Critiquing the Learning Design of a SENCERized Team-Based Activity


A team-based learning activity is presented that was created to support a university-level course with an integrative theme of environmental sustainability.  Students in a General Education Environmental Biology course were asked to relate academic concepts to real-world scenarios by creating a hypothetical ecoresort on an island that had suffered severe habitat degradation.  The Earth Charter helped guide student understanding of how to balance ecological, social, and economic needs.  Furthermore, the SENCER approach to educational practice helped teach the science through complex social issues.  Student-generated media (in the form of a webpage) helped learners integrate and showcase their gains in knowledge and skills.  The “ecoresort activity” is critiqued against educational best practices, by aligning its design with Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning and Merrill’s Principles for Instructional Design.  Finally, practical recommendations (with an accompanying facilitator’s guide) are provided that should help STEM educators calibrate interacting variables during technology-enhanced course designs: permeable learning spaces, assessment strategies, and social learning settings.


This article describes a team-based learning activity, where students collaborate in small groups to design an ecoresort and build a website to market their hypothetical resort (see the Appendix for a complete facilitator’s guide). The process of designing the resort can launch additional larger discussions—for example, about how our recreational choices deplete, endanger, conserve, or restore natural resources. Students are given the opportunity to consider what should drive their choices of location, transportation, lodging, food, and healthcare when designing a facility in a fragile ecosystem. The activity addresses the concept of “environmental sustainability” and incorporates scientific concepts in ecology, such as habitat loss and population decline of animal and plant species, and social/technological issues surrounding energy systems and renewable and non-renewable resources. It raises civic questions about the role of science when local communities assess and manage the environmental impact of their own growth and development.

Following the description of the activity, learning design is critiqued through three lenses: Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, Merrill’s Principles for Instructional Design, and the SENCER Approach to Educational Practice.  Practical recommendations are then made to guide learning design.  Thus, the purpose of this article is to provide STEM educators with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they’ll need to incorporate learner-centered activities into their technology-enhanced learning experiences.

Background Information

Environmental sustainability is the integrative theme of the course for which this ecoresort activity is a major component (SENCER Model Course link:  Within this general education course for non-science majors, learners explore introductory concepts related to ecosystem services, natural resource use, and economic growth (at the expense of the natural world).  The “triple bottom line” provides a useful framework to help students guide their thoughts, although there are other ways to approach learning about environmental sustainability. For example, student participation in Earth Charter–related activities throughout their academic journey may be beneficial in myriad ways ( The Earth Charter is a movement that promotes “respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, nonviolence and peace” (Earth Charter, 2021).

The flagship initiative of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement is Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER), an organization that aims to connect science education with civic engagement to promote student participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education (SENCER, 2016).  SENCER’s mission is to “strengthen student learning and interest in STEM by connecting course topics to issues of critical local, national, and global importance” (SENCER, 2016).  This ecoresort activity (which originated as part of a SENCER Model Course) connects to several SENCER ideals, by “extracting from the immediate issues the larger, common lessons about scientific processes and methods” (Table 1) (SENCER, 2016).  

This SENCER-aligned activity explores an issue of social and scientific significance, the impact of tourism on island ecology.  The metaphor of an island can be expanded upon to include explorations into global issues (Island Earth).  One way to connect learning to students’ daily lives is to align class activities with something meaningful to their social lives. For some of our students, a dream spring break vacation includes spending time in a tropical island resort. What might students’ reactions be to the notion that their choice of vacation destination (as tourists) may be contributing to the tension between economic development and ecosystem preservation?  This question serves as a potential springboard from which to explore a wicked problem, such as human impacts on the natural world.  Learners can investigate how tourists are a blessing and a curse for community members at tourist destinations.  Clearly, tourism brings revenue. But tourism has many possible negative impacts as well, including the depletion and pollution of terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric natural resources (Garces-Ordoñez, Díaz, Cardoso, & Muniz, 2020; Leposa, 2020; Lowe & Sealey, 2002; Singh, Bhat, Shah, & Pala, 2021).  

When designing courses, educators usually align course outcomes with the desired knowledge, skills, and attitudes they want learners to demonstrate upon successful completion. Fink (2003) described a taxonomy that integrates these elements and adds an additional element of learner metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking). Merrill (2002) described five core principles that promote active learning and are grounded in problem-based learning.  Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning and Merrill’s Principles for Instructional Design provide two evidence-backed and relevant lenses to critique this SENCERized learning activity.

What Students Will Be Able to Do

By exploring current environmental events and investigating and debating sustainability issues, students will be able to

Conduct basic research related to current environmental issues such as energy consumption, food availability, freshwater supply concerns, waste generation, and habitat restoration.

Generate evidence-based decisions about the degradation of natural capital that results in human-dominated systems.

Develop business plans that incorporate environmental sustainability as a fundamental bottom-line consideration, while addressing social needs, economic interests, and cultural awareness of community members and/or tourists.

Work in teams to demonstrate effective communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills.

Connect issues of civic importance to their daily lives and decision-making processes.

Scientific Concepts Addressed and Related Civic Issues

When development “is greater than the environment’s ability to cope … within acceptable limits of change,” (  the depletion and pollution of terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric natural resources are one result, and this is the subject of a great deal of scientific attention in ecology and conservation biology. The ecological destruction stands in contrast to the economic benefits that can accrue to communities that invite tourism into such ecologically delicate areas. Local and national governments may tolerate, and even encourage, tourism’s environmental impacts if the construction of resorts brings economic benefits such as jobs and tax revenue.

By investigating this question in depth, students explore the complexity of “sustainable” tourism and the tradeoffs involved. Students grapple with the question of whether the goals of environmental protection and economic prosperity are compatible, and, if the answer is no, design tourism facilities that attempt to serve economic and ecological goals at once.

The Activity

This collaborative assignment uses a hypothetical case study and student-generated media to make course material relevant to a variety of students’ academic majors, personal interests, daily lives, and decision-making processes.  Students develop a plan for establishing and managing an ecoresort, and then publicize it via a student-created website. The activity can be conducted in a variety of learning spaces, including fully online, blended, and face-to-face settings. The basic learning path for the activity incorporates a technology-enhanced learning environment, so that a carefully choreographed blend enriches learner engagement (Figure 1). While the instructor can take this activity in several different directions, the basic outline is presented in Table 1.

This activity is applicable to a wide range of disciplines and academic levels (Table 3), and instructors can incorporate the activity in multiple ways. For example, they might

  • Use this as a capstone project for the course.
  • Divide the tasks into weekly modules that students complete one by one in a longitudinal fashion throughout the course.
  • Pick and choose the tasks most relevant to course needs and focus only on those, by scaling back the project requirements. For example, parts of this activity could complement lessons and readings related to students’ ecological footprints.
  • Use the project as the primary teaching tool for the entire course. For example, instead of lecturing, guide the students through the course by using this as a project-based learning opportunity within scheduled class time.
  • Use as part of a study abroad class and include a segment related to respecting the cultural needs of an indigenous population.
  • Include a service-learning component, where students are given opportunities to connect their coursework to serving the needs of the community.  Students should be given continuous reflective assignments that help them relate the goals of this project to the community service tasks they are performing.

Each of these approaches can yield learner successes. And given the flexibility, the instructor may adjust the percentage of the overall grade to match the needs of the curriculum. Likewise, the island location can be modified to suit the needs of the course, depending on the geographic location that is most relevant to students and their campus/university.  

What If Projects Were Worth More Than a Letter Grade?

In collaboration with the local chamber of commerce, students could potentially conduct sustainable practice audits for the community as service-learning projects. For example, during these audits, students could work with community partners (local businesses, informal learning centers, schools, etc.), where they could relate service-learning opportunities to course content by accomplishing the following duties: 

  • summarize their on-site observations;
  • identify environmentally friendly and non-friendly practices at the partner site;
  • provide recommendations to the community via an outreach session.

This information could ultimately be used by the chamber of commerce to recognize tourist-oriented businesses that adhere to sustainable tourism practices. Students could also work with the local government and help the town develop a certification program for “sustainable” tourist establishments.

This activity also has the potential to connect students with informal science education centers in their area. Using YouTube videos and quick response (QR) codes, students can create interactive “exhibits” focused on a sustainable practice for regional venues of informal science education (e.g., science and nature centers). QR codes could be displayed on site so that visitors can scan them with a smartphone and view students’ projects. An entire class could create any number of these types of videos, which would likely be welcome in budget-limited informal science education institutions.

Enriching Citizen Engagement with Social and Civic Problems That Have Underlying Scientific Issues

Because tourism, in some form, is an experience most students have in common, this activity is likely to be of immediate interest and relevance to them. In a discussion of the environmental impacts of tourism, instructors can teach “through” larger issues such as conflicting economic and environmental interests “to” the underlying science on the environmental impacts of human activity on ecosystems.  In addition, the instructor has the opportunity to engage students with broader civic questions such as 

  • Who is responsible for ensuring that we have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy ecosystems to support life?
  • What public policies promote or impede environmental sustainability?
  • What are the tradeoffs between economic development and environmental sustainability, and how should these tradeoffs by determined? Who should be involved in the decision-making processes?
  • In light of the extreme environmental challenges faced in underserved communities, describe your thoughts about social justice, equity, and economic opportunity.

Why This Learner-Centered Activity Works Well

Meaningful learning is optimized when instructional strategies are implemented that manage intrinsic cognitive load, limit extraneous load, and maximize capacity for germane load (Kirschner, Kirschner, & Paas, 2006; Mayer, 2011).  These strategies include sequencing curricula, scaffolding content, and encouraging metacognitive behaviors (Deans for Impact, 2015).  Critical reflection by learners is also a key part of meaning-making during the learning process (Dewey, 1933; Dewey, 1938; Rodgers, 2002).  Several frameworks exist to help analyze the ecoresort activity, by critiquing how its instructional design is aligned with accepted educational best practices.  Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning and Merrill’s Principles for Instructional Design are two such frameworks (Table 4).

This team-based learning exercise is aligned with educational best practices, as determined by its alignment with two different instructional design frameworks.  Active learning yields autonomous opportunities that may increase learner motivation.  Multi-tiered assessments (formative and summative) help learners monitor their learning gains and skills development.  Additionally, authentic and real-world scenarios promote emotional connections for learners.  Team-building and collaboration help foster the conditions needed for inclusive settings where all learners can contribute.  Furthermore, this learner-centered activity promotes cognitive, behavioral, socio-cultural, and affective engagement.

From a practical standpoint, learners are provided opportunities to engage academic content individually and in social groups (Figure 1).  They are provided a variety of low-stakes and higher-stakes assessment opportunities within a variety of permeable learning spaces.  When used as a capstone project, this learning experience provides learners with opportunities to demonstrate mastery and competence in critical course outcomes in a social setting (Figure 2).  The ecoresort project helps learners acquire discipline-specific knowledge and provides opportunities for them to integrate their knowledge gains.  Furthermore, learners are able to demonstrate appropriate mastery of skills.  Lastly, this activity provides an opportunity for learners to explore their attitude shifts toward issues of social and scientific importance.


This work was conducted while the author was a faculty member in the Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).  The author wishes to thank Eliza Reilly, Glenn Odenbrett, and Karin Matchett from the SENCER network for their partnerships and thoughtful reviews.  Laura Frost and Douglas Spencer from The Whitaker Center for STEM Education at FGCU supported travel to SENCER Summer Institutes and professional development.  At FGCU, Donna Henry, Aswani Volety, Mike Savarese, Greg Tolley, Susan Cooper, and Marguerite Forest also contributed to the success of the internal SENCER team.  Finally, from the University of Miami Department of Biology, Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey and Dan DiResta provided early inspiration for high-quality environmental education and critical habitat conservation.

About the Author

David Green specializes in advancing learner-centered curricula in health sciences, medical education, and STEM education.  He has taught award-winning university-level courses, mentored undergraduate and graduate students, and facilitated faculty development initiatives that support innovation and creativity.  He enjoys evaluating the effectiveness of high-impact educational opportunities by continuously monitoring critical program-level and student-level success metrics.  As a Leadership Fellow with the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement and a Collaborating Partner with the Learning Spaces Collaboratory, he actively champions conversations centered on the intersections of physical, community-based, and technology-enhanced learning spaces.  David holds a Doctor of Education from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.


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