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 SECEIJ.net), mathematics and quantitative literacy (engagingmathematics.ipower.com), and informal science education (sencer-ise.net, 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, https://www.aaas.org/resources/levers-change-assessment-progress-changing-stem-instruction
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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.” https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED424840
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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 https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED574632
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).
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