The infrastructure support provided by the staff of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement (NCSCE) over the years was invaluable. Amanda Moodie was there for the 2011 conference. Hailey C. Chenevert, who joined the staff in early 2013 as the program assistant for SENCER-ISE, provided strong outreach to the first ten partners and general support for the initiative. Danielle Kraus Tarka, formerly Deputy Executive Director for NCSCE, provided help and encouragement. Eliza Jane Reilly, the current NCSCE Executive Director, originally served on the Advisory Board, and members of the board gave the benefit of their experience as SENCER-ISE was implemented. Eliza, along with Monica Devanas, the director of the MidAtlantic SENCER Center for Innovation, organized the Franklin & Marshall meetings that introduced Alan Friedman and David Ucko to SENCER. David Ucko and Marsha Semmel stepped in as senior advisors after Friedman’s untimely death. Both offered invaluable comments on a draft of the article (as did Chenevert), and Ucko provided updates on activities that occurred after the author “retired” from NCSCE (that is, for most of the sections on evaluation of Partnership Champions and on “Broadening the Network”). And, finally, the formal and informal science educators who led the partnerships proved willing to take a chance on a venture that was new to most of them. Their involvement and the support of the funding agencies, the National Science Foundation, the Noyce Foundation, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services allowed NCSCE to create and learn from the initiatives.

On more personal levels, in 2006, David Burns offered a “retiree” the opportunity to be part of the SENCER initiative and always provided meaningful advice, support, and, most importantly, longtime friendship. Monica Devanas has continued, ever since we met at Douglass College, to be there as a colleague and friend. Thank you, Marcy Dubroff, for your patience. And, last but not least, Marc Mappen, my husband of almost 50 years, has always supported and inspired me in my efforts and those of our two wonderful children.

The case history is written from the perspective of the author, who served first as the SENCER coordinator for the initiative and then as the director. All errors are entirely hers.


Published Work

Amey, M. J., Eddy, P. L., & Ozaki, C. C. (2007). Demands for partnership and collaboration in higher education: A model. New Directions for Community Colleges, 139, 5–14.

Bell, L. (2018). Civic engagement and informal science education. Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal, 10(1), 5–13.

Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A. W., & Feder, M. A. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Bevan, B., & Dillon, J. (2010). Broadening views of learning: Developing educators for the 21st century through an international research partnership at the Exploratorium and King’s College London. The New Educator, 6, 167–180.

Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). (2016). Informal STEM Education: Resources for Outreach, Engagement and Broader Impacts. Retrieved from

Friedman, A. J., & Mappen, E. F. (2011). SENCER-ISE: Establishing connections between formal and informal science educators to advance STEM learning through civic engagement. Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal, 3(2), 11–17.

Friedman, A. J., & Mappen, E. F. (2012). Formal/informal science learning through civic engagement: Both sides of the education equation. In R.D. Sheardy & W.D. Burns (Eds.), Science education and civic engagement: The next level (pp. 133–143). Washington, DC: American Chemical Society.

Liu, X. (2009). Beyond science literacy: Science and the public. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 4(3), 301–311.

Phillips, M., Finkelstein, D., & Wever-Frerichs, S. (2007). School site to museum floor: How informal science institutions work with schools. International Journal of Science Education, 29(12), 1489–1507.

Rivera Maulucci, M. S., & Brotman, J. S. (2010). Teaching science in the city: Exploring linkages between teacher learning and student learning across formal and informal contexts. The New Educator, 6, 196–211.

Semmel, M., & Ucko, D. (2017). Building communities of transformation: SENCER and SENCER-ISE. Informal Learning Review, 146(Sept./Oct.), 3–7.

Ucko, D. A. (2015). SENCER synergies with informal learning. Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal, 7(2), 21–24.

NCSCE Materials and Evaluation Reports

NCSCE. (2011). Conference Proceedings and Executive Summary. Retrieved through

Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A). (2011). SENCER-ISE Conference: An Evaluation. Retrieved through

Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A). (April 2015). Formative Evaluation: SENCER-ISE. Retrieved through

Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A). (September 2015). Summative Evaluation: SENCER-ISE Project. Retrieved through

Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A). (March 2018). Summative Evaluation: Partnership Champions: SENCE-ISE. Retrieved through


NCSCE website:

SENCER website:

SENCER-ISE website:

Appendix A:

Appendix B:

Appendix C:
Summary of Interview Responses by Objective From RK&A (September 2015)

Objective 1:
Higher Education (HE) and Informal Science Education (ISE) professionals increased their understanding of each other’s expertise.

  • Several interviewees spoke about their partner’s extensive knowledge and skills. HE interviewees spoke about their ISE partner’s science communication skills, and ISE interviewees spoke about their HE partner’s research knowledge.
  • A few interviewees said they gained a greater understanding of the structure of higher education or informal science organizations, including the barriers or constraints their partners face.

Objective 2:
HE and ISE professionals appreciate the values of each other’s work and expertise.

  • Many interviewees also said they would not have been able to accomplish project goals without their partner’s access to and knowledge of working with a particular audience, such as undergraduates or K-12 teachers and students.
  • Several interviewees (mostly from ISE) said they gained knowledge about the research their HE partners are conducting and an appreciation for how research can legitimize and support the work that they do.
  • Several interviewees spoke about their partner’s organizational context and resources as a strength (e.g., ISE praised their HE partners’ access to analytic resources; HE praised their ISE partners’ access to a real-world context).

Objective 3:
HE and ISE professionals understand elements of durable partnerships.

  • Intentional goals that align with each partner’s organizational mission.
  • Many interviewees said that partners need to share common goals and have a passion for the project. For instance, many partners shared a common passion for environmental protection and advocacy.
  • Clear articulation of each partner’s roles and responsibilities.
  • Several interviewees talked about the importance of strategic planning at the outset of a partnership. Interviewees discussed clearly defining roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
  • Interviewees discussed defining these roles and responsibilities so they leverage the strengths of each partner.
  • Patience and flexibility to alter roles and responsibilities as conditions change.
  • Several interviewees talked about being open to change or course correction if a project or partnership is not achieving its original goals.
    Interviewees tended to speak about flexibility as a personality trait (whether someone is flexible and open-minded). However, interviewees also talked about the importance of reflection in determining whether changes are needed.
  • Consistent and clear communication.
  •  Many interviewees said that establishing clear and consistent communication is paramount to a successful partnership.
  • Some spoke about communication as a personality trait (i.e., whether someone is a naturally good communicator); others spoke about the importance of establishing mechanisms for clear communication (phone and in-person conversations instead of email) as well as a consistent timeline (weekly, monthly, etc.).
  • Other important elements.
  • Many interviewees underscored the importance of personal relationships when establishing a successful partnership, including a foundation of shared passions and complementary working styles.
  • Several interviewees mentioned resources but specifically adequate resources to allow each partner to contribute the necessary amount of time to result in a successful project.
  • A few said partnerships need time to work out kinks and see results. These interviewees also discussed the importance of funders’ recognizing that time (at least a few years) is necessary to create a successful project.

Objective 4:
Other HE/ISE professionals value the partnership.

  • Several interviewees talked about other faculty or students who became interested in collaborating with the ISE partner or in the SENCER model for their course.
  • A few interviewees said their project collaboration brought them recognition or credibility from other departments or individuals. In one case, this recognition brought additional funding.

Appendix D:


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