Why We Should Not ‘Go It Alone’: Strategies for Realizing Interdisciplinarity in SENCER Curricula

Sally A. Wasileski,
UNC Asheville
Karin Peterson,
UNC Asheville
Leah Greden Mathews,
UNC Asheville
Amy Joy Lanou,
UNC Asheville
David Clarke,
UNC Asheville
Ellen Bailey,
UNC Asheville
Jason R. Wingert,
UNC Asheville


With support from a SENCER Post-Institute Implementation sub-award grant, seven faculty members from six different disciplines began a collaborative partnership to design joint curricular projects across courses and departments on the theme of Food for Thought. To meet our goals, we developed shared learning outcomes for students in courses in the Food for Thought cluster, using SENCER goals as a guide for our work. In order to address those outcomes, we crafted a variety of projects engaging students from two or more courses. We implemented these projects in our courses and assessed student perceptions of learning and student performance in integrative learning. In this article we detail the challenges and benefits of ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as how this group of faculty members balanced other demands of academia. We conclude with a discussion of our assessment methodology and findings of improved learning.


In most of our academic lives as faculty, many of us are used to, and perhaps even prefer, working alone. We can easily empathize with our students who complain about the hazards and time drain that they experience doing group work in classes. Some of us might go so far as to say we’d rather go it alone than ever have to adjust to planning our teaching with others. After all, when we do it alone, course planning can take place in the wee hours, does not require multiple meetings, and affords us the greatest flexibility and control over what happens in the classroom. In spite of this tendency to be quite content to “go it alone,” our group of seven faculty members has spent the last eight years in a collaborative partnership designing joint curricular projects across courses, departments, and university divisions on the theme of Food for Thought. We work in diverse disciplines— Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Sociology, Spanish, and Health and Wellness— and together we have created numerous projects involving as few as two and as many as five courses that engage students with the science, politics, and human elements of food production, distribution, and consumption. We have not only implemented these multidisciplinary projects in our courses, we have also assessed student perceptions of learning and student performance in integrative learning achieved from this focused, yet multidisciplinary teaching. And while our efforts have taken time and energy, we have evidence, both from our multiple modes of assessment of the effects on students and from the rewards we have experienced teaching in these contexts, that mindfully planned collaboration has important benefits for our work with students.

Our motivation for doing this work occurs in a larger context in which, for more than a decade, universities and colleges across the United States have been newly articulating the value and purpose of undergraduate education. One outcome of this self-interrogation has been a renewed focus on integrative learning and new efforts to work towards assuring that undergraduates leave college with a sense of the complexities of social, scientific, technical, and environmental problems, and with an understanding that problem-solving requires multiple perspectives. In 2004, for example, Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), called for integrative approaches to become more central to the enterprise of education, in order combat the “fragmentation of knowledge” (Schneider 2004). AAC&U has taken on several initiatives related to these concerns, including issues of implementation and assessment (Huber et al. 2007; Ferren et al. 2014/2015). Our work was inspired by our participation in a Summer Institute sponsored by The Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER), an NSF-funded organization whose focus echoes these concerns about integrative education. Its SENCER Ideals include “robustly connect[ing] science and civic engagement by teaching ‘through’ complex, contested, capacious, current, and unresolved public issues ‘to’ basic science” (SENCER 2015).

In this essay, we share our experiences with collaboration in planning, implementing, and assessing cross-course projects that, when experienced by students especially over several semesters, lead to enhanced integrative, interdisciplinary learning. In this context, we define our teaching efforts as multidisciplinary, because projects are approached from each faculty member’s traditional disciplinary area of expertise. We argue that a viable approach to the goal of promoting citizen science (science broadly accessible to informed citizens) is to draw on the strengths of multiple experts from more than one discipline, rather than retraining ourselves in realms of expertise that are not our own. Yet we also describe and demonstrate that student learning from this approach is integrative and interdisciplinary, as students are better able to synthesize content and make connections between multiple disciplines. If the goal of a “SENCERized” curriculum is to help students learn science and its relevance to and limitations in a range of public issues and in solving complex problems of interest to students, we argue that we enhance these goals by bringing in multiple disciplinary perspectives with real representatives of those lenses. If we forgo “going it alone,” we bring more context and connection to civic issues and provide a model of civic engagement for our students.

Cross-Class Collaboration to Promote Interdisciplinary Learning

In 2006, with the help of a SENCER Post-Institute Implementation sub-award grant used to provide faculty summer stipends for planning, we embarked on a path of collaboration, creating a cluster of courses focused on developing the student as an informed consumer of food by providing a platform for discussion of what we eat, why we eat, where our food comes from and its journey from production to consumption, and how food affects our bodies and health. As faculty from across the university in natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, we sought to create a set of offerings that would meet a multidisciplinary general education requirement by inviting our students to recognize and appreciate the different ways that our disciplines were concerned with issues of food. We hoped to encourage students to recognize ways in which human bodies and societies are interlinked by numerous processes, many of which can be understood by investigating the dynamics of food in chemical, biological, cultural, and social systems. Our primary goal for students was to create an enhanced, interdisciplinary understanding of the interplay of these systems and a more attuned sense of how food is a civic issue.

To meet our goals, we developed a set of shared learning outcomes (Table 1) for students in courses in the Food for Thought cluster. We based these on SENCER Ideals of civic engagement, focusing on contested issues and encouraging student engagement through multidisciplinary perspectives, as a guide for our work of demonstrating to our students the value and interconnectedness of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities disciplines. In order to address those outcomes, over the years we have crafted a variety of projects that students from two or more courses engage in as part of the requirements of those courses. Many of these projects included community organizations. Some of the projects and activities required funding external to our departmental budgets, especially those that involved the preparation and sharing of food and those that required travel. In many semesters, we also offered our students out-of-class experiential learning opportunities such as guest speakers, movie screenings, or farm tours.

Each semester’s projects and the level of collaboration and coordination varied according to which courses were offered that particular semester. During the first years of the cluster, we created large-scale projects such as the Harvest Bounty Shared Meal and the Food and Nutrition Guidelines, which included every cluster course taught that semester. These projects required students to work in small teams (four to eight students) with students in several other classes. Highly coordinated, large-scale projects required intensive time preparation and collaboration between four to seven different faculty members (often including faculty who were not teaching a cluster course but who helped with project coordination) and our students.

Given the desire to continue meaningful projects, while recognizing the other demands of academia, in later years we created small-scale, yet still intensive, cross-course projects by partnering two or three classes and faculty members, who facilitated coordination when necessary. All projects, regardless of the scale or number of classes or students, involved a presentational component (i.e., students sharing and/or creating information to be shared with either community members or students in another class). To further simplify, we sometimes asked students to work in teams with their own classmates rather than in teams with students from other classes, thereby reducing the need for facilitated, extensive, out-of-class meetings. Most recently, we have been able to organize these coordinated small-scale projects into a showcase-style larger event held once an academic year, such as the Food Day event or the Festival of Dionysus in the Mountain South event. These projects, and other projects implemented over the past eight years, are summarized by semester in Table 2. Supplementary campus and community activities intended to enhance student experience with food, food systems, and culture are also included in Table 2.

To illustrate the difference between the multi-course large-scale projects and some more manageable small-scale projects, we offer four examples. The Food and Nutrition Guidelines Policy Project was offered three times between 2007 and 2009. In the 2008 version of this large-scale project, students studying Food Politics were organized into two committees charged with overseeing the development of guidelines for UNC Asheville; one committee focused on food guidelines and the other focused on nutrition guidelines. These students became experts in a specific food or nutrition topic and then drafted and discussed with each other a recommendation in their area of expertise. The committees then received oral or written suggestions from students in the other Food for Thought cluster classes, discussed all the guidelines as a committee, and then each produced a set of proposed guidelines for our campus. Students studying Nutrition, individually or in teams of two, prepared written comments on a specific topic related to food (local, organically grown, genetic modification, waste reduction, etc.) or nutrition (achieving healthy weight, fat, sugar, salt, fiber, whole foods, etc.). Working in small groups (three to four students), students studying Food of Chemistry measured the amount of sodium in several different foods offered in the dining hall, and students studying Land Economics developed evidence-based arguments for local or organic food, specific procurement strategies, and changes to the UNC Asheville food environment. All classes presented their analyses, guidelines and recommendations to the Food Politics student committees, typically as both writ- ten and oral recommendations, for inclusion in the food guidelines. The Food Politics students then formatted the data, recommendations, and rationale from the other courses into an eighty-page document and presented their findings to campus decision-makers in December 2008. Approximately 120 people were involved (including 100 students and 20 members of the campus community including faculty, administration, and Dining Services staff), and classes met jointly at least three times over the term. Campus dining services responded by making a series of changes to their food purchasing and labeling that have largely been in place since that time. Based on their post-project reflections, Food Politics students reported that they had a sense of empowerment from participating in this ambitious effort with tangible policy change implications.

Another example of a large-scale cross-course project was the Plants, Nutrition, and Latino Food and Culture Project in Spring 2011, which involved courses from three different disciplines: Biology, Health and Wellness, and Foreign Languages. Student groups from each of the three courses were assigned a Plant of the Americas, designated by the Plants and Humans instructor as native to the Americas, and worked together to create a joint poster presentation for the UNC Asheville Undergraduate Research Symposium. Students researched each plant through the lens of their particular discipline, participated in a workshop on abstract writing, and attended a panel discussion by local food experts who use these plants in their restaurants. They then created the final posters that included botanical information (Plants and Humans students), nutritional information about the plant (Nutrition students), and a traditional recipe along with relevant cultural information (Spanish students). Additionally, students studying Nutrition completed a nutritional analysis of the chosen recipe, and students studying Spanish created a summary in Spanish of basic plant information shared by their peers to accompany the bilingual recipe; the posters were also shared with a YWCA Latino health program. Campus and community members were invited to learn about and taste the foods prepared, and students were evaluated on their presentations. Students from each course had to navigate group work within their own course as well as coordinate preparing the poster with groups from other courses. At the Symposium, students reported learning much more about the plant because of the collaboration with students from other disciplines.

A third example of a large-scale project involved three classes: Pathophysiology of Chronic Conditions and Illnesses, Sociology of Gender, and Health Communications. Students generated evidence-based and socially aware health recommendations for the YWCA’s Diabetes Wellness and Prevention Program. This project engaged students with underserved populations in the Western North Carolina region and empowered people living with diabetes with practical information about their chronic condition. The Pathophysiology students synthesized the complex science underlying type 2 diabetes for students in the two other courses. Sociology of Gender students examined the scientific messages for evidence of bias and considered how health messages are presented in the media. Finally, Health Communications students worked to optimize the health message for people in the community who were living with diabetes and who had varied educational backgrounds. The final products from students in the Pathophysiology and Gender courses were poster presentations with various perspectives on diabetes. Health Communication students presented their social marketing campaign strategies to the YWCA Diabetes Prevention Program Coordinator orally, and in writing to the students in the other classes. Students in all three classes were highly motivated to translate their knowledge to help others better understand and prevent this very challenging disease. This unique opportunity allowed students to practice educating people from diverse backgrounds about relevant health topics. Additionally, students were offered immediate and meaningful feedback on their instruction from their audience.

An example of a small-scale cross-course project involved two courses, Economics of Food and Plants and Humans, and focused on the topic of economic and environmental sustainability of campus food production. Students studying biology (Plants and Humans) were assigned vegetable crops to grow in the campus organic garden. Each student wrote a research paper that explored the tradeoffs of some aspect of organic food production (e.g., heirloom vs. hybrid seeds, sustainable methods to amend the soil, or the tradeoffs of land-extensive vs. land-intensive cultivation methods). The students studying biology were then combined into groups of four to give presentations to the students studying economics that summarized the results from their research papers as well as the results of their garden project, including the yield of the crops they grew. This information was used by students in the Economics of Food class to finalize their analysis of the costs and benefits of campus food production and consumption. Groups of students in the Economics of Food class investigated several topics such as the time, money, and resource costs; legal and logistical issues; marketing; and revenue potential (cost savings) associated with food produced on campus and either sold on campus or used to replace food that is currently purchased. At the end of the term, students enrolled in the Economics of Food class presented the results of their analysis to the students enrolled in Plants and Humans and to campus administrators. Reflection assignments revealed that students in both classes learned a great deal not just about their assigned topic but also about the environmental and economic issues associated with campus food production. One telling feature of these reflections was that a great number of students reported learning that these issues were much more complex than they initially believed.

Even though we have interpreted our class feedback from students on cross-class projects of these types as positive, we also strove from the beginning of our collaborative teaching endeavors to objectively determine the effectiveness of this type of instruction and the student learning gains from engagement in cross-course projects. To this end, we have implemented numerous modes of assessment, which are described below.

Assessment of the Food for Thought Cluster Pedagogy

Since the inception of the Food for Thought cluster, we have worked together to assess whether cross-course projects and cluster activities impact student learning, using a variety of assessment methods (Wingert et al. 2011 and 2014). Our first assessment strategy utilized an adapted version of SENCER’s Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG) instrument. Since the SALG is designed for individual STEM courses, rather than for a cluster of courses across disciplines, we developed an instrument designed to measure the Food for Thought cluster learning outcomes (Table 1). Our adapted SALG was used as an entrance (start of semester) and exit (end of semester) survey instrument administered electronically using a quiz form in an internet-based course management system (Moodle).

The entrance and exit assessment surveys had sixty-one items, including eight demographic questions, one open-ended question, and fifty-two questions addressing learning outcomes and course mechanics using a five-point Likert scale. 106 students completed both surveys. The learning outcomes questions were organized into four parts: academic attitudes; civic engagement and informed consumer; interdisciplinary and disciplinary skills; and understanding of food, food systems, food choices, and social and biological relationships (Table 1). At the end of each survey students were also asked to answer the following open-ended question: “Please list three food issues that interest you most.” Students were asked to list three entries in order to complete the survey.

Results from this first assessment demonstrated that our collaborative, multidisciplinary approach using cross-course projects across cluster courses led to statistically significant increases in student perceptions of their learning gains, especially related to civic engagement (effect size (∆) = 8.0%; p = 0.036), food literacy (∆ = 13.8%; p < 0.0001), research literacy (∆ = 9.7%; p = 0.0018), information and communication skills (∆ = 9.2%; p = 0.0003), and understanding food systems (∆ = 14.2%; p< 0.0001). We attributed much of the positive change in students’ evaluation of their learning to the cross-course projects and activities. Qualitative analysis of the open-ended questions revealed that students’ interest in and engagement with food issues increased over the course of the semester, especially with respect to changing the food production and consumption systems related to the American diet (Wingert et al. 2011).

In a second assessment, we sought to extend our findings on students’ perceptions of learning gains by assessing the cluster’s impact on student learning, specifically regarding integrative learning across disciplines (Wingert et al. 2014). We focused on three of our student learning outcomes (Table 1) that require integrative learning: civic engagement, informed consumer, and food systems and choices. Specifically, we tested whether exposure to a focused, multidisciplinary learning environment (the Food for Thought cluster courses and activities), could result in integrative, interdisciplinary learning gains (Rhodes 2010) compared to a control group of students. In our assessment instrument, we asked students to demonstrate their achievement in integrative learning by writing statements in response to prompts about a New York Times article. The article was specifically selected because it is complex and interdisciplinary in focus. It explained the costs and benefits of the popularity of quinoa, which, although endemic to the Andes, has become popular in the U.S. due to its nutritional profile, forcing change onto the culture and economy of Bolivia. In addition, this specific topic was not discussed in any of our courses.

Using a corresponding evaluation rubric, we tested the students’ evaluation of the quinoa article to determine if exposure to a focused, integrative learning environment could result in superior critical thinking skills and abilities to understand food systems, integrate learning across disciplines, and make informed decisions about food choices, markers of three of our student learning outcomes: civic engagement, informed consumer, and food systems. The instrument and rubric were based on the Critical Thinking Value Rubric created by the AAC&U (Rhodes 2010) and on studies in which critical thinking is assessed by asking students to respond to a specific article or reading. Two studies that informed our protocol prompted students to read a designated article or reading and then to evaluate an issue in written form based upon the article or reading; these responses were then evaluated using a rubric designed to assess critical thinking skills (Miller 2004; Connors 2008).

The quinoa evaluation assessment instrument was completed by 161 students in nine Food for Thought Cluster classes and by 177 students in nine control classes. Our results showed that Food for Thought students scored significantly higher on the evaluation rubric compared to controls (∆ = 14.0%; p = 0.0008). Rubric scores also significantly correlated with the number of cluster courses taken (Spearman r = 0.32; p = 0.04), demonstrating the increased gain of interdisciplinary, integrative learning skills with each multidisciplinary cross-course project experience. Importantly, rubric scores did not correlate with increasing year in college, indicating that our students’ learning gains were related to the learning experiences specific to the cluster and not to academic maturity (Wingert et al. 2014).

Our earlier research also showed that students perceived gains in their communication skills (Wingert et al. 2011). Our most recent assessment efforts have sought to objectively determine whether these gains are demonstrable. Student communication skills will be evaluated from cross-course project student products, such as group poster presentations and two to three minute “selfie” videos of students describing their class research. Rubrics have been designed, based on the Critical Thinking Value Rubric created by the AAC&U (Rhodes 2010), to quantitatively assess communication abilities.

Faculty Reflections on Multidisciplinary Teaching and Integrative, Interdisciplinary Learning

By making a conscious decision not to “go it alone,” we (the faculty involved in this type of collaborative teaching and scholarship) have benefited in multiple ways. We have not only implemented opportunities to provide students with meaningful interdisciplinary learning (described above), but we have also added to our teaching tools, learned about each other’s disciplines, delved into new areas of research, forged friendships, and have had a remarkable amount of fun along the way.

Student Learning Gains

The first reason we have chosen to not “go it alone” is that we are convinced that it makes a difference for our students. We have previously highlighted the evidence we collected that demonstrates that students have both real and perceived gains in their learning. We suggest that they benefit from seeing an integrated model of teaching and learning in front of them—we undo before their eyes illusions they (or we) may have about solutions being simple or solvable from a single perspective. Instead, they are offered the opportunity to understand disciplines’ capacities to illuminate facets of a complex problem and to witness that collaboration across disciplines offers more synthetic solutions.

Teaching Gains

We also recognize a number of benefits we receive from abandoning the strategy of going it alone, and these are worth highlighting for those who might otherwise believe it is too big an effort for faculty to undertake. One particular benefit is the enhanced perspective we have on our own teaching. Pursuing the interdisciplinary learning in this collaborative manner ensures that our understanding of our effectiveness as teachers begins with us, and it has the benefit of arising organically from a collaboration of faculty who are actually doing the teaching. We have the opportunity to critically examine our strengths and weaknesses in the classroom and quickly act to build on our successes and ameliorate any deficiencies. As an example, one colleague learned from our assessment of cross-course projects that he is successful in guiding students through the steps necessary to write a good research paper, but not as successful in having them translate that research into posters and oral presentations. It is also rare for faculty to truly understand the student experience as they work through our curriculum because we generally only see them in courses in our home department. Our collaboration gives us a more nuanced understanding of the student academic experience and allows us to develop a more frank assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of students and faculty in our individual departments with respect to faculty and students in other departments.

Faculty Learning Gains

Another significant outcome of our collaborative teaching and research experience has been the opportunity to learn more from other team members about each other’s disciplines, including disciplinary perspectives and pedagogical methods. We are all now more literate in each other’s fields; this is, in and of itself, an outcome that is probably worth the time and energy we have put into this joint endeavor.

Faculty Scholarship Gains

We have also gained from the unique opportunity to participate in the intersection of the scholarship of teaching and learning with scholarship in our disciplines. It is more likely, however, that disciplinary scholarship and the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) will coincide for the social scientists than for our colleagues in the natural sciences and humanities. That is true simply because the scholarship that social scientists pursue in their discipline bears more similarity to our scholarship of teaching than that pursued by natural scientists and faculty in the humanities. We are all teachers, so one can argue that none of us should feel conflicted as we consider undertaking pedagogical research, but it may be that someone whose research training is in the natural sciences or the humanities would need to work harder to absorb and integrate the pertinent literature, and would need more assistance in study design, analysis, and interpretation of results than would a social scientist who regularly uses these methods in their disciplinary research. Moreover, although the scholarship of teaching and learning is a project shared by scholars from all disciplines, both explicit and implicit norms about how to conduct SoTL research come primarily from the social sciences. As a team, we have become stronger in our understanding of strategies for navigating those norms. From these opportunities to learn from each other, we have all benefited both individually and collectively from the sharing of our disciplinary research expertise. It has also been a real pleasure to implement curricular ideas and write collaboratively on a topic of shared interest— innovative ways to promote student learning—and to model integrated learning for our students.


In the face of many competing pressures on our time and the fact that our general education curriculum is in a state of flux, we as professors must continuously reaffirm our commitment to our work together and seek recognition and support from our university to continue these efforts. We have developed both a meaningful multidisciplinary collaboration and, indeed, friendships over these years and do not wish to see this partnership dissolve. Although we risk overworking ourselves if we do not locate efficiencies in our work, we also fear that our productivity and success as teachers and researchers will decline unless we find a way to adapt to the changing needs of society, the changing learning styles of students, and a changing curriculum.

Even at a small school, it is rare to build a collaboration across departments and divisions that allows faculty to develop trust and empathy across the university. Because we have worked closely together we have come to understand each other’s unique teaching and research environments and to break down barriers to communication across disciplines. Information gleaned from the experiences of these faculty members allows us to more effectively advocate for a work environment that is more humane and equitable.

We are engaged faculty—engaged in meaningful lines of inquiry with students both in our class and our colleagues’ classes, engaged with the discipline of our own training as well as the disciplines of our colleagues, and directly engaged with each other. Perhaps equally important, however, is the shared recognition of our own disciplinary and individual limitations that comes from this engagement. The economist among us will never teach a chemistry or nutrition class, just as the biologist among us will not teach a sociology class. Knowledge of chemistry, economics, or Spanish alone will not be sufficient to solve the world’s problems. While we (and our students) are now more able to speak each other’s language and recognize our own discipline’s strengths in contributing to solutions, we also recognize that the strongest teams, those teams needed to solve the world’s most complex problems, are composed of individuals with exceptional disciplinary strength.

In a recent essay regarding AAC&U initiatives for integrative learning, Ann Ferren and her co-authors argue that

Developing faculty’s capacity for leadership in integrative learning, then, is not just about working with other faculty for institutional change, but also demonstrating for students what this form of leadership looks like: adaptive, collaborative, inquisitive, reflective, and boundary-crossing.

The process of implementing integrative learning on a campus becomes a teaching tool, a means of modeling for students how to engage thoughtfully and actively in their communities toward a common purpose (Ferren et al. 2014/2015, 6).

Our experience on our campus reflects this spirit, and we concur with their conclusion that providing a model of a dynamic, functional, multidisciplinary team demonstrates to our students that no one person faces the burden of solving the problems associated with food insecurity or climate change. Indeed, choosing not to “go it alone” models engaged citizenship for our students, other faculty, and ourselves. Assessments of our multidisciplinary model provide evidence for student gains in perceptions of integrative learning and accomplishment of our goal to develop more informed citizens with multifaceted perspectives on complex civic issues. The context we provide for our students through our cross-course projects and meaningful cross-disciplinary action is exactly what is needed for promoting citizen science.

About the Authors

Sally Wasileski is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina Asheville. She earned her Ph.D. from Purdue University and completed a post-doc at the University of Virginia, specializing in analytical chemistry and using computational methods to investigate reactions occurring at metal surfaces. Her research focus with under- graduate student researchers is on understanding the catalytic reactions that generate hydrogen fuels from biomass; in addition, she mentors student research on quantifying environmental contaminants. Sally teaches General Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Instrumental Analysis, Physical Chemistry, and a course for non-science majors called The Food of Chemistry, which is designed to teach chemistry principles through the topics of food and cooking.

Karin Peterson is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Asheville. She earned a diplôme d’études approfondies (DEA) from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Sociology of Art, and holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Virginia. She teaches theory, gender, and sociology of culture.

Leah Greden Mathews is Interdisciplinary Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South and Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina Asheville. As an applied economist, she studies the intangibles in our society including those things that are not readily exchanged in markets, like scenic quality, cultural heritage, and social capital. As an interdisciplinary, systems-thinking teacher-scholar, she is perennially engaged with students and colleagues from multiple disciplines in order to enrich her intellectual life, improve her (and others’) understanding of the world, and gain new perspectives.

Amy Joy Lanou is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Health and Wellness at University of North Carolina Asheville. She received her doctoral degree in Human Nutrition from Cornell University and brings work experience in nutrition promotion and policy advocacy at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC to her work at UNC Asheville. She teaches Nutrition, Health Communication, and Food Politics and Nutrition Policy and focuses on dietary prevention of chronic disease and the use of experiential food education to influence dietary choices.

David Clarke is a botanist and Professor in the Biology Department at the University of North Carolina Asheville. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. He works with colleagues in UNCA’s Biology Department on the conservation biology of threatened plants such as American ginseng and Virginia spiraea, as well as the ecological threats posed by non-native invasive species. He also works in the rainforests and savannas of Guyana, South America to document its rich plant diversity and has had a new species of passionflower from Guyana (Dilkea clarkei) named in his honor.

Ellen Bailey is a Lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of North Carolina Asheville and occasionally teaches in the Department of Health and Wellness as well. She earned her M.A. in French/Foreign Language Pedagogy from the University of Delaware and her Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Ellen enjoys working with students and community members to better understand how culture and environment influence health behavior.

Jason Wingert is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Wellness at the University of North Carolina Asheville. He earned his Master of Physical Therapy from the University of Missouri Columbia, and his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathophysiology. In addition to teaching, he enjoys advising students and mentoring them in his laboratory, where he studies sensorimotor function in older adults and people with diabetic peripheral neuropathy.


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CCSS/NGSS Pilot for Library Summer Reading Club: Informal K-8 STEM Learning as a Bridge for Formal Scholastic Learning

Charles B. Greenberg,
Murrysville Community Library
Nancy R. Bunt,
Math & Science Collaborative
Jamie K. Falo,
Murrysville Community Library
Michael Fierle,
Math & Science Collaborative
Barbara Lease,
Math & Science Collaborative
Corinne Murawski,
Math & Science Collaborative
Gabriela Rose,
Math & Science Collaborative
Cynthia A. Tananis,
Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity (CEAC), University of Pittsburgh
Keith Trahan,
CEAC, University of Pittsburgh
Dana Winters,
CEAC, University of Pittsburgh


The applied research pilot project of this report seeks to advance K-8 STEM learning by bridging in-school, scholastic learning sessions with informal, out-of-school, summertime learning at public libraries. Professional library programming for children and families around reading and learning is already an integral component of meeting community needs, especially during the summer months when skills can be lost. Annually, and nationally, public libraries have been sharing a themed set of guidelines and activities for Summer Reading Clubs, and activities for K-8 Summer Reading Clubs. The pilot program has been designed to professionally train librarians, administrators, and volunteers for orienting these children, their parents and guardians, to STEM learning in particular, based on scholastic Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics/English language arts, and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This report describes the activities and progress in the first year of the two-year pilot, including results from an external evaluation.


Public Library of the Conflicted Civic Mind

If a community is fortunate enough to have its own public library, that library is often openly associated with civic pride, and, at least within the core body of the library’s users and supporters, with a genuine love of books and reading. For some modern-day cynics, nevertheless, the public library is perceived as only a side street of the new main road paved for the Internet. This paper will demonstrate that such a perception is false; we will show how libraries can reinvent themselves to an even larger educational purpose, one that is integral to scholastic STEM learning, and one that can better withstand cynical views.

The Murrysville Community Library is a non-profit corporation, with a Board of Directors, with its own Articles of Incorporation, with an annual budget plan, and with a strategic plan; it is no different from any other corporation, but because it serves at the pleasure of the community, the conflicting views between user and non-user, book-lover and cynic, impact annual funding and viability. In the state of Pennsylvania, where we serve in the southwest corner, there are 445 such public libraries and twenty-nine Districts into which the libraries are grouped regionally (PDE 2012). Districts sometimes correspond with counties.

On Building a New Model

In our District of twenty-four libraries, the Westmoreland Library Network (WLNTM), we are in the midst of piloting a new model, one that is intended to eventually overcome not only cynical perceptions, but complacency as well, and to fill a societal educational void (Greenberg and Falo 2014–15). This is really the goal of the pilot project. It integrates a summertime, K-8 educational library experience—based on Common Core State Standards in mathematics/English language arts and Next Generation Science Standards—with formal, standards-based, scholastic learning (NGSS 2014; PA Common Core 2012; Widener 2014). The two-year pilot is about bridging fall/winter/spring scholastic semesters with enhanced and more purposeful, standards-based summer programming. This paper is a report on the first year’s activities and progress, including an external evaluation by the Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity (CEAC), University of Pittsburgh School of Education.


Library Strengths and Addressing a Weakness

In Pennsylvania, public libraries are well-established, stable resources for information access, reading for pleasure, and informal learning. They operate with a common core of information services. Library Directors and some other staff are trained at the level of a university M.S. Public libraries adhere to specific state library codes, and they operate under the state’s Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Office of Commonwealth Libraries. However, while skilled in reading literacy, staff is rarely trained in STEM subject matter or pedagogy. The two-year pilot project in progress seeks to advance student interest in or disposition towards STEM, along with actual learning and understanding of STEM concepts, by building library staff capacity to include STEM in its programming and to make more connections with CCSS and NGSS standards. It seeks to reach across a full spectrum of learning groups in one large PA county/ District, with rural to suburban to urban population, and also to be comprehensive with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, and economic means.

Summer Reading Club as Central to the Vision

Many public libraries in all fifty states already participate in an organized Summer Reading Club activity, using a nationally themed set of guidelines and activities structured by the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP 2014). For 2014, the designated theme was “Science: Fizz, Boom, Read!,” a first-time explicit focus on science in twenty years of theme-setting. The pilot is designed to take advantage of the established and ongoing reading program and its popularity, as well as the favorable theme. It is doing this by training library staff and key programming volunteers in advance of summer to orient children, parents, and guardians to CCSS/ NGSS learning, under the banner of the Summer Reading Club. The collaborating trainers, who otherwise train scholastic teachers and administrators in their usual role, are Mathematics & Science Coordinators from southwestern PA’s Math & Science Collaborative (MSC), of which more will be said below. Those who are trained then become trainers for all participants, hopefully leading to the lifelong standards-based learning for all that is needed throughout our society.

MSC Trainers and Library Trainees

For eleven counties, 138 public school districts and non-public schools, MSC stands as the area’s comprehensive catalyst for advancement of K-12 STEM learning. MSC’s multifaceted STEM program, by which 1250+ teachers and administrators have received training over about twenty years, has: (1) sustained a teacher culture of lifelong professional learning by the internal sharing of best practices and external enrichment; (2) taught teachers to take more personal responsibility for lifetime professional learning; (3) institutionalized a complex array of professional communication and training networks for teachers, administrators, and institutions of education; (4) established the MSC as a leading proponent for CCSS and NGSS standards. In 2012, the MSC earned the prestigious Carnegie Science Center’s Leadership in STEM Education Award in recognition of its exceptional impact. It is well positioned to repurpose its usual teacher-training model for use in the public library world.

Key trainees include Library Directors, Children’s Librarians, volunteers, and Board Directors. The Directors are important for building administrative support for the initiative; in 2014 four Directors from the Murrysville Community Library (MCL) Board and/or its fundraising MCL Foundation Board participated. The two Boards work closely, even sharing a Strategic Plan; two trainees serve on both Boards. For this first year, Murrysville Community Library was targeted as the particular focus for training, rather than the WLN District as a whole, although participants came from ten libraries in all. In 2015 the emphasis will shift to the WLN District as a whole. MCL’s Library Director and Youth Services Coordinator participated fully.

MCL is a particularly good starting point for the pilot because of its depth of experience and recognized skill in children’s programming. The MCL offers numerous special programs for patrons of all ages, both on-site and off, some seasonally. The Children’s Library was recognized as the 2009 statewide winner of the prestigous PA Library Association’s David J. Roberts EXCEL Library Service Award. Furthermore, the MCL consistently draws about 900 youngsters annually for its Summer Reading Club, which is significant in a service area of about 28,000 people.

Specific Goals and Hypotheses

The project’s specific goals are (1) to incorporate STEM learning in nationally themed K-8 Summer Reading Club programming in public libraries, as well as other children’s programming during the year, as informed by curriculum grade-level standards; (2) to bridge grade-level learning during the otherwise low-STEM content, out-of-school summer months; (3) to make volunteers and family members a part of the learning, so that children and their families realize enrichment in both the library and home settings. The year-one parental experience is limited to on-site observation and/or child engagement at home; more direct training may be possible when staff members are better prepared as trainers themselves.

The research and development hypotheses are that: (1) in-school student STEM learning can be advanced, given continuity, and sustained by repurposing in-school MSC practices to out-of-school children’s programming in public libraries; (2) all children can learn science and mathematics; (3) awareness and knowledge of 21st-century skills for life- long, “life-wide,” and “life-deep” STEM experiences can be fostered in public library settings for family groups.



Eight half-day training workshops were conducted from January through April 2014. Each was led by a pair of staff members from the MSC, most often paired as two Science Coordinators or two Math Coordinators. The workshops included explanative discussion by the Coordinators, hands-on activities, and extensive interactive discussion. The hands-on activities were connected to children’s literature that served as the pathway to important mathematics and/ or science processes and content.

For example, one session focused on number and shape patterns. The MSC facilitator read aloud the story “The Grapes of Math” (Tang 2004). Trainees then worked in small groups to solve a particular riddle from the story. Each trainee group shared its riddle and solution strategy with the other trainee groups. The ensuing plenary discussion focused on the following essential questions:

  • What mathematical or scientific concepts/ideas did the riddles (or activity) illuminate?
  • What insights/ideas did the activity leave with you?
  • With which standards of mathematical practice (or science and engineering practices) and English language arts capacities did the riddles most require you to engage? Why?
  • What are the implications for planning your summer reading program? How might you use a task/story/ac- tivity like this in the summer reading program?

Additional examples of the mathematics and science content of the exercises are summarized in Table 1.

The number of workshop attendees ranged from ten to twenty-two, averaging eighteen. In total, there were thirty-four unique attendees for the purposes of the external evaluation to be discussed below, of which thirty-one were library trainees. The additional three were community leaders with a stake in the outcome (Mayor, Superintendent of Schools, and Assistant Superintendent); these three attended part of one workshop each. The Program Officer and a Board Director from the lead funding agency participated at part of one workshop. The number of workshops attended by library trainees ranged from one to eight, but each workshop was sufficiently illustrative of CCSS/NGSS learning that a trainee could get the main points in one session. In general, additional sessions served to reinforce learning with new math and/or science process/content connections to children’s literature, to be applied during the coming Summer Reading Club.

A Venn diagram from Michaels (2013, 59), showing the CCSS/NGSS standards for mathematical practice, science and engineering practices, and English language arts capacities, was used repeatedly as a thumbnail point of reference. The trainers discussed the fuller descriptions for each set of practices as well. They provided all trainees with more extensive written content in three-ring binders, to which ongoing reference was made. These standards describe the proficiencies being targeted for the trainees, mirroring those exhibited by a mathematically and scientifically literate individual. At every workshop, the appropriate standards were discussed in the context of exemplary, hands-on exercises, each of which was done typically in groups of three or four. The intent was always to help the trainees understand the processes and proficiencies of mathematics and science, including how to reason in a professional way, and how to communicate in an informed way. Thus, the training was about more than just mathematical and scientific content, although that too was embedded in the exercises.

External Evaluation

The MCL contracted with the University of Pittsburgh’s Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity to evaluate the 2014-2015 program. Two surveys were constructed to examine the effect of the program on the students and the library staff, administrators, and volunteers who participated in the training, particularly with regard to how their familiarity and understanding of mathematics and science concepts progressed. Training participants were contacted via email to complete the participant survey, while parents of children who participated in the program were asked, via email, to provide the survey to their children and to assist them in its completion. Survey responses addressed the following evaluation questions:

Q1: Do participating library staff, volunteers, and/or third parties develop or extend their knowledge and understanding of STEM content and learning engagement strategies?

Q2: Do participating library staff, volunteers, and/or third parties develop or extend their application of STEM content and learning engagement strategies?

Q3: Do child and adolescent learners engage with STEM concepts and processes in their involvement in the Summer Reading Club and/or their use of the library during summer months?

Q4: Do child and adolescent learners exhibit more positive perceptions of and attitudes toward STEM concepts and processes as a result of their involvement in the Summer Reading Club and/or their use of the library during summer months?

Input data were analyzed using basic descriptive statistics for scaled responses. Qualitative analysis strategies were used for open-ended responses. Sample survey questions are shown in Table 2.


Of the 34 workshop participants who were surveyed by the CEAC, 68% (n=23) responded, all of them library staff/administrator/volunteer trainees (Winters and Wade 2014). As for parents and children who participated in the program, about 6% (n=61) of the total of participants responded to the survey. The key findings from the report are as follows:

Key Findings for the Training Participants
  • Roughly half of the training participants (57%, n=12) had never received any prior professional development in mathematics and/or science.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents (71%, n=15) strongly agreed or agreed that they are better able to answer students’ questions about various STEM concepts and assist families in helping their children to learn and understand math and science.
  • A large majority (81%, n=17) indicated greater confidence in their ability to select more appropriate resources to improve children’s knowledge of mathematics and science.
  • A large majority of respondents (86%, n=18) indicated that as a result of the training they better understood how children think about mathematics and science.
  • Nearly all respondents (90.5%, n=19) indicated that as a result of the training program they could better help children appreciate the value of learning math and science.
  • Nearly all open-ended responses indicated that respondents could better help students to appreciate the value in learning mathematics and science as a result of training participation.
Key Findings for the Students
  • Gender and grade level seemed to be non-factors for student enjoyment of Summer Reading Club; however, girl respondents indicated a greater interest in science than boy respondents as a result of participating in the Science: Fizz, Boom, Read! program (girls: 80%, n=24; boys: 61%, n=19).
  • More than three-quarters of student respondents (77%, n=47) had previously participated in library programs.
  • Over half of the students (54%, n=32) indicated that, as a result of participating in Science: Fizz, Boom, Read! they understood science better.
  • Almost three-quarters of student respondents (73%, n=43) indicated an increased interest in science as a result of the Science: Fizz, Boom, Read! program.
  • Over half of student respondents (51%, n=30) indicated that they would use the library to learn more about science. Of these 30 students, 53% (n=16) indicated that they were more inclined to ask librarians questions about science.
  • A large majority of student respondents (81%, n=48) stated that they wanted to attend more programs about science and were more interested in science experiments as a result of the Science: Fizz, Boom, Read! program.

Discussion and Summary

Although the above results represent only the earliest product of what is perceived to be a multiyear and ongoing growth process, they are entirely positive and encouraging. Both trainees and students affirmed the multiple benefits to their relationships with STEM from the experience. The responses are consistent with the earlier brief report of Greenberg and Falo (2014–15), made before CEAC’s external evaluation was done. Certain early outcomes are noted in that report. The most important are these: (1) children’s librarians from multiple libraries began immediately to plan together for the year’s Summer Reading Club, which they had not done before; (2) librarians expressed appreciation for having had identified for them STEM children’s books of high value and credibility; (3) as a given, for the first time, there is now an ongoing working collaboration among scholastic trainers and librarians (as evidenced now by the co-authorship of the present report).

In the second-year Summer Reading Club 2015 timeframe, the K-8 theme is known to be Every Hero Has a Story. This theme is not explicitly science-based, as was the year-one theme, but it does still serve as a framework for introducing STEM content. Indeed, every theme can be made to include STEM content. In this case, some of the heroes will actually be scientists, mathematicians, or engineers. Some will be non-scientists who use STEM. For example, a fireman hero learns to extinguish fires using chemical combustion principles. Similar strategies can be applied generally for topics yet unnamed in subsequent years. In that way, as librarians gain knowledge and skills, they will continue to create programs and provide informed resources that encourage patron interaction with STEM concepts, even while continuing to promote reading skills and language arts.

In 2014, a first step was taken to introduce the pilot and its intent to the Superintendent of Schools and the Assistant Superintendent for Murrysville. This was done through their participation as trainees and by off-site exchanges. Each participating library will need to make this an ongoing effort. Finally, returning to the question of whether the public library has become just a side street to the main Internet thoroughfare: it has not, or at least it should not have done so, for one main reason. The Internet is a place to find everything, both information that is informed, correct, and professionally referenced, and information that is not. This goes to the matter of quality of information, and consistency with respect to quality, and, in the case of STEM subjects, adherence to the scientific approach itself. Thus, the Internet has an inherent weakness. Anyone can add information to it, and do so without rules as to quality, and no one is responsible for showing the reader or user how to differentiate. With proper training, the same is not true of public libraries; a well-trained and present staff can make the difference, for using both the local collection and the Internet. The first year of this project has shown that staff consciousness has been raised in respect to choosing quality STEM resources for collection-building and programming, including Summer Reading Club programming. This outcome alone convinces us that we are on the right track with this project.

Our goal for the second year of sponsored training is to expand participation within our District to a broader population of staff members, administrators, and volunteers, including both new and repeat participants. We have also arranged to have at least one participant from a contiguous District attend a training session, with the purpose of possibly expanding the program to her District. Ultimately, depending on outcomes, we imagine at least a statewide presence for STEM training, with goals similar to those of this pilot.

About the Authors

Charles B. Greenberg is retired Corporate Fellow and Manager of Flat Glass New Product Development for PPG Industries, Inc., with expertise in glass, solar control, thin films, switchable materials, and photocatalysis for self-cleaning. He earned a B.S. from Rutgers University and a Ph.D. and M.S. from the University of Illinois, all in Materials Science/Engineering. Since retirement in 2002, he has been dedicated to several special K-12 to senior learning initiatives relating to STEM and has served on various education and library Boards/Councils. For purposes of the present article, he is a Director and Im- mediate Past President of the Murrysville Community Library Board, as well as the Westmoreland Library Network’s Treasurer, Immediate Past President, and representative on the Math & Science Collaborative Steering Council.

Nancy R. Bunt is Program Director of southwestern Pennsylvania’s Math & Science Collaborative, headquartered at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. She also served concurrently as MSC’s Principal Investigator for a $20 million Southwest Pennsylvania Math Science Partnership funded by the NSF and the PA Dept. of Education. She has led the Collaborative in the coordination of efforts to focus K-16 and informal learning resources on strengthening the teaching and learning of mathematics and science for all 138 K-12 school districts in the 11 counties surrounding and including Pittsburgh. Bunt is a certified teacher and administrator who has worked in urban and suburban settings in Pennsylvania and in Europe. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, and her masters and doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.

Jamie K. Falo has been Library Director for the Murrysville Community Library in Murrysville, PA since 2011, following nine years as Library Director for the Mount Pleasant Public Library in Mount Pleasant. She earned her B.S. and M.L.I.S. from the University of Pittsburgh. Jamie is an active member of the Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA), serves in various positions of governance for the Westmoreland Library Network, and serves on the Franklin Regional School District Act 48 Committee. Jamie presented a poster about aspects of this paper at the 2014 PaLA Southwest Regional Summer Reading Club Conference.

Michael Fierle is certified in Secondary Mathematics Education, Supervisory-Mathematics, and K-12 Principal. He completed his undergraduate studies at Indiana University of PA, and then attended the University of Pittsburgh where he earned his M.Ed. by completing the Administrative and Policies Studies program. His teaching experience includes eight years as a middle/ high school mathematics educator in various school systems in PA and VA. As a Mathematics Coordinator with the Math & Science Collaborative for the past ten years, he has provided direct math professional development to school districts and educators throughout southwestern PA, as well as support for regional STEM Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

Barbara Lease has been in education for 24 years and is currently a Science Coordinator with the Math & Science Collaborative. Barbara earned a B.S. in biology from Allegheny College, did graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh in human genetics, and was certified as a biology teacher through Seton Hill University. Previously, Barbara worked as biology and mathematics instructor for Mater Dei College in Ogdensburg, New York, as a professional development coordinator at the Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, and as a secondary science teacher in the Pittsburgh area’s Penn Hills School District.

Corinne Murawski is a Mathematics Coordinator with the Math & Science Collaborative and a mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 9. Corinne earned her undergraduate degree from Penn State University, and her Masters degree in Education Policy Studies and a K-12 Supervisory Certificate from Duquesne University. Previously, Corinne worked as a district-level administrator for supervision of mathematics/computer science; as a curriculum, textbook, and cognitive tutor developer; and as a classroom teacher in mathematics and science. Corinne has worked with the University of Pittsburgh to supervise pre-service mathematics teachers, and she has also taught undergraduate and graduate courses both face-to-face and online.

Gabriela Rose is a Science Coordinator for the Math & Science Collaborative at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, PA. In this position she is working with science teachers and administrators to implement rigorous inquiry-based science instruction with the goal of preparing all students for college and career in the 21st century. Before coming to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Gabriela taught middle school science. Gabriela holds certification for Biology 7–12, Middle Level Science, K-12 Principal, and Supervisor for Curriculum and Instruction. Gabriela earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology and physical education at the Free University of Berlin, and a Master of Science in Ecology from the University of California at Davis.

Cynthia A. Tananis founded the Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh and serves as its Director and as an Associate Professor in the School Leadership Program. Her expertise focuses on using participative evaluation designs with involved stakeholders, helping people make sense of and benefit from the evaluation process through collaboration, and linking evaluation studies and school reform policy. She holds a B.S. in Education and an Ed.D. in Policy, Planning, and Evaluation Studies, both from the University of Pittsburgh.

Keith Trahan serves as the Assistant Director of CEAC. Keith has been lead evaluator for a variety of programs in the areas of K-12 math and science reform and school leadership, IHE STEM curriculum, instruction, and learning, IHE international education, and community-based human services. He holds a B.A. in Government and a B.A. in Sociology from McNeese State University, an M.A.T. from Charleston Southern University, and a Ph.D. from the Social and Comparative Analysis in Education Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dana Winters serves as Senior Evaluator for CEAC. Dana has experience leading evaluations throughout PK-16 formal education, large-scale STEM and literacy reform initiatives, informal education, and community-based non-profit evaluation. Dana has a B.A. in Sociology and Political Science from Saint Vincent College and a M.A. in Student Affairs in Higher Education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is currently a doctoral student in the Social and Comparative Analysis in Education Program at the University of Pittsburgh.


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Michaels, Sarah. 2013. “What’s Common Across the Common Core (ELAS and Math) and the Next Generation Science Standards?” Presentation of NSTA WEB Seminars: Live Interactive Learning @ Your Desktop. http://learningcenter.nsta.org/products/sympo- sia_seminars/NGSS/files/ConnectionsBetweenPracticesinNGSS- CommonCoreMathandCommonCoreELA_2-12-2013.pdf (accessed January 14, 2015).

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Tang, G. 2004. The Grapes of Math. New York: Scholastic Paperbacks. Widener, A. 2014. “A New Standard.” Chemical & Engineering News 92(35): 43–45.

Winters, D.M., and K.T. Wade. 2014. “Librarian/volunteer and Student Surveys for Murrysville Community Library’s CCSS/NGSS Pilot for Summer Reading Club.” Collaboration for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity (CEAC). September Report, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh.


  • The authors thank the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County (affiliated with The Pittsburgh Foundation) for its lead support in the project. They also are grateful to the following key supporters: the Community Foundation of Murrysville, Export, and Delmont; PPG GIVE Award; the Lulu Pool Trust, managed by First Commonwealth Bank; Lakshmi Gupta.
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The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Course

Robert M. Sanford,
University of Southern Maine
Joseph K. Staples, University of Southern Maine






It is commonly assumed that“distance learning,” or education that is asynchronous and non-residential, involves a substitution of the online version of traditional pedagogies—lectures, assignments, discussions, etc.—for live, in-class experiences, often at the cost of student engagement in the social and experiential aspects of learning. However, new technology can also allow faculty to design independent, unscripted, and embodied learning experiences that deepen students’ engagement with their own learning. The innovative course described below used simple and widely available technological tools to empower students to become self-directed learners while contributing to the body of public knowledge about an important environmental resource.

The Northern Forest Canoe course is a freshman general education (“core”) course developed by an interdisciplinary team of three faculty (Joseph Staples, chemical ecology; Robert Sanford, environmental planning; and Elizabeth Vella, psychology) at the University of Southern Maine (USM) to provide an experiential, non-residency learning experience. This course was designated an “entry year experience” (EYE) that reflects the principles of Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER). We wanted to create a course that would provide learners with basic competency in environmental science field skills (GPS, compass, dichotomous keys, transects, shoreline field assessment, tree and aquatic plant identification, use of canoes and field equipment for water quality sampling) through an immersion experience that connected students to a natural community and would foster a sense of stewardship.

We developed this as a “distance learning” course rather than as a true online course, because the learning occurs at a distance, through field work, and is the result of the student’s own activities and reflections—there are no online lectures or formal sessions. Instead, the course is an asynchronous learning experience that takes place at the convenience of the student during a designated portion of the summer. However, the possibility remains of offering future versions as a synchronous “expeditionary” course led by an instructor.

Figure 1. The 740-mile (1,190-km) Northern Forest Canoe Trail runs from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine. Students are free to select to use any portion of it or its related tributaries and watersheds. (Map by Northern Forest Canoe Trail, http://www.northernforestcanoetrail.org/)

The location of the course (fig. 1) is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, 740 miles (1,190 km) of marked canoeing trail extending from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine. The specific sections of the trail to be investigated are selected by the individual student. There is no fixed distance a participant must travel, but the student must spend at least 10 days in which five or more hours per day are spent on the waters of the trail.

Target populations for the course include military veterans returning to school and desiring a gradual entry through a contemplative nature experience, other non-traditional learners, and freshmen who want to get a head start on their college educational experience before the academic year commences. The authors of this paper, as veterans themselves, particularly sought the opportunity to reach out to veterans. Psychology Professor Elizabeth Vella’s research focuses on the benefits of outdoor experiences for combat veterans, and a number of the reading assignments address the therapeutic aspects of outdoor recreation.

This course is designed to credentialize a self-guided outdoor learning experience mentored by university professors with interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary expertise. Participants undergo the equivalent of ten or more days (which need not be consecutive) of canoe or kayak trips along portions of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Since the goal is experiential, it is not important how much of the trail is covered, nor that the travel be completed all at once. Instead, participants set their own schedule, provide periodic online check-ins, and submit assignments designed to foster an experience that is contemplative and that builds independent learning skills. The course provides an introduction to environmental data gathering and assessment, to aspects of environmental management, and to critical thinking about personal, social, and ecological implications of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Students are assumed to have a knowledge of basic water safety, canoeing/kayaking ability, orienteering and map reading skills, and camping/ cooking or other logistical support skills. The course is a self-guided experience; students are expected to rely upon their own abilities and to undertake only those trips that are safe and attainable within their skill set and equipment capabilities. Students are free to take along partners, friends, and family members.

This course is suitable for anyone seeking to explore the environment or learn about environmental science. It is also suitable for anyone who wants a self-paced entry to a college-level experience. The course fulfills the Entry Year Experience core education requirement for USM. Accordingly the course meshes with the core EYE goals, as specified on the syllabus. This non-traditional approach constituted an act of faith between the developers and the summer program staff. The supervising program director stated: “I am pleased to have supported the innovative Northern Canoe Trail course as a pilot this summer, even with a small enrollment. If summer is not the time to incubate cool, experimental ideas that have the potential to reach students differently then I don’t know when is! I hope this course will continue to gain momentum while inspiring students and faculty alike.”1  In furtherance of this goal, USM Online’s Center for Technology Enhanced Learning (CTEL) provided a $2,000 development grant for the course. USM Reference Librarian Zip Kellog, author of several canoeing publications, provided input into the course development, as did the Veteran Certifying Officer, Laurie Spaulding; Susan McWilliams, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education; and other staff at the university.

This course and USM’s Entry Year Experience (EYE) goals:
  1. Employ a variety of perspectives to explore the interrelationship between human culture and the natural world of the Northern Forest Canoe
  2. Pose and explore questions in areas that are new and challenging: as a part of the river experience students will develop questions about the stewardship of this Students may draw from conservation biology and ecology, geology, environmental history, environmental literature, economics, other social and physical sciences, and the fine arts.
  3. The online posting requirements of this course give students opportunity to immediately respond to their experiences and to receive feedback from a mentor (one or more instructors).
  4. Reflect upon and link learning in the course with other learning experiences (for example co-curricular experience). This course is co-curricular by its very Students will provide formative assessments via their online postings/uplinks. The self-assessment piece at the end is a final summative.
  5. Recognize that an individual’s viewpoint is shaped by his or her experiences and by historical and cultural The student will evaluate his/her views and perspectives on the NFCT.
Course objectives
  1. Complete a total of 10 or more days of canoe/kayak experience on the waters of the These days need not be consecutive and can be selected at the convenience of the student within the timeframe of the course
  2. Employ environmental science field skills (notably, GPS, compass, dichotomous keys, transects, shoreline assessment, tree and aquatic plant identification, use of canoes and field equipment for water quality and other environmental sampling) to gather data and document river
  3. Participate in a Google+ virtual community of paddlers.
  4. Record reactions to an immersive, contemplative experience in rural or even wilderness riparian settings with the intention of deepening one’s connection to a natural community and fostering a sense of stewardship.
  5. Be able to describe the interdisciplinary nature of independent learning and self-assessment as part of a college-readiness experience.

The course uses a variety of assignments in a low stakes writing approach. Low stakes writing—“writing to learn”— is central to the achievement and assessment of learning outcomes. It is low stakes because there are no right or wrong answers and there are frequent assignments. Low stakes writing for this course includes a journal and separate responses to experience posted in the discussion section of Blackboard. The questions and writing prompts are drawn from Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives and are keyed to the assigned texts, conditions of the environment, and the experiential nature of the course as a self-guided river corridor transit.

Figure 2. Environmental Science major Amy Webb and her dog camping out along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Photo courtesy of Amy Webb.

The course establishes an online community in which students share their work and their reflections and in which stakeholders can participate. The civic engagement aspects of this course include a “client” partner, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) non-profit organization. NFCT provided input into the development of the course, including requests for specific projects to be accomplished by the participants. One member of the NFCT Board of Directors responded: “We are delighted that Professor Sanford and his colleagues at USM have developed this innovative course for experiential learning along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Students learn and earn credits toward a degree while enjoying a potentially life-changing experience, and their notes and observations provide NFCT additional information about trail conditions and usage.”2

Although the numbers were small (six) for the trial run of this course, the participants seemed to benefit. One student (fig. 2) stated,“I really enjoyed the fully immersed, completely independent environmental experience that the Northern Forest Canoe Trail Course offered. While taking this class I was able to complete a full time internship, receive course credits, take my family along and teach them a thing or two about the environment!”

Basic technological literacy and equipment were required for students enrolling in this course, including a digital cam- era, GPS, and computer, iPad, or iPhone for online connection to the campus Blackboard3 system for announcements, assignments, grades, discussions and other support activities. A Google account was required for participation in the Google+ virtual community. Links are provided to the various course documents.

About the Authors

Robert M. Sanford chairs the Department of Environmental Science & Policy at the University of Southern Maine, in Gorham, Maine. He is a SENCER Fellow and a co-director of the SENCER New England SCI.

Joseph K. Staples (PhD.) conducts research in the areas of forest ecology, environmental entomology & physiology, and integrated pest management in the Department of Environmental Science & Policy at the University of Southern Maine. He is a graduate of the Scholar Educator Program at Illinois State University and has taught more than thirty different courses in biology, ecology, and environmental science.


  1. Karin Pires, Associate Director, Academic Programs, Professional & Continuing Education (PCE), University of Southern Maine, personal communication.
  2. Will Plumley, NFCT Board of Directors, personal communication.
  3. This description of the course assumes the use of Blackboard Learning System for course And Blackboard will be used to maintain an online confidential grade book. However, the final version of the course may use Google Community or other format as per the final syllabus.


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Brownfield Action Online – Using Technology to Extend Access to Non-Traditional Students


Brownfield Action (BA) is a SENCER Model that is a web-based, interactive, three-dimensional digital space and learning simulation in which students form fictitious geotechnical consulting companies and work collectively to explore problems in environmental forensics. Created at Columbia University’s Barnard College in conjunction with Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, BA has a 12-year history of use at Barnard as a full semester activity in a two-semester Introduction to Environmental Science course. Each year more than 100 non-science majors take BA as an option to satisfy the College’s undergraduate science requirement. The pedagogical methods and design of BA are grounded in a substantial research literature focused on the design, use, and effectiveness of games and simulation in education (Bower et al. 2011). The variety of ways in which the BA simulation is used at Barnard and nine other educational institutions in the United States is described in Bower et al. (2014).

Although BA is web-based, there are components that are done in the classroom to complement the online instruction. The components include making topographic, bedrock, and groundwater maps; laboratory experiments to determine the porosity and permeability of sediment; and observation of the migration of a contaminant plume in a sand tank designed for that purpose. In this report we describe how we taught BA online to non-traditional students who use the course to satisfy an elective science requirement at the City College of New York (CCNY). The CCNY learning management system (LMS) is Blackboard 9.1, but any LMS can be used when teaching BA online. The course combined mainly asynchronous instruction, in which the students accessed course material and learned it outside the classroom at their leisure, and in-class instruction evenly spaced during the semester, when all of the students were present. It was in the classroom that students did laboratory experiments with equipment that would not be available away from the College. Examples of equipment that makes the learning experience meaningful to the students are sediment sieves for mechanical separation of regolith (sand) into different sizes or fractions, a triple-beam balance for measuring the mass of each sand fraction, a permeameter to measure the permeability coefficient needed in the calculation of the velocity of groundwater flow using D’Arcy’s Law, and a sand tank commercially obtained and designed to demonstrate the migration of a contaminated plume in groundwater.

Course Design

We used the constructionist approach (Murphy et al. 2005) to teaching BA as an asynchronous online course. An advantage of teaching BA asynchronously rather than having real-time (synchronous) communication between students and us is that it allowed the students to collapse time and space, to access the classes anywhere, and to get immediate feedback between themselves and us. Furthermore, we prefer authentic learning (Donovan et al. 1999) that involves the students in an investigation of a relevant issue such as a brownfield because it applies well to someone who lives in a large metropolitan area such as New York City. We are mindful that the success of the course depends much on structuring assignments so that the students see where the tasks they do help to lead to the eventual goal of the course, which is the drafting of an Environmental Site Assessment Phase I Report. We are fortunate to have more than a decade of experience developing and teaching face-to-face the assignments used in BA. Texts for the course are Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which are accompanied by questions that direct the reading for each class.

Course Content

For faculty who intend to teach BA online, we offer here the lessons we developed for the course at CCNY. Each class consisted of a Lesson, Assignment, Discussion, Questions for reading assignments, and Resource, which was a PowerPoint presentation. The answers to the reading questions were known only to us and were not shared between students online. Student performance was assessed by weekly assignments and an Environmental Site Assessment Phase I Final Report.

During the first week of the course there were two three-hour classes when the students met with us on campus to make and interpret maps that are required for BA. Four additional classes during the semester when the students were together with us were when laboratory experiments were done to measure the porosity and permeability of regolith (sand), observe the contaminant plume in the sand tank model, and write the Environmental Site Assessment Phase I Report that was a requirement of the course. What follows is a description of the classes that can be used or adapted by other instructors when teaching BA online.

Class 1 consisted of a Lesson that described a brownfield and the design of the course. Because scale and a map of the region to be explored and topographic, bedrock, and water table maps are important in an environmental investigation of the kind that is done in BA, there was an explanation of the maps with all of the students present. The Discussion was for the students to write a paragraph telling their classmates and us something about themselves. As part of the biography, the students used the letters of their first name to describe traits they have. This activity served as an informal means of introducing the students to each other. An Assignment to be shared with everyone was for each student to select a park or similar site in his or her neighborhood and compute the area of that site. The intention of the assignment is to reinforce the concept of scale by comparing the area of the neighborhood site with the area of the base map (about 160 acres) and to Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, which was of similar area and a familiar locality to the students. Questions the students saw online about Chapter 1 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered and sent to us before the next class; the biography using the letters of the first name was sent to everyone in the course. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation about scale and the fictitious township that the students would investigate in the search for a brownfield. The class concluded with a video that described why an environmental site assessment is required for a parcel of land that a developer is considering buying; in this case, the land would be used to construct a mini-mall at the site of a former factory in Moraine Township, which is the fictitious township in the BA simulation.

The Lesson in Class 2 was devoted to a visual reconnaissance of Moraine Township. Because the reconnaissance is of about 160 acres, the task was divided among the students with each one assigned a sector of 20 acres. The Assignment required each student to report on the physical appearance of the landscape and position of buildings and roads in the sector. Students then combined the reports in the Discussion for use in a storyboard that would be a reference throughout the investigation. Questions about Chapter 2 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation that had photographs and results of the regolith sieving lab that was done in Class 1.

The Lesson in Class 3 was for each student to locate and describe a brownfield in his or her neighborhood, and to report it to the entire class in the Discussion. The Assignment was to summarize the information that was learned in the visual reconnaissance of Moraine Township and to identify possible sites that required examination. This information also was to be communicated to the entire class in the Discussion. Questions about Chapter 3 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation that had photographs of an abandoned gas station in Manhattan that is a brownfield.

The photographs gave the students an example of what might be a brownfield in their neighborhood.

Interviews with residents in Moraine Township have the potential to provide information that will be valuable in the search for a brownfield. Those interviews are possible in the BA simulation, and the Lesson in Class 4 was to have each student make several interviews from 20 possible ones. The Assignment was for each student to report the results of the interviews in the Discussion that was shared with everyone, and to add the responses to the storyboard for the investigation. Questions about Chapter 4 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation containing information about how to conduct an interview in the BA simulation.

The students met with us in the classroom for Class 5. The Lesson was to introduce a plume (dye) into a sand tank designed to show how a contaminant moves from a point source in a well to a region of reduced confining pressure (pond). The Assignment was to calculate the rate of the groundwater flow using D’Arcy’s Law and to share the result in the Discussion. Questions about Chapter 5 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation that showed the sand tank and explained the demonstration that was done with it. The class concluded with a showing of the CBS 60 Minutes interview with Anne Anderson, whose young son died from leukemia and who is a central character in A Civil Action.

Information from the interviews that were made in the Lesson for Class 4 and shared in the Discussion that week revealed that there might be subsurface pollution at the BTEX station that is located in the northwestern part of Moraine Township. The Lesson for Class 6 was to make a Soil Gas Sampling Analysis (SGSA) along a transect from the BTEX station to the municipal well that provides drinking water to the residents of Moraine Township. The SGSA survey is a geophysical method of detecting whether there is gasoline floating on the surface of the water table. The Assignment was for each student to make a measurement at a selected point along the transect and report the result in the Discussion for everyone to use. Questions about Chapter 6 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation about the SGSA procedure, costs, and certification that is required before a measurement is made.

Because there was a positive SGSA result from the surveys in Class 6, the Lesson for Class 7 was to locate the underground storage tanks (UST) at the BTEX station. This is possible by doing a Magnetometry Metal Detection (MMD) investigation to locate the tanks before they are excavated. The Assignment was for each student to do the MMD survey in a square 10 feet on a side on the topographic map and to report the results to everyone in the Discussion. Questions about Chapter 7 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation about the MMD procedure, cost, and required certification before making the measurement.

After locating the USTs with the MMD survey, the tanks were excavated in Class 8. The Lesson for Class 8 was for each student to excavate the site he or she explored in Lesson 7. The Assignment was to expose the USTs and for ones that are leaking (LUSTs) to report the results in the Discussion for each student to add to the base map of Moraine Township. Questions about Chapter 8 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation about how to excavate an UST, the cost involved in doing that, and the certification required before excavation is begun.

In the Lesson for Class 9, the students were asked to review information that was obtained from the visual reconnaissance of Moraine Township, from interviews with business owners and their employees and from residents and government officials, the SGSA and MMD surveys, and excavations at the BTEX station. The Assignment was to draw conclusions from the information as it applied to the LUSTs at the BTEX station and to share the conclusions with classmates and us in the Discussion. A second Lesson in Class 9 was to do a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey of the septic field at a former factory that is suspected to be the point source of the radioactive isotope tritium in the municipal water supply. As with the SGSA and MMD surveys, the sites for the GPR survey were assigned to different students. The Assignment was to report the findings of the survey to everyone in the course and to share it in a Discussion. Questions about Chapter 9 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation about how to do a GPR survey, the cost, and certification required before the survey is begun.

The students were back in the classroom for Class 10 where the sand tank was used for the Lesson about the migration of a plume of vegetable dye from a point source to a region of reduced confining pressure, which is a pond. The Assignment was to calculate the rate of flow of the plume using D’Arcy’s Law and to share the answer with classmates in the Discussion. A laboratory activity was to measure the permeability coefficient of the regolith with a permeameter. Questions about Chapter 10 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation about the use of the permeameter to obtain the permeability coefficient that is one of the factors in D’Arcy’s Law.

The Lesson for Class 11 was about radioactivity and the radioactive isotope tritium. The abandoned factory that will be the site of the proposed shopping center used tritium in the manufacture of some of its products. Because tritium is present in the drinking water used by residents in Moraine Township, it is important to find its source. Using the porosity and permeability constant of the regolith and the slope of the water table, the Assignment was to calculate the time in years that it would take for tritium to move in the groundwater from the factory to the municipal well. The answer to this assignment was shared in the Discussion. Questions about Chapter 11 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation about radioactivity and nuclides, especially of tritium and its decay product, a beta particle.

The Lesson for Class 12 was an examination of reports about the quality of the drinking water in Moraine Township. The Assignment was to summarize the information that is relevant for the Environmental Site Assessment Phase I Report that is a requirement of the investigation. Each student shared his or her interpretation of the reports with classmates using the Discussion. Questions about Chapter 12 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation showing a Water Report and providing information about how to interpret the Report.

The Lesson for Class 13 was to test the groundwater in Moraine Township by obtaining water samples from drill wells. Drilling was done along a transect where there was a suspected plume of hydrocarbon contamination from the LUST at the BTEX station, and along a transect from the septic field at the abandoned factory that used tritium as an energy source in the manufacture of some of its products. The Assignment was for each student to drill at a site along the transect and to report the results in the Discussion. Questions about Chapter 13 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource was a PowerPoint presentation that had instructions and guidelines about drilling so that money would not be spent unwisely at this phase of the investigation.

The Lessons for Classes 14 and 15, which were done in the classroom, were devoted to the writing of the Environmental Site Assessment Phase I Report that was a requirement of the investigation. The Assignments were for each student to draft a part of the report and share it with the entire class in the Discussions. Questions about Chapter 14 and 15 in Silent Spring and A Civil Action were to be answered within seven days and sent only to us. The Resource for Class 14 was a PowerPoint presentation with the instructions for the writing of the report. The Resource for Class 15 was a PowerPoint presentation that summarized the phases of the investigation and had instructions about completing the investigation, along with recommendations to be given to the prospective property owner regarding the environmental quality of the land being considered for the mini-mall. The course ended with a video that showed the two brownfields in Moraine Township and a three-dimensional simulation of their movement to the municipal water well from the BTEX station and from the abandoned factory that used tritium.


In order to preserve the integrity of BA when it is taught online, it should be framed as a “hybrid” course, as it is important that the students meet together with the instructor for some of the classes. The asynchronous part of the course allows students to collapse time and space; to access the classes anywhere; to get immediate feedback, tutoring, and coaching; and to receive real-time interaction between themselves and the instructor. For anyone who teaches an online course or intends to teach one, a resource that we found to be useful is The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing & Teaching Online Courses by Joan Thormann and Isa Kaftal Zimmerman (2012).

About the Authors

Joseph Liddicoat is an Adjunct Professor at the City College of New York where he teaches the Core Science curriculum and elective science courses, one of which is Brownfield Action. Retired from Barnard College, he has been part of the development of Brownfield Action with Peter Bower and others for nearly 15 years. He received his A.B in English Literature and Language from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, which is his home town, and graduate degrees in Earth Science from Dartmouth College (A.M.) and University of California, Santa Cruz (Ph.D.).

Peter Bower, conservationist and educator, is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science at Barnard College/Columbia University, where he has taught for 29 years. He has been involved in research, conservation, and education in the Hudson River Valley for 35 years. He is the creator of the Brownfield Action selected as a National SENCER Model Curriculum in 2003 and is a SENCER Fellow. This innovative curriculum includes a web-based, interactive, digital space and simulation, in which student“consulting companies” explore and solve problems in environmental forensics (see www.brownfieldaction.org). He has also developed and taught courses in field methods, environmental law, environmental hazards and disasters, waste management, energy resources, and the Hudson River ecosystem, among others. He is a recipient of Barnard College’s Emily Gregory Award for excellence in teaching. He has also served as acting executive director of the Black Rock Forest Consortium in Cornwall, New York, where he managed and directed the staff and facilities of a 3,785-acre forest and oversaw its research, educational, and conservation activities. He is the former Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, where he served on the City Council, Planning Board, and Environmental Commission for eight years. He received his B.S. in geology from Yale, M.A. in geology from Queens, and Ph.D. in geochemistry from Columbia.


Bower, P., R. Kelsey, and F. Moretti, 2011. “Brownfield Action: An Inquiry-based Multimedia Simulation for Teaching and Learning Environmental Science.” Science Education and Civic Engagement 3 (1): 5–14. http://seceij.net/seceij/winter11/brownfield_acti.html

(accessed December 19, 2014).

Bower, P., R. Kelsey, B. Bennington, L.D. Lemke, J. Liddicoat, B. Sorice Miccio, A. Lampousis, D.M. Thompson, B. Greenbaum Seewald, A.D. Kney, T. Graham, and S. Datta, 2014. “Brownfield Action: Dissemination of a SENCER Model Curriculum and the Creation of a Collaborative STEM Education Network.” Science Education and Civic Engagement 6 (1): 5–21. http://seceij.net/ secei/winter 14/brownfield_acti.html (accessed December 19, 2014).

Carson, R. 2002. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Donovan, M.S., J.D. Bradsford, and J.W. Pellegrino, eds. 1999. How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Harr, J. 1996. A Civil Action. New York: Vintage Books. Murphy, K., S.E. Mahoney, C.Y. Chen, N. Mendoza-Diaz, and X.

Yang. 2005. “A Constructionist Model of Mentoring, Coaching, and Facilitating Online Discussions.” Distance Education 26 (3): 341–355.

Thormann, J., and I.K. Zimmerman. 2012. The Complete Step-by- Step Guide to Designing & Teaching Online Courses. New York: Teachers College Press.

Supplemental Course Materials

Class PowerPoints:


Class Lessons:


Class Discussions (Forums):


Silent Spring Questions:


A Civil Action Questions:


Link to Brownfield Action


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Life In and Around the Chicago River: Achieving Civic Engagement through Project-Based Learning


By the year 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aims to make the Chicago River an area designated for primary contact recreational use, where people can swim in the water without being harmed by water-borne pathogens from raw sewage contamination (EPA 2011). In recent years, recreational use of the Chicago River has been increasing. Currently only three of the Chicagoland area’s water reclamation plants disinfect their wastewater (Oh 2012). The focus of this research project was to determine the coliform count and identify the bacteria within the Chicago River. This mission was performed by undergraduate students enrolled in a microbiology research course centered on project-based learning (PBL) at Harold Washington College (HWC). This endeavor allowed students to learn basic laboratory skills currently used in the field of microbiology and apply them in a real-world scenario. In addition, the students learned the value of collaborative learning and research, along with its outcomes. The results of this project can serve to engage the public by educating them about the pollution in the Chicago River, an invaluable resource shared by many locals and tourists in the Chicagoland area.


If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water, and the Chicago River is a testament to that (Eiseley 1959). The Chicago River has played a critical role in the history of Chicago and continues to be utilized to this day. As has been often repeated, the city of Chicago owes its existence to the Chicago River, and the river owes its present form to Chicago. Geographically speaking, had it not been for the river’s location between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines River, Chicago would never have become one of the nation’s central transshipment points (Hill 2000). Since that time, the Chicago River has come a long way from being a cesspool to today’s recreational hot spot.

In the nineteenth century, city sewers drained into the Chicago River, which emptied into Lake Michigan. This posed a health hazard, as the lake supplied the city’s drinking water (Brown, 2002). In 1900, the completion of the Sanitary and Ship Canal reversed the flow of the Chicago River to direct sewage away from the lake, and after 1922, water treatment plants were established. Today, the Chicago River is used for recreational purposes where tourists hop aboard tour boats and water taxis. Some residents kayak on the river despite the fact that it sometimes receives bad press due to its polluted ecosystem. The EPA’s goal is to designate the Chicago River as an area safe for primary contact recreation use by 2016, meaning that people will be able to enjoy direct contact between their skin and the water without being harmed by waterborne pathogens from raw sewage contamination (EPA 2011). Moreover, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has launched a development project for the Chicago Riverwalk, attracting residents and tourists alike to enjoy activities along the main branch of the river. However, only three out of seven of the Chicagoland area’s water reclamation plants currently sanitize their wastewater before pumping the effluent back out into the river (Oh 2012).

The main goals of this research are to:

  1. Show the impact of learning that resulted in civic engagement through project-based learning conducted by undergraduates.
  2. Demonstrate the ability of two-year college students, when given the opportunity, to engage and conduct critical research such as the investigation of water quality in the Chicago River, and to supply results and outcomes that could make a difference in the quality of life around the Such work is at the core of civic engagement.
  3. Investigate the water contamination level in the Chicago River by determining the coliform count and bacterial identification. Coliforms are gram-negative bacteria that originate from the large intestines of warm-blooded animals and are therefore used as an indicator of fecal If coliforms are found in water, other pathogenic bacteria may be present as well. Pathogens commonly found in wastewater effluents include Escherichia coli, Streptococcus, Salmonella, Shigella, mycobacterium, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Giardia lamblia, and enteroviruses (North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services 2011).

This investigation was carried out as part of an interdisciplinary microbiology research course that was designed and taught based on Project-Based Learning (PBL) methods. There is no doubt that the ways we teach and engage students in learning affect students’ attitudes toward, and performance in, college-level courses. Educating our students within the classroom about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is not enough. Science is not simply what students learn from textbooks or from a traditional passive learning environment. Students need to be taught how science is practiced, because it is through science and math that our world is rapidly evolving, with new discoveries being made through inquiry and experimental research. Teaching students scientific concepts through engagement in scientific inquiry and empirical research enables them to understand how math and science fields play a critical role in our society and in our everyday life. When students experience this through hands-on learning and empirical research, their creativity and intellectual boundaries are expanded, and their problem-solving skills and cognitive abilities improve and advance. It has been shown that students learn more effectively when they are engaged in hands-on learning experiences directed by students themselves (Brickman et al. 2009).

PBL has the potential to be a highly effective teaching method that fully engages students and leads them to success in mastering the course material. It greatly increases student motivation to learn course material, due to the impact of connections made outside of the conventional classroom setting. It is an alternative approach to education that encourages students to seek solutions to challenging and relevant problems and to bridge the gap between school and the real world (Doles 2012). In addition, the PBL method allo­­ws the student to retain the course material for a longer period of time than the methods employed in a traditional course. A study performed by Cherif, Movahedzadeh, Adams, and Dunning on why students fail in college-level courses, presented at the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) conference in 2013, revealed that lack of motivation is among the most common factors that contribute to student academic failure (Cherif et al. 2013). Lack of motivation was also recognized by many faculty members as one of the root causes of student failure (Cherif et al. 2014). When students realize the significance of the subject being taught and how it relates to their lives, they are more likely to become motivated and engaged. A PBL environment may also change the attitude a student has towards a course or career path (Chang et al. 2011). This is significant, especially because it has been documented that 50 percent of students seeking an associate degree require remediation, while 20.7 percent of those seeking a bachelor degree require remediation (The State of College & Career Readiness 2013). PBL is an innovative and promising teaching method that imparts to students the skills needed to compete and succeed in STEM field jobs. PBL teaches students important skills such as critical thinking, collaboration with others, taking responsibility for their learning, and time management, among others. PBL is a key learning methodology that prepares students with the skills that are required by employers in STEM fields. Today employers expect professionals not only to hold strong technical skills, but also to be able to work well in teams, manage their time efficiently, multitask, and effectively communicate information gathered from a variety of sources (AACC 2010). Students in PBL classrooms learn and continuously exercise these important skills. Positive outcomes have been revealed at universities such as Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), where students in a general chemistry course completed a project of their choice related to chemistry. The majority of the students had a positive sense of having gained an “understanding of the multi-disciplinary nature of societal issues” and how chemistry aids in addressing real-world issues (Webb 2013). Similarly, this research project revealed the important role biotechnology plays in our society as a means of addressing issues such as water contamination.

We are rapidly moving forward with advancing technology, but there is a lack of skilled and qualified personnel adequately equipped with knowledge in using such advancements. If we are quickly developing innovative technology through research and development, and the demand for skilled workers, such as lab technicians, is ever increasing, then why are students not being taught the skills employers are looking for or the skills necessary to succeed in STEM field jobs? As we will show, PBL methodology grants students opportunities to learn to be self-directed in their education and to acquire the skills they need.

The research project discussed in this paper incorporated the use of current microbiology techniques for students to investigate water contamination in the Chicago River. Integrating PBL in science courses can inspire students to pursue science-related careers. Moreover, these types of projects can positively impact students and encourage them to engage pressing issues in their community and educate the public about such issues. The results of this research call for civic engagement, because the Chicago River is a dynamic resource that is shared and utilized by countless residents of Chicago for various purposes. Given support and minimal resources, students at the community college level are able to actively participate and flourish in research that both recognizes and addresses matters concerning their society and their environment.

Materials and Methods

Undergraduates were tasked with planning and implementation in all of the aspects of this course, including but not limited to the design of and participation in sampling, testing, research, and synthesis of information.

Sample collection

Water samples were obtained on two separate occasions under two diverse weather conditions. Samples were taken from one location, under the Wabash Avenue Bridge, during inclement weather when torrential rains precipitated the opening of the locks leading from the Chicago River into Lake Michigan due to flooding (April 18, 2013). Water samples reflecting dry weather and normal river conditions were collected at five sites along the Chicago River (fig. 1) on a separate day approximately two weeks later (May 3, 2013). In selecting the sites for the testing samples, covering a large area along the river across multiple neighborhoods where residents use the river in various ways was desired. Samples were collected using a one-liter graduated pitcher attached to an eight-foot pole. Two water samples per location were collected from approximately six feet below the surface, poured into collection bottles, and taken to the microbiology lab at Harold Washington College (HWC) for analysis.

Bacterial Count

To determine coliform counts, serial dilutions of 1:1, 1:10, 1:100, and 1:1000 were made from the samples taken during dry normal conditions as they more accurately reflect the ongoing contamination of the Chicago River. MacConkey’s agar plates were inoculated with 100 µL of each dilution. After incubation at 37º C for 24–48 hours, colony-forming units (CFUs) were determined. Final results represent the average of both samples per location as shown in table 1. While the applied approach may differ from the methods utilized by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) plants, the way we submitted the report of the colony count is the standard method and comparable to theirs.

Culture Identification

Bacterial differentiation began by inoculating 100 µL of each non-diluted sample onto the following media: MacConkey’s agar, blood agar, Eosinmethylene blue agar (EMB), and triple sugar agar (TSA). After overnight incubation at 37° C, gram negative colonies were selected and isolated to inoculate into nutrient broth for further testing.

Biochemical Identification of Isolates

In addition to the IMViC tests, the following biochemical tests were performed for bacterial differentiation: glucose broth (with and without oil), lactose broth, nitrate broth, gelatin agar, starch agar, spirit blue agar, phenylalanine deaminase, methyl red/ Voges Proskauer, esculin hydrolysis, urea hydrolysis, oxidase and catalase production. To confirm the identification, Enterotube Multitest System (BD BBL, USA) was used for each sample and incubated at 37º C for 24–48 hours. Results from all tests were determined (table 1) using the Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology (1994).


Testing the water in the Chicago River led to the isolation of coliforms like Pseudomonas aeruginosa (fig. 2, originating from flood water sample), Escherichia coli and opportunistic pathogens like Enterobacter agglomerans and Serratia odorifera (table 1). Since the presence of coliform bacteria was suspected, a series of biochemical tests was designed to investigate the fermentation and oxidation properties of the isolates. The bacteria were first tested for their ability to ferment lactose, since bacteria commonly found in water, such as E.coli, are lactose fermenters. The inoculated MacConkey agar plates displayed smooth, round, pink colonies which denoted lactose fermentation. All the results were confirmed using Enterotube Multitest System. Based on the series of biochemical tests performed, the resulting physiological characteristics were matched to the isolated enterobacteria (table 1).

Bacterial counts obtained by the undergraduates conducting this project are comparable to bacterial counts obtained by the MWRD after weekly testing of effluent wastewater released from both its O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant and Calumet Water Reclamation Plant between 2005 and 2010 (MWRD 2011). The bacterial count obtained from Site 3 had a higher count than the highest recorded at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant (120,000 CFUs /100 mL), yet lower than the highest count recorded at the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant (200,000 CFUs /100 mL) (MWRD 2011). Site 5, where the lowest number of CFUs were recorded by undergraduates, had a count above the minimum CFUs reported at the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant (660 CFUs /100 mL) (MWRD 2011). All sites where students obtained samples are located approximately eight to ten miles downstream from the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant.

While a total of six sites were randomly selected for this investigation, no specific reports have been found regarding these sites. The implication of the findings is that there is urgent need to make the river safe as a recreational place for Chicago residents.


As evidenced by the results, this research focuses on what students can and do achieve when given the opportunity to learn through PBL and undergraduate research. It also demonstrates the ability of undergraduate students at the community college level to give back to society. The central point is the impact of the learning that resulted from this type of civic engagement conducted by undergraduates, including what they could contribute to help the community in making in- formed decisions related to safety and the quality of the river. This project was part of an interdisciplinary course in which faculty and students at Harold Washington College pursued work on various aspects of the Chicago River. The Chicago Waterways Project, as conducted, provided students with the opportunity to discover by themselves what civic engagement and community service are all about.

The evaluation of students’ feedback revealed that appreciation for the project’s role in highlighting the significance of the Chicago River and appreciation for being part of something special were the major themes identified. Serving and giving back to the community was another key topic they mentioned. The average retention rate at HWC is 67 percent, in this course a retention rate of 88 percent was achieved. Upon assessment of the members of the microbiology section within this interdisciplinary class, 100 percent of the participants had either successfully transferred as a science major to a four-year institution or had been accepted in professional career programs. The success of this small model has tremendously encouraged us to use PBL with a civic engagement purpose in larger-scale future classes.

As part of this interdisciplinary research project at HWC, the result of this study was presented as a poster that was visited by members from the seven City Colleges of Chicago and the general public. The result was also presented orally to the attendees at the national conferences of the American Association of University Administrators (AAUA) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) (Martyn and Movahedzadeh 2014; Martyn et al. 2013).

Given that the EPA aims to make the Chicago River an area designated for primary contact recreational use by 2016, the research project described in this paper had a significant purpose: to enable students from a microbiology research course with a PBL emphasis to develop and complete a

project that investigated the contamination of the Chicago River. Through this process, the students were inspired and empowered, recognizing that they had an important role to play both in contributing to the collective body of research focused on the Chicago River’s ecosystem and in increasing citizens’ awareness of existent public health concerns. The outcome of this research brought valuable results to the populace and invaluable skills to the students, enabling them to demonstrate the intrinsic value of civic engagement.

The water samples collected revealed the presence of enterobacteria in the Chicago River. These bacteria are coliform bacteria, indicating that fecal contamination is likely. Contamination in the water could be due to the fact that currently only three out of seven of Chicago’s water reclamation plants disinfect their wastewater before pumping the effluent back out into the area waterways. Furthermore, it is worth noting that none of these three disinfecting plants sit adjacent to the Chicago River or serve the City of Chicago directly; thus these plants’ contribution of clean water to the river is not as significant as that of the contaminated sources. The Chicago River is a resource widely used for recreation by local residents and guests visiting Chicago. It is troubling to discover and report such a high number of CFUs. To add some perspective, consider standards applied along the shore of Lake Michigan, another source of recreational water use in Chicago. The Illinois Department of Public Health’s regulations contain a maximum standard for fecal coliform bacteria at 500 CFUs /100 mL at area beaches (Illinois Department of Public Health 2015). It is imperative to pay attention to the state of the river’s water quality, as new development along the beautified pedestrian walkways attract residents and tourists alike.

Through this research project, students acquired and improved upon skills currently employed in the microbial research/clinical setting. Nevertheless, the skills learned in this project go beyond the mastery of technical skills and practices in the laboratory. This project provided students a chance to further develop skills that will be useful in their future professions and daily lives, such as responsibility, critical thinking, self-motivation, collaboration, and communication. The concepts presented in the classroom and applied in the field fostered a more profound understanding and a greater appreciation of the biological sciences and how they can be applied directly to help address real world issues.


This research project revealed the significant role that technology plays in our society when utilized to address critical problems such as water contamination. It also attests to the importance and the value of civic engagement in college education. Students participating in this PBL course developed a profound personal attachment to effecting positive change in both the environment and their communities. A similar example can be found in a PBL based calculus II course at Roosevelt University, where semester-long projects have been incorporated into the course curriculum. The project topics vary from HIV/AIDs to wealth distribution, and include the mathematical topics being taught in the course. These projects have allowed the students to “understand the quantitative aspects of civic issues using models that rely on calculus for their construction” (González-Arévalo and Pivarski 2013). In addition, students gained an enhanced ap- preciation of mathematics and its applications in other fields (González-Arévalo and Pivarski 2013). PBL enables students to increase their knowledge while challenging them to think critically and teaching them to design and direct a project of their own. This work unifies the students’ initiative to direct their own learning and to accept responsibility for their education. At HWC, PBL had previously been successfully integrated in a biotechnology lab course where students demonstrated a high level of performance and satisfaction (Movahedzadeh et al. 2012). Moreover, students indicated that this experience supported their cognitive development and self-confidence and stimulated the idea of continuing their education beyond the associate degree level (Movahedzadeh et al. 2012). With minimal funding and support, students can be enriched with hands-on knowledge that breaks the traditional forms of teaching. PBL could be used as an effective vehicle guiding students to civic engagement while obtaining the skills needed to succeed in their higher learning and in their future professions through an active connection with their environment.

Interesting results were found testing the water of the Chicago River. Coliforms like E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and the opportunistic pathogens Enterobacter agglomerans and Serratia odorifera were isolated. Students found it imperative to instruct river enthusiasts and the broader community at large of the existence of coliforms and ways to reduce the risk of infection due to exposure from opportunistic pathogens. Simple precautions recommended to avoid water-borne illness when swimming or playing in or on the water include proper hand washing, showering before and after water exposure, refraining from recreational activities in water that is stagnant with dead fish, refraining from digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow and warm freshwater areas, and promptly tending to any wounds, cuts, or abrasions suffered in or near the water (North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services 2011).

The Chicago River has received bad press due to the polluted status of its ecosystem. These findings reveal the importance of seeking solutions to improve the water quality of the Chicago River. This is vital, especially since recreational activities are on the rise along the Chicago River. The solution could be disinfecting the wastewater from all seven reclamation plants before pumping the effluent back into the waterway system. We propose that there should be a collaborative effort that includes students from the City Colleges of Chicago. Instead of wasting materials on lab exercises divorced from real-world applications, students would prefer to assist in efforts aimed at continually improving and monitoring the standards of our communal waterway, having already demonstrated their willingness and competence to do so. Our laboratories are capable of contributing to the success of these efforts.

The primary goal of this research project was to engage students in the learning process and to create an educational environment where meaningful learning was not only possible, but would actually occur. Students explored conceptual meanings and implications throughout the learning processes contained in this PBL course. Furthermore, students gained vital experience by participating in the Chicago Waterways Project, where they applied what had been previously learned exclusively in the didactic classroom. This learning experience was further enriched when students tackled the problem of contamination in the Chicago River, an issue that must be addressed due to its potential to affect public health. It is hoped that this research will motivate students and the public to take action in the restoration of the river. Involving college students in research projects such as these reveals to them the impact they can have on society and how important their participation is in addressing these issues. PBL demonstrates to students that the scholastic subjects they may deem uninteresting or useless play an integral role in addressing the problems of society, in this case, the quality of the Chicago River. With encouragement and minimal financial resources students can gain a world of knowledge beyond the classroom and thrive by applying that knowledge to engage the issues in the world around them.


Research reported in this paper was supported by The City Colleges of Chicago Annual Plan funding under award number 12-450.

About the Authors

Farah Movahedzadeh, Ph.D., is an associate professor and currently the co-Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois. She received a doctorate degree in Clinical Lab Sciences from Medical Sciences University of Iran, and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Microbiology from the University College of London (UCL) and the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). She was elected as a SENCER Leadership Fellow in 2012. Her skills and areas of expertise include molecular biology, microbiology, clinical lab sciences, hybrid/blended teaching, and project-based learning. She also actively pursues her research on essential genes as drug targets for tuberculosis at the College of Pharmacy in the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has published research articles in both basic science and in pedagogy and scholarship of teaching.

Margie Martyn, Ph.D., is the Interim President at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. Previously, Dr. Martyn served as Vice President of Academic Affairs for Harold Washington College. She earned a B.S. from Michigan State University, an MBA from Baldwin-Wallace College, and a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology with a minor in Computer Science from The University of Akron. Dr. Martyn has experience as a faculty member, teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses in adult learning, computer literacy, mathematics literacy, liberal arts and sciences, management, telecommunications, and networking. She has published articles on the impact of technology on student learning outcomes and engagement.

Adrienne Linzemann is currently enrolled in the associate degree nursing program at Truman College in Chicago, Illinois. She intends to continue her nursing education after graduation. Her interests include microbiology, health promotion, and travel.

Elsa Quintero received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2012. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Medical Laboratory Science at Rush University.

Jose Aveja continued his education at Northeastern University in Chicago, Illinois. He is an avid photographer drawn to ornithology.

William Thompson is a senior lab technician in the Department of Biological Sciences at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois. This year he begins his 35th year of service with the City Colleges of Chicago. He is passionate about biology, microbiology, and clinical lab sciences.


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How We Engaged Audiences in Informal Science Education through the Inaugural Arkansas Science Festival

Amy R. Pearce,
Arkansas State University
Karen L. Yanowitz,
Arkansas State University
Anne A. Grippo,
Arkansas State University


Science festivals are gaining popularity as informal science education (ISE) events.  With support from the Science Festival Alliance and Arkansas State University (A-State), we launched the inaugural Arkansas Science Festival in October 2014. Few science festivals are held in rural areas such as the upper Mississippi Delta, A-State’s home, so challenges were expected.  Our local and campus communities enthusiastically came together to host events over eight consecutive days.  Beginning with school groups attending the opening performance of ArcAttack’s singing Tesla coils, through the Science Expo’s dozens of hands-on activities, displays and performances, and events in between, we attracted over 2000 participants to our festival.  Here we describe the challenges and successes of the first ever Arkansas Science Festival, and how even with a limited budget in a rural setting, we engaged participants in ISE activities.

ISE through the Arkansas Science Festival

Informal science education (ISE) experiences can spark new interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields (National Research Council [NRC] 2009). As advances in the domains of science and technology impact all areas of life, the importance of developing a scientifically engaged public in the 21st century cannot be overstated. One type of ISE experience, the science festival, has become a popular event across the United States and abroad. Though highly varied, science festivals typically focus on a celebration of STEM by engaging the public with scientific content (Bultitude et al. 2011). Science festivals may be offered in a single day or across multiple days, and in a variety of community, university, and museum settings. Each of the 40 science festivals established over the past five years has its own identity, but all rely on STEM practitioners to bring science to participants in an informal, interactive format (Wiehe 2014).

Figure 1. ArkSciFest attendees in the Faraday Cage at ArcAttack. The Arattack preformance at the Fowler center Oct. 3. Arattack is a perfrormance art group that plays music through homemade instruments.

The authors of this paper, research scientists at Arkansas State University (A-State) with interests in ISE, implemented the state’s and region’s first science festival in Fall 2014. At the time of planning, approximately 50 science festivals were listed on the Science Festival Alliance website, yet none was listed in the rural South. Scientific literacy is important for all; however, inhabitants of rural communities seldom have opportunities to engage in ISE activities. Our targeted region was the upper Mississippi Delta, which has some of the lowest population densities in the southern U.S. This economically poor region has a historically agricultural focus, little STEM industry, and some of the lowest levels of higher education in the country. The 2014 state data tool of the National Science Board revealed that only 13.8 percent of Arkansans hold bachelor’s degrees, while fewer than 9.2 percent of the residents of the Delta region of Arkansas have a bachelor’s degree (NSB 2014), one of the lowest rankings in the country. Comparable results are found in other states in our recruitment region. Our immediate region, the Jonesboro, Arkansas area, with almost 72,000 people, has a fairly diverse population, approximately 71 percent Caucasian, 18 percent Black, and 6 percent Hispanic (Cubit Planning 2015). Median household income in 2013 was approximately $39,000, with more than 25 percent of city residents living in poverty (Cubit Planning 2015).

To build the first Arkansas Science Festival, we sought funding through an initiative from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation managed through the Science Festival Alliance, a group whose mission is to help create more and better science festivals. On our campus, the Colleges of Education and Behavioral Science, Sciences and Mathematics, and the Arkansas Biosciences Institute provided internal matching funds. Through these generous entities, we had an initial total budget of $20K. Using a preliminary A-State activity schedule, we set a date for our festival in collaboration with the performing arts center on our campus and secured a science-themed musical group, ArcAttack, folding their performances into an established family-friendly concert series. Our other activities were planned to span the weekend of that date, and we would use the ArcAttack performances on the first Friday of October 2014 to attract area students and their families back to campus for the Science Expo the following day.


Our first setback occurred shortly after finalizing the date for ArcAttack: we could not schedule campus activities the following day, as homecoming, a major athletic event for our university, was now planned for that date. Making “lemonade from lemons,” we decided to participate in homecoming by securing a tailgate tent to host activities and promote other science festival events, which would now span eight consecutive days, culminating in the Science Expo the following Saturday. Another issue was that we needed to secure university approval for a logo design and promotional materials through our Office of Marketing and Communications, which we found to be a very busy office. Additionally, there were difficulties in clearing university protocol when soliciting community members for their financial support and inviting outside entities to join in the celebration. This “red tape” caused us to lag behind in both promotion and fundraising for our festival.

Back on Track

With our first two events secured, we sought collaborators within our community and across the state. The county public library offered to sponsor an activity during festival week, and also agreed to participate in the Science Expo. The organizer of a long-running science café in Little Rock (140 miles away) assisted us in hosting the first science café in our region for the festival. We secured an award-winning Arkansas author and radiologic technologist to present a talk on Marie Curie at the Expo, as well as community music groups to present at our homecoming tent. The Arkansas Museum of Discovery (also from Little Rock) arranged to bring their mobile science museum to be enjoyed by student groups on opening day.

Campus Collaborations

We found many enthusiastic campus collaborators and colleagues. The Arkansas State University Museum planned “warm up” activities for visiting regional students prior to the morning ArcAttack performance, as did staff from the Rural and Delta STEM Education Centers on campus. A professor of theatre suggested “Playing with Science,” a national playwriting contest for short science plays. A rock band comprised of faculty and students agreed to perform at the Expo, and several individual faculty, graduate students, and student groups began organizing activities to be presented at the Expo and in the homecoming tailgate tent. Many of the student organizations affiliated with the College of Sciences and Mathematics received guidance from the Student Club Coordinator, who is also currently working on a project of civic engagement sponsored through a SENCER SSI Implementation grant. One of the authors (KY) organized a research methodology course in which undergraduate students designed field studies to be conducted at the various activities. Further, a strategic communications team adopted the science festival as a class project; these undergraduate students organized and planned promotional strategies, and one interned part-time during the summer to help launch our website, Facebook page, and other promotions. Local media, including our campus NPR station, local television station, and newspaper, announced activities, and ran interviews, ads, and articles.

Festival Week

Figure 2. ArkSciFest attendees launch a weather balloon to bagpipes.

The “Singing Tesla Coils” of ArcAttack kicked off the festival with a daytime school-based show, followed by an evening show for the public. Together, the two programs brought in over 1,100 children and adults. The next day’s Homecoming Science Tailgate Tent presented the launch of weather balloons to the sound of bagpipes, solar-cooked hotdogs, beer-goggle Baggo, juggling, marine touch tanks, and an entomology collection.

Figure 3. Checking out the ELF, a solar-powered tricycle.

This event involved more than 250 attendees and volunteers and reached a large cross section of the community, and we had a welcome visit by a mentor from the Science Festival Alliance. Other events included the astronomy-themed science café held at a local restaurant, a tinkering studio in the A-State museum, a unique mindfulness and biofeedback workshop, and a science of music event at the county public library.

Figure 4. Keith Pringle and Brooke Thomas act as the planets Mars and Venus in the short play Revolution for the Playing with Science Short Play Experiment as part of the Arkansas Science Festival.

Another standout program was “Playing with Science”; over seventy-five original short science plays had been submitted by local, national, and international playwrights (some of them award winners). This fusion of science and the arts was brought to life through readings of the finalists in the playwriting contest by both scientists and actors. The festival closed with the Science Expo which featured over twenty-five activity stations and events and attracted approximately five hundred participants. The total cost of the eight-day festival was under $10,000, which was used for promotion, supplies, and the paid performances of ArcAttack. All labor was done by volunteers, including faculty, staff, and students from A-State, as well as community members and museum staff. We estimate that approximately 125 volunteers spent a total of 500 hours in planning and carrying out all the events held over the eight days of the Festival.

Several Goals Attained!

With the financial support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, mentorship from the Science Festival Alliance, and the support of the many volunteers, Expo hosts, event hosts, student and community organizations, speakers, and performers, we reached our goal of bringing science, technology, engineering, math, and health professions to over 2,000 people in our community (from Jonesboro’s population of about 72,000) in exciting and educational formats. Due largely to our volunteers’ generous assistance, we spent less than half of our initial budget, enabling us to maintain some funding toward the 2015 Arkansas Science Festival.

Attendees were asked to provide feedback regarding their experiences by completing a brief survey given by student volunteers (Table 1) who were stationed outside the exit doors of the Expo. Sixty-nine adult attendees completed the survey (66 percent female; M age = 37 years, range = 18 to 67 years; 83 percent Caucasian, 3 percent African-American, 3 percent Asian, 2 percent Hispanic; 8 percent selected “other” or multiple categories). We estimate this was approximately 14 percent of all attendees, both children and adults. Since attendance was measured simply by the number of people entering the hall and was not broken down by age, it is impossible to tell what percentage of the adult attendees completed the survey, a limitation of this research. However, 62 percent of the adults who completed surveys indicated they had brought children with them; thus, we theorize that we have captured a higher proportion than 14 percent of the adult population who attended the Expo.

Items were designed to assess perceptions of different aspects of the event, and three different forms were utilized. All participants were first asked why they attended the event. Then all participants were asked to rate the event on a five point scale (5 = excellent, 1 = poor). A series of statements were then given to all participants to assess impact on interest/learning, such as “Now I’m more interested in STEM than I was before coming today,” affective reactions such as “I enjoyed myself at this event—it was fun,” and impact on engagement, such as “I totally got into what I was seeing or doing at the event; I was really engaged in what I was doing.” Participants responded to these using a Likert-type scale (5 = strongly agree). The remaining items varied depending on which form participants received. This paper focuses on the items that all participants received.

Participants had a wide variety of reasons for attending the Expo. The most common response (40 percent) focused on attending because of children or grandchildren. Means for all items were significantly higher than the neutral point, p < .001. Twenty percent mentioned they enjoyed science or were interested in learning more about science or the exhibits, and 11 percent believed the event would be fun. (Note: participants’ responses could fall into more than one category.) Results revealed that participants rated the result quite highly, M = 4.4, SD = 0.6. A one-sample t-test revealed this was significantly higher than the midpoint of the scale (which was labeled as “good”), t(68) = 19.5, p < .001. Finally, participants’ responses to individual survey items (see Table 1) also reveal that participants reported positive effects in learning STEM content, were engaged in the activities, and had positive affective responses. Again, a one-sample t-test revealed all means significantly higher than the neutral midpoint of the scale, p < .001. Perhaps most tellingly, the most highly rated item was agreement that attendees would be interested in attending another science festival. No significant correlation was found between age and any of the items, and no differences were found as a function of gender.

Table 1 Adults’ Ratings of the Arkansas Science Expo (Mean and Standard Deviation)

Item M (SD)
I would like to attend another science festival. 4.7 (0.5)
I enjoyed myself at this event—it was fun. 4.6 (0.5)
I enjoyed the booths and displays at the science festival. 4.5 (0.6)
I learned something new in STEM today. 4.3 (0.7)
I totally got into what I was seeing or doing at the event. 4.3 (0.7)
Now I’m more interested in STEM than I was before coming. 4.1 (0.7)

Note: all ps < .001, compared to the neutral point of the scale

Discussion of Results

Overall, research and evaluation in ISE has lagged behind program development (Bultitude et al. 2011; Hussar et al. 2008). Manning, Lin, King, and Goodman (2013) released one of the first assessments on science festivals. Manning surveyed participants at several major science festivals (all held in urban areas, such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Philadelphia), and results revealed that 78 percent reported that science learning was more fun and enjoyable as a result of attending the events and that 79 percent claimed they would “look for information on something they had learned at the festival.” From our Expo, 66 participants who had attended a science event the prior year reported actually having engaged in behavior to search for more information on a topic, an indication of increased engagement in science. The results from the present study augment the limited research by providing evidence that a more rural population may also derive benefits from these types of informal science activities.

Next Steps

New partnerships were formed between festival organizers and the county library, local museum, and university performance hall, all of which have committed to continue in future years of the festival. Finalists of “Playing with Science” have been selected for publication in an anthology to be disseminated to other festivals and schools. Plans are currently underway for the next Arkansas Science Festival to be hosted in October 2015, and we have partnered with the NSF-sponsored EvalFest team to evaluate it. To continue the growth of the festival we intend to form a steering committee as well as an advisory board, and we welcome the Museum of Discovery, Little Rock, and EcoFest, Conway, Arkansas, which have committed to being a part of the second Arkansas Science festival, expanding the festival beyond the Northeast Arkansas region.

About the Authors

Amy R. Pearce has a PhD in Neuroscience from the Australian National University; she is a Professor of Psychology at Arkansas State University and Director of the Arkansas Science Festival. Her interests in science communication, informal science education, and the mentoring of undergraduate students are reflected in her various professional contributions.

Karen L. Yanowitz has a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and is a Professor of Psychology at Arkansas State University. She conducts basic research on cognitive development processes, and its application towards improving science learning. She has collaborated with STEM faculty in developing and evaluating science/math improvement programs designed for teachers and for students.

Anne Grippo holds a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Professor of Biological Sciences, and in her additional role as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs in the College of Sciences & Mathematics at Arkansas State University, she collaborates on many projects to strengthen STEM education from elementary through graduate levels.


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Computer Science and Fairness: Integrating a Social Justice Perspective into an After-school Program

Jill Denner,
Education, Training, Research
Jacob Martinez,
Digital NEST
Heather Thiry,
Golden Evaluation and Policy Research
Julie Adams,
Education, Training, Research


Children are motivated by the concepts of fairness and justice and by the idea that they can address problems in their communities and in the world. In this paper, we describe an after-school program that teaches Latino elementary school students how they can use computer science to address social justice issues at their school. The classes are co-run by high school near peers, who introduce both social justice and computer science concepts and guide students to design and program a final project. We describe both the process and outcomes of implementing this approach, including the challenges and opportunities, and the important role of the teacher and school context. The paper concludes with recommendations for efforts to engage elementary school students in computer science by scaffolding their awareness of social justice issues and involving near-peer role models.


Latino/as are the fastest growing ethnic minority population in the United States; they accounted for over half the growth of the U.S. population between 2000 and 2010 (U.S. Census 2010). Despite the growing numbers, Latino/as are vastly underrepresented in computing-related fields: in 2010, they made up only 4.6 percent of computer and information scientists in the labor force (National Science Foundation, 2014). Latinos are 16 percent of AP test takers, but only 1 percent of the AP Computer Science (CS) test takers; those who took it scored far below their peers (College Board 2011). Although Latinos make up 19 percent of all U.S. college students ages 18 to 24 (Lopez and Fry, 2013), the 2013 Taulbee Survey found they earned just 6 percent of CS bachelor’s degrees, and fewer than 2 percent of students who enrolled or completed a Ph.D. in CS were Latino/a (Zweben and Bizot 2014). There are very few CS education efforts that target elementary school; most focus on high school or middle school students, even though early preparation is key to getting children on the pathway. In this paper, we describe a program that aims to engage children in CS by having them explore and raise awareness about civic issues at their school.

The approach described in this paper builds on prior research that identified some promising strategies for recruiting students from underrepresented groups into computing fields. These include increasing access, relevance, role models, and experiences of success. For example, implementing a computer science curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives both in and out of school is a strategy that has increased the participation of both girls and boys in CS courses. Students see that computer science is a tool they can use to solve real life problems (Ashcraft et al. 2012). In addition, having role models and near-peer mentors in CS courses can decrease the prevalence of stereotypes around computer science careers and increase interest in pursuing these types of careers (Craig et al. 2011; Lang et al. 2010). Opportunities to experience success are most effective when they focus on learning the material rather than completing a set of requirements in order to get a grade; this allows students with less experience to thrive and not feel disadvantaged compared to their more experienced classmates (Schwartz et al. 2009). Finally, students need access to learning opportunities that go beyond computer literacy (e.g. typing) in order to learn and apply CS concepts (Margolis 2008). A key part of this is teaching underserved youth to create technology, rather than merely using it (Denner and Martinez, in press).

A class that connects social justice to CS is a promising approach for computing education, particularly with Latino/a youth, because it shows the relevance of CS to what students value. For example, Latino/a students are more likely than other groups to say that the message “computing empowers you to do good” is very appealing (Association for Computing Machinery 2009). Doing good is connected to family obligation, and studies suggest that family needs (often financial) can serve as motivators for Latino/a students to pursue higher education and succeed on behalf of their families and communities (Cooper et al. 2005). For example, when asked about their career goal and why they wanted to pursue it, most Latino/a fifth grade students from a low income community described a helping profession (e.g., doctor, police officer), and said they want to help their community (Denner et al. 2005). When cultural value systems are taken into account, it appears that truly engaging Latino/a youth involves building connections to their identity and culture by also addressing the needs of their community, not just those of the individual (Sólorzano et al. 2005). In particular, exposure to role models and activities that show how CS can be used for the social good can increase students’ expectations of success and the value they place on computing, which are directly related to their computing aspirations (Goode et al. 2006; Zarrett et al. 2006).

The program described in this paper was inspired by several movements that are focused on civic engagement. The first, Computing for the Social Good, aims to broaden participation in computing in higher education (Goldweber et al. 2011). For example, a growing number of colleges offer opportunities to apply CS to social causes, including Georgia Tech, Xavier University, SUNY Buffalo, and Rice University (Buckley et al. 2008). We extend this approach to K–12, adding perspectives from Latina/o critical race theory, an analytic tool used to critically examine how power relations shape Latinos’ educational experiences by considering how race, social class, gender, language, and immigration status intersect (Yosso 2006). Using this lens, a class on social justice can help students identify issues they want to address in their lives, as well as the underlying or root causes of them, by learning about other young people who are making positive social change. The goal is for students to develop a belief that they can make a difference, or what some have called civic efficacy. Our application of Latino/a critical race theory to K–12 is informed by the Social Justice Youth Development model, which describes how social change begins with awareness, identity exploration, and a critique of existing structures before it moves to taking action to address social inequity (Ginwright and Cammarota 2002). In this view, critical consciousness is an essential part of social justice: it is not simply an awareness of an issue or problem, but is a critique of that problem that aims to identify the underlying causes, which include power dynamics in social relationships and institutional structures.

Our process for integrating social justice with CS builds on similar efforts in mathematics. Studies have shown the promise of using mathematics as a lens to introduce social justice concepts to Latino/a children, and to use social justice as a hook to teach mathematics (Gutstein 2003; Turner et al. 2009). However, we are aware of only three programs that aim to integrate social justice with computing: CompuGirls, an after-school program that links social justice concepts to the technical aspects of digital media (Scott et al. 2014), Apps for Social Justice, a class where youth learn to create apps that address local community needs (Vakil 2014), and Exploring Computer Science, a school-based curriculum that uses an equity-based pedagogy such as using data to make digital media artifacts about a social issue in their community (Ryoo et al. 2013). All of these programs were designed for high school students, and little is known about how a social justice approach can be used effectively to engage elementary school students in computing.

Studies do suggest that even young children are able to think about social justice, but pedagogical strategies must take into account developmental differences. For example, in one study of 6-17-year-olds in Argentina, children were asked to talk about something that had to do with justice that had either happened to them or that they had seen or heard about, and why they thought it was just or unjust (Barreiro, 2013). The researcher found that only 6 percent said they did not know what “just” meant. The most common representation of justice across the groups was utilitarian—justice is something that enables everyone to be happy. Only 5 percent of students referred to justice as an equal distribution for all people without privilege or bias, which includes concepts of fairness. Starting at age 10, students connected peoples’ actions to whether or not they deserve punishment or reward. Similarly, Thorkildsen and White-McNulty (2002) found that children as young as six can consider the greater good when reasoning about fairness. However, that study also showed that children under 10 thought it was fair for people to win a skill-based contest as long as they worked hard, while according to older children, it was only fair for people to win based on skill, not based on hard work or luck.

There is little research on children’s understanding of fairness at their school, which is the community they know best. One study found that 7-12-year-old children thought the most fair teaching practices were those that promote equality of learning (everyone should learn the same material equally well), but the emphasis on rewards for high performance declined with age (Thorkildsen and Schmahl 1997). In a more recent study of a small group of Latino/a fifth graders, the majority viewed random choice as the fairest way to make decisions, because it meant that everyone had the same opportunity and reduced favoritism, which suggests a view of procedural justice (Langhout et al. 2011). They also found that this group of children defined fairness in terms of equal outcomes (or distributive justice) and in terms of minimizing emotional harm (emotional justice). These studies show that elementary school students have opinions and even theories about fairness at their school, but few efforts have been made to help students explore or act on them. These studies also suggest that young children’s ideas about fairness in the concrete examples of school and teaching are more developed than the abstract examples of fairness, and that few are ready to translate the concept of fairness into critical ideas about systems of power and social change. Based on this work, we concluded that the concept of fairness is more developmentally appropriate than “social justice” or “civic issues” when talking to young children.

While the studies described so far clearly show that children can think about fairness and have opinions about it, there is scant research on pedagogical strategies that can be used to build a critical consciousness about fairness in elementary school. In one report, Silva and Langhout (2011) describe how a first grade teacher used an art curriculum to increase her students’ critical consciousness, with the result that many of the children took action to address stereotypes at school. The process included talking explicitly about power and privilege in terms of how group membership affected artists’ lives and their art, and reflecting on emotions. In another example, Kohfeldt and Langhout (2011) describe how they helped a group of fifth grade students to define a social problem, which is the first step before taking action. Their approach included constructing the problem as a group, starting with a discussion of students’ hopes and dreams about their school before moving on to discuss problems, causes, and potential solutions. The researchers used a series of questions to help students identify the underlying causes of the problem. These small studies suggest that teaching social justice principles in elementary school is possible, but despite the large number of educator groups devoted to teaching social justice principles (e.g., Rethinking Schools, Radical Math), there is little research on the challenges of integrating a social justice perspective into an elementary school classroom, or on how to connect social justice to academic content like CS.

The CSteach Program

CSteach is an after-school program based on prior research on how to engage underrepresented students in computing. It uses a culturally responsive approach that includes attention to students’ multiple and intersecting identities, among them the students’ identities in their school community (Scott et al. 2014). Key strategies include a multigenerational approach, the introduction of CS and social justice concepts, and the application of those concepts through the design and programming of a digital media project.

The multigenerational teaching strategy involves instruction and role modeling by high school aged near peers, students who are slightly older, more knowledgeable about the content area, and have qualities that younger students respect and admire (Murphey 1996). Near peers are not expected to be true experts; their value lies in being slightly more advanced, and also in being familiar with the community. The near peers (high school students) serve as role models and ensure that the program is responsive to the local context and to students’ individual motivations, as well as to the dynamic role that culture plays as students negotiate their goals and obstacles (Brown and Cole 2002; Gutiérrez and Arzubiaga 2012). For example, the near peers understand local challenges (e.g., financial constraints, family responsibilities, etc.) and offer stories and activities that help students navigate competing expectations across their worlds of home, school, and peers (Cooper et al. 2005). The high school students also challenge negative stereotypes about who does CS, and provide examples of how CS can be used for the social good. The near peers in CSteach live in the community; in many cases they attended the same elementary school and/or have relatives who attend that school. They receive a stipend for attending trainings, reviewing the curriculum to practice their role, and for attending class.

A key goal of CSteach is to increase students’ understanding of CS concepts and principles. A series of developmentally appropriate activities are designed to introduce and reinforce four of the College Board’s (2014) seven “big ideas” in the Computer Science Principles: abstraction, algorithms, programming, and networks. These include learning to program in Scratch (a child-friendly drag-and-drop tool), doing unplugged activities where students write algorithms, and participating in online communities. The computer science activities are connected to four social justice “big ideas”: fairness, empowerment, action, and community. For example, students explore how “networks” and “community” share similar properties. They also learn that “action” is part of the word “abstraction,” and both involve moving from the general to the specific.

The CSteach curriculum builds on the Social Justice Youth Development model, where social change begins with awareness, identity exploration, and a critique of existing structures before it moves to taking action that will address social inequity (Ginwright and Cammarota 2002). Developing a critical consciousness is a key part of this effort: CSteach aims to help students go beyond a simple awareness of an issue or problem in their community. The activities in CSteach move students along the pathway from awareness toward action by showing them social justice role models in person and on video, encouraging them to debate what is fair and unfair at their school, introducing them to concepts like “bias,” and helping them design and program an animated movie using the Scratch programming tool, to inform other people about why a particular social justice issue at their school is important.

Research Questions

This study was designed to document not only the outcomes, but also the process of developing and implementing the curriculum. In order to improve educational practice, it is necessary to go beyond a simple description of the implementation process to a description of what Gutiérrez and Penuel (2014) call the social life of interventions, or how they are adapted over time in response to the needs and strengths of students, teachers, and the broader school context. This involves bringing key people together to discuss and debate the primary focus of a research and development project. To this end, we employ a Design Experiment, an iterative cycle of implementation, data collection, and revision that helps us to develop programs that avoid a deficit perspective when promoting learning experiences for marginalized populations (Collins et al. 2004). The goal is to describe how to create a learning environment that utilizes social justice to promote students’ interest in computer science, their capacity to productively engage in and apply social justice and computer science concepts, and the extent to which they see and appreciate the relevance of computer science. In this article, we will address the following questions:

  • How did the social justice part of the curriculum evolve over time?
  • How are fourth and fifth grade Latino/a students thinking about social justice?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities of integrating social justice into an elementary school classroom?




CSteach has been implemented three times in a school district that serves mostly low income, rural Latino/a students, most of whom have family members who work in agriculture. Participants were 333 fourth and fifth grade students and 31 high school students who attended as part of an extended learning program at nine elementary schools. The mean age of the elementary students was 10, there were almost equal numbers of girls and boys, 85 percent self-identified as Latino/a, and 71 percent spoke a language other than English at home more than half the time. While there is great variation in the group of students called “Latino/a,” the focus of this study is on students of Mexican origin, who make up 63 percent of the U.S. Latino population and accounted for three quarters of the growth in the U.S. Latino population in the last decade (Ennis et al. 2011). We use the term “Latino,” because it is commonly used in California. The thirty-one high school near-peer teachers (mean age=15.5) were 61 percent female; 84 percent identified as Latino/a. Four adult teachers (all school district employees) were also interviewed (one male, three female).


The CSteach course met for two hours/week for 12-13 weeks and was implemented over four semesters. Several sources of data were used to address our research questions. These included students’ Scratch animation projects, classroom observations, interviews with high school students and adult teachers, and a survey administered to students at the beginning and end of the program. Student projects from the Fall 2013, Spring 2014, and Fall 2014 semesters were coded using a 0-3 scale to measure the extent to which students integrated a social justice issue into their Scratch animations. Each coding category was defined as follows:

Level 0: The project does not mention a social justice issue.

Example: A cat and dog are on screen and the cat says it wants revenge. The dog says “I have to get out of here,” and the cat says, “You are not going to escape.” The cat then attacks the dog.

Level 1: The project includes a complaint or a conversation about a social justice issue or a personal preference.

Example: A bear is standing in the forest and a cat runs up and asks the bear to save him/her from the bully. The cat says, “Help hide me! The bully won’t leave me alone,” and the bear replies that he/she will “help get rid of the bully.”

Level 2: Characters in the project advocate for something to change about a social justice issue or a personal preference, but there is no mention of why it is important.

Example: A girl is sitting on a street corner near a man who is smoking. Two girls nearby see this and one says, “Look at that man smoking in front of that girl. Should we tell him to stop smoking?” The other girl replies, “I think we should,” and then they ask the man if he can “please stop smoking” in front of the girl. The man thanks them for telling him to stop.

Level 3: Characters in the project advocate for something to change about a social justice issue and explain why it is important in a way that goes beyond personal like/dislike.

Example: A boy in the library says that his “school would be better if there was a bigger library.” Another boy appears and says that he “know[s] it is important because more students would be interested in reading and that would help with education.” Then three more boys appear and reinforce the message by saying that students would “choose interesting books” to read, that “students learn by reading” and that “students would be more interested in going to the library.”

Another source of data included a questionnaire that was administered on the first and last day the class. For example, students’ views about the value of computing were measured with a six item scale from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students rated their level of agreement with statements such as “Computers are important to my community,” and “Learning about computers will help me in the future” (National Assessment Governing Board 2012). Students’ views of how to address community needs were measured using a four-item scale that includes the following statements rated from Never to Often: “I know how to use a computer to identify needs in my community,” and “Computer science is a field that makes the world a better place.”

Over the three semesters, 21 high school students participated in either individual interviews or a focus group. Students were asked about their experience in the program and had the opportunity to provide feedback on their role. They were also asked specifically about the social justice component with questions that included: Tell me about a day this semester where the kids made the most progress in learning about social justice issues in their community. Tell me what could be improved in CSteach so that students will learn more about social justice issues in their community. Four adult teachers were also interviewed to gather information about their experience teaching the class, including what worked and what needed improvement.


How Did the Social Justice Part of the Curriculum Evolve over Time?

The curriculum went through a series of iterations that were informed by both internal research and an external evaluation. In this section we describe some of the key stages of implementation, as well as the findings that led to a series of revisions designed to strengthen and increase the relevance and impact of the program and to increase the interest and capacity of the schools to sustain the class.

The first draft of the curriculum was pilot tested in two small classes during the Spring semester of 2013. In this initial version, the focus was primarily on teaching CS concepts, such as abstraction, algorithms, and data; there were only a few social justice-focused activities. An early attempt to integrate CS with social justice was an activity that introduced the connection between networks of computers and networks of people. However, additional follow-up and reinforcement of this idea was needed to help students use the concept of networks to address needs in their community. Another activity involved a role-play about a student-led effort to limit food waste at the school cafeteria. However, no connections were made to CS, and the focus was on food waste rather than the social justice issue of “hunger.” As a result, students learned about the importance of helping others, but did not learn about the underlying causes of hunger. For their final project, students created a PowerPoint presentation based on internet research and data collection from classmates on a problem they want to solve in their community. Students were directed to select an abstract problem (e.g., bullying, animal cruelty) but the connection to the underlying causes or how the students could address them was not made. The students summarized their findings by adding them into a PowerPoint template.

Based on data that included observations, interviews, and an analysis of student projects, the curriculum was revised over the summer to reflect a stronger connection to the national K–12 CS standards (Computer Science Teachers Association 2011). This included teaching students to use the Scratch programming tool to make an animation where characters talk about a problem in their community. In order to help students select a social justice topic, we added a new activity where students learned about the CS concept “abstraction,” and were instructed to apply it to their “problem” topic in order to break it into sub-problems that could be solved. However, the curriculum was not designed to help students think about the causes of the problem, and this limited the students’ ability to break it into a smaller set of problems or to identify solutions. In addition, although the role of the high school near peers was strengthened by having them take the lead on instruction starting earlier in the semester and by training them in how to program in Scratch, but they did not receive any training on social justice, and there was not a shared understanding of what the term meant. As a result, the topics in students’ final projects were similar to those in the prior semester (e.g., bullying, pollution) and seemed to reflect adult concerns, rather than issues that were meaningful to the students. The new curriculum was implemented in Fall 2013 in four classes by two school-based teachers.

Based on classroom observations, interviews with near peers, and an assessment of students’ projects, several changes were made before the Spring 2014 implementation. These included strengthening existing activities to make more explicit connections between computer science and social justice. For example, students learned how networks of computers and networks of people can both be powerful sources of social change. In addition, stronger connections were made between the final Scratch project and social justice. This involved showing examples and explaining how their animation would be created using the tools of computer science and then used to communicate a message about how to take action regarding a social justice issue. Although the high school student near peers were increasingly put in charge of leading large group activities, and received additional training in Scratch, they received no training in how to help students formulate a social justice issue. In addition, the connection to the regular class day was lost as the four classes in Spring 2014 were led by the same adult teacher who did the pilot implementation; a tech support employee of the school district with a CS degree. This change was made because the district was in the middle of contract negotiations which did not allow teachers to work outside the regular school day.

During the summer of 2014, the research team engaged in several activities in order to increase the relevance of the activities to the students and the schools. First, the team analyzed the data from observations, surveys, interviews, and the students’ final projects. Next, there was a two-day meeting of multiple stakeholders that included two adult teachers, two high school-aged near peers, two experts in social justice, the project evaluator, and the research team. As a result of that meeting, we clarified the definition of social justice as something that a student believes is unfair and needs to be changed or improved. It should be relevant, and ideally personally meaningful to them. Further, it was agreed that the goals of the social justice component were to help students: (1) learn to identify and understand advocacy needs in their school and/or community, (2) learn how computer science can help address these needs (and how it could hurt), and (3) develop a sense of responsibility and motivation to use computer science to address those needs.

As a result of that meeting, the team identified social justice terms that were appropriate for elementary school students, more tightly integrated the social justice and CS principles, and added scaffolding to help students identify issues in their community that are personally meaningful to them. To this end, four “big ideas” of social justice were identified: fairness, community, empowerment, and action. These “big ideas” were designed to run parallel to the “big ideas” from Computer Science described earlier (College Board, 2014). The following are definitions of the social justice big ideas:

  • Fairness: something in their community that they believe needs to be changed or improved. It is different from a complaint/dislike because it deals with whether there is inequality in people’s opportunities, due to the distribution of wealth or other privileges.
  • Community: the focus is on their school community, because it is personally meaningful to them and they can realistically expect to have an impact.
  • Empowerment: the belief that they can make real change, and the motivation to do it; development of an identity as a leader or change agent.
  • Action: collective action is the most effective way to have an impact; change happens by working with others and leveraging networks.

Several new activities were added to the curriculum for Fall 2014, order to introduce students to these big ideas. The activities included a focus on student leaders, for example by showing short videos about youth who are taking action in their community, and an enhanced reflection component, a daily wrap-up where key CS and social justice concepts and terms were reviewed by a near peer, and then written down by the fifth grade students in their workbook. In addition, flexibility was built into the curriculum to accommodate students who arrive late or leave early due to other school activities or family commitments. In some cases, students worked with a partner who could catch them up and continue the project work in their absence. Another change was in the procedure for selecting and training the high school near peers, and expectations for their role in the classroom were clarified. Applicants were screened to ensure their commitment to working with children, as well as a positive attitude toward using computers and technology to help their community. As part of these revisions, the assessment process was also revised to improve our measurement of how learning progresses over time.

A final iteration of the curriculum was implemented in Spring 2015. The changes included teaching students the definition of social justice that is used in the Teaching Tolerance website: something that is free of prejudice, inequity, and bias. New activities were added to introduce and reinforce those concepts, using models from the website, such as “What is Fair?” where students debate whether or not an issue (e.g., boys getting more time on the soccer field because they get there more quickly) is a social justice issue. A series of trainings were developed to scaffold the near peers’ understanding of social justice, and to help them guide groups of students to narrow the focus of their final project so that it was about an issue that is personally meaningful to them at their school, rather than an issue in their broader community. The cultural relevance was increased by including bilingual Spanish/English instruction and worksheets, and videos of non-dominant groups taking action in their school and community. In addition, the CS learning part of the class was changed from large-group to self-paced instruction, as students learned to program in Scratch by watching videos created by the high school students, and then applying what they learned by completing a set of challenges. Finally, the role of the high school students became more diverse to allow them to use their strengths: some led activities with the whole class, while others facilitated small group activities or helped students who needed individual assistance.

How Are Fourth and Fifth Grade Latino/a Students Thinking about Social Justice?

Students who participated in the CSteach program varied in the extent to which they incorporated a social justice issue into their Scratch projects. From semester to semester, however, there was a steady increase in the percentage of students who used their Scratch animation as a tool to advocate for change. The Fall 2013 cohort produced only nine projects (21 percent) that mentioned a social justice issue (above a Level 0), while the Spring 2014 and Fall 2014 cohorts produced 15 (52 percent) and 45 (70 percent) projects, respectively, that scored above Level 0. Very few students (seven total) made projects at Level 3, where there was inclusion of information about why it was important to address the issue. The total number of projects that were scored in each category is summarized in Table 1. The data show an increase in the extent to which students integrated social justice into their Scratch project as the curriculum was revised.


Pre-post survey data were also used to understand how the children were thinking about social justice, including variation across demographic groups. Based on their responses to survey questions, fifth grade students from all semesters showed statistically significant increases in their perceived ability to use a computer or computer science to address community needs. However, this finding was less robust for certain subgroups. For example, students who frequently spoke a second language at home (more than half the time) were significantly less likely to make gains in this measure, and the gains were greatest during the Fall 2013 semester. Nevertheless, students demonstrated growth on that scale in every semester. Additionally, students made steady increases in the perceived value that they placed on computing, especially its importance to their community and daily lives. Table 2 provides a summary of these changes by semester.



Although the survey results show that students moderately increased their perceived ability to use computers to address problems in their communities, they still struggled with connecting social justice issues to computing. Interviews with the adult teachers and the high school near peers provided some insight into how the fifth grade students were thinking. As stated by an adult teacher, Fall 2013: “I think that [tying social justice to computing] was hard for them just developmentally to do. That whole idea of the social justice topic and the community…. because it is something that I think is really important for the students to be aware of and I think that the students weren’t generally interested in the topics that they chose but I just think it was hard for them to navigate and research and do all that on their own. They needed more guidance and help.” This view was shared by the high school near peers, as shown in the following quotes:

Interviewer:     What do you think that they learned about using computers to address problems in their community?

Near peer:       I’m not sure, because we’ve only done that for the past three weeks and all of them picked bullying and pollution pretty much. I don’t think maybe it’s sunk in yet that we’re talking about the community on the whole. Maybe they’re thinking about just the schools. The fact that we’re getting them to think about that even is, I think, pretty good.

Interviewer:     Do you think that’s a new idea for many of them? That they could make a difference even at their school?

Near peer:       I would say so.

 Another high school student described it this way: “We ask them: What are problems you see in your community? How are they supposed to know that? They focus on issues that they have at the house, like oh I have to go to bed at a certain time and I wish I didn’t. Oh, I have too much homework at school. They’re not thinking a larger bubble, which I understand. That’s part of life that’s all about them and what they’re going through.”

What Are the Challenges and Opportunities for Integrating Social Justice into an Elementary School Classroom?

The results suggest that although the fifth grade students were developmentally ready to identify a social justice issue and to explore the underlying causes, most needed additional scaffolding and support to integrate that understanding into their animation project. Challenges include having adult teachers and high school near peers who were unable to provide that support, and a school context in which some of the adults reinforced obedience to authority and discouraged students from questioning existing rules or procedures. The opportunities included connecting the social justice activities to existing civic education curriculum and leadership programs for students at the school.

A major challenge was in staffing the classes, which included limitations on the availability of both high school students and classroom teachers after school. It was also challenging to find adult and high school-aged teachers who were comfortable with both managing a fifth grade class, could learn and support the learning of others with computers, and were committed to following the curriculum and documenting what was changed and why.

In order to effectively run the classes, a teacher needs expertise in three areas: computer science, social justice, and classroom management. None of the four teachers in this study had all three. To address gaps in teachers’ CS knowledge, we used existing resources that were developed and vetted by others (e.g., Hour of Code) and child-friendly software (Scratch). Given that the CS concepts were at an introductory level, the teachers who lacked the CS background learned along with the students, and relied on some of the high school-aged students who had experience with Scratch and some of the CS concepts. Filling gaps in teachers’ experience with connecting computer science and social justice, or in their classroom management skills was more challenging, since both take years to develop and hone.

Most of the high school students also lacked one or more areas of expertise. Initially, few had the classroom management skills to lead an after-school fifth grade class, and many lacked the confidence or assertiveness to deal with disruptive or off-task behavior. While many were tech savvy, during their first semester they learned the CS concepts and their application in Scratch along with the fifth graders. None of the near peers had already developed the language associated with social justice, nor had they applied that lens to their own schools. However, quotes from their interviews suggested that as a result of their experience in CSteach, they learned how computers can be used to help the community or to make the world a better place.

When [the adult teacher] was telling the little kids about networks and how a network of people is just like a network of computers, I was watching him give this speech, I felt like one of the students. I also realized that I was unaware about all this and I realized that these things that we usually use for fun can be used to connect to other people that we wouldn’t usually connect to or connect to people that have been really hard to connect to. Kind of to try to change. I don’t have any really specifics, but it was just sort of like a concept that was kind of beautiful.

The interviewer also asked “Did you learn anything about how computers can be used to make the world a better place?” And the student responded: “Yeah. Like make projects and show them out to people.”

The empowerment aspect of social justice, which involved using the tools of computer science to create a product to advocate for change in the community, was a new idea and initially a difficult concept for them. At a training for the high school students in preparation for the Spring 2015 classes, the students were tasked with filling in the worksheets that would also be used with the fifth graders. At first, the students struggled to identify a social justice issue they wanted to address. Then slowly, examples emerged. One student described how the availability of food choices was unfair at her school. Her last class before lunch was across campus from the cafeteria, so she was often too late to get her first choice for lunch. She identified this as an injustice that affected her own and other students’ nutrition. Examples from other students included the need for tutoring programs for students who are not adequately prepared for college; the need to raise money to make the playgrounds safer; the need for ramps and wheelchairs for special needs students; and the inconsistency of teacher enforcement of the school’s policy about being late to class. However, while the high school students were able to identify some examples of unfairness at their schools, they were not clear about the underlying or structural causes for these issues or specific ways that these issues could be addressed.

The ways in which students engaged with social justice concepts must also be interpreted in the context of the schools they attend. In the early stages of the program, students did not differentiate between a complaint about their schools (e.g., recess is too short, video games and candy should be allowed) and a social justice issue (e.g., not enough books in the library that have stories about people who look like them). But by Spring 2015, when the social justice terms were defined and reviewed, students were able to explain why a certain issue was about injustice, prejudice, or bias. For example, they advocated for a swimming pool at school (for exercise and so that they could learn water safety), for pets on campus (for emotional support), for cell phones for students (for safety in the event of a fight), and for more science classes like chemistry (to prepare them for college).

However, despite the improvements in the curriculum and the increased understanding by the near peers of what social justice involved, the school context created other challenges. For example, students often arrived late to class or left early to do sports or drama; school-wide activities sometimes led to last-minute class cancellations; and some parents picked their child up early on their way home. Students who arrived late or left early often missed the important introduction and reflection activities. In addition, since the selection process varied across schools, students brought a range of prior experience and interest or ability to learn, and their level of commitment and attendance varied depending on why they were in the class. At some schools, students chose to take the course, while at other schools, they were assigned to take the course, either based on academic merit, or academic need. Schools also varied in the extent to which they required their students to have consistent attendance at the after-school program. Having to account for so many absences often disrupted the momentum of the class because there were always students who needed additional support to learn both the CS and social justice concepts from previous weeks. In addition, halfway through the Fall 2014 semester, daylight savings time ended. As a result, students at several schools left class half an hour early to walk home before dark. In these cases, students missed the review portion of class, which is when the social justice and CS concepts were reinforced.

There were several opportunities afforded by the school to help create a developmentally appropriate curriculum and pedagogy that was engaging, introduced and reinforced CS principles, and showed students that CS can be used to address needs in their community. For example, the curriculum was particularly effective when the teacher made connections between the social justice concepts introduced in CSteach and the activities and concepts students learned about during the regular school day. For example, during a session in mid-January on becoming a leader, the teacher talked about Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was being celebrated that week. The following are notes from that observation: “At the end of the class, for wrap-up, she talks about social justice in terms of MLK Jr. fighting for justice. She tells the class that she hopes they will find something that is as important to them in this class. She explains that we will be talking about social justice and helping them think about what it means here at our school.” In another example, a near peer facilitating a discussion about leadership reminds a group of students that they already have a leadership program at their school where fifth grade students help younger children to solve problems. Connecting the CSteach activities to these familiar examples of leadership helped students to see the possibilities of using CS for the social good.

In summary, the data suggest that most of the elementary school students in CSteach were at the earliest stage of thinking about social justice issues (awareness). Challenges to integrating a social justice perspective into the class included the need to train the adult teachers and near peers so that they understood the definition and developmentally appropriate terminology associated with teaching children about inequity. Additional challenges to connecting social justice to CS include the limited time in which to introduce, reinforce, and apply the social justice concepts, and to teach children how to program well enough to express their ideas in Scratch.


In order to increase diversity in computer science, it is important to help children see the relevance and the value of the field for issues that are meaningful to them. The CSteach program described in this study is part of a larger effort to engage young people by showing them how computing can be used for the social good. In this paper, we describe the evolution of a social justice curriculum, including the challenges and opportunities of integrating it into an elementary school-based after-school class, as well as connecting it to computer science. We report on both the strategies and the results of this program, using data from student projects, classroom observations, interviews, and surveys.

The findings from this study contribute to research on how fifth grade Latino/a students are thinking about social justice. Their Scratch animation projects, as well as interviews with the high school students and adult teachers, suggest that participation in the class led to an increased awareness of the difference between a complaint and social justice issue. This was shown in the ability of most students to identify something at their school that needed improvement, although the topics focused mostly on safety issues, which are a common focus of school assemblies. Only a small number used their project to advocate for change or to explain why the issue was important. While this finding may be explained in part by a lack of programming skills to express that knowledge in their projects, our observations of and interviews with the high school students and adult teachers, as well as our efforts to ask students about their projects, suggested that most did not see themselves as leaders who can make change, did not understand the underlying causes of the problem, and could not identify ways to take action. The finding is consistent with another study of fifth grade students in a mostly Latino/a community, which also found that few students identified the underlying causes of the problems at their school (Kohfeldt and Langhout 2012), and studies outside the U.S. (Barreiro 2013; Thorkildsen and White-McNulty 2002) that find most elementary school children to be at the early stages of the Social Justice Youth Development Model, which begins with awareness and moves to identity exploration (Ginwright and Cammarota 2002).

This paper also describes the challenges and opportunities of integrating social justice into an elementary school classroom. Based on several iterations of implementation and data collection, the final curriculum uses a scaffolding process that starts with increasing the students’ awareness about social justice issues and developing their identity as leaders, with support from near peers who live in their community. Like Kohfeldt and Langhout (2012), we found it was important to begin a social justice conversation by talking to the children about how to make their school a better place, rather than asking them to identify problems or concerns. Focusing on improvement was one strategy to prevent students from taking a deficit perspective about their school; instead students were encouraged to focus on how they want their school to be, rather than on the problems. Both feedback and reflection played a critical role in helping children to think about the connection between CS and social justice, which is a strategy that has also been successful with high school students (Scott et al. 2014).

One of the challenges was to help students develop a critical eye toward phenomena they see every day, a challenge that Gutstein (2009) also describes in his social justice mathematics classes. An effective strategy is to start by talking about an issue they identify as “unfair,” and then ask questions that move students from voicing a complaint to an understanding of the structural reasons for that issue. In CSteach, there was not always enough time or enough experienced educators to move the students deeply into an issue. One promising strategy was for students to work in small groups led by trained near peers; the interaction increased the opportunity for students to internalize the information and make it more personally relevant. However, as Scott et al. (2104) explain, culturally responsive teaching requires instructors to reflect on their own identities and cultural backgrounds, and most of the high school near peers had not yet developed their own language or critical consciousness about issues of inequity and fairness.

An important challenge was finding teachers with the range of knowledge required, who were comfortable teaching computer science concepts, guiding students through a process of identifying a social justice, and managing the behavior of fifth graders in an after-school setting. Gutstein (2009) laments that few teachers have the time or expertise to build among their students a critical consciousness and an identity as change agents, and that some may see it as outside their role. Again, it might be more important to select teachers for this type of orientation than for a CS background. Key elements for success include having classroom teachers who develop strong connections to what students are learning during the school day, and high school near peers who have (or build) a critical consciousness about injustice at their school, as well as an identity as a social change agent.

Children now have access to a growing number of digital media tools, but how and for what purpose they are used varies depending on the interest and expertise of the adults in their lives. In this paper, we describe an effort to leverage children’s interest in “fairness” in order to introduce them to new computing skills and concepts and to build their interest and capacity to use computers to create social change. Rather than just documenting the “success” or “impact” of the CSteach program, we included a description of the steps and the challenges involved in developing, implementing, and studying a curriculum that connects computing with the social good. The findings provide insight into the process through which children develop a social justice orientation and learn computer science concepts, and the conditions under which these can mutually reinforce each other. However, several supports need to be in place to move students beyond awareness and empowerment to a sense of identity as a change agent and to an understanding of the power relations and institutional structures that perpetuate inequity. Key supports include teachers who have training in social justice education with young children, access to computing tools and resources, the involvement of tech-savvy and socially aware near peers who live in the local community, and clear connections between the larger school context and what children are learning about computer science and social justice.

About the Authors

Jill Denner is a Senior Research Scientist at ETR (Education, Training, Research), a non-profit organization in California. She does applied research, with a focus on increasing the number of women and Latino/a students in computer science and information technology. Her research includes studies of how children learn while creating computer games, the role of peers and families in children’s STEM education pathways, and strategies for increasing diversity in community college computer science classes. She has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Prior to establishing the Digital NEST in 2014, Jacob Martinez spent ten years leading innovative computer-based programs in Pajaro Valley schools and beyond, with a focus on encouraging Latino/a youth to enter high tech fields. He recently spoke at the first White House Meetup and was named by Tech Crunch as one of the Top 10 Men in the Country Supporting Women in Technology. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a Masters degree in Instructional Science and Technology from California State University, Monterey Bay.

Heather Thiry is an educational researcher and program evaluator specializing in STEM education innovation from the K-12 through graduate education levels. Her research and evaluation interests focus on the educational and career pathways of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in scientific and technological fields. She is a research faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is currently co-PI of a national research study exploring student persistence in STEM undergraduate degrees. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice from the University of Colorado at Boulder

Julie Adams is a Research Assistant at ETR (Education, Training, Research), a non-profit organization. Her work includes helping with the implementation of the CSteach program in addition to curriculum development, data management, and professional development design on various other projects focusing on youth and technology. She received her BA in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2013.


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CNS-1240756. We are grateful to Ryan Morgan, Sarah Anderson, Shannon Campe, Yethzéll Díaz, Katie Roper, and Thomas Gelder for their insights and contributions to this work.


Deepening Understanding of Forest Health in Central New Jersey through Student and Citizen Scientist Involvment

Nellie Tsipoura,
New Jersey Audubon Society
Jay F. Kelly,
Raritan Valley Community College


SENCER-ISE (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities-Informal Science Education) is an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Noyce Foundation to support partnerships between informal science and higher education institutions. SENCER-ISE currently includes ten cross-sector partnerships offering a range of civic engagement activities for K–12, undergraduate and graduate students, and the public. SENCER’s primary focus is the improvement of undergraduate teaching and learning through the framework of civic engagement (Friedman and Mappen 2011).

While the formal and informal science education worlds seem far apart, Alan Friedman noted that “informal Science Education (ISE) does not deliver education like a school, but rather it provides opportunities for people to become fascinated with something they experience, and to then find themselves learning and becoming even more interested in whatever it was that caught their imagination” (Friedman 2011). This free-choice learning complements formal education. The goal of SENCER-ISE is to help students and the public appreciate the value of informal science education institutions as credible and accessible and to support the exploration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by people of all ages and all walks of life (SENCER-ISE 2014).

To achieve this goal and to emphasize the importance of informal science education, SENCER-ISE supports institutional partnerships between higher education and informal science partners./ Ten diverse partnerships across the United States are currently part of this program, with funding from the NSF and the Noyce Foundation. These partnerships are made up of an array of higher education institutions that include two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities and informal science education institutions that include science museums, an outdoor education center, a research and policy institute, and a wildlife sanctuary.

Civic engagement is the “acting on a heightened sense of responsibility to one’s communities that encompasses the notions of global citizenship and interdependence, participation in building civil society, and empowering individuals as agents of positive change” (Musil 2009). By framing higher education in the context of real-world problems facing our communities, students more easily gain a sense of their studies’ relevance and importance to their lives and the world around them, enhancing student interest and the imperatives both to learn and to take action. Moreover, by actively participating in identifying and solving these problems in their communities, students gain hands-on experience in applying what they learn, thus developing both the knowledge and practical skills needed to make them more informed, capable, and engaged citizens and professionals.

The Civic Issue

Figure 1. Map of surveyed area in NJ Raritan/Piedmont Region

Funding from SENCER-ISE has been supporting a collaborative effort of New Jersey Audubon (NJA) and Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) to monitor bird populations and forest health in central NJ in the Piedmont section of the Raritan River watershed. The goals of this project are to involve community college students and citizen scientists in a conservation issue of civic importance, and specifically to (1) document the abundance and distribution of forest breeding birds and the quality of their habitat in central New Jersey; and (2) make recommendations for improving forest health in the state.

Today, more acres of forests are being lost each year than any other land use type in New Jersey (45,000 acres were lost between 2002 and 2007 alone; Hasse and Lathrop 2010). Urban land uses have made the greatest increases and now cover nearly 30 percent of the state (1.5 million acres), propelled in large part by suburban sprawl. Significant strides have been made in recent decades to protect our natural areas from development through the public and private funding of open space, which has resulted in more than 1.2 million acres preserved. While these efforts have done much to stem the tide of habitat loss, little has been done to protect and maintain the quality of these natural areas in the face of other, more subtle threats.

In addition to the direct conversion of natural areas to developed landscapes, the integrity of the natural ecosystems that remain continues to be threatened by the physical and biological effects of fragmentation, including excessive deer herbivory, invasive organisms, climatic change, and pollution. New Jersey has some of the highest numbers and densities of deer and invasive plant species in the United States (Drake et al. 2002, Kartesz 2011). More than a third of the plant species present in New Jersey today are non-indigenous species (Snyder and Kaufman 2004), and many of these species are transforming our local ecosystems, filling in niches that are being created by disturbance and/or suppression of native species by deer. Deer densities in the state have been recorded at approximately twenty-eight deer/mi2 in recent years, which is approximately four times higher than the historical background rate. Densities of deer in central New Jersey are even higher, averaging seventy-eight deer/mi2 and in some places as high as 202 deer/mi2 (NJ Audubon 2012). The overabundance of deer has had devastating effects on forest understories, in which the herb, shrub, and sapling layers are completely absent in many places. The result is a slow process of ecosystem decay and the loss of many native species and habitat niches. Without intervention to protect, maintain, and improve New Jersey’s natural resources, loss of ecosystem function and habitat is inevitable.

Program Plan

This project involves students and citizen scientists in collection of data on invasive plants and deer and bird populations. Students learn about the principles of forest ecology and conservation as well as applied research methods in their General Ecology, Field Botany, and Environmental Field Study classes. Following this immersive introduction to forest ecology, the students create materials to educate citizen volunteers about the impacts of deer overpopulation and invasive plant species on forest health, and to lead training sessions during which they teach the volunteers how to collect relevant data. After the training workshops, students conduct research on the status of selected forest areas, looking at deer browse and invasive species in those areas, all under the guidance of their RVCC professors and NJA staff. Funding from SENCER was sufficient to hire two interns for summer 2014. In addition, RVCC students raised $1000 in donations in spring 2014 and an individual donor gave RVCC $4,000 to support this program. With these additional funds, we were able to involve four interns in this program.

Concurrently, citizen scientists collect data on bird populations in those forests and at additional sites with the Raritan/Piedmont region and also made rapid assessments of invasive plant species.

Figure 2a. Sample data analysis of bird in the floodplain forest understory at Duke Island Park.
Figure 2b. Sample data analysis of invasive and native vegetation in the floodplain forest understory at Duke Island Park. Vegetation data compares “old” and “new” forest study sites to historic data sets from the 1950s.

Program Implementation

In spring 2014, Dr. Jay Kelly developed the Environmental Field Studies course at RVCC around issues of forest health and the specific SENCER project. Students were introduced to basic ecological concepts related to forest structure and composition and learned how these can be applied to understanding and assessing forest health. Students conducted extensive field and library research on factors such as forest history, land use, invasive species, deer overabundance, endangered species, climate change, landscape context, public policy, and forest management. After personally delving into the causes and consequences of these factors, students engaged in the development of solutions to these problems, focusing on integrating invasive plant species into the citizen science training being conducted by NJ Audubon, as well as assessing the effectiveness of existing restoration efforts and forest management plans being applied to local forest preserves.

Previous versions of the course focused on student-driven independent research projects and/or more structured modules, exposing students to the process of conducting scientific research (from literature review to various types of data collection, along with data entry, analysis, and interpretation) through a variety of less-directly related community-based field research and conservation/restoration projects (e.g., community well water testing, superfund sites, amphibian road crossing surveys, invasive and endangered species surveys). The new version through SENCER helped focus and deepen the course content, providing a useful conceptual framework to integrate different course materials and giving students an opportunity to participate in meaningful community-based research and outreach being conducted by NJ Audubon. In all, this exposed them not only to the principles and practices of basic scientific research, but also to the relevance of research methods and results to solving real-world problems, and to the moral and civic values, roles, and responsibilities of science and scientists in matters of civic importance.

As part of the curriculum and syllabus, Kelly Wenzel, an educator with NJ Audubon, met with the students and helped them understand how to create lesson plans for volunteers and brainstormed with them on a design for a field manual. Dr. Nellie Tsipoura also spoke to the class as Director of the Citizen Science Program at NJ Audubon; she explained the purposes of the citizen science project and discussed what the students would be expected to produce and how to make the presentations tie in and flow with the rest of the workshop. Twelve species of invasive plants (shrubs, herbs, and emergent species) were selected as focal species for this project, and the students prepared materials on the biology and identification of these species. The students did a “dry run” of their PowerPoint presentations to the class during the lab period the week before the first citizen science workshop.

Citizen scientists were recruited through NJ Audubon membership lists and through birding groups in New Jersey. Although the NJ Audubon citizen science program has been active for over 10 years, creating new educational opportunities to engage and to challenge volunteers is a continuous process. The partnership with RVCC brings a fresh approach by allowing volunteers to interact with the college community and learn what the students are learning. In addition, people who have conducted bird surveys before through this project can expand their involvement and understanding of forest ecology by including the plant component, a new experience for them.

At training workshops, citizen science volunteers were presented with background information on the collaboration between RVCC and NJ Audubon through the SENCER grant. Then they were introduced to the purposes of the project and the scientific and civic questions relating to forest health in New Jersey. This was followed by (classroom) training in bird identification and invasive plant identification. While this is done in a classroom setting, we go into great detail concerning species identification with the aid of photos in a PowerPoint presentation, and in the case of birds there is also an audio component with bird songs. The bird ID part was presented by NJ Audubon staff, while the invasive plant identification was presented by the RVCC students.

The ID training was followed by a “working” lunch break, during which the students set up a display of herbarium specimens to test citizen scientists’ newly acquired knowledge. The volunteers were excited about being tested and very pleased to realize that they could identify most invasive plant species correctly after the workshop. Finally, the last hour of the workshop was spent going through the protocols for data collection for birds (NJA staff) and invasive plants (RVCC). Since we are using rigorous scientific methodologies to collect data that can be used for conservation and management purposes, we impress upon the volunteers the importance of careful data collection and go into detail on what this involves.

Each citizen scientist received a packet with CDs of all the presentations and of bird songs, all the protocols, and any additional paperwork. For this specific project the students developed a “field manual” to assist with invasive plant identification and survey protocols, and this was also included in the packet. This field guide is two-sided with photos and ID tips for the invasive plant on one side and the similar native plant in the back, along with visual depictions of cover classes and search radii for different target species. Volunteers can cut them out separately or print them out again in thicker paper and develop cards that they can bring with them into the field.

After the workshop each volunteer was assigned five to ten survey points within the selected forest sites and conducted surveys of birds and/or invasive plants between late May and early July 2014.

Field trips and integrated curricula in the different courses prepared students for field data collection. The Forest Ecology Interns were taught basic plant identification and field techniques for measurement of forest structure and composition in their General Ecology (BIOL-231) class; rigorous experience-based field identification of New Jersey plants in Field Botany (BIOL-232); and background on forest ecology, historical human impacts, and present day threats in Environmental Field Studies (ENVI-201). However, the most essential course needed to qualify for the internships was Field Botany, since the interns needed to have adequate skills in plant identification in order to collect reliable data. Dr. Jay Kelly also gave them basic training and orientation in the field, helping to locate study sites, set up sampling grids, and identify any plant species that were unfamiliar to the students.


Forest surveys

Overall 375 points throughout natural areas within the Raritan/Piedmont region were mapped and of these 192 points at seventeen sites were surveyed (Figure 1). Thirty-one volunteers participated in surveys and counted 3998 individual birds of eighty-eight species.

The interns collected data on the structure and composition of forest vegetation in the Piedmont region of the Raritan Watershed in central New Jersey, focusing on upland, mountain, and riparian environments and comparing forests of different ages, habitat types, and landscape contexts. Four student interns collected data at twelve sites (420 tree quadrats and 840 seedling plots) and counted 3067 trees.

While a complete analysis of biological information is beyond the scope of this paper and will be submitted to an ecological journal at the completion of the project, Dr. Jay Kelly involved the students in his fall 2014 General Ecology class in data analysis and presented the results at the RVCC Departmental Seminar. (See Figure 2 for examples of types of data and graphic representation and analysis.)

Student and Citizen Scientist Assessments
Figure 3. Self-assessment of students before and after participation in the project based on their response to questionnaires. Stars (*) denote statistical significance (GLM p<0.05). Interestingly, even though the rankings went up in every category, they were not significant for the “ability” related questions.

We conducted two types of quantitative project assessments.

To look at the educational value of the project for students, we distributed questionnaires to students before and after their participation in the program (Appendix 1). The questions asked for students’ perspectives about their personal interest, concerns, knowledge, and skills related to both forest health and environmental issues in general. There were significant differences in obtained pre- and post-project scores overall and by category (SAS PROC GLM statistic; P > F less than 0.05; Figure 3), with an average 0.8 point increase on a 5 point scale by each category.

Figure 4. Percent of volunteer citizen scientist observations correctly reporting presence or absence of invasive shrubs and herbs.

To test the effectiveness of the training on volunteer citizen scientists’ ability to identify and quantify invasive plants, we followed up and compared the results submitted by volunteers to the more accurate surveys that the student interns conducted at the same sites. We used similar methodology to that used by Jordan et al. (2012) and recorded true and false positives and negatives. After being trained, volunteers were very skilled at identifying invasive plants, reporting presence or absence correctly more than 80 percent of the time (Figure 4). However, volunteers were incorrect in their abundance estimates almost 50 percent of the time for shrubs, somewhat less for herbs. These results are similar to those previously published for invasive plant surveys (Crall et al. 2011; Jordan et al. 2012) and imply that we would need to incorporate a field training module to make those data more reliable.


Participation in this project confirmed and strengthened students’ interests in academic and career paths in environmental science and continuing civic engagement. The reflection papers show the impact this active learning experience made on these students not only in terms of approaching the civic issue of forest health, but also regarding learning and life in general (Appendix 2). All four summer interns in the 2014 program applied to do the internships again in 2015, in some cases turning down other more lucrative job offers to do so. All four students have successfully transferred to four-year programs in ecology-related programs at Rutgers and Cornell University, and several commented how well the courses at RVCC prepared them for their studies. This outcome of the project is in agreement with the studies of service learning that have found that students who combine community service and academic study benefit in their target attitudes, skills, and understanding of social issues compared to those who do not, as well as in their likelihood for further civic engagement (Eyler et al. 1997; Moely et al. 2002; Yorio and Ye 2011).

This project has benefited NJ Audubon, the non-academic partner, in its mission of protecting wildlife and engaging the public. To achieve conservation goals through citizen science requires an integration of volunteer involvement and conservation implementation (Figure 5). There are several steps in this process in which students can participate and contribute. In this project so far, these have included getting to know the audience, training participants, and tabulating and analyzing data. We anticipate continuing to involve students within the scope of the SENCER-ISE grant in disseminating results and reframing questions.

Figure 5. Schematic model of the process of involving volunteer citizen scientists in the effective implementation of conservation goals

Furthermore, this project provides a model that NJ Audubon and similar nonprofit groups can use to engage college-age youth and help shape them into civic-minded citizens while promoting new skills and career directions. This model can be incorporated into future work, for example into grant applications and other fundraising activities, as a paradigm of informal education and successful involvement of youth. Currently, NJ Audubon and Brooklyn College, another ISE partner, are developing a new partnership with each other using this SENCER-ISE model. Student interns and class curricula will be supported through funds awarded to NJ Audubon for coastal impoundment and climate research that carries with it the requirement that young adults be involved in process. This project is in the initial stages of development, but since it is supported through a grant from the U.S. Department of Interior/Hurricane Sandy funds, it is likely to have high visibility and high civic impact. These opportunities for college students and other youth are becoming critical parts of conservation efforts as our understanding expands of how wildlife recreation and involvement in activities in nature results in pro-environmental behavior (Cooper et al. 2015).

Similarly, RVCC is building on our successes with the SENCER-ISE model, developing new partnerships with other non-profit institutions working on other types of environmental issues in New Jersey and abroad. These include a project being developed with Clean Ocean Action focused on plastic debris accumulation on the tidal portions of the state shoreline, and another with Pinelands Preservation Alliance related to beach management practices affecting endangered species habitat and dune development. Each of these projects will build on existing curriculum offered in the Environmental Science and Biology programs, research interests and experience of professors, and relationships with individuals at non-profit institutions who are involved with these issues, to develop opportunities to involve students in the research and outreach needed to help address these issues of civic importance in the state.

While scientists devise methods to test data reliability (Wiggins et al. 2011) and evaluate the information so that it can be used in conservation and management (Dickinson et al. 2012), less is understood about the longer-term impacts of citizen science activities on volunteers both educationally and in terms of attitude changes and continuing involvement in civic issues (Toomey and Domroese 2013) or about the motivations behind their volunteer work (Rotman et al. 2012). There is broad recognition that the processes and outcomes of citizen science need to be studied for their social, educational, and environmental impacts (Bonney et al. 2014; Jordan et al. 2015). Within the context of this project, we found that volunteers were able to identify plant species successfully, but were not very accurate at providing percent coverage estimates, suggesting lower order versus higher order learning for these two tasks (Bloom 1956; Miri et al. 2007). The information recall needed for species identification is an example of lower order thinking skills, whereas analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of information, considered higher order thinking skills, are needed for developing abundance estimates. Future work that includes a more in-depth look at the changes in volunteer knowledge and ability to conduct surveys, as well as changes in attitudes and motivation during a project, would contribute greatly to improving the informal education value of this approach.


We thank Ellen Mappen and Monica Devanas for many brainstorming sessions and fun discussions that resulted in this work; Hailey Chenevert for her help and support through the SENCER-ISE project process; all the SENCER-ISE partners for their input, suggestions, and camaraderie; Dale Rosselet and Kelly Wenzel for guidance on outreach and informal education; Mike Allen and Laura Stern for coordinating citizen science efforts and data collection; the RVCC students for their contributions to the training workshops and the field work; the many citizen science volunteers for collecting survey data; and NJ Audubon and RVCC staff for administrative support.  Funding was provided by SENCER-ISE with additional support from the RVCC Foundation and Environmental Club and NJ Audubon donors.

About the Authors

Dr. Jay F. Kelly received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University in 2006. Since 2007 he has been a professor of Biology and Environmental Science at Raritan Valley Community College, where he teaches a variety of botany, zoology, ecology, and environmental science courses. His research interests are the ecology and conservation of endangered species in New Jersey, especially with regard to their population biology and habitat management. Other interests include plastic marine debris and toxins in consumer products and their effects on human health and local environments.

Nellie Tsipoura earned a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1999 and has been working as the Director of citizen science for New Jersey Audubon Society, developing and coordinating a number of studies that employ volunteers throughout NJ to monitor bird populations. Each year approximately 150 volunteers collect data on bird population that are used to make policy and management decisions. Through these citizen science activities, volunteers are provided a rewarding experience through informal education and civic engagement.


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Midshipmen-Facilitated Informal STEM Education

Jennifer A. da Rosa,
United States Naval Academy
Sarah S. Durkin,
United States Naval Academy
Rachel Hetlyn,
United States Naval Academy
Mark Murray,
United States Naval Academy
Angela Leimkuhler Moran,
United States Naval Academy


The nation’s security relies heavily on future STEM talent with scientific and technical skills, which is why the United States Naval Academy (USNA) encourages midshipmen (all USNA undergraduates) to facilitate informal STEM education outreach events for K–12 students and teachers. This experience prepares the midshipmen as problem solvers, effective communicators, and leaders—all necessary attributes for officers in the United States Navy and Marine Corps— while encouraging more young people to be STEM-literate citizens and pursue STEM careers in Navy-relevant fields. Using event-specific pre- and post-surveys, we measured the gains that midshipmen made in communication, confidence, and leadership as a result of their facilitation experience. In addition, analysis of overall STEM Impact Survey results reveals that midshipmen’s participation in informal STEM outreach improves their motivation to remain in the STEM pipeline. This study will be useful for assessing gains made by activity educators, judges, mentors, or facilitators of other informal STEM outreach programs.


It is not a sight you see every day: a midshipman from the United States Naval Academy (USNA) helping a fifth-grader glue washers onto a small piece of metal. After the midshipman describes how an underwater glider moves through the ocean, the student chooses a launch angle and releases her newly ballasted glider into the tank. She is delighted when it travels farther than previous attempts. This student is engaged in Navy-relevant project-based learning, and the midshipman is one of many who facilitate informal STEM education through USNA’s STEM Center for Education and Outreach (STEM Center).

Many organizations (educational, private, commercial, and governmental) offer, host, or support informal STEM education opportunities (Bonney et al. 2009; Committee on Science and Technology 2009; Harlow 2012; Phillips et al. 2007).

This can take many forms such as hosting a Family Science Night, judging a science fair, mentoring future scientists and engineers, promoting citizen science, or supporting competitions such as the FIRST Robotics or MathCounts. The primary goal of these activities is to increase STEM awareness and access community-wide. In order to gauge these efforts, organizations study participant gains made as a result of the informal event, usually through the use of surveys. Often overlooked in this process is the impact of the informal STEM activity on the educator, judge, mentor, or facilitator.

The Navy’s interest in STEM education comes as a response to the military’s struggle to recruit people with essential STEM experience, especially those from underrepresented groups, for both civilian and military positions (Committee on STEM Workforce Needs for the U.S. DOD 2012). Nationwide, policymakers and scholars often lament leaks or reduced input into the STEM pipeline of future science and engineering talent (Committee on STEM Workforce Needs for the U.S. DOD 2012; Hernandez et al. 2013; Korpershoek et al. 2013; Kubel 2012).

The STEM pipeline is a common metaphor describing the ever-narrowing conduit of people flowing from high school graduation, entering college, choosing a STEM major, graduating from college with a STEM major, and entering a STEM career (Cannady et al. 2014). Indeed, the Department of Defense (DOD) “hires more scientists and engineers, and sponsors more research and development projects than any other federal employer” (Miller 2011, 42). With that in mind, the goal of the USNA STEM Center is to encourage more young people to pursue STEM careers (especially in technical fields relevant to the Navy), to engage K–12 students and teachers in STEM innovation and project-based learning (PBL) methodology, and to increase retention of USNA STEM majors by engaging them in education outreach.

The STEM Center works to bridge the gap between formal and informal STEM education by engaging USNA midshipmen in the outreach process. Education outreach involves offering an educational event for groups that do not otherwise have access to that experience, and informal STEM education (ISTEM) refers to informal learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (Committee on Science and Technology 2009). Similar to informal science education, ISTEM is voluntary, self-paced, and free-choice, typically occurring outside of a traditional classroom (Falk 2001). Education in an informal setting is driven by learner interest and curiosity; thus the informal learner controls their level of engagement in pursuit of knowledge gratification (Falk and Storksdieck 2010; Harlow 2012).

For STEM Center events, the informal learners are K–12 students or teachers nationwide, and the facilitators are USNA faculty and undergraduate midshipmen volunteers. Representing a cross-sector collaboration between the Navy, education practitioners, our sponsors (Office of Naval Research, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Naval Academy Foundation), and event-specific partners (Maryland Mathematics Engineering Science and Achievement [MESA] and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]), these events fulfill a civic need to engage participants in STEM education and innovation in order to meet national security needs. Events include SeaPerch competitions and builds, Girls Days, MESA Days, Summer STEM Camps, STEM Educator Training (SET) Sail workshops, and Mini-STEM events. Most events utilize a workshop format in which participants join 30- to 60-minute modules focused on a particular topic (fluid mechanics, alternative energy, applied math, robotics, engineering design, applied science, and others). Modules are largely hands-on, combining the scientific method with the engineering design process, and emphasize essential naval applications of STEM innovation.

The autonomy and magnitude of midshipmen facilitator roles vary from event to event. For example, the lead facilitator for each module of Girls Day events is a USNA faculty member, with two to four midshipmen as assistant facilitators, whereas MESA Day modules are entirely operated by midshipmen facilitators. They have complete control over the module setup, organization, and presentation; only the content is loosely provided to them by STEM Center faculty, and active learning pedagogy encouraged. Both Girls Day and MESA Day events will be explored later in this article.

Review of Literature

Although considerable literature has focused on the impact of informal education among participants (Committee on Science and Technology 2009; Dierking and Falk 2010; Falk and Dierking 2000; Falk and Storksdieck 2010; Learning in the Wild 2010; Schwan 2014), research exploring facilitator gains made as a result of informal education is limited, focusing on either preservice teachers, formal service-learning, or mentorships. An informal education facilitator is one that arranges resources, establishes rich experiences, and engages with participants to promote learning (Schunk 2012). Harlow (2012), McDonald (1997), and McCollough and Ramirez (2010) investigated gains made by preservice teachers serving as Family Science Night facilitators. They each found that, as a result of informal science facilitation experience, preservice teachers gained confidence in their ability to teach and communicate science, improved in their understanding of the public’s prior science knowledge and preconceptions, and honed STEM education techniques to maximize public engagement. Similarly, Crone et al. (2011) found that the training of science and engineering graduate students in informal education yielded gains in student communication and evaluation skills.

Other researchers specifically explored undergraduate science majors involved in K–12 outreach as part of a formal service learning project (a combination of formal classroom learning with community service). Roa et al. (2007) found that undergraduate participation in K–12 science outreach increased confidence, boosted communication skills, linked knowledge with application, promoted identity-building, influenced career choices, and assisted in undergraduate retention of science majors. Both Gutstein et al. (2006) and Sewry et al. (2014) noted enhanced learning, academic development, and improved perceptions of science applications in society among undergraduate facilitators. LaRiviere et al. (2007) reported undergraduate chemistry majors learning and appreciating how children conceptualize science as a result of science education outreach.

Additional research investigated STEM undergraduate gains after mentoring young women who were considering a STEM career. Mentoring involves advising others on strategies and skills in a professional context (Schunk 2012). Chan et al. (2011) found that female undergraduate mentors majoring in biomolecular science experienced improved patience and communication as a result of their outreach mentoring experience to seventh graders. Furthermore, Amelink (2009) argues that mentoring benefits both mentor and protégé. Specifically, the mentor gains a sense of accomplishment, a boost in self-confidence, an augmentation in communication skills, and a feeling of personal validation. In addition, mentoring likely improves the retention of undergraduates in STEM fields (Amelink 2009).


The above literature review indicates observable advantages for higher education students serving as outreach facilitators. However, no study yet exists investigating undergraduate STEM majors serving voluntarily as ISTEM facilitators for the K–12 community. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to explore the gains that USNA midshipmen made as a result of facilitating ISTEM outreach events. Guiding questions include (1) Do midshipmen demonstrate improvements in leadership, communication, and confidence after facilitating ISTEM events? and (2) Does participation in ISTEM improve midshipmen’s motivation to continue in the STEM pipeline? These questions can help to assess the gains made by activity educators, judges, mentors, or facilitators of other STEM outreach programs.

Theoretical Framework

Constructivist learning theory presupposes that learners actively construct their own knowledge (Kruckeberg 2006; Schunk 2012). STEM Center events are designed under the constructivist assumption that knowledge develops inside active learners through engagement in hands-on activities (Piagetian constructivism) and social interactions (Vygotskian constructivism). Furthermore, constructivists also assume that educators serve as facilitators, structuring environments for learners to actively engage with content and materials (Schunk 2012). In this sense, we postulate that informal education facilitators also actively learn from their experience in facilitating hands-on activities and interacting with event participants. Alan Friedman expressed a similar view in an interview with Ellen Mappen: “When you try to teach a concept to others your own understanding is really tested and improved. So I think undergraduates who learn to communicate science to informal audiences…have a unique experience that sharpens their own knowledge and communication skills” (Friedman and Mappen 2011, 35).


USNA midshipmen involved in STEM Center outreach were surveyed for particular ISTEM events (Girls Day and MESA Day) and overall STEM outreach impact in 2013 and 2014. Survey questions were adapted from Assessing Women and Men in Engineering mentor surveys (Assessing Women and Men in Engineering 2014).

Event-Specific Surveys

Girls Day. Printed, anonymous pre- and post-surveys were administered to midshipmen facilitators of two Girls Day events: one on October 19, 2013 and the other on March 1, 2014. Survey responses were later entered into an electronic survey created using Google Forms for compilation and analysis. Girls Day is a one-day ISTEM event hosted at USNA in which 215 (on October 19, 2013) and 221 (on March 1, 2014) middle-school girls participated, to explore STEM concepts and careers using PBL. Activities at each Girls Day include modules on astronomy, weather, fluids, bioterrorism, rockets, robotics, physics, engineering design, and others. Each Girls Day module has a lead USNA faculty facilitator, who supervises two to four midshipmen facilitators. Approximately forty-eight midshipmen facilitated the October 19, 2013 event. Twenty-four pre-surveys and seventeen post-surveys were collected on that day. The March 1, 2014 event was facilitated by approximately thirty-one midshipmen, with twenty-one pre-surveys and eighteen post-surveys being collected (Table 1). Pre-survey questions employed multiple choice or Likert scale. Post-survey questions employed multiple choice, Likert scale, and open-ended response. Similar Likert scale questions appeared on both pre- and post-surveys to measure changes as a result of event participation:

  • As a leader for a STEM activity, how much ability do you have for each of the skills listed below? (Likert scale response: None, Some, Good, Excellent)
  • Ensure that participants are satisfied with their participation in an activity
  • Deliver an effective explanation of an activity to the participants
  • Take charge of leading a portion of a student activity
  • Solve a conflict between participants effectively
  • Motivate participants to actively engage in an activity
  • Teach a hands-on skill, after being trained
  • Adjust activities when things aren’t going as planned
  • Positively influence younger children through your leadership
  • Communicate with diverse audiences (age, ethnicity, region)

Other questions appeared only on the post-survey:

  • Please respond to these items that will help us improve the activity that you participated in. (Likert scale response: NO, Strongly Disagree; Disagree; Neutral; Agree; YES, Strongly Agree)
  • The organizers adequately supported me in fulfilling my assigned duties.
  • If I needed help in solving problems during an activity, it was readily available.
  • I had adequate information about the activity and my role in order to do a good job.
  • I had adequate training to prepare me to effectively perform my leadership role.
  • From my point of view, the students I led are satisfied with my performance.
  • From my point of view, the students I led found participation worthwhile.
  • This activity was well organized.
  • This activity should be offered again.
  • My participation in this activity led me to a better understanding of a STEM field.
  • My participation in this activity led me to a fuller exploration of my own career goals.
  • My participation in this activity makes me more confident in my own ability to succeed in a STEM field.
  • My participation in this activity improved my leadership skills.
  • What are two things you learned by participating in this STEM event?
  • What was effective about the way this event was organized?
  • What needs to be improved the next time this event is offered?

Finally, a paired sample t-test was conducted to compare pre- and post-survey questions that appeared on both instruments.

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MESA Day. Printed, anonymous pre- and post-surveys were administered to midshipmen facilitators of two MESA Day events: one on November 22, 2013 and the other on November 5, 2014. Survey responses were later entered into an electronic survey created using Google Forms for compilation and analysis. Pre- and post-survey questions were exactly the same as Girls Day survey questions. MESA Day is an event held in collaboration with Maryland Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA). For each MESA Day, midshipmen stage and facilitate a full day of hands-on modules (robotics, buoyancy, water properties, polymers, engineering design, and more) for approximately 250 fifth-grade students from local schools at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Thirty-three (on November 22, 2013) and thirty-four (on November 5, 2014) midshipmen facilitated each MESA Day, exercising complete control over module set-up, organization, and presentation. Thirty-three pre-surveys and twenty-seven post-surveys were collected for the November 22, 2013 event, and thirty-four pre-surveys and thirty-four post-surveys were collected on November 5, 2014 (Table 1). A paired sample t-test was conducted to compare pre- and post-surveys. For the November 5, 2014 post-survey, responses to the open-ended question “What are two things you learned by participating in this STEM event?” were categorized and tabulated based on subject occurrence such as communication, leadership, or facilitation.

STEM Impact Survey

An anonymous STEM Impact Survey was created using Google Forms and administered via email on December 20, 2013 to eighty-four midshipmen with over six hours of STEM outreach participation during fall semester of 2013, and on December 12, 2014 to 104 midshipmen with over six hours of participation during fall of 2014. The 2013 survey had forty-two midshipmen respondents, and the 2014 survey had sixty-five respondents (Table 2). Survey questions employed multiple choice or Likert scale:

  • Please respond to these items to describe how participation in STEM outreach has impacted you. (Likert scale response: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly Agree, Not Applicable)
  • My participation in STEM outreach made me more confident in my own ability to succeed in a STEM field.
  • My participation in STEM outreach influenced me to choose a STEM major.
  • My participation in STEM outreach influenced me to stay in a STEM major.
  • How has your participation in STEM outreach influenced you as a student?
  • If applicable, please describe how participation in STEM outreach influenced you in selecting or staying in a STEM major.

Question 3 appeared only on the 2014 STEM Impact Survey, not on the 2013 survey. All other questions were the same on both instruments. Likert responses indicating “Not Applicable” were removed from the analyzed data set.

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Results and Discussion

Event-Specific Surveys

Comparison of pre- and post-surveys for the March 1, 2014 Girls Day (Figure 1) and the November 5, 2014 MESA Day (Figure 3) indicated improvement in all leadership categories as a result of event participation: communication, improvisation, teaching ability, conflict resolution, module management, and concept clarification. Specifically, midshipmen facilitators on Girls Day experienced the greatest gains in their ability to motivate module participants (10.9 percent), adjust activities spontaneously (10.1 percent), communicate with diverse audiences (8.7 percent), and teach a hands-on activity (6.5 percent) (Figure 2). Three of these gains were statistically significant using a paired sample t-test: motivate module participants, t(12) = 1.90, p = 0.08; communicate with diverse audiences, t(12) = 2.74, p = 0.018; teach a hands-on activity, t(11) = 2.16, p = 0.054. Midshipmen facilitators on MESA Day indicated greatest gains in their ability to adjust activities spontaneously (9.5 percent), solve a conflict between participants effectively (8.8 percent), positively influence younger children (5.2 percent), and ensure participants are satisfied with their participation (4.4 percent) (Figure 4). All of these gains were statistically significant according to the paired sample t-test: adjust activities spontaneously, t(30) = 3.24, p = 0.003; solve a conflict effectively, t(30) = 1.97, p = 0.058; positively influence children, t(30) = 2.24, p = 0.03; ensure participants are satisfied, t(30) = 2.52, p = 0.017.

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Originally, we anticipated that MESA Day would yield greater leadership gains overall compared to Girls Day, because the event allows midshipmen greater ownership and influence as facilitators. However, this was not consistently the case. The 2014 MESA Day event, in which midshipmen had more control over module execution, yielded greater gains in midshipmen’s ability to solve conflict between participants and to positively influence young children than did Girls Day. On the other hand, 2014 Girls Day midshipmen reported greater gains in ability to motivate and engage girls in activities, to teach a hands-on skill, and to communicate with a diverse audience compared to MESA Day. We suspect the greater gains displayed among Girls Day midshipmen was due to the large number of first-time outreach midshipmen participants for that event. Eight of the twenty-one midshipmen (38 percent) facilitating the 2014 Girls Day rated themselves as “I have not yet participated in a STEM activity” on the pre-survey. On the other hand, only three of the thirty-four midshipmen (9 percent) facilitating the 2014 MESA Day rated themselves in that category. In our experience, first-time ISTEM midshipmen tend to rate their leadership abilities lower on administered pre-surveys than experienced midshipmen facilitators. Furthermore, the data indicate that newer facilitators report greater gains in leadership abilities due to a single ISTEM event.

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The November 5, 2014 MESA Day post-survey responses to “What are two things you learned by participating in this STEM event?” were coded and tabulated based on subject occurrence (Figure 5). One midshipmen wrote “I learned how to better communicate with children and how to lead groups of kids” (MESA Post-survey 2014). Therefore, this response was coded under communication, leadership, and audience (kids). Overall, responses mentioning working with children (26 percent), communication (22 percent), and facilitation experience (22 percent) occurred most frequently.

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Midshipmen from all four events (Girls Day on October 19, 2013 and March 1, 2014; MESA Day on November 22, 2013 and November 5, 2014) rated their leadership abilities between 3.1 and 3.7 on post-surveys, with (3) being Good Ability and (4) being Excellent Ability (Figure 6). The highest skill averages occurred for ability to take charge of leading a student activity (3.6) and ability to teach a hands-on skill (3.6). Midshipmen facilitators are placed in the role of subject matter expert for each event and subsequently draw on their own STEM background to engage and lead participants. Prior training in event-specific project-based learning helps to prepare midshipmen as hands-on activity facilitators. The lowest skill averages occurred for ability to solve a conflict between participants (3.2) and ensuring participant satisfaction (3.3). This is possibly due to the nature of module execution. Children may be less inclined to argue in the presence of a stranger (the module facilitator). Moreover, module brevity (thirty to sixty minutes) makes it difficult for midshipman facilitators to thoroughly assess participant satisfaction.

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Comparison of post-survey midshipmen responses regarding effects of participation for all four events revealed overall gains in leadership skills, confidence to succeed in STEM, and understanding of a STEM field (Figure 7). The scores ranged between 3.8 and 4.6 with (3) being Neutral, (4) being Agree, and (5) being Strongly Agree. As a result of event participation, midshipmen indicated improved leadership skills (average = 4.4), more confidence in their ability to succeed (average = 4.2), and a better understanding of a STEM field (average = 4.0). A relatively weaker agreement occurred in response to “this activity led me to a fuller exploration of my own career goals” (average = 3.9). This may be due to the midshipmen’s service commitment. Unlike traditional undergraduates, USNA midshipmen must serve at least five years in the Navy after graduation, making their career paths somewhat fixed.

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STEM Impact Survey

General assessment of midshipmen ISTEM facilitators for the fall 2013 and 2014 semesters revealed gains in motivation to improve academic performance and to stay in a STEM major (Figure 8). Midshipmen also indicated a boost in confidence to succeed in a STEM field as a result of ISTEM participation, averaging 4.0 for 2013 and 4.2 for 2014 where (3) is Neutral, (4) is Agree, and (5) is Strongly Agree. As the following excerpts from the STEM Impact Survey 2014 show, open-ended responses support Likert question findings and also indicate gains in STEM application, communication, and enthusiasm:

Response 1: “I had a better understanding of some of [my] courses by applying them in STEM activities. For example, I applied some knowledge about cryptography (that I learned in Plebe [freshman] Cyber) in one of the STEM activities I participated [in]!”

Response 2: “It seems simple, but the act of teaching younger kids about how cool STEM is actually makes me think about how interesting it actually is. It makes me more curious when I learn about the simple ways the world works and drives me to do research on my own.”

Response 3: “Participating in a STEM outreach event helps me apply what I’ve learned in the classroom to a situation where I have to break down concepts in order to explain the science behind the math.”

Response 4: “STEM outreach influenced me to stay within my STEM major because of how applicable it is to everyday life.”

Response 5: “It makes me appreciate my major more. Being able to educate others in the basics of engineering is a great way to see how my efforts in school are benefiting others and their futures.”

Many respondents indicated that facilitating ISTEM outreach influenced them to continue in a STEM major, thereby supporting our hypothesis that midshipmen’s participation in ISTEM outreach improves their motivation to stay in the STEM pipeline. This is particularly interesting for policymakers and scholars interested in strengthening the metaphorical STEM pipeline in order to ensure future science and engineering talent for our nation’s workforce.

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The purpose of this study was to explore gains made by volunteer undergraduate STEM majors serving as ISTEM facilitators for USNA’s STEM Center. Driving questions were (1) Do midshipmen demonstrate improvements in leadership, communication, and confidence after facilitating ISTEM events? and (2) Does participation in ISTEM improve midshipmen’s motivation to continue in the STEM pipeline? We found that Girls Day facilitators experienced gains in their ability to motivate module participants, communicate with diverse audiences, and teach a hands-on activity. MESA Day facilitators reported gains in their ability to adjust activities spontaneously, solve conflict between participants effectively, positively influence children, and ensure participant satisfaction. Indeed, our findings correlate with existing literature that undergraduate facilitation of ISTEM yields improved confidence in discussing STEM concepts, greater communication skills, experience taking charge of an activity, practice improvising and adapting to the unexpected, and an improved understanding of STEM fields and their importance to society. Other STEM outreach programs might consider assessing gains made by educators, judges, mentors, or facilitators in a similar manner in order to better determine the impact of their event.

Furthermore, based on midshipmen’s responses to the culminating STEM Impact Survey, experience facilitating ISTEM events appears to increase motivation to stay in the STEM pipeline and improve academically. This finding is significant for other outreach and education programs dedicated to improving retention in the STEM pipeline. Further research is needed to explore whether skills honed while facilitating ISTEM outreach help midshipmen after graduation—while serving in the fleet, or later, when some of them enter the civilian workforce.


We would like to thank the Office of Naval Research, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Naval Academy Foundation for their support of USNA’s STEM Center for Education and Outreach.

About the Authors

Jennifer A. da Rosa is an Instructor of Practical Applications for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. She has an M.S. in Geoscience from Texas A&M University and is an Ed.D. student at Northeastern University. Her research interests include conceptual change and learning theory, impacts of informal STEM education, and STEM education policy.

Sarah S. Durkin is a Professor of the Practice for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. Previously, she was a researcher at Pfizer Global Research and Development in cancer drug discovery. She received her Ph.D. in Biology from Eastern Virginia Medical School and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.

Rachel Hetlyn is an Instructor of Practical Applications for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. Previously, she was an outreach educator for the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. Rachel Hetlyn holds a bachelor’s degree in geophysics and planetary sciences from Boston University.

Mark Murray, Ph.D., P.E. is a Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the United States Naval Academy. He is the Nuclear Engineering Program Director and has taught numerous courses in fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and nuclear engineering. Dr. Murray holds a Ph.D. from Duke University and is a licensed professional engineer in the State of South Carolina.

Angela Leimkuhler Moran is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Odgers Professor for STEM at the United States Naval Academy. Her research interests include rapid prototyping and rapid solidification, materials characterization, and failures analysis. At USNA, she has developed a series of STEM Educational Outreach programs that impact over 18,000 students and 800 educators a year. She received her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.


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Connecting to Agriculture in Science Centers to Address Challenges of Feeding a Growing Population

Kathryn Stofer, University of Florida


The need to feed nine billion people by 2050 looms large. While the problem is complex, increasing civic engagement around the need and the potential solutions must be emphasized. Museums are fundamental places for the public to support efforts in public education to re-emphasize the connections between agriculture and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Yet many science museums do not explicitly highlight those connections through exhibits. The authors categorized a sample of science museums across the country into small, medium, and large, based on square footage, annual attendance, and operating expenses, and took inventory of exhibits at each museum. As we suspected, we found a general lack of exhibits explicitly labeled as agricultural but a high percentage of exhibits related to agriculture content or practices. Thus, we suggest science centers could re-brand existing content and programs to address civic engagement around agriculture to feed our growing population.


Estimates suggest that by the year 2050, the world will have a population of at least nine billion people, nearly two billion more than today (Godfray et al. 2010; Leaders of Academies of Sciences 2012). Furthermore, we know that the world faces challenges of adequately feeding even the current population, in both wealthy and developing countries. How will we meet the challenges of producing and distributing enough food for even more global inhabitants, especially while preserving the natural resources needed to continue to do so long term? This is the crux of the food security challenge facing the world, a challenge that crosses applied fields like agriculture as well as the underlying basic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Much of the public support for research funding and decision-making around food issues will rely on an understanding of the connections among such basic research and agricultural fields. Museums are beginning to realize their role in assisting in such civic engagement, though they have yet to take full advantage of their existing resources to do so (Kadlec 2009). Many across the spectrum of content types (e.g., science, art, or history) are already exploring exhibits and programs related to food (Merritt 2012). However, other museums may not feel that food is in their mission, or may not know easy ways to contribute to conversations about food and agriculture or connect existing resources without large inputs of time and effort (Merritt 2012). Further, they themselves may not connect the applied discipline of food production with basic science and research, or even with their current efforts at sustainability.

Science museums, more often called science centers in their professional associations, are natural contexts for agriculture and food security issues, given their existing focus in both exhibits and programming on the basic disciplines. Such support could simultaneously encourage public involvement and action on the issue and inspire and prepare the necessary future Ag-STEM research workforce. Indeed, at least a few science centers already offer agricultural connections (“Tapping into Agriculture” 2014). This article investigates the broader potential for integrating agriculture into science centers. Specifically, it examines the existence of agriculture-related content, including that related particularly to food and food security, in science centers across the United States.

Review of Literature

From the 1950s-1980s in the United States, agricultural education in secondary school was essentially separated from science and math (S1057 Multistate Research Project 2012), and to some extent from technology and engineering. Agricultural education was considered a pathway to a career immediately after high school graduation, part of a vocational program (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983; Phipps et al. 2008), while STEM classes, especially at the advanced level, were considered preparatory classes for college (Oakes 1986). This separation persists (Oakes and Saunders 2008) and may be one reason for the lack of STEM contextualization for learning through secondary school and the dropout of students from STEM career paths. Therefore, this persistent separate tracking could be a factor in the scarcity of STEM-skilled, and particularly Ag-STEM-skilled, workers in the U.S. workforce.

Calls to re-emphasize the STEM fundamentals inherent in agricultural programs (Enderlin and Osborne 1992; Hillison 1996; National Research Council 2009; Thoron and Myers 2008) aim to address the need for STEM-skilled workers, particularly in the agricultural industries and agricultural research. Existing problems of food insecurity, sustainability, and looming global crises of feeding a growing population demand interdisciplinary research and solutions (Godfray et al. 2010; Schmidhuber and Tubiello 2007; Guillou and Matheron 2014).

Another fundamental problem thought to plague STEM education is a lack of real-world context (National Research Council [U.S.] 1996; Rivet and Krajcik 2008). STEM fields struggle to retain students and excite them about careers, suffering especially from a lack of real-world connection and, especially for women, connection to helping people (White 2005; Wilson and Kittleson 2013; Herrera et al. 2011; Maltese 2008; Carlone and Johnson 2007).

However, school is neither the only place, nor necessarily the most frequent place, a person learns. In a typical American’s lifetime, over 95 percent of one’s time is spent outside of a formal school context, and even during formal school years, a significant portion of one’s time is spent away from the classroom (Falk and Dierking 2010). That time may be spent on paid or volunteer work, recreation, socializing, or family, among other things, meaning that there is a significant influence of these social and community groups on learning (Rogoff 2003; Vygotsky 1978). The preponderance of out-of-school influence means that to truly re-emphasize the interconnectedness of agriculture and STEM, learners must see the connections throughout their lives, not only in their formal classrooms.

The adult public in the United States has long been thought to be able to benefit from increased science knowledge and skills, which could result in more able and engaged participation in the workforce (Carnevale et al. 2011) and in our democracy (Meinwald and Hildebrand 2010; Miller 2010). The majority of workforce indicators predict a further skills gap in the coming years between employers’ needs and employees’ skills at the time of hire (Carnevale et al. 2011; Goecker et al. 2010; Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century [U.S.] 2007). Further, as recently as 2008, roughly 70 percent of U.S. adults were thought to be unable to read and make use of The New York Times Science section (Miller 2010), one metric lately used to track the effectiveness of science communication for broad outreach and baseline science “literacy.” However, many adults, once finished with their degrees, do not return to formal school for additional learning.

Science centers play a major role in adult and out-of-school science learning (Falk and Dierking 2000). In fact, they naturally embrace many of the ideals inherent in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for secondary school science learning: question-driven, learner-centered, hands-on, and integrated development of knowledge, practices, and abilities (Bell et al. 2009). They also attract a wide audience of learners each year, both school groups and independent visitors (Falk and Dierking 2000). These days, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population lives on a farm (National Institute of Food and Agriculture 2015), and informal education institutions are one major potential source of adult learning about agriscience.

While students are in formal school, agriscience teachers may use science centers to reinforce agriscience learning, and these field trips may be especially important for rural residents. In the United States, agriculture is often overlooked as an explicit component of formal curricula in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, whether those curricula are integrated as STEM or separate, and agriculture may also be disconnected from these domains in the minds of the public. Reconnecting agriculture with its research and engineering underpinnings in public spaces through the context of food can reinforce the interconnectedness between them that some students learn in school, or provide connections for students who still experience the Ag-STEM subjects independently of each other.

Without connections to agriculture in these everyday settings, the artificial intellectual divide between agriculture and other science domains in the minds of the public may be perpetuated. This public divide can hurt not only efforts to prepare school children to be future Ag-STEM researchers and workers but also efforts to involve the public in decision-making for sustainable food production for our future population.

Science centers have begun to explore ways to be more involved in public scientific issues (Kadlec 2009; McCallie 2010; Worts 2011). Moving beyond simply presenting engaging information and experiments on accepted science, many are beginning to introduce exhibits and theaters that explore science at the forefront, aiming to present science and technology as it emerges, with all the surrounding ethical, economic, and environmental considerations. The Café Scientifique, or Science Café, movement is explicitly trying to foster public dialogue about these considerations and issues by bringing the public together in forums designed to encourage discussion with experts (Dallas 2006; McCallie 2010).

Previous special journal issues, including Museums and Social Issues in April 2012 and the March/April 2014 volume of the Association of Science-Technology Centers’ Dimensions, explored case studies of exhibitions related to food in more detail, including internationally. However, little attention has been paid so far to a broader, field-wide emphasis on bringing agriculture to all science center visitors and thus to a significant portion of the U.S. public. The focus on food also could neglect the broader story of agriculture and its global effects from start to finish, from research to production to distribution, with its STEM basis as well as its context that touches everyone.

Purpose of the Study

For the many reasons outlined, science centers are ideal places to start to support efforts to make explicit and emphasize the Ag-STEM connections for all of their audiences. Indeed, we suspect that in many cases existing exhibits and programs could support Ag-STEM efforts without major renovations; in fact, such emphasis may require only minor adjustments to language and framing in promotional and educational materials, programs, and the exhibits themselves. Therefore, this study sampled large and small U.S. science centers to determine which and to what extent existing exhibits have explicit or underlying relations to agriculture that could be exploited for Ag-STEM integration emphasis purposes.


A sample of science centers in the United States was created, spanning geographical and size diversity to the best extent possible. A list of the top ten science centers by 2010 annual attendance (Walheimer 2012) was the starting point for devising the sample of large science centers. To this list were added well-known large museums or centers that were not on the list due to lack of membership in professional organizations, namely the Smithsonian Air and Space, American History, and Natural History Museums, The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The addition of these centers to our list increased our geographic diversity by including Texas and Washington, D.C. (A complete list of science centers and locations is provided in the Appendix.) Estimated annual attendance, total exhibit square footage, and annual operating budget were confirmed via center web sites, annual reports, or phone calls to ensure they all had similar resources. The minimum criteria for inclusion in the list was a budget of 10 million dollars annually and visitation of at least 200,000. Centers were neither excluded nor included based on square footage, as reliable estimates of exhibit space versus total building space could not be obtained for all centers.

For the sample of small- and medium-sized science centers, an online alphabetical list of member science centers from the Association of Science-Technology Centers (“List of Science Centers in the United States” 2013) was numbered. A list of random numbers was generated at http://www.random.org and then each center that matched the first fifteen numbers in the list of random numbers was chosen. Centers were confirmed to be still in operation, not on the list of large centers already generated, and not in the same city as the large centers. If a center was excluded in this process, the next random number on the list was matched and confirmation continued in this manner until there was a total of 15 small- and medium-sized centers.

Next, in January 2014, the web sites of all the identified centers were visited and the page that listed all of their exhibits found. Counting everything the science center itself listed as an exhibit on those pages, the exhibit titles and brief one- to three-sentence description of each exhibit listed on that page were recorded. For example, the Museum of Science, Boston, lists their exhibits at http://www.mos.org/exhibits; on this page, each exhibit is listed with a title, such as “A Bird’s World,” followed by a short description, “Take a virtual tour of Acadia National Park in this exhibit, which includes a specimen of every bird found in New England.” The link following that description takes the viewer to a longer description, and the first paragraph on each of those individual exhibit pages was captured for the long description. Therefore, there were up to three pieces of data for each exhibit at each center: exhibit title, short exhibit description, and long exhibit description.

To determine which exhibits were related to agriculture, the titles and the short and long descriptions that explicitly used the term agriculture were noted first. Next the titles and descriptions of topics were read again to identify those that were related to agriculture, based on seven of the eight pathways of the National Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources (AFNR) Career Cluster Content Standards (National Council for Agricultural Education 2009).

Each title and short and long exhibit description was qualitatively coded (Auerbach and Silverstein 2003; Patton 2002) as to whether or not it was related to agriculture. In other words, was the title or short or long description related to one or more of the eight pathways of the AFNR Career Clusters? We coded each as clearly related; probably related but somewhat unclear from the limited information given; probably not related but an argument could be made for its relatedness; or definitely not related. Some exhibits did not have content that was related to Ag-STEM but were definitely designed around Ag-STEM skills, such as observation, finding patterns, or modeling; these exhibits were coded specifically as skills and included in the counts of related exhibits. The author and a research assistant worked together to develop the codes and coded one large science center’s exhibits together. After they had agreed on the meaning of the codes, each coded half of the large and small science centers.

Special Note: The National Ag Science Center

Despite its name, the National Ag Science Center in Modesto, California, does not yet have a physical space, and therefore, was not part of our study. However, since they are already fluidly combining the traditional material of science centers with the agricultural context required to address problems of feeding more and more people, they serve as an example here. As Center Director Michelle Laverty notes, “Few [students] make the link between math and recipes, density and soils, or light and plant growth. Students also have a limited view of careers in agriculture” (Laverty 2014, 28). The National Ag Science Center also exemplifies the ideal that it doesn’t take a large-city science center to bring meaningful content to students. The students they serve in their county live at least two hours from San Francisco.

The Ag Science Center’s two main programs are examples of the ways existing science content can be contextualized with agriculture through hands-on exploration and through local partnerships. First, lab experiences in the mobile lab of the Ag Science Center connect typical experiments—such as testing pH or using a microscope—to agriculture and food production by testing soil pH or examining beneficial insects for crops under the microscope. Second, their summer camp paired local FFA students working in agriculture with middle-school campers using similar hands-on contextualized experiments and allowing the two groups of students to share with each other (Laverty 2014).


Overall, of the large centers sampled, none had agriculture in the title or short exhibit description, and only four of 316 exhibits sampled explicitly had agriculture in the longer exhibit descriptions. However, fully 45 percent of the exhibits were at least probably agriculture-related based on the titles and long descriptions, 40 percent when considering the short descriptions. (See Table 2.)

Take, for example, the St. Louis Science Center, one of the large science centers examined. A list of some of the exhibits and their long descriptions appears in Table 3. The website did not list short descriptions at the time of analysis. None of the exhibit titles and only one description, for the Life Science Lab, explicitly uses the word agriculture. Yet only four of the 18 exhibits—the Energizer Machine kinetic sculpture, Planetarium, Experience Flight simulator, and Amazing Science Demonstrations—are not obviously related to agriculture in the AFNR Career Clusters, based on the titles and descriptions provided. The Planetarium and Amazing Science Demonstration shows may feature agriculture, however, and the Structures exhibit may have related content not obviously described on the website.

Of the smaller science centers sampled, overall nearly 60 percent of the exhibits are agriculture-related, even though none have the word agriculture explicitly in the title or short or long description. We also discovered that while smaller centers overall had higher rates of agriculture-related exhibits based on their titles and descriptions, the centers also tend to be more specialized. This meant there was a higher variation in the presence of agriculture-related exhibits among smaller science centers. For example, all the exhibits at the Ocean Science Exhibit Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were agriculture-related due to the center’s overall ocean focus. On the other hand, only one of ten exhibits at the New Mexico Museum of Space History was coded as agriculture-related, as that museum dealt primarily with space history and exploration.

The overall range of related content was very rarely explicitly related to food and agriculture. Instead, exhibits dealing with basic sciences or engineering, or applied fields such as biotechnology, were prevalent in the agriculture-related exhibits. Exhibits dealing with animals or plants broadly, including those about evolution, were found. There were also a number of exhibits related to skills of science research, such as observation, math, and modeling, which are fundamental to both science and agriculture research practice.


Large science centers tended to be more evenly split between related and non-related content and covered a broader range of content overall. Small centers were highly variable, ranging from a large amount of agriculture-related content to none. Some small science centers were actually just a planetarium theater, which might show agriculture-themed shows about life in space but did not indicate that this was the case. Overall, however, there were definitely many exhibits that could be related to agriculture with some reframing of existing content.

Given the existence of content that could be re-branded without costly and extensive renovation, we suggest several ways that science centers could start to use their exhibits and programs to highlight the challenge the world faces of feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050; by addressing the existing exhibits and programs, science centers can immediately begin to make those traditional offerings more effective at engaging the public in social issues (Worts 2011). Some international museums, especially, already have programs and exhibits on agriculture (“Tapping into Agriculture” 2014). Others already focus on issues of sustainability (Worts 2011; “Spotlights” 2014), though they may not explicitly relate sustainability to food production or bridge to more traditional agricultural topics.

First and foremost, science centers can highlight their existing exhibits that are agriculture-related simply by connecting the word agriculture explicitly with programs and exhibits. This could be done by posting additional signs on exhibits or components or by creating field trips or public tours on topics of agriculture, either docent-led or self-guided. For programming both in the science center and traveling to schools, educators could redesign school programs to use agriculture as a context but offer similar hands-on explorations already in place. For example, a DNA extraction laboratory experience could be set up in the context of understanding how plants fight disease or in the context of genetic engineering to produce more nutritious products such as beta-carotene-enhanced rice. Similarly, science centers could partner with with local agriculture research colleges and industries as well as with science research entities to create a special event day or adult evening science café around agriscience issues.

Many science centers have already begun implementing various sustainability measures, which they may or may not make obvious to their visitors. These may include installation of solar panels, as at the Maryland Science Center, food partnerships and waste reduction through recycling and composting, as at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Brulington, Vt., or smarter water use, as at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Prairie Ridge Ecostation. These, too, can be directly tied to the problem of preserving resources for food production and distribution. Highlighting hunger problems that exist in the community gives these efforts a real local tie, making global, somewhat abstract problems such as climate change more relevant and motivating to individuals (Lachapelle et al. 2012).

Regardless of size, attendance, location, or operating budget, smaller science centers in rural areas have much to offer. This means teachers can use any science center to make Ag-STEM connections, even if they cannot travel outside their local area on a field trip. Science centers of all types can reach out to and work with agriculture and science teachers to encourage them to see these connections and offer their students a real-world problem as the context for their STEM learning, that of food production for our future population. They could market their professional development opportunities to a broader audience if they included agriculture teachers. If agriculture teachers consider the science centers as resources, they could work with center staff to find further connections between their curricula and the exhibits and programs. Botanical gardens, zoos, and aquaria have natural connections to agriculture based on their exhibitions of plants and animals and the related land use and resource needs, but these connections may be overlooked not only by agriculture teachers but also by the organizations themselves.

While we did not look specifically at agriculture, living history, or farm museums for their STEM-related content, we suspect that there are also existing exhibits in those museums that could be used to highlight Ag-STEM connections. These exhibits could be used, therefore, to talk about the challenges of feeding a growing population and the role of Ag-STEM research in addressing these issues, and the institutions could reach out to STEM teachers as a potential new audience as well. Moreover, agriculture museums and science centers could partner in these efforts, sharing each other’s strengths and building even larger partnerships. University Cooperative Extension, for example, the nexus between agricultural research and public outreach in the Land Grant system, exists in nearly every county of the United States, not just in college towns or large cities (National Institute of Food and Agriculture 2015).


This article has explored the need for public engagement around research efforts for agriculture and agriscience—including global sustainable agricultural production, nutrition, hunger, and food and food security—and some ways that science centers can support these efforts. Adding agricultural context to science centers can emphasize Ag-STEM connections for both school children and the general adult public. Engaging the public directly in co-creation of content (Tate 2012), framing issues and moving people to action (Kadlec 2009), and thinking more broadly about a science center’s mission and role in the community as related to food issues (Merritt 2012) will all help to address need for public involvement in meeting the long-term challenge of feeding a growing planet. At the same time, expanding the examination of food and agriculture can continue to serve more basic goals of public education and workforce development, particularly around Ag-STEM research.

The world is facing complex problems related to food that will require innovative agricultural science and STEM thinkers. Yet these thinkers cannot be fully supported in their efforts without communities that provide local input and develop a continual supply of well-prepared STEM workers. As science centers move to engage more with contemporary issues, they do not always need to completely overhaul their current operations to do so. With agriculture and food issues, the basic exhibits and programs often exist and may be addressed using a less costly re-framing and contextualization as a more immediate first step.

The author wishes to thank Christie Harrod for her assistance on this project.

About the Author

Kathryn Stofer, PhD, is Research Assistant Professor of STEM Education and Outreach at the University of Florida. She researches how people gather, access, and make use of current research information, especially around agriscience through science centers and in partnership with University Extension. She spent several years as an Earth science educator and exhibit manager at the Maryland Science Center.


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