Pandemic Reading Roundup

For almost 12 months, we have been living through the worst pandemic in more than 100 years. During that time, much has been written about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19, especially by journalists writing for various media; I have been particularly impressed by the work of Ed Yong (The Atlantic), Kai Kupferschmidt (Science), and Carl Zimmer (The New York Times). But now we are seeing books being published on COVID-19, and it is some of those that I want to look at more closely. 

Raul Rabadan’s Understanding Coronavirus (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is designed, as the title suggests, to help the reader comprehend some of the basic science involved in the coronavirus pandemic. The publisher describes the book as “a concise and accessible introduction to all the science and facts you need to understand how the virus works.” That turns out to be a good description of the book. Rabadan is a Professor of Systems Biology and Biomedical Informatics at Columbia, and he describes the book as his attempt to inform a general reader (one who has very limited knowledge of biology, virology, or epidemiology) about the basic science important to understanding the pandemic. In 94 pages, he provides an overview of the molecular biology and epidemiology of the virus, a little bit of genomics connected to SARS-CoV-2 origin and evolution, and comparisons to other respiratory viruses like influenza and the coronavirus responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak. There is also a chapter at the end that looks at therapeutic options such as drugs or vaccines, although I found it much more dated and incomplete than other parts of the book. Readers interested in learning more about the vaccines currently being deployed will have to look elsewhere, as the chapter’s description of vaccines is restricted to general concepts applicable to any vaccine. My second criticism of the book is the small size of some of the graphics, particularly some that portrayed genomic relationships. The organization of chapters and subsections as a series of questions makes it easier for readers to find information. I’m not sure how easy it would be for the general public to understand everything in the book; to me it seemed that a background equivalent to college general biology would be needed to grasp all the ideas that Rabadan presents. But for STEM faculty, particularly those in biology or chemistry or environmental science, I see Understanding Coronavirus as a useful way to get basic background information on epidemiology and virology. 

Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas Christakis (Little, Brown Spark, 2020) and COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One by Debora MacKenzie (Hachette Books, 2021) take very different approaches than Rabadan. Both Christakis and MacKenzie set out to contextualize the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Christakis is a physician and sociologist on the faculty at Yale, where his research, as described on his group’s website, “focuses on how human biology and health affect, and are affected by, social interactions and social networks.” Not surprisingly, he takes an expansive approach to understanding COVID-19, one that places the current pandemic in the context of how humans have responded to pandemics and disease outbreaks over the past 2500 years. Apollo’s Arrow is wide ranging in the different aspects of the current pandemic that it examines. Medicine, public health, social interactions, network science, human psychology, economics, and policy are all explored in this book. The last two chapters look forward to how the pandemic may end and how global society was changed by the experience. But Christakis is not a dispassionate narrator simply describing the events that happened; throughout the book he incorporates sharp and appropriate criticisms of how governments and organizations responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. When I finished Apollo’s Arrow, I felt that I had gained a much broader and nuanced understanding of how pandemics, including the current one, impact human lives and societies. I also realized that while humanity has in some ways made significant progress since the Black Death of the Middle Ages, in other ways we seem to make the same mistakes again and again.

MacKenzie is a European science writer who has written for The New Scientist for many years, including articles on the subject of infectious diseases. She uses a different framework for her overview of the COVID-19 pandemic, placing it in the context of how we deal with emerging pathogens. Her narrative of how the current pandemic unfolded is connected much more to recent outbreaks such as the 2003 SARS and Ebola outbreaks than is Christakis’s book (although Apollo’s Arrow does make some reference to the first SARS outbreak). She also incorporates how governments around the world and international organizations have tried (with widely varying degrees of success) to be prepared for future pandemics. Like Christakis, MacKenzie is very critical of what she views as mistakes and oversights that contributed to the severity and global toll of COVID-19. As the title COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One suggests, the book also looks at what actions need to be taken on a global scale to ensure that the world is prepared for the next pandemic. MacKenzie makes it very clear in her book that the question is not “Will there be another pandemic?” The question is when it will happen, and will the pathogen be one that we have encountered in the past or a new one that will have jumped from an animal to humans.

I found both Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live and COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One well worth reading. For STEM faculty teaching courses with a focus on microbiology and emerging infectious diseases, MacKenzie’s book may be slightly preferable. On the other hand, faculty teaching courses with a broader focus (courses for nonscience majors, first-year seminar courses) may find Christakis’s book more useful. Personally, I’m happy that I have both of them on my bookshelf.

While Christakis and MacKenzie set out to describe what happened and contextualize the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, two other books are more focused on just the analysis. Richard Horton is the longtime editor of The Lancet, a British weekly medical journal that is one of the oldest in the world. In June, he published The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again (Polity Press, 2020), which may be best described as a combination of analysis and polemic. The dictionary definition of polemic is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another”; as a longtime advocate for the importance of global public health, Horton is well prepared to present an aggressive refutation of how the world responded to COVID-19. He uses as examples how different countries responded to the pandemic, although he provides more details about actions/inactions in the US, UK, and China. Consequently, reading Horton’s book may help US readers develop a better sense of how similar or dissimilar government reactions to COVID-19 were in different countries. The COVID-19 Catastrophe doesn’t go into as much detail about global responses to other pandemics as MacKenzie’s book does. When Horton does make comparisons between COVID-19 and other pandemics, it is typically to the SARS outbreak of 2003 and what was learned from that. The book was published in June 2020 and presents Horton’s scathing critique of government responses to COVID-19 in the first six months of the pandemic. In the last two chapters of the book, Horton looks at the implications of COVID-19 for society in general, particularly in regard to the problem of inequality. I found the argument and analysis in this section significantly less compelling than the earlier sections of the book. A major difficulty is that Horton’s argument comes across as much more abstract, theoretical, and unevenly supported. Faculty may find the The COVID-19 Catastrophe worth reading as one person’s analysis of the mistakes that were made and how countries should respond differently in a future pandemic, but I think there is significant overlap between this book and the one by MacKenzie.

In The Pandemic Information Gap: The Brutal Economics of COVID-19 (MIT Press, 2020), Joshua Gans approaches the pandemic from the perspective of economics. A recurring theme in his analysis is that responding to COVID-19 is, in many ways, an information problem. How do we know who has been exposed, who is infected, and who is capable of infecting others? Another recurring theme is the challenge of balancing human health and economic activity. Separate chapters look at a number of different topics: viral transmission and human behavioral responses, communicating public health information, distributing resources that are limited in quantity, restricting physical movement, testing, re-emerging safely from periods of mandated lockdowns, and the role of innovation. The final chapter asks what we should learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and how that knowledge can inform future actions. As an economist, Gans’s perspective on these topics is markedly different from, although not opposed to, what I routinely encounter in the scientific literature. As I read the book, I found myself thinking in new ways about aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic that students and I had talked about during 2020. 

There are, however, two chapters where I felt Gans’s analysis fell far short: the question of wearing masks and the role of innovation. In his discussion of the changing recommendations on wearing masks, Gans writes that “[w]e, the public, were played. And we were played by those whom we were supposed to trust implicitly because of their expertise.” Harsh words, which Gans tries to justify in a footnote, where he writes:

I use the word “played” to refer to the fact that experts gave advice to prevent mask adoption by claiming that there were no public health benefits from using face masks when there was ample evidence that masks would prevent the spread of infections prior to COVID-19.

However, I think Gans is ignoring two important things. The first is how our understanding of COVID-19 infection was rapidly changing in the spring. Aerosol transmission, now viewed as a significant mechanism for infection, wasn’t initially understood as well as it is now. The extent to which transmission involved people who were asymptomatic was also becoming clearer. Gans also makes no mention of the mixed and often contradictory messaging coming from public health and government officials and the politicization of wearing a mask. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t room to criticize how public health messages related to masks were conveyed to the general public. There is. But I found Gans’s analysis of this topic flawed and incomplete. In a later chapter focused on the role of innovation in combatting the pandemic, Gans’s analysis completely ignores how scientific research on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 built on a combination of prior research on other viral diseases (AIDS, Ebola, SARS) as well as the development of new technologies long before the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, RNA-based vaccines have been an area of active research for at least a decade and were being actively discussed before Gans’s book was published in November 2020. But even with these flaws, I would recommend The Pandemic Information Gap: The Brutal Economics of COVID-19 to faculty interested in seeing how another discipline approaches the challenge of a pandemic.

All of the books that I’ve described up to this point are works of nonfiction, most of them in the category of science writing. I want to finish this reflection on pandemic reading by encouraging faculty to spend some time also looking for works that are more creative in nature. In The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree,  the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine encouraged faculty to continue efforts to integrate the arts and humanities with STEM in higher education. Such integration offers potential for increased student engagement and learning. Living through a pandemic certainly provides unique opportunities for such integrations. There are, of course, the obvious “classics”: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ The Plague. But more recent works may also be of interest to faculty and students. Emily St. John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven is a novel set in a post-pandemic world that explores the idea embodied in the phrase “because survival is insufficient” (from a Star Trek: Voyager episode). Mandel’s novel is wonderful exploration of the human spirit and ways we can bring meaning into our lives. There Is No Outside: COVID-19 Dispatches (published in June 2020) is a collection of essays that look at the experience of COVID-19 in a variety of contexts: prisons, emergency rooms, homeless encampments, migrant camps, and even in our homes. I will finish with two poems written in response to COVID-19. Paul Muldoon’s “Plaguey Hill”  is set in a small village in central New York state but connects back to memories of the Plaguey Hill burial mound in Belfast, Ireland that contains the bodies of people who died in the cholera epidemic of the 1830s.  Simon Armitage’s “Lockdown” connects an outbreak of bubonic plague in the English village of Eyam in the 17th century and the resulting quarantine to the experience of living in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown.  

List of Books Reviewed

Christakis, Nicholas A. (2020). Apollo’s arrow: The profound and enduring impact of coronavirus on the way we live.  Pp. 384.  New York: Little, Brown Spark. ISBN 978-0316628211.

Gans, Joshua. (2020). The pandemic information gap: The brutal economics of COVID-19. Pp. 160. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262539128.

Horton, Richard. (2020). The COVID-19 catastrophe: What’s gone wrong and how to stop it happening again. Pp.140. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 978-1509546466.

MacKenzie, Debora. (2021). COVID-19: The pandemic that never should have happened and how to stop the next one. Pp. 304. New York: Hachette Books. ISBN 978-0306924248.

Rabadan, Raul. (2020). Understanding Coronavirus. Pp. 120. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1108826716.

About the Author

Matthew A. Fisher is a professor of chemistry at Saint Vincent College, where he has taught since 1995. He teaches undergraduate biochemistry, general chemistry, and organic chemistry lecture. Active in the American Chemical Society, he has been involved in ACS’ public policy work for more than 15 years and was recognized as an ACS Fellow in 2015. His research interests are in the scholarship of teaching and learning, particularly related to integrative learning in the context of undergraduate chemistry.

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Summer Reading List – Five Book Reviews

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

Nate Blakeslee

320 pp. 2017. Broadway Books.


In American Wolf, Nate Blakeslee presents the historic movement that led to what many have dubbed the greatest natural experiment of our time—the reintroduction of gray wolves (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park. Blakeslee’s account details two complex landscapes: the 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of Earth’s largest intact temperate ecosystems,and the equally immense human cultural, political, and economic web into which the translocated animals were released. Unlike many accounts of this epic experiment, Blakeslee’s focuses not on the Yellowstone wolves broadly but rather on the story of alpha female “O-Six.” As he shares the natural history of O-Six and her kind, he weaves a parallel tale of the human communities that are at once removed from the wild wolves and yet absolutely tied to them. Chief among the human actors is Rick McIntyre, a now-retired National Park Service employee who for decades—and for countless visitors—was the interpretive voice for the animals. Though arguably pro-wolf narratives dominate, particularly through accounts of wolf watchers who spend their vacations—and, in some cases, their retirements—following wolves, other perspectives, including those of citizens who opposed reintroduction and some who legally hunt wolves, are represented thoughtfully and meaningfully. Drawing on years of field notes, countless interviews with stakeholders, national and regional media, and scientific data on this well-studied population, Blakeslee exposes the harsh realities of these linked landscapes, both the almost unbelievable tales of wolf interactions and the equally fraught and often harsh environmental politics in the human sphere.

Our instructional team assigned this text as part of a collaborative program that for fourteen years has immersed students from across the majors in contentious stewardship issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The course uses real issues of our public lands to teach students majoring both in science and in other disciplines. For our students, American Wolf grounded the thrills of seeing wild wolves in Yellowstone in a much larger context and longer narrative. It deepened students’ engagement with both the Yellowstone landscape and that paired system of human politics, economics, history, and culture that created space for wolves within the boundaries of Yellowstone, but not always beyond. Blakeslee’s exposition of these landscapes is transferrable to many teaching-and-learning contexts that seek to draw on unresolved public issues and make explicit the ways in which science and citizens can and cannot affect them.

JoEllen Pederson, Jessi Znosko, Alton Coleman, Jennifer Cox, Alix Dowling Fink, Edward Kinman, Kevin Napier, and Phillip Poplin are all at Longwood University and are involved in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem educational experience offered by the institution.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potentials of Heredity

Carl Zimmer

672 pp. 2018. Dutton.

ISBN 9781101984598

The subtitle of Carl Zimmer’s latest work makes explicit reference to powers, perversions, and potentials in relation to heredity. But he could easily have added complexity and subtlety as descriptors: Zimmer’s goal is to provide an overview of “heredity,” which in this case is not simply another word for “genetics.” Certainly, the development of the concept of the gene and genetics as a mature science is an important part of the story Zimmer tells. But Zimmer weaves a far richer tapestry, looking not only at how characteristics get passed on from one generation of organisms to the next, but also how they can be passed on from one generation of cells to the next within the same organism. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh takes the reader through Mendelian inheritance, genetic recombination and mosaicism, epigenetic inheritance in cells, and CRISPR technology, and even a fascinating exploration in one chapter of possible relationships between human biological evolution and how culture might be “inherited.” The last pages make clear that the book was written to broaden how we think of heredity, and I was quite impressed at how Zimmer accomplishes this aim. He also does a masterful job of incorporating the process of science as well as societal contexts into the book. His description of efforts to find the genetic basis of intelligence and race powerfully demonstrates how science can be influenced by social contexts and factors.

Zimmer’s book is a wonderful resource for faculty members teaching in a variety of disciplines, including (but not limited to) the life sciences. One aspect of the book that I found particularly useful is the way that Zimmer documents the enormous number of sources he has drawn on. Rather than footnotes or numbered endnotes, the Notes section at the end of the book is organized by page, with a brief phrase allowing the reader to connect an idea to the source Zimmer used. With the notes section running more than 20 pages paired with a bibliography more than 40 pages in length, interested instructors will find themselves with a wealth of resources that they can track down.

We live in a time when genetic determinism still seems thoroughly entrenched in modern society. News stories regularly touch on issues such as criminal justice, health, medicine, and the alteration of the genomes of a variety of organisms, where heredity is an important consideration. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Carl Zimmer has provided us with a superb overview of the many facets of heredity, what we understand now, and what questions scientists still wrestle with today.

Matt Fisher is a chemistry professor at Saint Vincent College and co-editor-in-chief of Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal.

Silent Travelers

Alan M. Kraut

384 pp. 1994. Johns Hopkins University Press.

ISBN 9780801850967

Alan M. Kraut’s Silent Travelers describes the history of American immigration alongside medicine and science, emerging diseases, prejudice against outsiders, and nativism. With the Irish being blamed for cholera in New York in 1832, the Chinese in San Francisco deemed the source of bubonic plague in 1900, Jews the reservoirs of tuberculosis in the early 1900s, and Haitians being targeted as the source of HIV in the 1980s, outsiders and immigrants have long been linked to contagion and disease. Prejudices and the associated stigmatizing of groups greatly influenced public health and immigration policy and drove much of the change we see today in our schools, workplaces, hospitals, and clinics. Kraut’s book presents accounts from all sides. The nativists rejected immigrants for fear of their genetic “inferiority,” together with other flaws—vice, physical weakness, and crime—that were attributed to them. Public health activists sought to protect Americans through quarantine, internment, and forced inoculation. Others lobbied and pressured the establishment to improve the infrastructure and living and workplace conditions of immigrant communities. When all else failed, former immigrants, traveling nurses, religious orders, benevolent societies, and philanthropists did the work themselves; immigrant physicians such as Maurice Fishberg and Antonio Stella were able to navigate the cultural and local practices of their patients while maintaining their own up-to-date medical standards. Silent Travelers is filled with evidence and data taken from government and medical records, along with personal anecdotes and detailed facts and figures in tables, appendices, and notes. 

SENCER faculty teaching about public health and cultural and economic sensitivity though a civic lens will find a collection of photographic images depicting immigrants’ daily lives and artwork, as well as posters and infographics that spread misinformation about the immigrant threat. In addition, Silent Travelers includes poetry and accounts from the lips of poor souls struggling to adapt to life in America. The book is filled with fascinating accounts of cultural differences regarding medicine and fear, as well as the acceptance of aid from nurses and physicians amid the shock and trauma of finding oneself in an alien world, without fluency in the language or understanding of the culture. While Silent Travelers was published 25 years ago in 1994, the landscape for today’s immigrants—documented and undocumented alike, both here and abroad—is still much like that described in the book. Even today, we still see news outlets, political entities, and social media platforms continuing to spread myths of the immigrant menace and their silent travelers. As Kraut says, “The double helix of health and fear that accompanies immigration continues to mutate, producing malignancies on the culture, neither fatal nor readily eradicated.” (p. 272)

Davida Smyth is an associate professor of biology at the Eugene Lang College of the Liberal Arts at the New School and a SENCER Leadership Fellow.

The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World of Flux

Cathy N. Davidson

336 pp. 2017. Basic Books.


In The New Education, the scholar and educational innovator Cathy Davidson provides a comprehensive portrait of U.S. higher education’s past, a stringent critique of its present, and a vision of a better future. Winner of the 2018 Ness Book Award, The New Education begins with Charles W. Eliot’s 1869 manifesto, also called “The New Education,” a radical prescription for the reform of higher education that launched his appointment and 40-year tenure as president of Harvard University.  Eliot was convinced, as the second industrial revolution took shape, that an educational system designed for ministers, scholars, and sole-proprietors required a radical overhaul if it was to produce the managers, supervisors, bureaucrats, and policy makers needed for the emerging industries and professions that would dominate the US for the next century. Eliot’s visionary and radical reform effort produced the university we know today, with divisions and departments, majors, minors and electives, credit hours, letter grades, distribution requirements, and admission standards. Most significantly, Eliot departed from European models in making the undergraduate college separate, and a pre-requisite for, graduate and professional programs.  His approach, formulated in collaboration with industrial titans, efficiency experts, and eugenicists, also reinforced social and economic hierarchies, prioritized research over teaching, institutionalized exclusionary rankings and testing regimes, promoted disciplinary silos, and calcified an undergraduate curriculum that no longer serves the needs of the workforce and civil society in the age of the internet, big data, and artificial intelligence.  

Davidson’s proposed correctives to this situation will be familiar to educators acquainted with current research on learning and the “high-impact,” problem-based approaches it advocates. However, her historically grounded analyses and case studies offer a tough-minded acknowledgement of the barriers to change, including shrinking financial support for students and institutions, the adjunctification of the faculty, outmoded and ineffective assessment strategies, and credential-centered, rather than student-centered, curricula.  Fortunately, case studies also offer much-needed (and evidence-based) optimism regarding innovations and reforms that are taking place across a wide range of institutions.  Davidson especially singles out community colleges, which educate more than half of all college students, for outperforming four-year colleges on the “social mobility index,” for their integrative curricula, and for their rejection of the “tyranny of meritocracy,” quoting LaGuardia Community College’s president Gail Mellow’s proud claim that “we take the top 100%.” 

For readers of this journal, her chapter dissecting reductionist, workforce-based arguments for STEM education may be of special interest.  While she acknowledges the importance of, and national need for, more STEM graduates, she insists that the “hard” skills imputed to STEM may help graduates get their first job, but they are not enough for career advancement in what is now called “the fourth industrial revolution.”  Those “hard” skills, which could become irrelevant given the pace of technological change, must be integrated with transferable and enduring “soft” or “human” skills, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, historical analysis, and interpretation—all skills as important for civic agency and democracy as they are for employment.  In fact, as AI and automation develop, “evidence suggests that over time the tortoise humanist may actually win the career race against the STEM hare” (p. 140) 

In an age where so much of the blame for higher education’s shortcomings falls on the faculty, or even on today’s students themselves (branded as “excellent sheep,” or “the dumbest generation” in recent polemics), Davidson’s prescriptions, and her unflagging confidence in the transformative potential of higher education to prepare us to survive and thrive in an uncertain future, is most energizing.

Eliza Reilly is the executive director of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement and past
co-editor-in-chief of
Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal.

Understanding How We Learn

Y. Weinstein and M. Sumeracki with illustrations by O. Caviglioli

176 pp. 2018. Routledge Books.

ISBN 9781138561724

At only 165 pages, this well-organized book provides an accessible introduction to the cognitive processes underlying learning and presents clear, evidence-based strategies for improving learning. The strategies are explicitly tied both to the cognitive processes and to concrete recommendations for teachers and learners. The authors, Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumracki, are cognitive psychologists and faculty members engaged in research that links teaching strategies to learning. Their prior experience in communicating research results to practitioners is the foundation for this solid overview of the recent literature in learning and teaching that is clear yet not condescending. 

The book models their recommendations in many ways. For example, they suggest interleaving to increase learning and transfer, and throughout the book they explicitly refer back to or forecast content covered elsewhere. Most strikingly, they model their recommendation for dual coding (visual and text or auditory) by collaborating with illustrator Oliver Caviglioli to visually represent main concepts. I particularly appreciate the visual summaries of each of the four sections (the science of learning, cognitive processes, strategies for effective learning, and tips for teachers, students, and parents) and of each chapter. I expect these digests will be very useful when discussing active learning design with students as well as with other faculty members. Despite the book’s brevity, the authors include thorough reviews of relevant literature and clear indications of where we need further research in both cognitive psychology and curriculum design. Here again, Caviglioli’s illustrations effectively convey the sometimes complex experiments and results summarized in the text.  

There are only two points that I would like to see added. First, experimental results clearly indicate an advantage of handwritten notes and drawings, which would seem to tie in well with the cognitive approach these authors are using. Yet these studies are not mentioned even in the context of dual coding or the brief mention of multiple choice versus short-answer quizzes, a gap I find surprising. Second, perhaps reflecting the authors’ research programs, the focus is entirely behavioral. I would have appreciated at least some connection to the issues of self-efficacy and epistemological development. My reasoning is that the “non-cognitive” components of self-efficacy combine with epistemological development to generate considerable variation among the students in our classrooms; including some brief introduction to both topics could help practitioners choose strategies appropriate for different students. These are, however, minor complaints in what is a thorough yet highly accessible introduction to the cognitive processes of learning and the educational implications of what we know (and do not know). I think that it will appeal to faculty in many disciplines at both the K-12 and college level.

Linden Higgins is a lecturer and research affiliate in the Department of Biology, University of Vermont, and founder of Education for Critical Learning LLC.

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Integrating Undergraduate Research in STEM with Civic Engagement


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

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


Undergraduate Research Experiences (UREs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEM Learning and Evidence for the Efficacy of UREs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synergistic Benefits of Integrating UREs and Civic Engagement

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

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

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

Ehrlich, 2000, p. vi.

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

Ehrlich, 2000, p. xxvi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Carrie Kruse
Policy Issues and System Challenges

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

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


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

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

Professional Development and Departmental Support 

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

Financial and Other Incentives

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

Student Considerations

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

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

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

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


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

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

About the Authors

Jay Labov

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

Kerry Brenner

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

Cathy Middlecamp

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples:

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

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

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

About the Author

Katayoun Chamany

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Background: Developing a Concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background: From Vision to Implementation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning and Implementing
Cross-Sector Partnerships: Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating SENCER-ISE

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

Formative Evaluation

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

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

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

Summative Report

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

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

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

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

Partnership Results, Impacts, and Sustainability

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

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

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

Reported Results

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

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

Cornell University and the Sciencenter 

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

Fordham University and the Wildlife Conservation Society

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

New Mexico EPSCoR and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History

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

Paul Smith’s College and The Wild Center

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

Raritan Valley Community College and the New Jersey Audubon

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

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

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

The University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Science Center

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

Reported Impacts

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

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

Cornell University/Science Center

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

Fordham University/Wildlife Conservation Society

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

New Mexico EPSCoR/New Mexico Museum of
Natural History

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

Paul Smith’s College/The Wild Center

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

Raritan Valley Community College/New Jersey Audubon

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

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

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

University of Connecticut/Connecticut Science Center

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


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

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

Cornell University/The Sciencenter

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

Fordham University/The Wildlife Conservation Society

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

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

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

Paul Smith’s College/The Wild Center

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

Raritan Valley Community College/New Jersey Audubon

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

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

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

University of Connecticut/The Connecticut Science Center

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

Building Upon SENCER-ISE 

Partnership Champions

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

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

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

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

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

Broadening the Network

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

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

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

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

Conclusion – Elements of a Civic Engagement Partnership

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

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

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

For faculty and informal science education professionals:

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

For learners:

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

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

About the Author

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

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


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

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

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


Published Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCSCE Materials and Evaluation Reports

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

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

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

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

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


NCSCE website:

SENCER website:

SENCER-ISE website:

Appendix A:

Appendix B:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix D:


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Review of Digital Publication: Our World in Data



Our World in Data is an online publication that will be of interest to many readers of Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal. It brings together in one location data about a number of different topics related to how the world is changing. The site is produced at the University of Oxford by a team led by Max Roser, an economist at the university. Amazingly, the entire project is available free of charge as a public good!

Roser began the project in 2011 and for several years was the sole author until grant funding allowed him to add team members. The long-term goal is to create 275 distinct entries in the site. Entries are gathered into thematic sections; as of January 2018, these include Population, Health, Food, Energy, Environment, Technology, Growth & Inequality, Work & Life, Public Sector, Global Connections, War & Peace, Politics, Violence & Rights, Education, Media, and Culture.

There are several features of the site that make it attractive to educators. The Energy section, for example, is divided into a number of subsections—energy production and changing energy sources, fossil fuels, renewables, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The section on energy production and changing energy sources is further divided into sections titled “Empirical View,” “Correlates, Determinants, and Consequences,” and “Data Sources.”

There are numerous visualizations for topics such as energy production by source, energy production over time, energy intensities of the economies in various parts of the world, access to electricity, and per capita energy consumption, among many others. Some visualizations present the data over time and allow one to focus on a particular year. Other visualizations provide the option for changing from a graph to a map or changing the axes on a particular graph. Images can easily be downloaded as .png files for use in presentations or other documents. Data used in a particular visualization can be downloaded as a .CSV file that can be opened in Excel. All data are clearly identified regarding point of origin, and the sources appear to be reliable—academic sites, United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and others—and one section of the website explains how the team chooses the data that are presented. The site also contains an essay that explains the rationale for Our World in Data: to support better understanding, involvement, and policy making by presenting an accurate picture of global progress in development. Overall, the site conveys a commitment to transparency that is commendable.

I have used some of the visualizations from the site in three different courses this semester: information on energy consumption (per capita and by source) in General Chemistry II and in a course for nonscience majors focused on sustainability, and information on malaria in my biochemistry class. They added a dimension to the classes that would have been very difficult for me to accomplish otherwise.

For educators who want to bring a global dimension to their incorporation of civic engagement into a course, Our World in Data will be an invaluable resource. I highly recommend it.

-Matt Fisher, Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal


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Informal STEM Learning: The State of Research, Access and Equity in Rural Early Childhood Settings


Even though 22 percent of Americans live in rural areas, rural locations have repeatedly been overlooked as research sites. Rural settings represent areas rich in early childhood STEM education research opportunities, yet very little rural STEM education research exists. This review highlights the limited extent of informal STEM learning research in rural early childhood settings as well as the impact that rurality has on teacher engagement and rural school STEM accessibility. A model that promotes active and collaborative partnerships between informal learning practitioners, community entities, and early childhood teachers represents an effective way to advance access to, equity in, and research about informal STEM learning experiences in rural settings. To foster this engaged learning paradigm, researchers must seek to develop and nourish meaningful relationships between informal STEM partners and schools in rural areas.


Approximately 22 percent of the U.S. population, or nearly sixty million people, currently live in rural areas (United States Census Bureau 2014),  yet the scarcity of research related to rural education has been noted for decades in comprehensive literature reviews (Arnold et al. 2005; DeYoung 1987; Kannapel and DeYoung 1999; Stapel and DeYoung 2011; Waters et al. 2008). The editor of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education even went so far as to call the lack of focus on rural education an “attention deficit disorder” in published research (Silver 2003). With nearly 19 percent of America’s schoolchildren attending rural public schools (Showalter et al. 2017), rural settings represent areas rich in STEM education research opportunities (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011). Yet rural specific issues, such as distance to services and access to professional development in STEM fields, create barriers that often prevent rurally located teachers and students from having equitable access to STEM learning opportunities (Banilower et al. 2013; Goodpastor et al. 2012).

The need for this review arises from the limited extent of informal STEM learning research in rural early childhood settings as well as the impact that rurality has on teacher engagement and rural school STEM accessibility. Recognizing the value rural areas provide as STEM research sites and capitalizing on the strengths of closely connected rural communities is helpful in addressing the accessibility and equity concerns detailed in this review. Additionally, collaborative partnerships that bridge formal and informal learning experiences represent an important mechanism for addressing access and equity in rural early childhood settings.


Rural Settings—Underrepresented in the National Conversation

Though research about informal learning settings is not uncommon, a significant report on formal-informal collaborations made no specific mention of rural examples (Bevan et al. 2010). The value of learning science in informal environments is well recognized, but an informed approach for ensuring equity is essential in order to fully engage nondominant groups, including those in low-income and rural areas (Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010). While urban locales share similar challenges, rural locales have a way of magnifying certain challenges and opportunities that differ from urban locales. Informal STEM learning experiences are unevenly distributed with rural communities typically underserved, which, given the educational impact of informal learning experiences, may further contribute to placing rural students at a long-term economic disadvantage (Matterson and Holman 2012). Children’s museums, which typically have a strong STEM focus, are amongst the fastest growing types of museum, yet in a recent survey of children’s museum professionals, only five percent of respondents were from rural locations (Luke and Windleharth 2013). Worse, the outreach activities of large metropolitan museums run the risk of embracing urban-centric assumptions, which may align poorly with rural experiences.

Given the centrality of community and place to rural areas, rural children’s museums have the potential to serve as an anchor in the broader learning ecosystem of rural communities, including formal and informal learning collaborations (Luke and Garvin 2014), serving to connect across disciplines and even generations. But while 22 percent of Americans live in rural areas (United States Census Bureau 2014), only twelve percent of children’s museums are located within rural areas (Association of Children’s Museums 2015). This highlights yet another need for increased access to rural STEM learning experiences. In particular, a survey of research in children’s museums concluded that 56 percent of the research was conducted at only seven museums (all in large metropolitan areas) and only approximately four percent of the research involved teachers (Luke and Windleharth 2013), emphasizing the need for additional research specifically related to the role of museums for early childhood education and teacher collaborations in rural settings.

Developing interdisciplinary learning ecosystems that utilize existing and new partnerships (communities-schools-universities) has the potential to foster significant resiliency factors in the face of the many barriers to informal STEM learning that exist in rural settings. A recent National Research Council report (Bell et al. 2009) highlighted the overlapping goals of schools and informal (non-school) settings in science learning and the complementary role that informal settings can play in supporting learning progressions. The report emphasized that informal STEM learning experiences have the potential to be designed specifically to align with the K–12 science and math curriculum goals, even when the experiences may be infrequent (Bell et al. 2009). This type of intentional alignment could significantly enhance the impact of the informal STEM learning experience. However, despite recognition of the tremendous learning potential stemming from collaborations between informal learning organizations and schools, there is relatively little research on these types of collaborations in rural early childhood settings (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011). This is surprising given the close-knit nature of most rural communities, where collaboration between local industry, business, artists, and K–12 educators should be easier than in metropolitan centers (cf. the case of Meriwether Lewis Junior-Senior High School in Howley et al. [2010] for an example of a rural math educator using community relations to craft connections of mathematics to place).

Rural Schooling—Then and Now

The reasons for the exclusion of rural areas from current research date as far back as the 1900s and are inextricably linked to location, social position, politics, and poverty (DeYoung 1995). During the 19th century and early 20th century, schooling was rural for a majority of Americans, as one-room schoolhouses were the norm (Theobald 1991, 1997). Over the course of the 19th century and extending to the present, American schools and modern life simultaneously institutionalized a more industrialized and one-package-fits-all model. The contracts issued by many schools and districts to engage efficiency programs modeled after business applications suggests that the industrial model persists. As part of this movement, schools underwent a shift from one-room schools to a more factory-based style of education that made it easier for teachers to be monitored, curriculum to be standardized, students’ progress to be tracked, and the education process to be governed by qualified education experts instead of local community members (Smith 1999). Consolidation became a further expression of the push toward efficiency, standardization, and “bottom-line” thinking in the mid-to-latter 20th century (Herzog and Pittman 1999; Howley 1991). The consolidation experiment is an especially salient example of how following the same model as urban or suburban schools did not solve rural schooling’s issues. Indeed, the impact of large organizational scale and high transportation-to-instructional expenditures may be creating more problems than they are solving.

Rural schools face continued challenges today. In particular, rural schools experience lower income bases, difficulty in attracting and keeping teachers, lack of access to quality professional teacher development, and decreased access to informal STEM experiences for students, families, and teachers in rural regions (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Goodpastor et al. 2012; Herzog and Pittman 1999; Monk 2007; Schafft and Jackson 2011). Children in rural schools are identified for special education services more often and for gifted services less often than their non-rural peers (DeYoung 1993; Pendarvis and Wood 2009; Seal and Harmon 1995). Adult commutes are longer (and accordingly, transportation expenses are greater), and children living in rural areas often experience longer bus rides to and from school (Seal and Harmon 1995) than their non-rural counterparts. As teachers in rural schools are often the school’s sole representatives of their content area, the issue of professional isolation creates a concern that is specific to rural schooling (Monk 2007). Additionally, teachers in rural schools have reduced access to quality professional development (Monk 2007). For example, only 11 percent of rural schools provided one-on-one science-focused coaching to science teachers compared to 30 percent in urban schools (Banilower et al. 2013). These circumstances create educational risk factors for both students and teachers, and highlight the need to foster resiliency factors in underserved rural regions (Malloy and Allen 2007). Resiliency factors, which enable people to be successful in the face of adversity, create protective mechanisms that help mitigate risk factors and are essential in overcoming high-risk educational conditions (Henderson and Milstein 2003; Krovetz 1999; Malloy and Allen 2007). These descriptors illuminate the need for increased access to informal STEM learning experiences for children and teachers alike, but also create considerable challenges in reaching the rural areas that would most benefit from increased informal STEM learning opportunities.

Barriers to Rural STEM Accessibility and Equity

Despite improvements in transportation (and communication technologies), getting rural schools and families to access places of informal learning is still difficult (Ellegard and Vilhelmson 2004). Dubbed the “friction of distance,” transport to informal learning events is impacted by distance and ease of reaching a location (Ellegard and Vilhelmson 2004). Increased access to funding for informal STEM learning events and transportation to reach them is an ongoing and pressing issue for rurally located schools (Schafft and Jackson 2011; Sipple and Brent 2008). Even when an informal STEM organization is regionally accessible, rural schools are sometimes unable to pay for even a short bus ride (Hartman and Hines-Bergmeier 2015). Charging admission fees in impoverished rural regions also presents serious accessibility issues, as many families and school districts are unable to afford even a modest admission fee (Hartman and Hines-Bergmeier 2015). The recently launched “Museums for All” initiative, co-sponsored by the Association for Children’s Museums and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, is an important new direction for ensuring access and equity regardless of economic status. Beyond financial and geographic challenges, a deep connection to home and community cultures and contexts needs to be woven throughout the fabric of STEM informal learning experiences in order to achieve true equity for underrepresented or nondominant groups such as rural communities (Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010).

Additionally, distrust of outsiders is a common characteristic in rural areas, making gaining entry to rural settings a challenging prospect (Hartman 2013; Seal and Harmon, 1995). Historically, rural residents’ perception was that outsiders came to make them more like the rest of the world and to offer suggestions for improvement and change, and this made them wary and distrustful of people who are considered outsiders (Cooper et al. 2010; Edwards et al. 2006; Hartman 2013). In informal learning settings, this idea may be more specifically defined as social exclusion (Sandell 1998). Described as a breakdown in the links between individuals and their connections to the community, state services, and institutions, social exclusion is a concern in rural areas (Sandell 1998). Even when an educational STEM entity is associated with long-time local residents, overcoming issues created by rural residents’ cultural view of outsiders and the theory of social exclusion present ongoing challenges for places of informal STEM learning (Hartman and Hines-Bergmeier 2015). Also challenging is the fact that, in rural communities, education and educational institutions are often perceived by community members as “one-way tickets” out—a tool for preparing children for jobs elsewhere, and thus espousing a set of values contrary to that of the close kinship and connections held in rural communities (Corbett 2007). Recruiting talent away from communities is perceived as yet another form of resource extraction, sometimes called “brain drain.” Strategies to overcome these barriers involve innovative, cross-contextual learning fostered by collaborative partnerships.

Cross-Contextual Learning in Early Childhood Settings

Early Childhood Education refers specifically to the time of rapid growth and development during the ages of three to eight (Follari 2011; Morrison 2015). Children in this age group are characterized by their willingness to take risks, curiosity about the world around them, and desire to be actively engaged in learning experiences (Follari 2011; Morrison 2015). Learning experiences that foster creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and a view of the world that is globally-minded and interdisciplinary are essential for children in the early years (Semmel 2009). Importantly, informal learning settings are places that encourage both independent and group exploration, are inherently play-based, and emphasize hands-on learning. These environments are designed to foster a high level of engagement and represent a model that is developmentally appropriate for young learners (Bell et al. 2009; Semmel 2009).

Though data from rural areas are scarce, research data that document bridging the gap between school and informal learning show promise for revolutionizing the way schools and community organizations interact to improve learning for children (Avery and Kassam 2011; Behrendt and Franklin 2014; Bevan et al. 2010; Duran et al. 2009; Fallik et al. 2013). Distinctions between “school math” or “school science” and “real math/science” may lead many students to develop negative dispositions toward STEM inquiry (Braund and Reiss 2006). Cross-contextual learning is a term for bridging the gap between the learning that occurs at school and the learning that happens informally at places such as museums, libraries, and/or parks (Fallik et al. 2013). By building upon experiences that occur in informal settings, classroom teachers are better able to create meaningful, engaged learning experiences in formal settings (Behrendt and Franklin 2014; Fallik et al. 2013). However, effective cross-contextual learning is challenging for teachers and places that provide informal learning experiences for children (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Fallik et al. 2013; Russell et al. 2013).

Early childhood teachers often have limited content knowledge of math and science, which contributes to low self-efficacy in math and science teaching and to decisions to devote less classroom time to teaching science (Murphy et al. 2007; Schneider et al. 2007; Ma 2010); conditions that impede cross-contextual learning. Effective cross-contextual learning is important, because recent research suggests that bridging the gap between formal and informal settings shows the most promise for both increased student gains and early childhood teacher comfort with STEM topics (Avery and Kassam 2011; Behrendt and Franklin 2014; Fallik et al. 2013). By engaging in collaborative partnerships, rural classroom teachers and informal STEM educational entities may capitalize on opportunities to increase STEM literacy and interest through informal STEM learning experiences (Bell et al. 2009; Russell et al. 2013). This is especially important in rural areas where access to traditionally recognized venues for informal learning opportunities, such as museums, are scarce (Avery and Kassam 2011; National Research Council 2015). To truly engage in cross-contextual learning that impacts the learning of young children in rural areas, collaboration between stakeholders is the essential ingredient (Bell et al. 2009; Russell et al. 2013).

Strength in Collaborative Partnerships

Rural areas have a strong sense of community, and the people living there feel strong family and community ties (DeYoung 1995; Goodpastor et al. 2012; Schafft and Jackson 2011; Vaughn and Saul 2013). Additionally, despite the challenges rural schools face, teachers who work in rural schools often report high levels of job satisfaction and professional collegiality (Howley and Howley 2006; Monk 2007). Given concerns associated with outsider distrust in rural settings (Cooper et al. 2010; Edwards et al. 2006; Hartman 2013), leveraging community entities and place-based teachers as partners in advancing informal STEM learning presents a strong and sustainable model in rural areas (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010; Goodpastor et al. 2012). Rural areas offer real-life, immediate access to outdoor learning experiences that are not readily available in urban and suburban school settings (Avery and Kassam 2011). Collaborative partnerships between teachers and informal STEM practitioners that capitalize on the unique environmental offerings of rural areas may impact STEM learning in an authentic, hands-on way that makes learning come to life for young children within the context of their own backyards.

To realize the full potential of already well-connected rural communities, balancing organizational and individual motivations of participants is important (Malm et al. 2012). As teachers serve as bridge builders between all stakeholders, they are essential members of collaborative partnerships, and especially in rural areas (Vaughn and Saul 2013). With the added component of distrust of outsiders, this makes community and teacher involvement in collaborative partnerships especially important for advancing informal STEM research and accessibility in rural areas (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Goodpastor et al. 2012). Informal learning partnerships in rural settings should be created from the ground up with rural partners involved from the beginning and serving as leaders in the process.

Looking to the Future

With more than a fifth of the U.S. population living rurally (U.S. Census Bureau 2014), the education research community and United States educational policy have an obligation to make sure that young children have access to high-quality STEM experiences, both in school (formal) and out of school (informal). Given the highly engaged and curious nature of children in the early years, early childhood settings provide important sites to explore the characteristics and impact of informal STEM learning in new and innovative ways. A model that promotes active and collaborative partnerships between informal learning practitioners, community entities, and classroom teachers represents an effective way to advance accessibility, equity, and research for informal STEM learning experiences in rural early childhood settings (Avery 2013; Avery and Kassam 2011; Goodpastor et al. 2012). The key to this engaged learning paradigm is fostering strong collaborative partnerships that capitalize on the strengths of rural areas and the educators who live there, and researchers must therefore develop and nourish meaningful relationships between rural, informal STEM partners and schools. Increased research usually brings increased funding, and both are needed to help end the pervasive cycle that keeps rural informal STEM learning both underfunded and underrepresented in the research literature. Twenty-first century demands for rurally located resources and opportunities (e.g., alternative energy sources) suggest that STEM talent and knowledge of rural places may be key to the future prosperity of the United States, and that talent must be nurtured beyond the walls of school buildings and from a very young age. The creative talent necessary for meeting those needs will include knowledge and understanding of rural place and communities, as well as of science and mathematics. Educational research has an important role to play in both bridging the gap between current realities and future prospects and in making community partners of formal and informal learning environs.

About the Authors

Sara L. Hartman is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Teacher Education at Ohio University. She earned a Ph.D. in Teaching, Curriculum, and Learning from the University of Nebraska and has research interests related to school-community partnerships in rural early childhood settings. Sara is the co-founder and Board President of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery. She enjoys drinking tea and reading books to children and is happiest when she can do both at the same time. Sara can be reached for comments or questions at

Jennifer Hines-Bergmeier is a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Ohio University. She co-founded the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, served as its first Board President, and continues to serve as a board member. She earned a Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Michigan, where she also spent time working with the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. Like all good chemists, Jennifer enjoys mixing and stirring, especially in the kitchen with her family.

Robert Klein is an Associate Professor and the Undergraduate Chair in the Department of Mathematics at Ohio University. He earned a Ph.D. in Education from The Ohio State University and has research interests pertaining to the socio-cultural aspects of education and rural education. Robert is very involved in Math Circles for students and teachers in the United States and Central America and is Executive Director of the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles. In his free time, he enjoys posing and discussing questions that cannot be solved, such as “what happened to my free time?”


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Emerging Topics in the Study of Life on Earth: Systems Approaches to Biological and Cultural Diversity

There is broad consensus in the international scientific community that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis — the accelerated loss of life on Earth brought about by human activity. Threats to biodiversity have been variously classified by different authors (Diamond 1989, Laverty and Sterling 2004, Brook et al. 2008), but typically include ecosystem loss and fragmentation, unsustainable use, invasive species, pollution, and climate change. Across the globe, traditional and indigenous cultures are affected by many of the same threats affecting biological diversity, including the unsustainable use of natural resources, changes in traditional land use, and cultural assimilation. [more] Academics and practitioners alike agree that to stem the erosion of biological and cultural diversity, we need to engage theoretical and applied perspectives from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In addition, we need to approach biological and cultural diversity from an integrated, systems-based perspective that emphasizes interconnections and interactions — and teach our students to do the same (Huggett 1993, Richmond 1993, Ford 1999, Sterman 2000, Richmond 2001, Kunsch et al. 2007, Nguyen et al. 2009). Fortunately, in our experience as scientists, social scientists, and teachers, sustaining diversity is a topic that interests students and can easily transcend and tie together diverse fields beyond biology, from statistics to law, from medicine to public policy. In this review, we highlight emerging topics related to sustaining biological and cultural diversity that are amenable to a systems-based approach. In the final section, we offer brief notes on active, student-engaged tools and approaches through which these topics can be taught to increase understanding of systems-based approaches by students.

Humans depend upon biodiversity in obvious as well as subtle ways: we need biodiversity to satisfy basic needs such as food and medicine, and to enrich our lives culturally or spiritually (Krupnick and Jolly 2002, Weladjii and Holand 2003, MEA 2005, West 2005, Losey and Vaughan 2006, Lambden et al. 2007, Ridder 2007). Yet in an increasingly technological world, people often forget how fundamental biodiversity is to daily life. When we hear about species going extinct or ecosystems being degraded, we assume that other species or ecosystems are around to take their place, or that in the end it does not really affect us. We rarely feel individually responsible for the loss of biodiversity, although human activities are the leading threat to the Earth’s biodiversity. Immersed in our managed environments and virtual worlds, surrounded by houses and offices, streets and shopping malls, our direct contact with “nature” often consists of aquaria in our living rooms or manicured parks to which we drive in private automobiles. In many places it is hard to remember that food in the grocery store did not spring forth packaged, ready to cook and serve. Yet if we were to put a bubble over the managed environments of our cities and towns and tried to survive with no input from the natural world, we would quickly perish — humans are part of the natural system.

Simultaneously, at a time when the environmental and social consequences of human-induced changes such as deforestation, desertification, degradation and reduction of global water resources, and climate change are increasingly severe (MEA 2005), we are witnessing a homogenization of human cultures, livelihoods, and languages. In response, we need to broaden our traditional definition of what constitutes valid scientific data or “evidence,” and appreciate and learn from the vast variety of approaches to human-environment relationships that have developed across the world’s diverse cultures and languages, often through close interactions with the natural environment and based on a perception of humans as part of, rather than separate from, nature. The humanities, including history, philosophy, and the arts, play critical roles in exploring these issues. For example, cross-disciplinary scholarship has illuminated the critical intersections between art, science, and the environment in a broader cultural context (Blandy et al. 1998, Lambert and Khosla 2000, Thornes 2008). As global citizens, we need to re-examine and redefine the place of humans as part of life on earth, and to achieve a clearer understanding of the interconnections among biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity.

To achieve this vision, students need to be able to understand issues and challenges from an integrated, systems-based perspective; one way to achieve this goal is by teaching with active, systems-based techniques (Bosch et al. 2007, Westra et al. 2007, Mahon et al. 2008). In the classroom, teachers can use case-based examples that illustrate causal chains and attenuating or reinforcing feedback interactions. For example, students working through a case study of a fishery as a complex system would discover that the system extends from the resource base and its supporting ecosystem through harvesting and distribution to the consumer, whether local or as a buyer in the global marketplace. In addition, students could identify disparate factors affecting the fishery, such as shifts in climate regime, rise or fall in energy costs, and government policies to protect or exploit a resource, and explore how their interactions can determine the collapse or the long-term sustainability of the fishery. Students may also consider the history of the fishery and the culture of the fishing community, a lesson that can reinforce the importance of understanding baselines and viewing cases from a historical perspective (Jackson et al 2001). Such an exercise reveals the system to be diverse, dynamic, and complex, and demonstrates that effective governance must recognize the interconnections and adaptive capacity of the fishery.

In this essay, we highlight several emerging topics in the study of cultural and biological diversity that could be used to develop systems-based skills in students, and then discuss specific implementation strategies for teaching these topics. Notwithstanding the contribution of the humanities disciplines to some of these topics, given our own disciplinary backgrounds, we focus on contributions from the natural and social sciences. We begin with two topics that illustrate the importance of biodiversity to humans (ecosystem services and ecosystem resilience), and then move on to consider climate change, human health, and cultural diversity. We continue with sections on community based conservation and engaging the public, and conclude with a discussion of how these topics can be taught in order to foster systems-based thinking in students.

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

An ecosystem is comprised of all the organisms that live in a particular place, and their abiotic (non-living) environment. The outcomes of interactions between organisms and the physical environment include complex processes, such as nutrient cycling, soil development, and water budgeting, which are all considered ecosystem functions. When these outcomes and processes are viewed in light of their benefit to humans, they are considered an ecosystem service. These services are far-ranging and include: the regulation of atmospheric gases that affect global and local climates including the air we breathe; maintenance of the hydrologic cycle; control of nutrient and energy flow, including waste decomposition, detoxification, soil renewal, nitrogen fixation, and photosynthesis; a genetic library; maintenance of reproduction, such as pollination and seed dispersal in plants we rely on for food, clothing or shelter; and control of agricultural pests. Humans can rarely completely replace these services and, if they can, it is often only at considerable cost (e.g., Costanza et al. 1997, Daily et al. 1997, Daily et al. 2000, Heal 2000, MEA 2005).

Plants and their pollinators (such as wasps, birds, bats, and bees) are increasingly threatened around the world (Buchmann and Nabhan 1995; Kremen and Ricketts 2000), yet pollination is critical to most major agricultural crops and virtually impossible to replace. In some places, a lack of pollinators has forced conversion to hand pollination (Partap and Partap 2000). There is a growing body of research that is attempting to estimate the replacement costs for natural and managed pollinators (e.g., Allsopp et al. 2004). In the Maoxian region of China, an important apple-growing region, it takes roughly 20–25 people to pollinate the apples in an orchard in one day, and costs the farmer roughly 70 US dollars. If pollination were done by rented honeybees, farmers would pay only 14 US dollars. Although the region has a long history of beekeeping, the pesticides used on the apple trees have made beekeepers unwilling to rent their bees to farmers (Partap and Partap 2000).

The relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services is complex, and remains an active area of research (e.g., Naeem et al. 1995, Kremen 2005, Balvanera et al. 2006, Hector and Bagchi 2007, Schmitz 2009). Integral to any effort to sustain ecosystem services is an understanding of what traits and components of the system must be conserved in order for a particular service to persist. There is uncertainty regarding the ability of ecosystem services to persist in the face of reduced species diversity, and more research is needed to fully understand the importance of high levels of biodiversity on ecosystem function (Diaz et al. 2006). Despite these uncertainties, we do know the importance of individual species to ecosystem services is largely determined by the species’ functional traits, or the ways in which a species interacts with its ecosystem, rather than just the number of species present (Chapin et al. 1997, Duffy 2002, Chalcraft and Resetarits 2003, Hooper et al. 2005, Wright et al. 2006, Violle et al. 2007, Diaz et al. 2006). We also know that functional diversity (the variety of different roles played by all species in an ecosystem) in the ecosystem is an important determinant of the magnitude of the impact the loss of a species will have on the ecosystem. In some cases there are multiple species that perform the same role in keeping an ecosystem functioning; for example there could be many types of invertebrates that assist in the decomposition of leaf litter. If a high number of species perform similar tasks, the loss of one functionally redundant species is likely to have a smaller effect than if only one species could perform the task, and it is lost from the system (Chapin et al. 1997, Tilman et al. 1997).

Recent research is considering ecosystems as multi-functional systems, rather than focusing on one ecosystem process, and is striving to measure the importance of species based on their roles in supporting multiple ecosystem functions (e.g., Hector and Bagchi 2007, Gamfeldt et al. 2008, Kirwan et al. 2009). These efforts indicate that measuring the impacts of species-loss on one ecosystem service at a time may undervalue the total contribution of species diversity to ecosystem function as a whole. As a consequence, overall ecosystem function may be more susceptible to species loss than single ecosystem services are, and thus, may be more vulnerable than earlier research may have suggested (Gamfeldt et al. 2008). Clearly, an integrated, systems-based approach is needed to understand the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services.

An emerging strategy for conservation involves incorporating ecosystem services into economic markets by making direct payments to local actors (payment for ecosystem services, PES). One such system in Nicaragua used payment to farmers as incentive for integrating additional trees into agricultural or grazing lands (Pagiola et al. 2007). PES practices can produce on-site benefits such as improved pasture production and fruit, fuel wood, timber, and fodder production. Adding trees to an agricultural system can also have off-site benefits for ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration and maintenance of the hydrological system, and farmers were paid for both these on-site and off-site benefits. In this case, the additional payment for off-site benefits encouraged farmers to participate; on-site gains alone were not sufficient motivation to change behavior. Monetizing the positive contribution to ecosystem services created the incentive for local actors to shift practices.

PES can have beneficial social as well as ecological outcomes, as many underdeveloped and poor areas have the potential to provide large amounts of currently un-monetized ecosystem services (Bulte et al. 2008). For example, Wunder and Alban (2008) report on a program in Ecuador, where the residents of the Pimampiro municipality pay the largely indigenous and poor owners of the upstream forests to refrain from converting forest to agricultural land in order to protect the city’s drinking water supply. PES programs must therefore evaluate the social setting in which they will be instituted, in addition to evaluating the ecological and economic costs and benefits, to determine the success of PES actions. PES supporters also have an obligation to consider the impacts of their actions on social structures and the rights of those involved (Bulte et al. 2008, Carr 2008).

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Resilience

Ecosystem resilience is the ability of a system to adapt and respond to changing environmental conditions. The relationship between biodiversity and resilience is complex and controversial (Lehman and Tilman 2000, Pfisterer and Schmid 2002), and an area of active research. Resilience theory is based on the idea that as certain thresholds are passed, long periods of gradual ecological change are punctuated by non-linear, rapid, unpredictable, and extreme shifts in ecosystem composition and function (Folke et al. 2006), an ecosystem “regime shift.” In the modern era, these sudden shifts have often been initiated by human activities, such as increased intensity of resource use, deforestation or ecosystem conversion, species introductions, or pollution. For example, Osterblom et al. (2007) suggest the Baltic Sea went through three key transitions in the last century. The first was a shift from a seal-dominated to a cod-dominated system; they conclude that this was due to a 95 percent reduction of the seal population, initially due to hunting (1900–40) and then due to pollution (1965–75). The second was a shift from an oligotrophic (low-level of primary productivity) to a eutrophic (high-level of primary productivity) state; this was mainly caused by anthropogenic nutrient loading around the 1950s. Finally, they suggest that by the 1970s the shift to a eutrophic state reduced cod numbers and, in combination with overfishing of cod, may lead to a regime shift from a cod-dominated to a clupeid-dominated system. Currently, Osterblom et al. (2007) only consider the shift from oligotrophic to eutrophic conditions as a true regime shift, meaning that it has reached a stable state and will remain eutrophic even with reduced nutrient loading. This shift will have lasting impacts on the cod fisheries of the Baltic and on the biodiversity of the region.

In general, the loss of rare species has a lower impact on ecosystem function than the loss of abundant species (Diaz et al. 2006). Some species, however, have important ecological roles despite their relatively low numbers and are called keystone species. Removal of one or several keystone species may have ecosystem-wide consequences immediately, or decades or centuries later (Jackson et al. 2001). The point at which major ecological changes, or regime shifts, will take place is highly unpredictable, but advances are being made in our ability to predict when species losses will result in these shifts. Current systems-based research continues to expand our knowledge of precursors of regime shifts, such as increased variability of state variables, or variables that determine the stable regime of an ecosystem (e.g. increasingly variable phosphorous levels before a shift to a eutrophic lake system; Carpenter and Brock 2006). This improved understanding should assist in improved ecosystem management. With advance warning, managers may be more likely to determine when efforts are needed to protect species, and when built-in redundancies are sufficient to sustain ecosystems in their current states. It is also possible that while some losses of biodiversity may not drive regime shifts directly, they can leave ecosystems more vulnerable to future changes that could have previously been absorbed (Folke et al. 2004). In the face of the biodiversity crisis, understanding resilience will be essential in directing limited conservation efforts to best protect ecosystem services.

Climate Change Effects on Biodiversity

As mentioned above, climate change as a threat to biodiversity has received increasing levels of attention in recent years. In February 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC 2007a). This report, with its observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, rising global mean sea level, regional changes in precipitation patterns, and variations in extreme weather, provides unequivocal evidence that the Earth’s climate is changing. In this report, the IPCC (2007a) indicates that most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the increase in human-caused, or anthropogenic, greenhouse gas concentrations. Over the next two decades, a global average warming of about 0.2°C per decade is projected for a range of emissions scenarios, and continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates will cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that will almost certainly be larger than those observed during the 20th century.

Evidence from the fossil record (Davis and Shaw 2001) demonstrates that changes in climate can have a profound influence on the myriad of species that comprise Earth’s biodiversity. Scientists expect that climate change to date and predicted change over the coming century will have a significant influence on this diversity (Berry et al. 2002, Thomas et al. 2004, Malcolm et al. 2006). These effects have been investigated in hundreds of individual studies, and several important reviews and meta-analyses, including Walther et al. (2002), Parmesan and Yohe (2003), Root et al. (2003), Lovejoy and Hannah (2005), Parmesan (2006), and Parmesan (2007). Documented effects include upslope and poleward shifts in distribution to escape rising temperatures, changes in disease risk, phenological responses such as changes in the timing of flowering and fruiting, coral bleaching, and impacts on ecosystems as a whole. Scientists, social scientists, and members of local communities are also accumulating information on present and predicted future impacts of climate change on human populations, including changes to food security, health, climate, and the physical environment. (e.g., IPCC 2001, 2007b, Patz et al. 2005, ACIA 2005, Mustonen 2005, Macchi et al. 2007, Salick and Byg 2007, Frumkin and McMichael 2008, Patz et al. 2008).

Predictions of continued rapid climate change over the coming century have prompted many attempts to estimate future impacts on biodiversity. One study estimated that, on the basis of a mid-range climate warming scenario for 2050, 15–37 percent of species in their sample of 1,103 study species would be on a trajectory toward extinction. (Thomas et al. 2004). Such predictions of extremely high extinction risk due to climate change have generated debate among scientists, politicians, and the broader general public. Uncertainties inherent in the predictions, along with debate as to how (if at all) society should manage the threat, make this a controversial topic. This is complicated by the fact that a growing body of evidence supports the idea that individual threats to biodiversity rarely occur in isolation. Threats occurring together could be additive, in that the combined effect is the sum of each. However, in some cases, threats can be synergistic, where the simultaneous action of individual threats has a greater total effect than the sum of individual effects (Brook et al. 2008). To be synergistic, threats must not only interact, but they must do so in a mutually reinforcing manner that contributes to population decline, and possibly to local extirpation and/or global extinction for one or more species. The strongest evidence for synergy among threats to biodiversity would be data that allow examining the effects of each threat separately as compared with the effects of the threats considered together. However, the number of studies taking this approach is still small, and they have usually been performed under experimental or semi-experimental conditions (e.g., Davies et al. 2004, Mora et al. 2007). To date, most published examples of synergies with climate change are projections, simulations or models. For example, investigators have suggested that climate change may be facilitating the spread of chytrid fungus that is causing amphibian extinctions in Central America (Pounds et al. 2006; Rohr et al. 2008; but see also Lips et al. [2008]).

Species have survived major climatic changes throughout their evolutionary history (Davis and Shaw 2001). However, scientists concur (IPCC 2007a) that contemporary anthropogenic climate change presents a significant threat to biodiversity. A key factor that differentiates contemporary climate change from past changes is the potential synergies with multiple other threats, in particular ecosystem loss and fragmentation. Natural systems exist today on a planet that is dominated by humans, with 40–50 percent of the ice-free land surface now transformed for human use, primarily in the form of agricultural and urban systems (Chapin et al. 2000). Climate change thus presents an important challenge for conservation efforts and human populations. The variety of possible effects of climate change across various domains, and the potential for climate change to interact with other threats to biodiversity, illustrate the need to consider climate change from a systems-based perspective.

Health and Biodiversity

Particularly when considered broadly (i.e. not just as the absence of illness but including physical, mental, and social stability, and in inclusive spatial and temporal contexts), human health depends on biodiversity. This does not mean that all components of biodiversity have a positive effect on health at all times (consider for example that parasites are part of biodiversity), but rather that ultimately the health of all species on the planet depends on our shared ecological context. Human health and well-being requires goods (i.e. benefits derived from tangible commodities) and services (such as the ecosystem services discussed above) provided by biodiversity, and can therefore be negatively affected by its loss. The linkages between biodiversity and human health have been the focus of much recent attention and intense study and have been highlighted by international bodies such as the World Health Organization as well as conservation non governmental organizations (WHO 2006, WCS 2009).

Food, medicine, and medical models are among the goods derived from biodiversity that are critical for sustaining human health. Aside from purely synthetic food products, all of the nutrients we consume are derived from a plant, fungus, or animal species. People all over the world meet their daily caloric and nutritional needs through some combination of wild and domesticated sources, many of which are currently threatened. Studies have estimated that at least 80 percent of the world’s population relies on compounds obtained mainly from plants as their primary source of health care (Fabricant and Farnsworth 2001, Kumar 2004). The importance of medicines derived from living things is not limited to the developing world: more than half of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States come from, are derived from, or are patterned after one or more compounds originally found in a live organism (Grifo and Chivian 1999). Finally, species belonging to many different taxa are invaluable in biomedical research and play a critical role in advancing our understanding of human anatomy, physiology, and disease.

Ecosystem services, as discussed earlier, support productive natural systems and large-scale ecological interactions such as pollination, pest control, soil creation and maintenance and nitrogen fixation, and are therefore critical for their persistence and the continued provision of the goods mentioned above. Other biodiversity mediated processes that benefit health and wellbeing include water filtration, flood regulation (Andreassian 2004), and waste removal (Nichols et al. 2008). In other cases, ecosystems can protect humans from natural disasters, such as cyclones (Das and Vincent 2009). Finally, empirical and theoretical evidence support the idea that species diversity can act as a buffer for the transmission of some infectious agents, including the Lyme spirochete, West Nile virus, and Hanta viruses (Ostfeld and Keesing 2000, Swaddle and Calos 2008, Suzán et al. 2009).

The differentiation between goods and services is a useful distinction with which to approach complex linkages among species and foster understanding and engagement in their conservation. In reality however, all goods are themselves the result of complex ecological interactions involving many species and their abiotic environments, and therefore broad, systems-level thinking is required to characterize, quantify, and conserve all these critically important benefits we obtain from biodiversity. As a consequence, the study of the relationship between health and biological diversity requires multidisciplinary collaboration, among biomedical professionals, ecologists and conservation biologists, and others. This kind of system-wide approach will augment our capacity to sustain the health of all species and conserve the biodiversity on which it ultimately depends.

Sustaining Cultural Diversity

The past two decades have witnessed an upsurge of interest in the links and synergies between linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity (Harmon 1996, 2002, Smith 2001, Toledo, 2002, Carlson and Maffi 2004, Stepp et al. 2004, Loh and Harmon 2005, Maffi 2001a, b, 2005, Cocks 2006). As previously mentioned, the world’s biodiversity and the vast and diverse pool of cultural knowledge, arts, beliefs, values, practices, and languages developed by humanity over time are under threat by many of the same human-induced forces (Maffi 2001b, Harmon 2002). These circumstances call for integrated approaches in research and action since culture and nature interact at many levels that span values and beliefs to knowledge and livelihoods. Yet, both in scientific inquiry and in the realms of policy and management, the categories of “nature” and “culture” are still often treated as distinct and unrelated entities, mirroring a common perception of humans as separate from the natural environment. This conceptual dichotomy is also reflected in, and reinforced by, the mutual isolation that has historically characterized teaching in the humanities and natural and social sciences, leading to fragmentation and limited communication or collaboration among different fields concerned with diversity and sustainability in nature and in culture (Brosius 1999, Oviedo et al. 2000, Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2004, Maffi 2004, Brosius and Redford 2006). The resulting approaches, in both theory and practice, have generally failed to recognize the interconnectedness of natural and cultural processes and of the threats they are facing, or at least to bring cross-cutting expertise to bear on these issues. Thus, they have not succeeded in stemming the erosion of the diversity of life in all its manifestations. The persistent loss of this biocultural diversity is resulting in an ever less resilient world (Wollock 2001, Maffi 2005).

Recent years have seen the emergence of integrative disciplines that seek to better comprehend the complex interactions between culture and nature, and that work to incorporate insights from both the biological and the social sciences, as well as from humanistic inquiry, non-Western perspectives, and traditional cultural knowledge systems. These include biocultural diversity, social-ecological systems, nature-society theory, anthropology of nature, ethnobiology, ethnobotany, ethnoecology, ecological and environmental anthropology, human ecology, human geography, environmental ethics and history, ecofeminist theory/ecofeminism, historical ecology, symbolic ecology, systems ecology and political ecology, among others (Berlin 1992, Cronon 1996, Kormondy and Brown 1998, Adger 2000, Moran and Gillett-Netting 2000, Townsend 2000, Egan and Howell 2001, Maffi 2001b, 2005, 2007, Harmon 2002, Toledo 2002, Berkes and Turner 2006, Rapport 2007a, b). Recent ethnographic and archaeological research has also shown that our conceptualization of the relationship between nature and culture must include a temporal dimension as humans have interacted with environments through co-evolutionary processes for many generations (Balée 2006). For example, pre-colonial Native Americans shaped landscapes once considered to be “pristine” through periodic burning (Cronon 1983) and some areas of Amazonia have been intensively managed by indigenous people for centuries (Heckenberger et al 2007). We need to examine and understand the formation of contemporary and past cultural landscapes and patterns of biodiversity and how interactions between societies and environments change through time. Agencies, institutions, and organizations broadly responsible for environmental conservation and management, development, and cultural issues (for instance UNESCO, UNEP, Convention on Biological Diversity, and IUCN — The World Conservation Union), are expressing interest in this kind of broad, integrative work and its policy implications (UNESCO 2006). This indicates that now is the time to both assess the scientific advances in all of these integrative fields and foster their contributions to addressing the vital issues of environmental, linguistic, and social sustainability, as well as to promote communication among different ways of knowing through both scientific and traditional knowledge systems. Effective, systems-based teaching should help establish more integrated approaches to research, policy, and management in years to come.

Adger (2000) has defined social resilience as “the ability of groups or communities to cope with external stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political, and environmental change.” A group’s exposure to stress as a result of ecological change is known as social vulnerability. Social vulnerability is generally high for many indigenous and traditional peoples, who are often economically marginalized and rely directly on the natural environment for their food and livelihoods (Adger 2000, IPCC 2001, 2007b, Diffenbaugh et al. 2007, Macchi et al. 2007, Salick and Byg 2007). For these reasons, some threats to biological diversity, such as climate change and ecosystem loss and fragmentation, may be particularly acute threats to the lifeways of indigenous and traditional peoples. In particular, scientists and local communities in the northern latitudes have documented ongoing changes in their environment due to climate warming, such as reductions in sea and lake ice, loss of forest resources, changes in prey populations, and increased risk to coastal infrastructure (Lee et al. 2000, NAST 2001, CCME 2003, Weladji and Holand 2003, ACIA 2005, Ford 2007, Lambden et al. 2007). As climate change impacts arctic ecosystems, the predictive power of some traditional knowledge is reduced (Krupnick and Jolly 2002, Ford et al. 2007, Sakakibara 2008, Sakakibara 2009), which has the potential to leave societal structures weakened (Weladjii and Holand 2003, Lambden et al. 2007). It is therefore not surprising that some of the first initiatives bringing indigenous communities together to frame and address common problems related to climate change have occurred in the northern latitudes. Examples of these efforts include the compilation of the Stories of the Raven by the group Snowchange (Mustonen 2005) and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2005), which was prepared by more than 300 participants from 15 countries and includes many examples of the local traditional knowledge of Inuit, Sami, Athabaskans, Gwich’in, Aleut and other Arctic Indigenous Peoples.

Community-based Conservation

From individual sacred trees to royal game preserves, strategies for conservation have historically relied on protected areas, or conserving biodiversity where it exists, in situ. Many early parks and reserves in the Western tradition of biodiversity conservation were modeled after Yellowstone National Park (established 1872) in the United States, and advocated strict preservation policies, seeking to safeguard natural resources through the exclusion of local populations (and in cases disregarding the role they had played in shaping those landscapes) (Adams and McShane 1996, Neumann 1998, 2002, Jacoby 2001, Adams 2004). By the 1970s, new ideas of sustainable development and a growing interest in human rights and different knowledge and value systems challenged this approach. Recognizing that conservation affects people’s lives (West and Brockington 2006), and that restricted access to natural resources has costs that are often borne by those least equipped to pay them (Adams et al. 2004), international conservation efforts began shifting to a more people-centered approach (Adams and Hulme 2001, Naughton-Treves et al. 2005). At the same time, the effectiveness of the protected area approach itself was in question as people realized that parks were ecological islands covering only a fraction of larger ecosystems, and management authorities frequently lacked the funds or capacity to enforce their borders. Beginning with Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) in the early 1990s, conservation policy began to shift from state-centric, top-down approaches to attempts to incorporate society, sustainability, and markets (Wells and Brandon 1992, Adams and Hulme 2001, Barrow and Murphree 2001). While strict reserves remain important for certain vulnerable systems, the IUCN–WCU (2009)currently recognizes six categories of protected areas of varying degrees of protection and use. Today, the mission of some protected areas has expanded to include the protection of biological and cultural diversity, the provision of economic benefits, poverty alleviation, and even promoting peace (i.e. “peace parks”, or transboundary conservation areas) (Naughton-Treves et al. 2005). Conservation efforts are increasingly recognizing the necessity of understanding the historical ecology of these protected sites and sustaining their cultural landscapes (UNESCO 2006).

“Community-based conservation” (CBC) helps conserve threatened species and critical ecosystems beyond protected area boundaries by linking natural resource protection to communities and development — in other words, by thinking of the ecosystems and inhabitants as an integrated system. Emphasizing a participatory approach to biodiversity conservation, CBC strives for a “win-win” situation where local involvement leads to economic growth and a vested interest in conservation (Adams and Hulme 2001, Berkes 2004). The case of the African elephant illustrates this logic: locally, elephants can be dangerous pests that steal crops and destroy gardens; nationally, they are major tourist attractions and the source of significant revenue. CBC seeks to expand the benefits of elephant conservation to the local level through benefit-sharing schemes or prescribing wildlife conservation as a form of land use (an alternative to agriculture or pastoralism). In this model, natural resources are recognized as renewable, opening the possibility for controlled and sustainable use. Additionally, the separation of human-dominated landscapes and “natural” landscapes is less clear, as people are explicitly included, and community perspectives and knowledge are deliberately incorporated into conservation practice.

CBC initiatives range from programs as simple as protected area or private sector outreach (e.g., Tanzania’s National Parks’ Community Conservation Service program, “Ujirani Mwema” [Bergin 2001]) to Community Conserved Areas (CCAs), terrestrial and marine spaces that have been conserved voluntarily by local communities (Kothari 2006). An important CBC model, CCAs vary widely in size and have been initiated for a number of reasons: to protect access to livelihood resources or community land tenure, for economic gain (e.g., ecotourism), or to safeguard vulnerable wildlife or ecosystem functions. They may include sacred spaces, indigenous peoples’ territories, critical wildlife habitat, resource catchment areas, or mixed landscapes (natural and agricultural ecosystems).

CBC, through innovative partnerships among conservation biologists, social scientists, and communities living in and around biodiversity hotspots, is an important complement to traditional protected areas and a vital part of the conservation toolkit. But it is not a panacea for conservation problems: for instance, the goals of biodiversity conservation and development interventions are often conflicting; communities are not homogenous entities, but represent a wide array of viewpoints and motivations, and “success” is not easily defined (see for example Agrawal and Gibson 1999, Biesbrouck 2002, Berkes 2004, Chapin 2004, Tsing et al. 2005, Rao 2006, Igoe and Croucher 2007, Nelson et al. 2007). Ultimately, however, an effective approach to biodiversity conservation will involve diverse constituencies, including international organizations, nations and national governments, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, local grassroots groups, and individuals.

Teaching Systems Approaches to Biological and Cultural Diversity

Too often, we do not think about the interconnections in the world around us. As illustrated in the topics discussed above, change in an ecosystem can cause a chain of reactions to reverberate throughout the system, affecting the well-being of humans and other species (Diaz et al. 2006). Studies of endangered species are now pointing to the importance of coevolution, with cascading extinctions leading to the disproportionate loss in groups such as parasites and mutualists (Koh et al. 2004, Dunn et al. 2009). Researchers are also learning that synergistic interactions between different direct and indirect threats to biological and cultural diversity may amplify or exacerbate individual threats. All these interconnections are crucial for us to consider when working to sustain diversity.

As our understanding of natural ecosystems and the role of humans within them has increased, we have realized that traditional “siloed,” disassembled approaches for understanding and managing complex systems are severely limited. For instance, physical scientists study long-term trends in temperature; local communities observe changes through time in animal behavior, population abundance, and timing of reproduction; biologists study climate change and its effect on species distributions; and anthropologists study adaptation in human cultures to climate change. Rarely do these individuals come together to study the feedbacks among climate change, human adaptation, and biological responses, leading to further adaptation — yet clearly each discipline is only understanding one piece of the puzzle and cannot gain a complete picture in the absence of information from the other disciplines.

In our experience, an effective way to foster systems-based and interdisciplinary thinking in students is to combine the study of actual case studies of environmental issues (such as the fisheries case study referenced in the introduction) with active approaches to teaching. Such approaches engage students directly in the learning process, and can include a variety of activities, including interactive lectures, debates and role-playing, faculty or student-led discussions, student presentations, field exercises, and others (e.g., Bonwell and Eison 1991, Meyers and Jones 1993, Bean 1996, McNeal and D’Avanzo 1997, Silberman and Auerbach 1998, Handelsman et al. 2004, McKeachie and Svinicki 2006). There is ample evidence from the education literature that active-learning modes substantially increase student performance across many disciplines (e.g., Hake 1998, McKeachie et al. 1986, NRC 1996, Olson and Loucks-Horsley 2000), including those related to biodiversity and conservation biology (Ebert-May et al. 1997, Sundberg and Moncada 1994, Lord 1999, Ryan and Campa 2000, Burrowes and Nazario 2001, Udovic et al. 2002, Chopin 2002, Burrowes 2003). Many active teaching approaches involve students working together in small groups, and often involve an element of peer-to-peer teaching and/or collaborative learning (Slavin, 1990, Johnson et al. 2007, Barkley et al. 2004), which can foster development of the critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis skills that are important to a systems-based approach.

Each of the issues discussed in this review has its own “entry point” that can encourage students to adopt systems-based thinking:

  • Because of our universal dependence on ecosystem services and their cultural, ecological, and economic value, ecosystem services provide students with concrete and relevant examples of the importance of biodiversity conservation from the perspectives of many different disciplines. Case studies of efforts to conserve ecosystem services can expose students to the complexity of real-life conservation issues.
  • In the current politically charged public discourse around climate change and its effects, engaging students on this issue represents a significant opportunity for teachers. Indeed, this is such an important area that the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors of the National Council for Science and the Environment has established a special Climate Solutions Curriculum Committee (2009) to provide support and guidance to university teaching of climate change. Studying climate change can help students appreciate some of the difficulties and controversies that arise when scientists attempt to extend current observations to model future predictions, and understand that natural systems are composed of an interconnected network of interacting species and threats to those species.
  • As an immediate concern and a topic of personal experience for all, health is a powerful motivator for changes in behavior, and can introduce the idea of multidisciplinarity in scientific endeavors and the interrelatedness of life on the planet. For example, topics in health and the environment can be presented as medical mysteries, in which students are encouraged to discover the drivers of changes in epidemiological patterns in human or animal populations, or as choices among various interventions, using a systems-based approach.
  • The intersection between culture, biodiversity, nature, and the environment offers a rich lode for exploration with students, moving easily among philosophical and ethical realms. For example, students could discuss the issue of extinction and what it means for a species, language, or culture to disappear, given that our understanding of the world is that it is dynamic and continually evolving. Readings on resilience could explore the differences between social and ecological resilience and how those might lead to different frames within which to address the problems that we face in sustaining biological and cultural diversity.
  • The study of community-based conservation can expose students to different ways of perceiving nature as well as the suite of possible conservation interventions. For example, students might debate the relative successes of current efforts to implement CBC, such as those of Wildlife Management Areas in Tanzania (see Goldman 2003, Igoe and Croucher 2007, Nelson et al. 2007). Offering a variety of real world case studies for examination, whether across the world or in their own backyard, CBC effectively demonstrates to students the complexity of conservation decision-making and the necessity of inter-disciplinary efforts.

A variety of freely available electronic resources are available that can be used to support systems-based, active teaching in topics related to biological and cultural diversity. These include resources of the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP 2009a) of the American Museum of Natural History, materials from the Ecological Society of America such as the TIEE project (2009) and the EcoEdNet repository (2009), along with appropriate materials from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (2009).

Final Thoughts

Even as natural and and social scientists work to make their work with students more meaningful, we also need to move beyond the classroom and into engaging the public more directly on issues surrounding biological and cultural diversity. With current levels of public understanding of science — particularly in the United States — recognized as being deficient (National Science Board 2002, Baron 2003, Brossard et al. 2005, Bonney 2008, Cohn 2008), active involvement in the scientific process can serve to increase interest and literacy. Participants can also improve their abilities to understand and interpret what is going on around them and how it relates to their lives, and in the process take part in translating science practice into public discourse and in turn, transform it into action. Wilderman et al. (2004) suggest that participants working together can develop a sense of community ownership of data and feel empowered to use them for advocacy and decision-making. Additionally, projects that involve volunteers in the study of a species or habitat make it possible to address questions of a scope and scale that would not otherwise be possible. By working with citizen volunteers, scientists may broaden support for their projects and form a more direct link with their constituency (Greenwood 2003). Decisions based on participatory research may also be more effective and less controversial when stakeholders who have an interest in the results are involved in the process (Pilz et al. 2005, Calhoun and Morgan 2009). Similarly, stewardship groups (who may be involved in research, maintenance, and/or tours or other educational activities) can develop a strong sense of responsibility and attachment to a place that they care for, and will strive to protect it for the health of the local environment as well as for community well-being. In general, environmental volunteering and stewardship can result in a wide range of benefits for the organizations involved, the volunteers, and for the community, including extending an organization’s work and promoting its cause; giving people a chance to connect or reconnect with nature as well as gain new skills, make social connections, and improve their physical and mental well-being; and contributing to community goals for education, health, and social and environmental justice (O’Brien et al. 2008).

Programs that encourage broad public participation can also in some cases intersect with student programs. An example of this approach is ALLARM (Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring), which forms partnerships between community groups and researchers and students at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania to conduct water quality monitoring and watershed management projects. ALLARM’s goals include increasing community scientific knowledge while motivating students through engaging in research to solve real-world problems (Wilderman et al. 2004). These are the overarching goals, however, and each community group defines the goals for its own project. Volunteers engage in the scientific process, from defining problems, designing the studies, collecting and analyzing samples, to interpreting data. Scientists provide training and mentoring where necessary, particularly supporting the groups through the development of a feasible study design and in interpreting data so that the community members themselves are able to understand and share their findings rather than relying on researchers to speak for them. Volunteers also have the advantage of using their local knowledge for interpretation, making connections with nearby land uses that researchers might not be aware of (Wilderman et al. 2004, Wilderman 2007).

Students of today are challenged to try to make sense of a bewildering array of information and misinformation about environmental and cultural issues. This is certainly the case with biodiversity loss and sustaining cultures. Over the past decades, we have come to understand that sustaining cultural and biological diversity does not just mean placing boundaries around a static entity. Rather, it means moving beyond the patterns we see and understanding the processes that create diversity, allowing for change and evolution while maintaining integrity of a system. Human-induced threats to biodiversity are causing not only species loss, but also are negatively impacting ecosystem processes and function and might even alter the rate of evolutionary change, which in turn can influence ecological dynamics, creating “eco-evolutionary feedbacks” (Palumbi 2001, Stockwell et al. 2003, Post and Palkovacs 2009). Though we may not have a complete understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of the interactions between ecology and evolution, it is clear that planning for biodiversity conservation needs to happen in the context of dynamic populations and threats (Mace and Purvis 2008).

In order for the next generation of adults and voters to make intelligent choices about biological and cultural diversity, they will need to understand what the consequences of their individual and collective actions are — the evolutionary force that we have become. They need to know what diversity is, to understand the relationship between human beings and diversity and how our value systems affect sustainability of biodiversity and culture (Carolan 2006, Christie et al. 2006), the difference between sustaining just patterns/static definitions of diversity rather than processes, and they need to understand what threatens diversity. Finally, students need to have a sense of what they can do about the loss of biological and cultural diversity at the individual and collective levels. Overall, they will need to take a systemic look at people and their relationship to diversity, as complex systems such as these require systems thinking for solutions (Waltner-Toews et al. 2008). As teachers, we can support them in learning to do this.


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About the Authors

Nora Bynum ( is the corresponding author for this article. She is Project Director of the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP) and Associate Director for Capacity Development for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation of the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Bynum provides global leadership for the NCEP project, including academic coordination and management of the module development, testing, and dissemination process. For the past 15 years, Dr. Bynum has worked on international capacity building and training in biodiversity conservation and ecology and environmental studies in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. She has conducted fieldwork in tropical forests in Indonesia, Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Her current research interests are in seasonality and phenology of tropical canopy trees, particularly as it relates to global change, and the scholarship of teaching and learning, particularly in undergraduate and experiential contexts. Dr. Bynum serves as Chair of the Board of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER), on the Board of Governors of the Society for Conservation Biology, and as Director of Education for the Austral and Neotropical Section of the Society for Conservation Biology.

Eleanor Sterling is Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and of Graduate Studies in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. She leads the development and coordination of the Center’s national and international field projects and the development of curricula for undergraduate and graduate level educators. Dr. Sterling has worked for several international conservation organizations, and has many years of field research experience in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where she has conducted behavioral, ecological, and genetic studies of primates, whales, and other mammals, as well as of sea turtles and giant Galápagos tortoises. Dr. Sterling also studies the inter-relationships between cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. She translates this and other scientific information into recommendations for conservation managers, decision-makers, and educators. She has extensive expertise in developing environmental education programs and professional development workshops for teachers, students, and U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in the field of biodiversity conservation.

Brian Weeks is Production Manager for the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP) at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), at the American Museum of Natural History. Brian currently oversees NCEP activities and assists with ongoing CBC research and conservation activities in the Solomon Islands, including describing avifauna populations with a focus on the endemic flightless Gallirallus species. He previously managed the production process for NCEP multi-component modules from the initial stages of author selection to final production. Brian holds a B.A. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Brown University.

Andrés Gómez is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), at the American Museum of Natural History. Andrés received a Ph.D. in ecology from Columbia University and a D.V.M. at the Universidad de La Salle in Bogotá, Colombia. His research has been mainly focused on understanding health in an ecological context, and on the applications of disease ecology in conservation biology. He has also worked on several large-scale spatial analyses for conservation and on indicators of environmental performance. Before coming to New York he worked for the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park’s Conservation and Research Center. He has conducted fieldwork in the United States, Mexico, China, and Colombia.

Kimberley Roosenburg is Editorial Specialist for the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP) at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), at the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to managing the development and review of NCEP English and French language modules, she oversees NCEP activities in Madagascar and works to support new institutional and individual collaborations for NCEP in the United States and globally. Kimberley holds an M.A. in African Studies from Yale University with a concentration in anthropology and environmental studies, and a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia.

Erin Vintinner is a Biodiversity Specialist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. She provides research and writing support for various CBC initiatives, most notably the AMNH exhibition Water: H2O = Life and associated projects, and contributes content to the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners. Prior to coming to the CBC, Erin served as Research and Expedition Coordinator for the No Water No Life nonprofit photodocumentary project in the Columbia River Basin. She also previously served as a fisheries technician with the USDA Forest Service in Sitka, Alaska and the Bureau of Land Management in Eugene, Oregon. Erin holds an M.A. in Conservation Biology from Columbia University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology and a B.A. in Biology from Boston University.

Dr. Felicity Arengo is Associate Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History where she helps oversee strategic planning, project development and administration, and fundraising efforts. She is also adjunct professor at Columbia University. Felicity has over fifteen years of field research and project experience in Latin America and is currently the Western Hemisphere coordinator of the IUCN Flamingo Specialist Group. She received an M.Sc. in 1994 and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology in 1997 from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Currently she is working with South American colleagues on flamingo and wetland research and conservation in the high Andes.

As Outreach Program Manager for the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, Meg Domroese is part of a team that integrates research, training, and education for biodiversity conservation. She has worked on projects in Madagascar, Guatemala, Bolivia, and most recently in The Bahamas. These involve partnering with local organizations to promote participation in conservation through a range of approaches, including training educators and resource managers in teaching and interpreting biodiversity, collaborating on exhibition development, and supporting community conservation projects. Meg also collaborates on Museum-based programming and print and web communications that target local, as well as international, audiences. Prior to joining the CBC in 1996, her experiences included interning in the political and economic sections at the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, teaching English in Madagascar, and working in the Interpretive Division at Grand Canyon National Park. Meg has a Master of Science degree with a concentration in international development and conservation from Michigan State University.

Richard Pearson is a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, where he is associated with both the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and the Department of Herpetology. Richard completed his Ph.D. at the University of Oxford in 2004 and joined the AMNH in 2005. Richard’s research falls largely within the field of biogeography.

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