published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, February 2005, Volume 4, Issue 6

Seventeen Midwestern Schools Practice the "5R's" - Reuniting, Reporting, Recruiting, Recommending, and Regionalizing - at SENCER Symposium in Chicago

SENCER's Midwest Symposium, hosted by Loyola University of Chicago, gathered more than fifty faculty and other academic leaders for a day-long series of presentations by SENCER alumni on their progress and plans. Held at Loyola's Water Tower Campus on February 11, the symposium was introduced by Pete Facione, provost of Loyola, who credited SENCER with helping to free him to think about his role as a teacher and scholar as more than a "member of a discipline," but as someone who could put his disciplinary knowledge to work in the service of larger, more "capacious" civic problems. He identified this new scholarship as a return to traditional Jesuit scholarly and vocational traditions.

SENCER Symposia are occasions for what David Burns, SENCER's PI, called the "5 R's": Reuniting (SENCER alumni and staff), Reporting (from faculty working on SENCER courses and programs), Recruiting (of faculty and academic leaders interested in the approaches SENCER supports), Recommending (to the SENCER national office staff) improvements in the program, and Regionalizing (exploring with one another) to create opportunities to develop "local" organizations to broaden and deepen the impact of the national project and to support local faculty and program development. The Chicago Symposium had all of these features. Its most prominent feature, however, was "reporting" as will be clear from the reports to follow. The day seemed to go by pretty fast, so much so that participants suggested that we consider making the Symposium longer in order to include more opportunities for interaction (and networking) and to feature a presentation on a helpful new pedagogy, reports of assessment efforts, and a more in-depth presentation of a particularly interesting course or project.

The report that follows can only gesture at the range and richness of the reports given by SENCER alums and others, but, rest assured, the National Office has asked for copies of the PowerPoint presentations and reports for inclusion in future Newsletters and on www.sencer.net.

Here's some of what we learned:

Ball State University has participated in two SENCER Summer Institutes. At SSI 2003, the Ball State team developed a course on science and weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, an alumni team turned its attention to what we might call weapons of mass consumption. The team created and is now piloting, "Food, Values, Politics and Society: Are We What We Eat?" Susan Johnson, representing the SENCER team, noted that the new course encourages a critical appraisal of the validity of the conflicting academic claims, "popular science," and other resources swirling around the complicated topics of obesity and nutrition in the context of America's new eating habits. The course engages students in the design and conduct of original scientific research and invites them to apply the knowledge they are gaining in a social service setting. Since the instructors are committed to inviting students to have a strong hand in determining the issues and questions to be explored within the larger course, the instructors have been faced with the challenge of "being organized" when it is the class - and not they themselves - that are setting the agenda. This is a common issue in courses that take student interest seriously, often at the peril of disrupting the linear logic of a traditional syllabus. Speaking to the larger, campus-wide picture, Juli Elfin, a philosopher and SENCER team member who has significant responsibility for helping Ball State renew its general education program, reported that the SENCER approach has been so successful at Ball State that they are providing incentives for faculty to develop a series of additional SENCER courses as part of the overall reform.

Describing Beloit College as a place that is, by tradition and design, very hospitable to innovation (after all it is the center of BioQuest and ChemConnections), Marion Fass noted that "SENCERizing" courses was something that has generally increased following her team's participation. Several new courses have been created, including Marion's own course on emerging diseases. Perhaps the most important outcome, however, is a thorough-going, college-wide effort to think about how learning happens. Following attendance at the SENCER Summer Institute, the dean of the college, David Burrows, was inspired by Jay Labov's and Jose Mestre's presentations to order a copy of Professor John Bransford's "How People Learn" for every member of the faculty. SENCER participants at Beloit and others have been engaged in a
serious examination of how teaching practices can be improved using what is known about learning. Marion described this as "post-SENCER" (though she was quick to say she isn't exactly sure if she'd like that to be thought of as "post-modern").

David Courard-Hauri of Drake University described the set of SENCER courses that have been developed and taught in the past three years. Drake's course sequence was selected as one of the 2003 SENCER Featured Models (Nutrition and Wellness and the Iowa Environment). Essentially the Drake model melds interests in nutrition, the environment, food consumption (micro level effects) and food production (macro level effects) in Iowa, with a focus on agriculture and the environment. Of special interest to the Symposium's participants was David's description of his use of excel spreadsheet modeling as a way to engage students in learning, beginning with exercises ("recipes") where the students work with known variables and leading to encouraging students to develop their own models. This develops mathematical skills, while at the same time helping students understand complex systems. Even though the courses are always oversubscribed and the assessments are showing impressive learning gains, the team of collaborators is now faced with the challenge of "keeping it going" - renewing and refreshing both the course content and its instructors - and building on the gains achieved to stimulate the creation of cognate courses. This is a common problem for "reformers" and one that David thinks Drake will solve, though he thinks that staying in touch with others who are working to improve learning is also helpful.

It has been observed in the March 2004 issue of the e-newsletter that the problem with reform isn't the absence of good ideas but instead the frustration presented by certain "academic accounting" and other schemes designed to rationalize resources. Overcoming the problem of accomplishing interdisciplinary learning in an environment that has some administrative and accounting difficulties supporting team teaching and being attentive to the needs of students whose schedules make taking "coordinated courses" or enrolling in learning communities problematic are formidable challenges. But Mike Davis and Laura Chambers of Harold Washington College have developed an innovative approach to do their SENCER courses. The plan is to offer two courses that will meet at the same hour and feature alternating professors. From time to time the classes will meet together to promote continuity and coordination. "Society Under the Microscope," the name they have given to the course they developed after SSI 2004, will be offered for the first time in Fall, 2005. Dennis Lehman, who has been the SENCER team leader, introduced the HW presentation and noted Harold Washington's interest in developing a Chicago-wide asthma project. Dennis also offered his support for developing SENCER regional meetings and programs.

Professor Barbara Krumhardt, described as the Iowa State University SENCER Team's "sparkplug," described the changes she implemented in her Biology 201 course for majors just weeks following her attendance at SSI 2004. In a course of more than 200 students, Barbara formed groups of five students each, invited them to identify a problem, do original research, and develop a plan of action. She developed a civic community within the course though WebCT discussion sections. Using a strategy similar to that described by Monica Devanas in her SENCER model (Biomedical Issues of HIV/AIDS), Barbara stimulated her students to have their original work read and critiqued by others. She also designed rubrics to invite the teams to award points to each member on the basis of a member's contributions. The individual projects were featured in poster presentations at a public venue on the Iowa State campus and were the subject of a report on innovative teaching in the Iowa State staff newsletter. While there are many aspects of the newly-designed course that Barbara would like to attend to when she next teaches it, what was significant was the improved performance by the students who took the "SENCERized" majors course. There were more "A's" than usual for this course, because the work produced was better. (It should also be noted that, because her course was a "majors course," only a small part of the course could be readily changed in deference to the "coverage" obligations. Thus, the results achieved were especially notable in proportion to the scale of her own reform effort.) The improved student performance will be studied further as the Iowa State team's work goes forward. Attending the Midwest Symposium from Iowa State was the team leader, Jan Thompson, who reviewed the team's core mission of creating courses in agriculture and natural resources. Of special interest to SENCER members who are trying to generate campus-wide interest and "buy-in" for science education improvements will be Iowa State's well-planned and persistently-executed strategy to call attention to their work in campus publications, reward systems, and other venues, where the good work being done can be featured. Jan's presentation reminds us that "dissemination" is everybody's business.

John Pelissero, associate provost of curriculum at Loyola University-Chicago and our host for the Symposium, described the Loyola SENCER team's contributions to the development of a new, outcomes based general education program (online: http://www.luc.edu/newcore/). Two SENCER courses have been approved within the new core. One focuses on health and children in greater Chicago ("Environmental Quality and Children's Health") and was created by faculty from natural science, sociology, law, biology, political science, philosophy, chemistry, educational psychology, nursing, and theology. The course will teach "through" such complex topics as asthma, diabetes, obesity, and a series of pre-natal health issues "to" genetics, development, physiology, and nutrition, among other things. The second new course, being piloted this spring as "Liberal Arts Physics," is called, "Energy for a Sustainable Future." Designed and to be taught by faculty from physics, natural science, theology, chemistry, and science and math education, this course will use Chicago as a "locus" for group projects involving a host of energy topics. In the new curriculum, no departments will "own" general education courses or distributions. Rather, students will be free to choose courses that help develop certain skills, habits of mind, and values. In the new program, SENCER courses are to be part of requirements for scientific literacy and civic engagement. Regarding the latter, Loyola has made a very substantial commitment to finding opportunities for community-based research and civic engagement in both of the SENCER courses.

SENCER has long benefited from the leadership of Theo Koupelis, the developer of one of the four original SENCER models, "Science, Society, and Global Catastrophes." In his brief report to the Symposium, Theo reported that the course is still being taught, still attracting student interest, still "tough," and still producing students who go on to UW-Madison and other "senior" colleges well-prepared for the coursework they choose there. Indeed, it seems that the course begun at University of Wisconsin-Marathon(in Wausau) satisfies biology, geology, or political science credits and was the first course to fulfill the now-required interdisciplinary credit at UW-Marathon. Theo stressed the need in reform efforts to "keep trying" - in his case, through local, state, and national associations devoted to improving physics teaching. Theo reported on two developments that have great potential to help to "institutionalize" and expand the SENCER approaches in Wisconsin. One was the Wisconsin Campus Compact, which has grant funding available to support service learning, community-based research, and other pedagogies frequently employed by faculty doing SENCER work. The second is the Wisconsin Humanities Council, which is interested in supporting strategies to connect humanities and the natural sciences. Theo mentioned one project in particular that takes each word in the Constitution and stimulates and supports discussion around its meaning. Several of these words should be of special interest to people in STEM fields - "equal" comes to mind, for example. Theo suggested that alliances with the humanities contain significant potential for supporting improvements in science education. Theo also reported on some SENCER "House Calls" that he had made and suggested that we feature the availability of SENCER faculty and alumni campus visits more prominently in our publications and publicity materials.

Mariah Birgen, a mathematician at Wartburg College, has attended all four SENCER Summer Institutes. She has developed a SENCER course in mathematics and science ("Science in the News") and now, as a person with responsibility for the college honors program, is exploring a course on the STEM of Democracy - with special emphasis on apportionment, weighted-voting, the census and elections. She reports on the absolute need to help students make the "context connections" - since so few courses emphasize how science and math is actually "used" in the world. Mariah has found that working with social scientists - especially political scientists - has been very helpful in course development. Indeed, her experience is emblematic of many SENCER participants who have used contact with colleagues to create opportunities for their own learning of hitherto unfamiliar material. (Dick Fluck, of Franklin and Marshall, has observed, for instance, that when he, a fish biologist, became interested in TB, he invited a series of experts to address his seminars and, by so doing, turned them into a learning community for all involved.) The Wartburg campus team is also developing a new course to improve the current offering infinite mathematics. Lynette McGregor, who is the science education specialist at Wartburg, described the use of SENCER materials in connection with her pre-service teacher education courses at Wartburg. Using the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996), Lynette has "SENCERized" her "Science of Water" course and created a new course, "Physics of Ordinary Things." Her next project is to create a course, "Biology of Ordinary Things" that will help pre-service teacher graduates meet the national standards.

The Symposium presentations concluded with an update on SENCER's connections and work in the newly independent states, particularly the Republic of Georgia. Ardith Maney, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, director of the NGO, International Women in Science and Engineering, and a SENCER Senior Associate, briefed the attendees on the projects (see January e-newsletter) while providing a picture of the larger context in which the SENCER reforms are being enacted in Georgia. The tertiary education system of Georgia is undergoing massive reorganization and, to use an American term, "downsizing." In this context, it appears that the work of the SENCER Learning Centers - modeled on US teaching and learning centers - will take on special salience as this new democratic nation moves towards greater affiliation and identification with the EU and the West. (Ardith plans to write a second article on the Georgian connections to be published in a future edition of the SENCER e–newsletter.)

In addition to the colleges mentioned in the above reports, the Symposium included representatives from the following Midwest institutions: Macalester College, Malcolm X College, University of Illinois-Chicago, Harry Truman College, Olive-Harvey College, Kennedy King College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.

The group discussed options for future meetings. A small coordinating group will be constituted to pursue future plans.