Quantifying the Atmospheric Impact of an Urban Biomass Incinerator


This study examines the carbon footprint of a proposed biomass incinerator in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. This research was integrated as a service-learning project into the curriculum of an undergraduate differential equations course. Mathematical models were developed and analyzed to examine the local contribution of emissions to the atmosphere and the extent of land needed to offset incinerator emissions both in the short (daily) and long (yearly) term. [more] Our results show the sensitivity of atmospheric carbon content to the incinerator output rating, area and type of land dedicated for offsets, and atmospheric wind speed. The amount of managed land ranges from 7,000–20,000 hectares of land, or approximately the area of Saint Paul. The land requirements seem feasible in the context of the amount of available (unmanaged) land both locally and worldwide, but these requirements are diminished given the potential air quality effects resulting from biomass incineration.


The Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant located in Saint Paul, Minnesota employs over 500 people and contributes significantly to the economic health of the greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area (Nelson 2007). The company initially had its thermal energy supplied by Xcel Energy, the local power provider. In late 2007, Xcel Energy decommissioned the plant that supplied Rock-Tenn’s thermal energy. Alternative sources of energy were needed to maintain the long-term sustainability of the recycling plant.

Refuse derived fuel (RDF) was a proposed alternative to provide energy for the recycling plant. This technique derives energy from the incineration of plant material, refuse, and compost (Nelson 2007). RDF is an example of bioenergy. Generally defined as the use of plant material to supply energy, bioenergy supplies 15 percent of the world’s energy needs (Lemus and Lal 2005). Bioenergy is an alternative energy to fossil fuels. Trees, through the process of photosynthesis, convert carbon dioxide into carbon, so any combustion of tree residue (and associated release to the atmosphere of this comparatively recently-fixed carbon) theoretically results in no net change of atmospheric carbon (Smith 2006).

Surrounding the Rock-Tenn plant are residential neighborhoods. In response to the proposed plan of the biomass incinerator, a grassroots organization, Neighbors Against the Burner, formed to oppose the incinerator, citing air quality effects on health (Pope et al. 2002) as one of its main objections. Based on the strong community response, in November 2008 the Saint Paul City Council passed a resolution against having the biomass incinerator be the energy source for Rock-Tenn. The Council advocated investigation of other alternative energy options, such as using biogas from anaerobic digestion (Saint Paul City Council 2008).

Augsburg College is a private, liberal arts college in Minneapolis, Minnesota, approximately three miles from the Rock-Tenn Recycling Plant. In spring semester 2008 as part of a semester-long research project for a course on differential equations, 11 students, with this author as the instructor, engaged in a service-learning project to investigate the atmospheric effects and carbon footprint of the proposed biomass incinerator. The project was integrated into the course content to provide a real-life example that had both civic and environmental connections. Two key research questions were addressed by the students:

  1. How much do incinerator emissions elevate local atmospheric carbon?
  2. What conditions need to be satisfied for carbon neutrality both short and long term?

For the purposes of this study, carbon neutrality implies zero net change in the atmospheric carbon content.


This study was integrated in the curriculum for a one-semester differential equations course. At the beginning of the term the instructor introduced the project objectives. The students formed teams to investigate the project objectives through construction and analysis of a mathematical model. The teams reported updates with the instructor throughout the semester. Additionally, a representative from Neighbors Against the Burner attended a class session to answer student questions and provide feedback. At the end of the term, students presented their results and wrote a report describing their results in the context of the mathematical, environmental, and civic dimensions of the project. The results presented in this study derive from these student projects.

Mathematical models

All mathematical models are formulated to measure the rate of change in atmospheric carbon content. Two overarching processes are assumed to affect this rate of change: emissions from the burner (increasing atmospheric carbon content) and biophysical processes that decrease atmospheric carbon. The following word equation describes this process:

Rate of change of atmospheric carbon =
Incinerator emissions – Biophysical processes

Emissions from the incinerator are assumed to occur at a constant rate, dependent on the emission type and incinerator output rating. To maintain carbon neutrality, we assume the existence of an active forest that removes carbon. With these assumptions, each team then had to quantify the appropriate mathematical model based on Equation 1. The mathematical models are qualitatively described below; additional mathematical descriptions are in the Appendix.

Emissions Contribution to Atmospheric Carbon.

Emissions from the incinerator and subsequent dispersion into the atmosphere create a plume of incinerated material and gases. This model, derived from models of contaminant transport in fluids (Brannan and Boyce 2007; Falta Nao and Basu 2005), describes the rate that incinerated carbon enters the plume. The biophysical process term is assumed to be directly proportional to the wind speed versus higher wind speed values decrease the amount of carbon near the incinerator and increase the concentration of carbon in the plume. Outputs from this model could subsequently be used to quantify spatial distribution of carbon in the plume through diffusion, advection, and other atmospheric properties.

The incinerator emissions are inversely proportional to the smokestack output area, assumed to be 250 square meters for this study. The flow (in terms of volume per time) of emissions into the smokestack must equal the flow of emissions into the atmosphere. If the area of the smokestack increases, the rate of change of atmospheric carbon must decrease to maintain the constant flow of emissions.

Short and long term carbon neutrality.

Long term atmospheric measurements of carbon dioxide over various ecosystems have shown the short and long term responses of ecosystems to carbon uptake through the dynamic processes of photosynthesis (conversion of carbon dioxide to simple sugars) and respiration (release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere) (Baldocchi et al. 2001; Wofsy et al. 1993). Aggregated up to annual timescales, this balance between photosynthesis and respiration typically is negative (meaning the photosynthesis flux is stronger than all respiratory fluxes), indicating the ecosystem is a sink of carbon to the atmosphere. Diurnal fluctuations in temperature and moisture, seasonal variation, species composition, and plant species successional stage all contribute to an ecosystem being a given source or sink of carbon to the atmosphere (Baldocchi et al. 2001). The productivity of a forest (or its ability to decrease atmospheric carbon) can therefore be quantified with long-term records of net carbon uptake.

As previously stated, we assume the existence of a forest that will offset incinerator emissions. In our models this is represented by having the emissions term inversely proportional to the forest area. As forest area increases, emissions contribute proportionally less to atmospheric carbon because there are more trees to remove atmospheric carbon.

The biophysical process term was quantified in two different ways to describe short term (daily) and long term (yearly) carbon uptake. Short term carbon uptake was modeled with a dynamic, periodic term modeled after patterns of diurnal net ecosystem carbon exchange (Wofsy et al. 1993). Long term carbon uptake or forest productivity was assumed to occur at a constant rate, with values determined from Baldocchi et al. (2001).

Model Results of Atmospheric Carbon Content from Incinerator Emissions as a Function of Wind Speed
Figure 1. Model Results of Atmospheric Carbon Content from Incinerator Emissions as a Function of Wind Speed


Figure 1 shows results of the influence of wind speed on atmospheric carbon content. As wind speed increases, local emissions decrease independent of burner output. Increasing the incinerator output rating o (measured in MBtu per hour) also increases atmospheric carbon content, inferring a higher concentration of carbon in the plume.

Figures 2a-b show model results of the daily temporal change in atmospheric carbon content. Vertical axis values in Figures 2a-b are scaled as a percent change from the initial atmospheric carbon content. Positive vertical axis values suggest that the incinerator is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, or a “carbon-positive” incinerator, whereas negative vertical axis values indicate the incinerator is “carbon-negative,” or that the forest removes additional carbon dioxide beyond incinerator emissions. The periodic behavior in atmospheric carbon results from the selection of a periodic function for the carbon uptake function (see the Appendix). Daytime has a stronger net carbon uptake, indicating trees in the forest are removing carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, thereby decreasing atmospheric carbon content. As photosynthesis is a light-dependent reaction, during the night the forest is a source of atmospheric carbon.

Model Results for the Short‑Term Carbon Neutrality of the Burner
Figure 2. Model Results for the Short‑Term Carbon Neutrality of the Burner

Figure 2a reflects short term temporal emissions when the output rating of the boiler o is varied from 200 to 400 MBtu per hour. These output ratings were estimated from similar steam-producing systems as the one studied by the students (Energy Products of Idaho 2009). In all cases, it is assumed that there is an actively growing forest of 14,500 hectares (approximately the area of Saint Paul) to offset incinerator emissions. For an output rating of 400 MBtu per hour the atmospheric concentration is increasing at a constant rate of 10 percent per day, whereas for an output rating of 200 MBtu per hour the forest is large enough to reduce atmospheric carbon content by 10 percent per day.

Figure 2b shows the effect of changing the forest area on atmospheric carbon content. If the forest area is reduced to 10,000 hectares, then the incinerator becomes a source of carbon to the atmosphere with emissions growing at a rate of approximately 10 percent per day, indicating that the forest itself is not large enough to offset emissions from the plant. On the other hand, if the forest area is increased to 20,000 hectares, then the incinerator is “carbon negative,” decreasing atmospheric carbon concentrations approximately 10 percent per day.

Model Results for the Long-Term Carbon Neutrality of the Incinerator
Figure 3. Model Results for the Long-Term Carbon Neutrality of the Incinerator

Figure 3 shows the area of land that would need to be dedicated to maintain long-term carbon neutrality as a function of the output rating. As the output rating increases, a larger forest area will be needed to sustain carbon neutrality. The slope of the linear dependency in Figure 3 depends on the forest productivity (F) in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Different values of F result from the overall forest species composition (Baldocchi et al. 2001). The less productive forest (smaller values of F) will require a larger area to offset incinerator emissions.


Evaluation of model results

A strong concern to the incinerator is the decrease in air quality in the neighborhoods surrounding the recycling plant. The results shown in Figure 1 qualitatively support this concern. Higher incinerator output ratings increase the amount of atmospheric carbon in the emissions plume. While atmospheric carbon decreases with increasing wind speed, conservation of mass infers that this carbon is dispersed to neighborhoods surrounding the incinerator.

Recent studies have shown linkages between public health and air quality (Pope et al. 2002; Zhang and Smith 2007). In addition to the carbon released through incineration, aerosols and other particulate matter may also be released into the atmosphere by incineration. While these other aerosols were not investigated in this study, the models presented here could easily be adapted to take these into consideration. Additionally, coupling this model to an atmospheric transport model could quantitatively describe increases in carbon or other aerosols and the spatial extent to neighborhoods around the incinerator.

Our results indicate that the amount of forest area needed to maintain carbon neutrality ranges between 7000–20000 hectares, depending on the type of species planted and the output rating (Figures 2 and 3). These estimates are a small fraction of land both locally and worldwide that could be dedicated to bioenergy. In Minnesota approximately 563,000 hectares of land could be rehabilitated to support bioenergy crops (Lemus and Lal 2005). Worldwide, the amount of land in need of restoration from degraded agricultural soils is approximately 1965 million hectares (Lemus and Lal 2005), which is a large proportion of the 2380 million hectares of land not classified as urbanized or protected (Read 2008). The total area of managed, or plantation, forests are 187 million hectares, consisting of 5 percent of worldwide forest area (Mead 2005).

Dedicating land to bioenergy crops helps to mitigate increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, restore soil organic carbon that were depleted from agricultural practices, and prevent erosion (Lemus and Lal 2005; Lal 2004; Sartori et al. 2006). In spite of these benefits and comparatively small area of land required to offset incinerator emissions, other factors not accounted for in our models would modify our estimates for the amount of land needed to offset emissions. First, technological advances will be required for their application, which may not be appropriate at all regional and local levels (Smith 2008). Second, bioenergy should be part of a suite of strategies targeted to mitigate climate change, which include the reduction of existing emissions through changes in consumption and improving agricultural efficiency (Smith 2008; Rhodes and Keith 2008). Third, life-cycle analyses for bioenergy crops (Adler, Del Grosso, and Parton 2007; Spartari, Zhang, and Maclean 2006) have shown a slight decrease in their mitigation potential when the growth and maintenance of the bioenergy crop (which requires energy) is taken into consideration. Additionally a recent study by Fargione et al. (Fargione et al. 2008) has quantified a substantial carbon “debt” incurred by clearing land for bioenergy crops. Further investigation into these factors is needed to refine and quantify the carbon footprint of the incinerator.

Evaluation of teaching and learning outcomes

Key learning outcomes of the project were to (a) develop and apply differential equation models to a contextual situation, (b) interpret results in the context of the carbon neutrality of the burner, and (c) provide valued recommendations based on the observations of the mathematical models.

The use of a service-learning-based project aligned well with both course learning objectives as well as the Augsburg College mission, which has a strong history in service learning (Hesser 1998). The students were given a survey to assess project outcomes in three categories: (a) overall learning (application and connection to course learning outcomes), (b) resource utilization (ability to complete the project independently), and (c) community connection (public acknowledgment of student efforts). The eleven students in the class responded to each category on a 5 point Likert scale. The average results were 3.9 (median 4) for the overall learning, 4.2 (median 4) for resource utilization, and 3.6 (median 4) for community connection. Students overall remarked positively about the service-learning project. One student remarked that “It was interesting to see real-world applications of math,” and another student commented “The project was an excellent way of learning how to put our concepts into a practical perspective, and it was also edifying to learn the nature of carbon neutrality.”

Based on the evaluations, it can be concluded from the student assessments that the first two outcomes were met (the construction, application, and interpretation of mathematical models). The lower ranking of the community connection category indicated not fully meeting the final objective. While students articulated recommendations on model results, a stronger connection to the relevant stakeholders in the issue (Neighbors Against the Burner and Rock-Tenn Recycling) could have been made. Multiple student evaluations expressed the desire for a tour of the recycling plant, or have more interaction with local community organizations beyond the mid-term visit. It would have been desirable to have a public forum of presentation of results, thereby increasing the visibility of the project in the college community.

This project has shown the qualitative contribution of the biomass incinerator to local atmospheric carbon content and the amount of land required to offset incinerator emissions. The project articulated the value of mathematical models and connected classroom learning to a civic and environmental issue.


The author would like to thank the students enrolled in the spring 2008 section of MAT 247: Modeling and Differential Equations for their diligent work and efforts; Mary Laurel True of the Center for Service, Work and Learning at Augsburg College; Benjamin Stottrup; and Tom Welna of Neighbors Against the Burner. Special thanks are expressed to the Barbara Farley, Vice-President of Academic Affairs at Augsburg College for conference travel support to present preliminary results at the Mathematical Association of America MathFest 2008.

About the Author

John Zobitz (zobitz@augsburg.edu) is an assistant professor of mathematics at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. John received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2007, specializing in mathematical biology. Current research includes the development of mathematical models quantifying forest carbon uptake from automated data streams. He continues to find ways to intersect environmental mathematics with his mathematics teaching at all levels of the curriculum.

Appendix: Description of Mathematical Models

The quantity described in all models is the atmospheric carbon density (grams carbon per square meter, or g C m-2), represented with the variable c. Models were expressed as a differential equation, and where appropriate, solved directly or with standard numerical techniques (Blanchard, Devaney, and Hall 2006). The initial condition (c0) for all models assumes a fixed CO2 mixing ratio of 385 parts per million by volume (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2009; Peters et al. 2007), assuming an air density of 44.6 mol m-3(Campbell and Norman 1998) uniformly distributed up to 21.5 m above the ground surface. Energy units are expressed in MBtu, or a million British thermal units.

Model results were investigated in the context of the following key parameters:

  1. Incinerator output rating o (MBtu hr-1),
  2. Atmospheric wind speed v (m hr-1, expressed in all figures and results as miles hr-1)
  3. Forest area A (m2, expressed in all figures and results as hectares)
  4. Forest annual net carbon uptake or productivity F
  5. (g C m-2year-1)

Emissions Contribution to Atmospheric Carbon

The model of the emissions contribution to atmospheric carbon was modified from models of contaminant transport in fluids (Brannan and Boyce 2007; Falta Nao and Basu 2005) with the following differential equation:

where c, t, o, and v are defined above, t is time (hours), α is a conversion factor from grams to pounds (453.59 grams pound-1), ε is a conversion factor to determine the amount of carbon in carbon dioxide (0.2727 g C g-1 CO2), E is the emissions fuel type for wood (assumed to be 195 lbs CO2MBtu-1 [Palmer 2008]), o is the boiler output rating, S is the incinerator total smokestack area (assumed to be 250 m2). For a circular smokestack this would be a diameter of 17.8 m, and m0 is the initial atmospheric carbon volume (0.206 g C m-3). Assuming the carbon dioxide concentration equilibrates rapidly to steady state (that is, dc/dt = 0), an expression can be determined that relates atmospheric carbon content c to the wind speed v, as shown in Figure 1 for different values of the output rating o.

Short- and Long-Term Carbon Neutrality

The short term carbon uptake was determined via the following differential equation:

where c, t, α, ε, E, and A are defined above. The periodic function represents the diurnal uptake pattern typically found in a forest (Wofsy et al. 1993). For this study, f1 = 0.1 g C m-2 hr-1, f2 = π/12 ≈ 0.262 hr-1, f3 = 0.524, and f4 = 0.05 g C m-2 hr-1. The values of f1, f2, f3, and f4, were visually determined from data of the average diurnal uptake pattern for a coniferous forest during the peak summer carbon uptake period (Monson et al. 2002; Zobitz et al. 2007).

To investigate the long-term carbon footprint, the following model was used:

where all variables are defined above. Again assuming steady state dynamics (or no change in atmospheric carbon) a linear equation between A and o can be formulated and is represented for different values of F in Figure 3.


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SENCERizing Pre-service K-8 Teacher Education: The Role of Scientific Practices



Recent policy reports are calling for curriculum reforms to address problems about a lack of relevance and an avoidance of the core scientific practices in science courses K–16. One important cohort is K–8 teacher candidates who need courses in which they learn core ideas in science and participate in science practices. One promising approach is infusing SENCER courses into the science course sequence for future teachers. We report a review of select SENCER courses using an Evidence-Explanation framework to assess the type and levels of science practices introduced. Results on ‘Differences in Courses’, ‘Common Themes Among Courses’, and ‘Demographic Patterns’ are reported.[more]


Recent U.S. policy reports express a growing concern for the supply of scientists, science workers and science teachers; c.f., National Research Council 2006 report Raising Above the Gathering Storm and the National Center on Education and the Economy 2007 report Tough Choices Tough Times. The STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) teacher and workforce shortages have two components (1) declines in attracting and retaining individuals into science/science education programs of study and (2) into places of employment. These recent reports show that uptake of STEM courses and careers are waning. Then there is the documented evidence that the development of youth attitudes toward science, both negative and positive, begins in and around middle school grades (ADEEWR, 2008). Thus, much of the focus for addressing the problems is on schools and schooling K–16.

Consensus review reports (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2009) are placing much of the blame on the curriculum models citing a lack of relevance and an avoidance of the core scientific practices that frame science as a way of knowing; e.g., critiquing and communicating evidence and explanations. The NRC K–8 science education synthesis research study Taking Science to School (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007) is another consensus report that makes recommendations about the reform of science curriculum, instruction and assessment. The TSTS report concludes that K–8 science education should be grounded in (1) learning and using core knowledge, (2) building and refining models and (3) participating in discourse practices that promote argumentation and explanation. The report also concludes that a very different model of teacher education must be put into place. That raises an important set of issues. Where in the undergraduate curriculum do future K–8 teachers engage in and learn to use the core knowledge, building and refining models and argumentation and explanation practices?

The typical introductory survey science courses taken by non-science majors and elementary education candidates focus more on the ‘what we know’ of science and less on the ‘how we know’ and the ‘why we believe’ dynamics and practices of science. Determining the level and degree of scientific practices in science courses is essential for shaping and understanding preservice/inservice teachers’ engagement and confidence in doing science when planning and leading science lessons in their own classroom. Science courses that focus exclusively on teaching what we know in science are inappropriate for future teachers.

Teacher candidates need courses in which they participate in science practices. One promising approach we have been considering is infusing SENCER courses into the science course sequence for future teachers (e.g., subject matter, SENCER, science teaching methods). Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) course frameworks offer a potential solution to both engagement in and understanding of science practices. The SENCER commitment is to situate science learning in civic or social problems to increase relevance, engagement and achievement in science content knowledge and inquiry practices. This article reports on an analysis of a subset of SENCER courses that take up environmental problems as the civic engagement issue.

The study investigates how the design of SENCER courses provides opportunities to practice science as inquiry. The premise is that teachers gaining experience in science practices are more likely to use these practices in their own elementary school classrooms. In turn, these teachers will be in a better position to understand and hopefully address the Taking Science To School recommendation that K–8 science education be coordinated around the 4 Strands of Proficiency:

Students who understand science:

  1. Know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world.
  2. Generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations.
  3. Understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge.
  4. Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse (Duschl et al 2007).

One of the three TSTS recommendations for teacher professional development speaks directly to the issue:

Recommendation 7: University-based science courses for teacher candidates and teachers’ ongoing opportunities to learn science in-service should mirror the opportunities they will need to provide for their students, that is, incorporating practices in all four strands and giving sustained attention to the core ideas in the discipline. The topics of study should be aligned with central topics in the K–8 curriculum so that teachers come to appreciate the development of concepts and practices that appear across all grades. (Duschl et al, 2007, p 350)

Review of Literature and Analytical Frameworks

With respect to changing how and what science is taught, one important cohort of science students is preservice elementary (K–8) teachers who have low self-efficacy when it comes to science (Watters & Ginns, 2000). The K–8 education cohort’s lack of confidence and experience within the science experiences they had contributes to maintaining a cycle in which the students they teach lose interest and confidence in learning science due to poor teaching strategies, misdirected curriculum and weak teacher knowledge. (Wenner, 1993). Sadler (2009) has found that socio-scientific issues (SSI) affect learners’ interest and motivation, content knowledge, nature of science, higher order thinking and community of practice. Thus, it is not a surprise that SENCER courses have successfully demonstrated increases in student enthusiasm (Weston, Seymour & Thiry, 2006). However, more information is needed to determine how SENCER courses impact student achievement in core knowledge of science and with science practices that involve model-building and revision. The first step toward conducting research on the impact of SENCER courses on learning is to ascertain which SENCER courses are implementing scientific practices; e.g., raising research questioning, planning measurements and observations, collecting data, deciding evidence, locating patterns and building models, and proposing explanations. The driving question is can SENCER courses when placed between science courses and science teaching methods courses effect teacher thinking and practices.

Co-designed courses represent another model that brings science and science methods courses together. The co-designed courses are planned and taught by both science and science education faculty. Zembal-Saul (2009, 687) has found that co-designed courses that adopt a framework for teaching science as argument to preservice elementary teachers served “as a powerful scaffold for preservice teachers’ developing thinking and practice . . . [as well as] attention to classroom discourse and the role of the teacher in monitoring and assessing childrens’ thinking.” Schwartz (2009) found similar positive effects on preservice teachers’ principled reasoning and practices after using an instructional framework focusing on modeling-centered inquiry coupled with using reform-based criteria from Project 2061 to analyze and modify curriculum materials. What these two studies demonstrate and the SENCER model supports is the effectiveness coherently aligned courses can have on students’ engagement and learning. Such shifts in undergraduate courses and teaching frameworks will contribute to breaking the cycle that perpetuates low interest and high anxiety in the sciences at all levels of education, K–16.

Research shows that preservice elementary school teachers tend to enter the profession with inadequate knowledge of scientific content and practice. Preservice elementary teachers answer only 50 percent of questions correctly on a General Science Test Level II (Wenner, 1993). Stevens and Wenner’s (1996) surveys of upper level undergraduate elementary education majors are consistent with other research that 43 percent of practicing teachers had completed no more than one year of science course work in college (Manning, Esler, & Baird, 1982; Eisneberg, 1977). The lack of courses and experiences in science reflected the low self-efficacy in science among preservice elementary school teachers (Stevens & Wenner, 1996; Wenner, 1993).

If no changes are made to current coursework required of preservice elementary school teachers, they will continue to have low self-efficacy in science and therefore avoid teaching this subject (Stevens & Wenner, 1996). Thus, teachers are unlikely to use inquiry within their science lessons with the result that students are not exposed to scientific practices. The cycle of negative experiences with science does not have to be accepted as an educational norm; as the studies by Zembal-Saul and by Schwartz demonstrate. Changes can be made that coherently align science courses with methods courses.

SENCER courses can serve as a bridge to connect real-world issues and scientific knowledge with the positive impact of raising motivation and engagement among non-majors’ and preservice elementary teaches’ to learn science (SENCER, 2009). Evidence shows that learning science within the context of a current social problem helps to motivate preservice teachers and enables them to form goals that include learning scientific concepts and practices (Watters and Ginns, 2000; Sadler, 2009). Preservice elementary teachers who experience scientific practices and do investigations that build and refine scientific evidence and explanations can more informed decision makers about science and the teaching of science.

Evidence-Explanation Continuum Framework

While it is important that SENCER courses successfully motivate preservice elementary teachers to learn about science content, it is also essential that science courses provide opportunities to use scientific knowledge and practices. The targeted science practices for this review of SENCER courses are from the Evidence-Explanation (E-E) continuum (Duschl, 2003, 2008). The E-E continuum represents a step-wise framework of data gathering and analyzing practices. The appeal to adopting the E-E continuum as a framework for designing science education curriculum, instruction and assessment models is that it helps work out the details of the critiquing and communicating discourse processes inherent in TSTS Strand 4 — Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse. The E-E continuum recognizes how cognitive structures and social practices guide judgments about scientific data texts. It does so by formatting into the instructional sequence select junctures of reasoning, e.g., data texts transformations. At each of these junctures or transformations, instruction pauses to allow students to make and report judgments. Then students are encouraged to engage in rhetoric/argument, representation/communication and modeling/theorizing practices. The critical transformations or judgments in the E-E continuum include:

  1. Selecting or generating data to become evidence,
  2. Using evidence to ascertain patterns of evidence and models.
  3. Employing the models and patterns to propose explanations.

Another important judgment is, of course, deciding what data to obtain and what observations or measurements are needed (Lehrer & Schauble, 2006; Petrosino, Lehrer & Schauble, 2003). The development of measurement to launch the E-E continuum is critically important. Such decisions and judgments are critical entities for explicitly teaching students about the nature of science (Duschl, 2000; Kuhn & Reiser, 2004; Kenyon and Reiser, 2004). How raw data are selected and analyzed to be evidence, how evidence is selected and analyzed to generate patterns and models, and how the patterns and models are used for scientific explanations are important ‘transitional’ practices in doing science. Each transition involves data texts and making epistemic judgments about ‘what counts.’

In a full-inquiry or a guided-inquiry, students formulate scientific questions, plan methods, collect data, decide which data to use as evidence, and create patterns and explanations from the selected evidence (Duschl, 2003). Science engagement becomes more of a cognitive and social dialectical process as groups and group members discuss why they differed in data selected to be evidence and varied in the evidence used for explanations (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000). Students’ participating in these interactions tend to build new knowledge and/or to correct previous misconceptions about a scientific concept (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000).

Research Context and Methods

The research question asks to what extent do SENCER courses model and use scientific practices that are linked to obtaining and using evidence to develop explanations? SENCER courses were selected from the SENCER website and examined to determine the opportunities provided to engage in scientific practices. Only SENCER courses designed around environmental topics (e.g., water, earth, soil, rocks) were selected because these courses offer up integrated science opportunities. Next, course syllabi, projects and activities were reviewed to ascertain students use, or the potential for use, of data-driven E-E scientific practices.

SENCER courses were considered to emphasize planning and asking questions if students asked their own research question, designed their own experiment, or designed an engineering project. A course that stressed data collection showed that students went into the field and collected soil, water, or air, or they took measurements of samples. A SENCER course provided students practice in evidence if they decided which data to keep as inferred by students representing data or creating graphs. Practice in evidence was also inferred if students analyzed data later. Students could not complete this activity without deciding which evidence to use. A course gave students experience in patterns if students determined how the evidence was modeled as seen by analysis of evidence or running statistics on evidence. Lastly, a course allowed students to practice using explanation if students connected their project to previous research or theories as seen in library searches, if they made predictions for another phenomenon based off of their results, or if they discussed recommendations. Courses that included scientific content but focused on practices used in the humanities such as research and communication with another culture and were left out of this study. A summary of the criteria for evaluating the courses appears in Table 1,below.

Criteria for Evaluating SENCER Courses
Table 1. Criteria for Evaluating SENCER Courses

The names of the courses located on the SENCER website appear in Tables 2 and 3. Scientific practices identified were recorded as an X in Table 3 with further details on how the course fulfilled the criteria. Courses that did not meet the criteria received an N/R (no result). Each X was worth one point on the scale. Each scientific practice identified was worth one point on the scale. A scale from 1–5 was created to effectively compare scientific practices identified in each of the course modules. A score of 1 indicated that the course module only incorporated one portion of scientific practice, and a score of 5 indicated that the course emphasized all five portions of scientific practice within the E-E continuum. Therefore, a course with a score of 1 did not emphasize scientific practice whereas a course receiving a score of 5 heavily emphasizes scientific practice.

Selected SENCER Courses
Table 2. Selected SENCER Courses

Course demographics were also investigated from the SENCER website. Information researched included type of institution, class size, student year, major and class time (Table 2). Demographic information was then used to interpret any differences seen in level of scientific practice among SENCER course modules.

Results and Findings

The results and findings are reported in 3 sections: Differences in Courses, Common Themes Among Courses, and Demographic Patterns.

Differences in Courses

Differences in courses are presented from the highest emphasis on scientific practices (5) to lowest emphasis of scientific practices (1). Two courses, “The Power of Water” and “Chemistry and the Environment,” received a 5 because they provided students with practice in each aspect of scientific inquiry (Table 3). However, they approached various aspects of inquiry differently due to the nature of the problem being solved. “The Power of Water” took an engineering method in which students designed the most efficient micro-hydro-power turbine for a hypothetical small rural village whereas “Chemistry and the Environment” students formulated their own question to research about some environmental chemistry issue on their campus.

Most of the courses scored a 4 (Table 3), these included “Introduction to Statistics with Community-based Project,” “Chemistry and Policy”, “Renewable Environment: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods,” “Riverscape,” “Environment and Disease,” “Energy and the Environment,” and “Geology and the Development of Modern Africa.” These six courses differed from “The Power of Water” and “Chemistry and the Environment” because they did not allow students to explain their patterns or models. Two courses that received a 4 did expose students to explanation, but left out some other aspect of scientific practices in inquiry. Students in “Chemistry and Policy” did not create their own scientific question to study, and “Riverscape” did not provide students with practice in creating create patterns. The “Riverscape” course is a major source of interest because it was designed specifically for preservice elementary school teachers in the attempt to gain appeal in science and learn scientific practices.

Two courses provided students with the opportunity to use 3 out of 5 practices within scientific inquiry, giving them a score of 3. “Renewable Environment: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods” and “Science in the Connecticut Coast,” allowed students to collect data, provide evidence, and create patterns or models. However, students did not practice the planning and explanation stages of scientific inquiry.

Two courses that gave students experience in the fewest scientific practices scored a 2. There were no courses that scored a 1. “Science, Society, and Global Catastrophe” and “Math Modeling” differed in the inclusion of scientific practices. “Science, Society, Global Catastrophe” gave students training in finding evidence and creating patterns and models but not in the remainder of scientific practices. “Math Modeling” enabled students to practice finding evidence and creating explanations, but the course provided students with the remaining portions of scientific inquiry.

Common Themes Among Courses

SENCER courses with differing levels of scientific practices tended to have common themes for practicing scientific inquiry. One major theme was the use of collaboration as seen through group work on a scientific project. Most course modules shown on the SENCER website specifically state that students work in groups for their projects. Others such as “Riverscape” and “Chemistry and Policy” do not directly state that students do group work, although collaboration is emphasized within the course. The only course that did not emphasize collaboration was “Renewable Environment: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods,” although this information may have been left off of the SENCER website. While not specifically stated within the E-E continuum, collaboration plays an important role within inquiry. Students who are able to discuss scientific concepts with one another can articulate ideas and argue enabling them to reconstruct their own ideas of scientific meaning (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000).

Another common theme among high practice SENCER courses was that students communicated their results with one another in various formats. Most courses incorporated formal presentations at the end of the project for the rest of the class. Others used formal presentations, although they were created for different audiences such as the general public or for a buyer of potential land for diamond extraction. Other course modules such as “Science in the Connecticut Coast” and “Environment and Disease” based communication more on discussion of scientific concepts. Despite differences in the means of presenting ideas in class, communication of results is an important skill essential to inquiry-based learning.

Scored Courses
Table 3. Scored Courses

Demographic Patterns

The SENCER courses differed in demographic information. The total number of students participating in class was widespread between 5 and 130 students (Table 2). Laboratories decreased class size to roughly 20 students. However, more information is needed for “The Power of Water” laboratory class size. Student year ranged from freshmen to graduate students within the course. Student type varied greatly from non-majors and preservice elementary school teachers to math or chemistry majors. Total class time differed among the courses in addition to the way the time spent was scheduled (Table 2).

None of the demographic information influenced the degree to which students gained practice in using science. Although class size is variable among courses, it had no impact on amount of scientific practices emphasized. Courses with large class sizes such as “The Power of Water” and “Energy and the Environment” provided students with similar practice in using science to smaller classes such as “Riverscape.”

Additionally, student major had little impact on scientific practices emphasized within SENCER courses. Majors used a varying number of scientific practices among the courses studied. Math students in “Introduction to Statistics with Community-Based Project” used more areas of scientific practice than math majors in “Math Modeling” as seen in Table 3. Majors also did not use any more scientific practices than non-majors in these courses. “The Power of Water” allowed students to use all 5 elements of scientific practice in inquiry whereas majors in “Math Modeling” were only given the opportunity to practice 2 aspects.

Class year also did not affect the ability to expose students to use scientific practices. As expected, SENCER courses enabled upperclassmen and graduate students to gain practice in conducting science as seen in “Riverscape.” However, many SENCER classes also provided underclassmen with a rich experience in practicing science. For example, “The Power of Water,” consisting of sophomores, provided students with practice in every area of scientific inquiry.

Lastly, class time did not affect student exposure to using scientific practices. Courses that received the same scores consisted of a wide variety of time scheduled. “Chemistry and Policy” devoted much more time toward class time than “Environment and Disease,” but students experienced the same number of scientific practices.


Distinctions in SENCER course characteristics have led to varying opportunities for students to gain experience in doing scientific practice as seen in this study’s scores. Those with the highest scores allow students to have the greatest amount of ownership over their own work. Courses with a score of 5 provide students with the ultimate source of ownership in allowing them to choose their own question to study. Modules with scores of 3 and 4 may not allow students to ask their own questions to study, but they do provide students with responsibility over the remainder of scientific practices in the E-E continuum. Courses with the lowest scores provide students with the least amount of ownership over their own work. Students are given a piece of someone else’s project and continue a small portion of that project. For example, students are given another project’s data set that they are expected to analyze. Future SENCER courses should consider giving students as much ownership over their work as possible to encourage student experience in using scientific practices.

The nature of data collection also had an impact on the level of scientific practices used within course modules. Courses in which there was easy access to collect soil or water samples of interest along with equipment to measure samples showed a higher level of scientific practices within the E-E continuum. Courses such as “Math Modeling” and “Science, Society, and Global Catastrophe” may not have allowed for easy access to gather water or soil samples. Therefore, the course was unable to provide students with the opportunity to gain practice in data collection. “Geology and the Development of Africa” found a loophole that enabled students to gather their own data by using a computer simulation. Students did not actually collect rock samples in this class, but were able to collect data from their computer simulation. Perhaps computer simulations could be used in other courses that do not have easy access to take samples from the environment.

While these characteristics provide critical information to increase a SENCER course’s use of scientific practices, traits that have no effect on level of scientific practices also offer great insight to increase student experience in performing science.

It is reassuring that SENCER courses can be flexible enough in incorporating inquiry for small as well as large class sizes. Future courses using the SENCER approach may be designed knowing that students can successfully learn scientific practices within a large classroom size. SENCER courses may cater to majors and especially to non-majors who have little experience in scientific practices. It is appropriate to use SENCER not only for upper level courses, but it is also critical to apply these modules to lower level classes.

SENCER courses provide a way to incorporate scientific practices within student learning. The integration of social issues with science builds preservice teacher interest in scientific practices. As these students gain experience in using scientific tools, they become more confident in incorporating science into their future elementary classroom. Perhaps our future teachers’ greater enthusiasm for science will spark student interest in the sciences.


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About the Authors

Amy Utz graduated from Bucknell University in 2005 with a B.A. in Biology. In 2007, she graduated from Drexel University with an M.S. in Biology. She currently is a graduate student within the Master’s of Education program at Penn State University. She is completing her student teaching and plans to become a high school biology teacher.

Richard A. Duschl, (Ph.D. 1983 University of Maryland, College Park) is the Waterbury Chaired Professor of Secondary Education, College of Education, Penn State University. Prior to joining Penn State, Richard held the Chair of Science Education at King’s College London and served on the faculties of Rutgers, Vanderbilt and the University of Pittsburgh. He recently served as Chair of the National Research Council research synthesis report Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8 (National Academies Press, 2007).

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Science and Civic Engagement in the Developing Democracy of Georgia

-Science opens the mind.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn –


The situation concerning science and education in the former Soviet Union has been described in articles by experts from the former Soviet republics and by foreign researchers (Dezhina, Graham, 1999; Khitarishvili1, 2007; Kuchukeeva, O’Loughlin, 2003; Kuhn, 2003; Saluveer, Khlebovich, 2007). It is obvious that science had an exceptionally favored position in the former Soviet Union. Together with education, science was linked to ideology as an important part of national politics. Pure science and applied technology were highly developed in many fields.[more] Soviet scientists were at the cutting edge of mathematics and in several branches of physical science, especially nuclear physics, chemistry, and astronomy. At the same time, Soviet scientists were almost completely isolated from the international scientific community. Only a few selected scientists were free of restrictions and could collaborate with research institutions in Western countries.

The core of fundamental science was the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the various national academies of science in Soviet republics, which received their budget directly from the government. Financial support for research was distributed according to political priorities and political decisions, without any peer review. Much of the research was carried out outside the academy system — most of this research was of an applied nature, related to weapons systems. Science served the power and strength of the state.

The development and advancement of science was a national priority for the Soviet government and top scientists were held in high respect. To be a scientist was very prestigious and large numbers of students graduated in STEM fields every year. Science was emphasized at all levels of education. The Soviet education was free, highly specialized, and didn’t have a tradition of liberal education. Division between scientific research and teaching was quite strict. Except for a few, the universities were not as strong in basic research compared to the academy institutes.

Current State of Science and Education

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of centralized plan­ning and financing of science and education, the financial cri­sis, and the brain drain had a particularly damaging effect on science and education within small, newly independent coun­tries such as Georgia. Scientists and educators had to face a new reality. Because governmental financing was now very low, it was impossible to maintain excellence in research and higher education. Faculty and students had to look for their own research funding via joint research projects in private schools, educational projects, or by studying abroad. Going abroad to study was difficult for students because of financial cost and major differences in the structure of higher education between Georgian and foreign universities. The consequences of long-time isolation, lack of skills, lack of knowledge of for­eign languages, and lack of information channels associated with severe financial problems inhibits the ability of Geor­gian scientists and educators to get financing even within pro­grams that are prioritized and specially targeted for Georgia (e.g.inco,intas etc.). The need for reforms within Geor­gian science and education was obvious.

Reforms in science and education were initiated in 2000. The Georgian Academy of Sciences lost its function and all research institutes were placed at the disposal of the Min­istry of Education and Science. The most significant source of research funding became the Georgian National Science Foundation (gnsf), created within the Ministry of Science and Education of Georgia, whose funding process is based on competition and peer review. An optimization of univer­sities and research institutes was also conducted. Georgian universities along with universities from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine have declared their willingness to intro­duce the Bologna measures in their higher education systems. (Documentation regarding the Bologna process is available at the Georgia Ministry of Education and Science [2009].) This commitment includes Georgian participation in estab­lishing the European Higher Education Area (ehea) by 2010, coordinating degree requirements, promoting international cooperation, and facilitating the mobility of scientists between institutions. The introduction of structural changes and im­provements in the quality of teaching should strengthen re­search and innovation in Georgia. The Government claims that the concepts of “continuing education” and “education oriented society” are the priorities of new educational policy. New curricula, along with new teaching and learning meth­odologies, were introduced to the universities. Despite these changes, our understanding of Georgian science development is still not defined.

Introduction ofSENCER

To compensate for a deficiency in knowledge and skills of Georgian scientists and educators, training and workshops were conducted in Tbilisi for those interested in continuing their professional work. International conferences, workshops, seminars have been designed to highlight the new ways that Georgian scientists are successfully pursuing their research. In June 2003, our group organized one such conference: “Gain­ing Knowledge and Skills Needed for Scientific Communica­tion and Collaboration.” This conference was sponsored by Sigma Xi, the U.S. National Academy of Science, unesco, Iowa State University, iwise, the International Network for Successful Scientific Publications, crdf, grdf, the Geor­gian Academy of Science, I, Beritashvili Institute of Physiol­ogy, Georgian Technical University, the Armenian National Science Foundation and other international and national organizations.

The conference program offered a selection of topics that were designed to address the interests of working scientific re­searchers. The program included information about Sigma Xi, scientific book/journal donation programs, research resources used by Iowa State University and other American universi­ties, gateways/directories, other online publication resources, scientific databases and specialized search engines, scientific equipment donation or refurbishing, research, and study op­portunities abroad. There were also some special interactive sessions on distance communication in science, including electronic journals, electronic conferences, electronic lectures, preparing manuscripts for international publications. Reports on innovative scientific work in Georgian universities and re­search institutes were also organized. During this conference, scientists and science educators from Georgia and Armenia had their first introduction to the ideals, philosophy and goals of the SENCER project. The presentation was made by a spe­cial guest of the conference and co-principal investigator of sencer project, Professor Karen Oates.

The SENCER approach and the issue of civic engagement are very relevant for the Georgian educational system. Civic engagement takes many forms and can be measured by vari­ous indices. One of the most comprehensive definitions of civic engagement belongs to Thomas Ehrlich (2009, vi, xxvi), former president of Indiana University:

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 nonpolitical processes. . . . 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.

Today, Georgia is struggling to achieve democratization and sustainable economic development, and to alleviate pov­erty. Like other former Soviet countries (Economic Develop­ment, 2003), science and research are still less popular among young Georgians than other more prestigious subjects—man­agement, law, economics, etc. We believe that Georgian uni­versities should contribute to national goals by educating students for active, civically engaged citizenship. In order to develop the essential knowledge needed to achieve these goals, science education should be strengthened and promoted. It is important that scientifically literate people become actively involved in social and political processes within Georgia.

Despite the pressing circumstances, the issue of how sci­ence and democracy interact—How does science engender democracy? How does science and science education change the way people think? How can science stimulate new civic engagement and responsibility of citizens?—is not part of the political, pedagogical or scientific literature in Georgia, in contrast to foreign countries and especially the United States (Burns, 2003; Jordan, 2006; Kuchukeeva, O’Loughlin, 2003; Kuhn, 2003). The need for discussions and debates on these issues are critical in Georgia and provide a promising way to create the national perception of science.

SENCER in Georgia

In 2003 we participated in the sencer Summer Institute for the first time based on invitations from Karen Oates and iwise co-director Ardith Maney. We were impressed by sencer topics, which demonstrated the possibilities of teaching science in a civic context. Later we read the article by Robert L. Kuhn (2003), “Science as Democratizer,” and were inspired by his very interesting suggestion that “science engenders democracy by changing the way people think and by altering the interaction among those who make up the so­ciety.” Kuhn also proposed that a “key to changing the way people think is critical thinking” and provided the following comments on science education:

Basic and applied science and science education are all needed to nourish critical thinking. Science, to be science, cannot stagnate. If scientific education en­forces the scientific way of thinking, scientific discov­ery energizes it, so that both education and discovery nourish and sustain our democracy. And science needs democracy as much as democracy needs science. Vig­orous scientific research reflects democratic principles in action, and free and open scientific inquiry cannot take place without the protective support of a robust democracy (Kuhn, 2003).

Confirmation of our interest in the sencer program was achieved by the outcomes of a two-year sencer-Georgia pilot project that started in September 2004 in three major universities within Georgia: I. Javakhishvili State Univer­sity, Technical University, and Medical State University. This project provided a wonderful possibility to begin restoring the prestige of science and stimulating an interest in science among Georgia’s youth. With support from the university ad­ministration, teaching and learning centers were established in all three universities. Many important activities were per­formed through these centers and the central component of all activities was “civic engagement.” This theme was used in all eight courses that were newly introduced in Georgian universities.

  • Environment and Health,
  • Social Environment and Human Behavior,
  • Global Ecological Disaster and Georgia,
  • Chance,
  • Chemistry and the Environment,
  • The Coming Energy Crisis and Then What? Apocalypse or Sustainable Development,
  • Some Steps Away from Death, and
  • HIV in Georgia.

Major sections of each subject were prepared in close collabo­ration with scientists from American universities that partici­pated in the sencer program, which were then adapted to the context of Georgia.

One good example of stimulating students’ curiosity and problem-solving actions via science education is provided by the results of the SENCER-based presentation of “Envi­ronment and Health,” which was introduced into secondary school (mainly in tenth, eleventh grades) and high school curricula. Students prepared projects and demonstrated their abilities to determine and solve problems.

The SENCER faculty team from Georgia attended the SENCER Summer Institute four times. Within the framework of the SENCER-Georgia project,we organized one-month in­ternships in Georgian campuses for six U.S. students during May 2005, together with meetings and seminars for U.S. fac­ulty members from partner universities. We also established contacts with Armenian scientists and educators.

The Future: Dreams and Aspirations

The SENCER-Georgia project finished in 2006 but we con­tinue to follow our goals: to strengthen science in Georgia and to stimulate our youth’s interests to science via strong collaboration with U.S. educators and scientists. For these reasons the Teaching and Learning Centers continue their work. We are still developing new SENCER subjects in collaboration with American and Armenian colleagues, such as:

  • Nanotechnology,
  • Drug abuse and behavior,
  • Science ethics,Media
  • Integrated neurophysiology,
  • Statistical nature of traffic (telecommunication),
  • Dynamic stability of power systems,
  • Sustainability in hydro-engineering,
  • Hydrology for civil engineering, and
  • Artificial intelligence.

Each of these courses will include features of civic engagement and will use innovative teaching methods.

Together with the Georgian Chapters of Sigma Xi, we plan to begin discussions and debates on the concept of Georgian science. We are also working to promote further integration of Georgian scientists into the international sci­entific community. For this purpose we are going to organize electronic meetings, conferences, lectures, workshops and symposia with U.S. universities. Our other activities will in­clude the creation of the “Center of Innovation, Eurasia” in collaboration with U.S. and Armenian colleagues, joint scien­tific research, and organizing a series of scientific lectures for Georgian high school teachers and students. Because the phi­losophy and ideals of the sencer approach have stimulated special interest among Georgian scientists, educators and teachers of high schools and colleges, the sencer-Georgia group is planning to establish a Georgian-American sencer High School in Tbilisi.

In conclusion, we say that “This is not a time to be tim­orous. . . . Science needs democracy as much as democracy needs science.” (Kuhn 2003)

About the Authors


Burns,Wm. David. 2002.”Knowledge to Make Our Democracy”, Liberal Education,88 (4): 20–27.

Dezhina I., and L. Graham. 1999.”Science and Higher Education in Rus­sia”, Science, new series, 286, no. 5443: 1303–1304.

Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Program of Georgia.2003. Tbilisi: Government of Georgia.

Ehrlich, Thomas, editor. 2000. Civic Responsibility and Higher Education.Westport, ct: Oryx Press.

Georgia Ministry of Education and Science. 2009. Search results for “Bologna process,” http://www.mes.gov.ge/index.php?lang=eng (accessed December 13, 2009).

Jordan,Trace. 2006.”Science and Civic Engagement: Changing Perspec­tives from Dewey to DotNets.” In Handbook of College Science Teach­ing, edited byJoel J. Mintzes and William H. Leonard. Arlington, va: National Science Teachers Association Press.

Khitarishvili, Tamar. 2007. Environment for Human Capital Accumu­lation: The Case of Georgia. Paper Presented at the Minnesota International Development Conference.

Kuchukeeva A., and J. O’Loughlin. 2003.”Civic Engagement and Demo­cratic Consolidation in Kyrgyzstan.” Eurasian Geography and Econom­ics44 (8): 557–587,

Kuhn RL, 2003.”Science as Democratizer.” American Scientist Online, September-October 2003. http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/ pub/science-as-democratizer.

Revaz, Solomonia. 2002.”Georgian Awareness and Training Network.” EU and Georgia: New Perspective, 4–6, April–June. Saluveer, M. and D. Khlebovich, 2007.”Recommendations on Georgian Science Policy Development,” The European Union Project. unesco.2005.”The Russian Federation” in UNESCOScience Report,137–176. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.


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Preparing Future Teachers Using a SENCER Approach to Positively Affect Dispositions Toward Science


Pre-service and in-service elementary teachers tend to have poor attitudes and beliefs about science that stem from their own early science-related experiences. The development of positive dispositions toward science among pre-service teachers is problematic but essential if we are to improve science education. Attitudes will affect behavior and positive attitudes among pre-service teachers will lead to good learning and subsequently to good science teaching. Previous studies suggest college science courses that contain elements of inquiry-based learning, practical application to teaching, and engagement with broader real-world issues can affect positive change in these dispositions. [more] Here, I report on the efficacy of a new biology course at Longwood University in improving science dispositions among pre-service teachers. The course, modeled on a SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) approach, engages students in biological concepts using focal topics that involve timely, complex, and biologically relevant issues confronting society. Four semesters of assessment data demonstrate a favorable change in students’ attitudes toward science, science teaching, and engagement in broader civic issues after completing the course.


Wanted: College and university science teachers wishing to become engaged in a comprehensive, important, and potentially transforming educational movement. Those who accept the challenge will join with K–12 teachers in a quest to give every American an essential understanding of the physical and biological processes that characterize our world, and to nurture curiosity and scientific habits of mind. In the process, all participants will experience change and renewal.

This opening paragraph of “College Pathways to the Science Education Standards” (Siebert and McIntosh, 2001), both highlights the critical need for systematic consideration of science education in higher education but also identifies one of the greatest obstacles to holistic change: the cyclic nature of our educational systems. Teachers often teach as they were taught (Watters and Ginns, 2000), and thus meaningful and positive change is required not only to improve scientific understanding of all citizens but also to affect the “pipeline” that develops future K–12 teachers.

Pre-service and in-service elementary teachers, in general, tend to have poor attitudes and beliefs about science and their capacities to be effective teachers of science (Stevens and Wenner, 1996), and many experienced teachers report feeling uncomfortable and unqualified to teach science (Kahle, Anderson, and Damjanovic, 1991). Research suggests that these attitudes develop as a result of their own science-related experiences in elementary and high schools (deLaat and Watters, 1995) and support the teacher preparation pipeline problem: a student’s interest in pursuing science is shaped by experiences at a young age and his/her most frequent exposure to science is through those teachers. While these pre-service and in-service teachers often have a love for the profession of teaching, they may lack a passion for or real connection to the science content. Given this situation, the development of positive dispositions towards science and science teaching among pre-service teachers is problematic (Watters and Ginns, 2000).

If we seek to change this cycle by impacting the preparation of our future K–8 teachers in their science courses in higher education, we must accept some of the constraints of our own systems. In most college and university science departments, courses are taught by disciplinary experts who may have little or no formal training in teaching or science education. As such, at the college level we have the same issues as at the K–8 levels but in reverse: faculty with a love for the content but who may not be prepared to or comfortable with modeling and teaching pedagogical approaches for these teacher candidates. How then can we seek meaningful change in the preparation of K–8 teachers while working within the higher education systems, neither overwhelming faculty with proposed changes nor selling short our future teachers on the content and context they need to successfully teach their own students?

My research in this area supports the utility of the SENCER approach (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) as a way to reform science courses in higher education and positively impact teachers. SENCER (2009), a national initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and housed at the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, seeks to improve learning and stimulate civic engagement by teaching science through complex, largely unsolved civic issues that interest large numbers of students. In this paper I present survey data collected in a SENCER-styled course for pre-service teachers at Longwood University. The survey was designed to assess the efficacy of this course in improving dispositions that lead to increased student learning of science concepts, greater confidence in teaching science, and enhanced engagement in broader civic issues. The underlying idea of this study is that attitudes will affect behavior and that positive attitudes among pre-service teachers will lead to good learning and subsequently to good science teaching.


Institutional context
Longwood University has a long tradition of developing teachers, and until 1975 was an all-female institution with a predominant focus on teacher education. Today, pre-service teachers continue to make up the largest major program on campus (approximately 750 of 3900 undergraduates). The home for these pre-service teachers is the Liberal Studies program in the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences. This program seeks to provide a strong Liberal Arts content background to pre-service teachers before they begin their formal training in education. In addition to their required General Education science course, students within the Liberal Studies program who are seeking elementary licensure (grades K–6) are required to take four science courses: one two-hour physics course, one two-hour chemistry course, one three-hour earth science course, and one four-hour biology course. Students electing to obtain certification to teach science at the middle school level (grades 6–8) have the additional requirement of selecting General Chemistry 101 as their general education science requirement.

Course context
The Fundamentals of Life Science, Biology 114, is a required science course for all of Longwood’s Liberal Studies majors and is the only life science course they are required to complete in preparation for their teaching careers. As a four-credit hour course, students participate in three hours of lecture and two hours of laboratory each week. The course was first offered in the fall of 2004 following a curriculum change to science requirements in the major; prior to this term, students seeking K–8 teaching licensure were required to complete four-credit courses in zoology and botany. These courses were taught using a traditional lecture-lab format. As the primary instructor for the new course, I had the opportunity to design a new course model.

Building on student feedback from previous courses, relevant pedagogical research on the effectiveness of topic-focused and inquiry-based approaches (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005; Crowther and Bonnstetter, 1997), and my department’s involvement in the SENCER program, I structured Biology 114 around a number of focal topics. These topics involve timely, complex, and biologically relevant issues confronting society. Students are engaged in these topics from the start and are required to reflect on and inquire about these issues throughout the course. For example, we spend several weeks engaging the topic of cancer, a subject that most students consider interesting and important and one with a rich civic context. To build student interest in the topic, they are assigned context readings beforehand. These may be cancer survivor stories or articles on new treatment technologies. Along with discussions and reflective writing assignments over these readings, students analyze recent trends in cancer rates and are asked to generate hypotheses explaining them. Students then test their hypotheses, in effect, by writing a brief research paper that explores recent research related to the hypotheses. While engaging this topic and its broader impacts on society, students learn important biological concepts such as cellular chemistry, cell division, DNA structure and function, and cell regulation.

Other focal topics follow to sustain student engagement and interest in class and in their learning; these include genetic engineering and the stem-cell debate, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, human overpopulation, and the biodiversity crisis. Each topic is introduced with context readings and analysis of relevant statistics and data. Interest is sustained through additional readings, discussions, relevant news clips and videos, and short reflective writing assignments. While these focal topics function as umbrellas under which students learn much basic science content and make connections to live as citizens, they are also required to synthesize the material in the specific context of their chosen profession.

Students are further prepared for work in their future classrooms by participating in active, inquiry-based laboratories and through a novel assignment that requires them to reflect on biological content covered throughout a focal topic and then locate relevant K–8 Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs)that apply to the specific content (Virginia Department of Education, 2007). This encourages students to consider and make connections between the college-level concepts learned in class and the K–8 content they will be teaching in the future.

Assessment tools
To evaluate change in pre-service teachers’ dispositions I constructed a survey composed of twenty statements designed to assess attitudes related to science and the teaching of science at the K–8 level (Table 1, below). Students were asked to reflect on their level of agreement with each statement and respond using a Likert scale (Edwards, 1957), where 1 = strongly disagree, 3 = neutral, and 5 = strongly agree. The twenty survey statements were constructed around four categories focusing on different dispositions and capacities. Statements 1–5 addressed students’ level of confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts. Statements 6–10 assessed students’ awareness of the importance of learning and teaching science in a greater societal context. Statements 11–15 assessed students’ appreciation of scientific contributions to society and the importance of scientific research. Statements 16–20 addressed students’ feelings of achievement related to their personal development in how they think about science and science teaching. Additionally, students were solicited for comments regarding their feelings or attitudes about science in general and their ability and desire to teach science in their future classrooms.

The assessment plan and protocol was approved by the Human and Animal Subjects Research Review Committee of Longwood University prior to the initiation of data collection and was renewed annually. Students were informed of the study, assured the anonymity of their responses, and provided the option to participate. The disposition assessment and solicitation of comments were administered on the first day of class and again during the last week of class for four consecutive semesters (fall 2005, spring 2006, fall 2006, spring 2007). Of 309 students enrolled in the course during this period, 91 percent (n = 281) participated in the pre-course assessment and 84.5 percent (n = 261) in the post-course assessment. Of the participants completing the pre-assessment, 12.8 percent (n = 36) provided pre-assessment comments while 15 percent (n = 39) provided post-assessment comments. The student population in Biology 114 was predominantly underclassmen and female (95.8 percent). The majority of participants (84.6 percent, n = 238) planned to start a teaching career in the K–6 grade levels.

Disposition Assessment Tool Developed for Biology 114
Table 1. Disposition Assessment Tool Developed for Biology 114

Survey data were pooled from all four semesters into pre- and post-assessment groups. For this report on the project to date, I calculated means and standard errors of student responses to nineteen survey statements. One survey statement (number 16) was omitted from all analyses due to relevancy of the statement to the survey population. I also compiled summary data by disposition category and report pre- and post-assessment means of scores and the mean change in pre- and post-assessment scores by category.


Pre-service K–8 teachers participating in the Biology 114 pre- and post-course disposition assessments demonstrated a favorable change in their general attitudes toward science and science teaching. The mean of scores reported by students increased for all nineteen survey statements between the pre- and post-assessment (Figure 1). The largest positive mean change in response between pre- and post-assessment occurred in the personal achievement category (mean ∆ = 1.13), indicating participants felt more positive in their personal development of how they think about science and science teaching after completing the course (Figure 1). The second largest mean change in student response was in the category addressing students’ level of confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts (mean ∆ = 0.88).

I also found consistent improvements between pre- and post-assessment comments regarding participants’ feelings or attitudes about science in general and their ability and desire to teach science in their future classrooms. Students also responded favorably in post-assessment responses to the SENCER-style approach of the course. A representative sample of these comments is provided in Table 2. During the pre-assessment, 6.4 percent (n = 18) of participants indicated a career plan that included obtaining middle-school science licensure; in the post-assessment, that percentage had increased to 8.9 percent (n = 23).

Biology 114 Pre- and Post-Assessment Mean Scores and Standard Errors for Student Responses by Survey Statement and by Disposition Category
Figure 1. Biology 114 Pre- and Post-Assessment Mean Scores and Standard Errors for Student Responses by Survey Statement and by Disposition Category


Recent research suggests that college science courses that contain elements of inquiry-based and hands-on learning (Palmer, 2001), practical application to teaching (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005), and engagement with broader real-world issues (Middlecamp, Phillips, Bentley, and Baldwin, 2006) affect positive change in undergraduate students’ dispositions toward science. This preliminary study of the outcomes of Biology 114, a course that incorporates each of these elements in a SENCER teaching approach, lends further support to these positive effects on pre-service teachers. Though the recorded changes were uniformly positive in four semesters of data collection, the means and degrees of change varied among disposition categories.

Students’ self-reported feelings of achievement related to their personal development in how they think about science and science teaching (statements 17–20) showed the most change, while student confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts (statements 1–5) showed the second greatest change. These results demonstrate the course was successful at improving students’ confidence in their science abilities, which should translate into a more positive attitude toward teaching science in their own classrooms (Young, 1998).

Interestingly, though still positive overall, there was less cumulative change in dispositions related to students’ awareness of the importance of learning and teaching science in a greater societal context (statements 6–10) and in dispositions related to appreciation of scientific contributions and the importance of scientific research (statements 11–15). Mean scores for pre-assessment responses to statements in these two disposition categories were higher than were the mean scores for pre-assessment responses in the former two categories. Relatively high responses to pre-assessment statements in these categories suggest students entered the course with at least a perceived awareness and appreciation for the contributions and relevance of science. Exposure to intense media coverage of many controversial and capacious issues involving science may foster student perceptions of being informed and aware of these specific issues. This response trend may also be related to students’ previous science experiences, a possible covariate that will be explored in future analyses.

Representative Sample of Pre- and Post-Assessment Comments
Table 2. Representative Sample of Pre- and Post-Assessment Comments

The amount of change between pre- and post-assessment mean of scores reported by students increased over the course of four semesters. In fact, in consecutive semesters, students responded increasingly more positively to post-assessment survey statements in all four disposition categories. This temporal trend of improvement in science dispositions likely reflects the time required to develop and refine course content and context in this SENCER model. This consideration is important for others wishing to adopt this pedagogical approach.

Informal discussions with students further support post-assessment comments that students appreciated making science content relevant to teaching and to everyday living experiences: they find worth in studying science when they recognize it relates to their life and profession (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005). Many students found it challenging to match course content to K–8 SOLs and then provide a rationale for those connections, especially with the more abstract or complex college-level concepts that had no obvious K–8 counterpart. As these assignments had direct connection to their future teaching, students found them useful and helpful, even if difficult (Table 2). For an instructor with little formal training in teaching methodologies, these structured assignments provided an intentional link between content and teaching; yet by placing the burden on the students to make and justify their own connections to elementary course content, I was able to maintain class focus on subject content and context instead of on teaching methods.

Future plans for this endeavor include a continuation of the assessments in Biology 114 and discussions with colleagues on expanding the use of the pedagogical methods discussed here to other science courses required in the Liberal Studies major program. Also, as this dataset grows, I will examine the roll of covariates on assessment responses; factors such as the number of previous science courses the student has taken prior to Biology 114 and the grade level the student plans to teach may function to determine the degree of change in assessment responses. Additionally, I intend to broaden the use of these assessments to test the hypothesis that dispositions toward science, science teaching, and civic engagement continue to improve, first, as pre-service teachers move into their pre-professional education training and second, as new teachers gain actual experience in their own classrooms.

Biology 114 continues to evolve as a course as I modify content and context to reflect new trends and research in focal areas and discover alternative ways to engage future teachers in biology and science teaching. Future teachers who enter the workforce with an appreciation of and sense of excitement for the sciences will help to break the cycle and ensure that our children leave school with a better understanding of our world and the immense challenges and opportunities we face.


This research was supported through an Educator Preparation Program Effectiveness Grant from Longwood University’s Professional Educator’s Council. I thank my colleagues, Dr. Enza McCauley, for providing her guidance and expertise in the development of the assessment tool, and Dr. Alix Fink, for her encouragement and advice on the challenges and rewards of teaching through focal topics.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Fink is an Associate Professor of Biology at Longwood University. His research at Longwood focuses on basic and applied questions relating to the ecology of birds. His current research focuses on aspects of avian reproductive ecology and understanding the impacts of habitat alteration on reproductive success and population dynamics of early-successional birds of the Virginia Piedmont.

He is also interested in pedagogical questions relating to how undergraduate students, especially pre-service teachers, best learn science concepts and appreciation. He is currently examining the influence of existing science courses at Longwood University on dispositions toward science and science education among pre-service and in-service K–8 teachers.

Dr. Fink has been at Longwood since 2001. He has a doctoral degree in biology from the University of Missouri and Master of Science degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Texas A&M University.


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