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  • 15 Dec 2022 3:20 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Connecting  Science Education  to our Civic Obligation

    By Karen Kashmanian Oates

    From the time of conception, SENCER was designed to challenge the conventional inert, passive educational practices found in most institutions. The SENCER  approach has always been envisioned as more than the STEM content that catalyzed  it’s initial funding but  a dynamic, and ever-changing  concept.

    SENCER is not about educating a generation that merely acquires content knowledge without understanding how to put knowledge into practice to benefit society. Like you, I feel very fortunate to have had a great education and clarity of mind to solve complex problems. This great fortune comes with an obligation.  When I use the word obligation, I refer to our obligation to act on what evidence tells us. This short essay focuses on this central SENCER obligation.

    At the core, SENCER links content with the skills and values of society by creating  within our educational system  diverse opportunities to practice the hard work of being an engaged citizen.  As educators, parents, teachers we find ourselves  in all environments where we instruct, and  prepare the next generation of professionals to be educated capable citizens entrusted to advance our culture, technology, and society to the benefit of all. From the beginning, this was the obligation we were entrusted with for the sake of the generations that follow.

    With this as an obligation, it becomes is our responsibility to provide our students multiple opportunities to do the work of citizenship.  THIS IS WHY SENCER is so important- now more than ever.  No longer can we say someone is educated just because they have accumulated 120 credits within a menu of courses instead  the question we should be asking is have we educated our students to uphold  freedom and democracy  by  empower them to use their many talents, and skills  throughout their lives for the greater good of society.

    Make no excuses, there is  an embedded goal in SENCER  to support our democratic practices. This required us to borrow from architecture the form follows function  approach or as it has been adopted by biologists, structure begets function.  Applied to teaching and learning, this implies the choices we make on the form (structure) of learning begets the outcomes (function). The outcomes desired will depend on how and what we teach.  And it is the shift in focus from instruction to the function of instruction (or from the HOW to the WHY of teaching) that we need to focus on now. We do this  in a democratic society by creating many opportunities for our students to take up problems that affect them, work in their communities, and catalyze inquiry and learning in and outside of the classroom as authentic, relevant, challenging, and MEANINGFUL.

    SENCER: From Knowledge to Action

    Let me ask, , what if you knew that without adding an anticorrosive in the water lines, lead would leach into the everyday drinking water of families?

    What if you knew that living near a bus depot increases your risk of asthma and if people in developing nations are being killed just to get the little food and water needed to keep them alive while others are killing themselves by overeating and wasting water resources? 

    What if we knew that mothers who obtain higher education not only benefited themselves economically, but provided a significant long term economic benefit to their children and grandchildren.

    What if free will, autonomy, and connecting learning to personal interests were proven effective ways to motivate learners and introduce new subjects?

    What would you do if you knew all these things? What might our actions look like?  What is our obligation?

    As a nation and individually, in terms of our financial and human investments, education is the most important and most critical intergenerational compact we have as a society with one another.  Education is the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next so that the next generation will have a more prosperous future than ours.  Our democracy, our culture, the health of our society, and our civic life is dependent on our fidelity to this intergenerational obligation we have as a society.  Using evidence, and what we know about successful teaching and learning, is essential in meeting that obligation.

    The field of research on learning is a relatively young science. There are myriad of questions that need to be asked related to how learning takes place.  SENCER approaches draw on what we know about learning, motivation, and self-efficacy to teach STEM disciplinary content, while also supporting civic engagement, community partnerships, democratic practice, and life-long learning within different types of environments, including the traditional classroom. 

    In fact, our classrooms are world-class research laboratories only if we ask the right questions about what is going on in them. Experimentation is key As a scientist, I’d like to believe that if people had the facts, they would come to a logical conclusion supported by evidence.  Research takes many forms.  It’s important to think about educational research as we would a laboratory research program.  As we teach, we can study our efforts to nurture scientifically and technically prepared citizens as a form of our scholarship. The scholarship of teaching and learning is just as important as the scholarship of discovery. Helping our institutions to recognize this has been an uphill battle where we are finally making some progress through new faculty promotion ranks.

    The power of education for our democracy requires a shift from inert learning to active learning.  We have to shift from demanding the memorization of definitions and facts with little connection to student’s lives, to topics that of immediate relevance to students and their communities– to an education which is liberating, the kind of education needed by free people in a democratic society. Inert learning means students do not develop the critical thinking, the discernment, and the sense of responsibility, and the confidence to engage productively in the deliberations and decision making of their communities, in other words the skills needed for democracy. This is a more challenging standard for teaching and learning, in which students command both the subject, knowledge, and the skills needed to seek out new information and put knowledge into practice. We learned from motivation theory that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation require free will, connection to something that matters, that is relevant to the learner.

    When it comes to our interventions in learning, form follows functiondemocracy and liberal learning go hand and hand.  Our responsibility is to facilitate this transition by creating opportunities for liberated learning, learning that is relevant to the learner, learning that has meaning and matters and  can be put  into action. 

    There is a wonderful passage by William James in Talks to Teachers (1892), which states in a few words what years of research has verified:

    “Any object not interesting in itself becomes interesting through becoming associated with an object in which interest already exists.  The two associated objects grow, as it were, together; the interesting portion sheds its quality over the whole; and thus things not interesting in their own right borrow an interest which becomes as real and as strong as the originally interesting one. "

    The following should not surprise you - 

    The most naturally interesting object to a person is what directly affects their life and future. 

    So, from this -- there emerges a very simple way to learn more deeply:  Begin with relevance--something that interests and impacts the student - and then offer subjects that have some immediate connection with these interests. 

    I taught a course on AIDS, but it covered most of the content in an immunology course.   I taught a course called “cancer,” and it covered cell biology – The courses conveyed the same material in the conventional biology courses, but the content was more interesting, relevant, and memorable in a real context. I can promise you, students were more engaged by pressing topics that  interested them – Cancer and AIDS.  If you start with an interest - - learning becomes more connected to what really matters!

    William James, and later John Dewey, who greatly expanded James’s educational theory, offered us a glimpse not just how to teach but how to support deep learning. After all, we cannot afford to invest and educate a new generation of students that merely acquire knowledge without understanding how that knowledge can benefit society, their communities and the nation. 

    In fact, we must ( it is our obligation) teach the content and the skills and values of democracy by creating liberating and diverse opportunities for our students to practice the work of being an engaged citizen.  Colleges and universities are agents of our democracy and we must therefore provide students who attend our institutions ample opportunity to practice those skills. It’s our obligation as knowing individuals to further the SENCER ideals and to support intellectual development and our democratic process.




  • 06 Nov 2022 7:25 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    In 1979 I was starting my first job in the Department of biology at Livingston College of Rutgers University Livingston College was built on an old Army base - Camp Kilmer. Livingston College opened in 1969 and was intended to be “the college of inclusion,” with a faculty and student body unlike that of any other public institution in the state of New Jersey. Its motto was  "Strength through Diversity.” Livingston College opened in 1969. At that time Rutgers admitted mostly white, middle and upper middle, class students. I want to point out that in 2022, Rutgers University ranks extremely high in diversity. However, when I first started at Rutgers there was pervasive attitude that “faculty and student body unlike that of any other public institution in the state of New Jersey” meant that the students and faculty were inferior.

    I was surprised to learn that introductory genetics - the course I was assigned to teach, had a different course number than the same course on the Rutgers College or Douglass College Campuses. This was to denote that it was not at the same level as courses taught by “real professors.” I had to meet with the outgoing professor of genetics (he did not get tenure) because he had my office keys. (Yes that was very awkward!) He wanted to talk. His advice to me was shocking. He told me that his students were stupid and did not belong in college. I should pick a low-level text book and write only the simplest test questions (True/False and multiple choice). His ideas were based on the flawed idea that intelligence was a fixed trait and that Livingston students were just inferior. That idea is based more in scientific racism and eugenics than reality, (I will be writing a blog about this later).

    I ignored him and offered a course every bit as rigorous as the ones offered at the other campuses. My students did well. Anecdotally, I never generated a Bell curve. Livingston students were, in fact, different. They tended to generate a U-shaped curve. The least frequent grades were C’s. I had lots of A’s and Bs’ and D’s and F’s. This had more to do with grading policies (D’s and F’s did not appear on the transcript) than student quality.

    I continually to run into this attitude. “I would be a great teacher if I only had better students,” As the Vice Chair of Genetics I had to sit in on the lectures of junior faculty members. Sometimes this was to help them become better teachers. Sometimes this was to evaluate them for tenure and promotion. By and large, the worst faculty members were those who arrogantly dismissed their bad teaching ratings as a result of having to teach the terrible students that were admitted to the University. Not only were these faculty members bad teachers but they were extremely reluctant to admit that their teaching was at fault. I had the same excuses offered at SENCER meetings. “You are from Rutgers so of course your students can learn. However I teach at _______________ and my students are terrible.”

    It is wrong to blame the students. Once you acknowledge that every student can learn, your job is no longer to sort the students into categories, but rather to help each student learn. The responsibility for poor student performance is yours. My wakeup call came from SENCER. Yours may come from other organizations or from teaching and learning centers on your own campus.

    Ironically, although I have always believed that every student can learn. I had fallen into the trap of two midterms and a final exam. This is a guaranteed way to lock students into a poor grade with no possibility of redemption. Once I took seriously my own belief I had to redesign my courses to aid student achievement. (I will write about this in a future blog).

    Realistically, not every student will excel in your course. Students have lives and they may not be able to devote the time to your course that it requires. I have had students who worked forty hours a week to pay for their tuition and tried to carry a full load of courses.  Other students were dealing with mental health and physical health problems (thior own or a family member's) .  Other students were single parents with unreliable child care. Finally some students had chosen to put their effort in another course such as organic chemistry and were willing to accept a lower grade in my course.  

    Terry R. McGuire - Writing as the Reinvented Professor. ( .

    Questions, comments and suggestions welcome.

  • 06 Nov 2022 5:40 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Some of you know me, but most of you don’t. In 2001 I was in a very bad place. David Burns took great relish in describing his first impression of me at the 2002 SENCER Summer Institute as a “burned–out, dyspeptic, middle- aged professor.” According to him, I was both bewildered and cynical. Unfortunately, he had me pegged. My research career had basically ended because funding priorities had changed. I was resigned to being a permanent Associate Professor. I had little to look forward to except retirement (somewhere in the next 15 to 20 years). I was resigned to being “just a teacher” (in a bad way).

    All of this changed after SENCER. You can read about my transformation in a backgrounder that I wrote in 2005. (Reinventing Myself as a Professor: The Catalytic Role of SENCER.  That paper ended on a positive note.

    Since 2005 I have had a remarkable academic career. Among other accomplishments I became part of the Core SENCER faculty, I participated in many National Science Teaching Efforts, became a Senior Fellow of the National Center for Science & Civic Engagement (NCSCE). At Rutgers University, I was appointed Vice Chair for Undergraduate Instruction, and was promoted to Professor. I eventually became one of twelve Master Teachers at Rutgers University. More importantly, I once again enjoyed being a Professor.

    I continued with SENCER until 2015 when I retired. I rejoined SENCER when Eliza and Davida nominated me to be an SENCER Ambassador. Now I would like to share the rest of my story. In 2005 I had no idea how the tiny seeds planted by SENCER and a few changes in my course would snowball into an entirely new and extremely rewarding career. Instead of being “just a teacher” I was extremely proud to be a teacher. In my Backgrounder, I ended with an allusion to the Wizard of OZ. The rest of the story gets a nod to Dr. Seuss.


    You'll be on your way up!

    You'll be seeing great sights!

    You'll join the high fliers

    who soar to high heights.

    Any blog is a personal narrative. Sometime I feel like I am wearing no clothes. Other times I feel like I am not even wearing my skin. In this series of blogs, I will describe my adventures (both good and bad) in teaching. Many of the ideas I present were also given as presentations in the SENCER Summer Institutes. These are recollections of things that worked (or did not work) for me. I hope that you can find value in my journey.

    Terry R. McGuire - Writing as the Reinvented Professor. ( .

    Questions, comments and suggestions welcome.

  • 20 Sep 2021 3:50 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    There is has a growing consensus among higher education researchers and stakeholders that the STEM education initiative SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) has far exceeded its original goal of establishing a community of faculty practice around the teaching of science content “through” civic challenges of immediate relevance to students.  The SENCER community has gone beyond changing individual faculty practice to supporting a deep and engaging philosophical exploration of both how science is taught and the inextricable connection between advancing scientific understanding and the civic future of our students and their communities. Because of this shift in practice and purpose, SENCER was identified as a new model of professional development, a “Community of Transformation” in STEM and a "Lever for Change," one with the potential to shift institutional and disciplinary norms and produce change at both the individual and broader system level (AAAS, 2019; Kezar & Gherke, 2015). Internal project evaluations suggest that socially and civically grounded SENCER approaches produced significant gains for women and other traditionally underserved and science-averse students, a conclusion that is increasingly confirmed by new research (Kraus-Tarka & Ballou, 2012; McGee & Bentley, 2017; Garibay, 2015; Riley et al, 2014).

    Developed under the auspices of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in 2000, SENCER’s design drew on intersecting approaches and emerging bodies of research on curricular improvement and faculty practice, including learning and cognitive science, network theory, theories of change and scale, curriculum design, and analysis of faculty roles and incentives, to name just a few. In addition, the project was grounded in the historic mission of AAC&U, which was to advance liberal learning and general education as key elements in the larger civic mission of American Higher Education. Consequently, the project was, from its origins, greatly advantaged by the research contributions from leaders in both STEM reform and civic education, and by the longstanding experience of AAC&U in designing effective and enduring professional development programming for faculty. (AAC, 1985; Boyer Commission, 1998; Kuh, 2008).

    The SENCER project (now the signature of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement) left AAC&U in 2003 to maximize its capacity as a national network and realize greater independence in program development. As the project grew and evolved it continued its “top down/bottom up” strategy of collaborating with national experts and science advocacy groups to incorporate cutting edge research and practice in curriculum design, while paying close attention to the needs, innovations, and new approaches emerging from the community of practitioners.  In the past decade, new lines of programming emerged around SENCER approaches to assessment, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (including the establishment of a peer reviewed journal to advance dissemination, mathematics and quantitative literacy (, and informal science education (, Bell, 2018; Mappen, 2018).

    As of 2021 the NCSCE community and portfolio of professional development projects have reached over 7000 practitioners at more than 500 institutions. SENCER is credited by its participants with improving STEM teaching and learning, supporting leadership development and mentoring institutional change agents, and providing a supportive network for sustaining professional satisfaction, enthusiasm and engagement. 

    Because SENCER is an approach to content--delivering disciplinary content “through” the lens of a real-world, civic problem--and not a specific pedagogy or teaching “method,” it is extensible to all disciplines and teaching contexts and sectors, from K-12 to graduate and professional education, and is closely compatible with “high impact” teaching methods and emerging knowledge scaffolds, such as NGSS, and the “Enduring Understandings” frameworks used by the College Board (Samaroo, 2018).  While the funded program initiatives have predominantly focused on college-level learning, the project has increasingly attracted informal and formal STEM educators from all levels of education and there is great growth potential for extending and enlarging the “Community of Transformation” beyond Higher Education, and even beyond the STEM disciplines. SENCER’s distinction and advantage among STEM reform projects is its dual function of improving both STEM learning AND civic engagement, understanding, and capacity—it is unique in conceptualizing science education as a dynamic and relevant form of civic education (Burns, 2002).  NCSCE is now an independent non-profit organization, not "hosted" by an academic institution, but supported by its own grant funded initiatives and member-donors. It will continue to grow by attending to the most current learning research and analysis, and by responding to, cultivating, and disseminating the creativity, innovation, and successful strategies emerging from its transformative community of practice. 


    American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (2019), Levers for Change: An assessment of progress on changing STEM instruction | American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved September 6, 2021,

    Association of American Colleges (1985), “Integrity in the college curriculum: a report to the academic community: the findings and recommendations of the Project on Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees.”

    Bell, Larry (2018). "Civic Engagement and Informal Science Education," Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journalv.10, 2.

    Burns, William David. “Knowledge to Make our Democracy,” Liberal Education, Fall 2002, Vol. 88, No. 4.

    Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998), “Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities.”

    Kuh, G. D. (2008). “High-impact educational practices: what are they, who has access to them, and why they matter.” Washington, D.C., Association of American Colleges and Universities.

    Kraus-Tarka, Danielle and Ballou, Janice, “STEM Practice and Assessment: SENCER’s Influence on Educators,” Science Education and Civic Engagement: The Next Level. 2012 , 163-178

    Kezar, A., & Gehrke, S. (2015). Communities of Transformation and Their Work Scaling STEM Reform. Pullias Center for Higher Education. Retrieved November 11, 2018 from

    Mappen, E. F. (2018). “Building a Model for Collaboration between Higher Education and Informal Science Educators,” Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal, 10 (2).

    McGee, E., & Bentley, L. (2017). “The Equity Ethic: Black and Latinx College Student Reengineering Their STEM Careers toward Justice.” American Journal of Education, 124(1), 1–36.

    National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School:  Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved November 11, 2018 from 

    Riley, Donna, Amy E. Slaton, and Alice Pawley. (2014). “Social Justice and Inclusion: Women and Minorities in Engineering.” In Cambridge Handbook of EngineeringEducation Research, eds. Aditya Johri and Barbara Olds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Samaroo, D., Narine, S., Iqbal, A., Natal, K., & Villatoro, M. (2018). “A Multi-tier Approach to Integrating STEM Education into a Local Elementary School,” Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal, 10 (1).






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