published October 3, 2013

SCI-Chesapeake Bay Hosts First Fall Symposium

Alix Fink, SCI-Chesapeake Bay Co-Director

On September 14 and 15, the SENCER Center for Innovation (SCI) - Chesapeake Bay brought together a diverse cadre of scholars for its first fall regional meeting in the incredible setting of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, VA. This gathering grew out of planning activities conducted by the Co-Directors and Leadership Council over the past ten months. To learn more about the SCI-Chesapeake Bay leaders, please click here.

Participants in the September meeting included faculty and students from Washington College, Christopher Newport University, James Madison University, Northern Virginia Community College, the University of Mary Washington, George Mason University, Longwood University, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary. Educators and community partners also represented the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Partners of the Americas, the Virginia Departments of Education and Environmental Quality, the Virginia Geographic Alliance, and Clean Virginia Waterways.

Stephen Carroll, professor at Santa Clara University, NCSCE senior fellow, and PI of the NSF-sponsored SALG initiative ( ), gave the opening plenary address focusing on why the SENCER approach works. Stephen argued that the focus on important civic questions and the scholarship of engagement that is the hallmark of SENCER courses instantiates in its practice much of what is now known in cognitive science about how people learn. This observation recalls that made by the distinguished scholar John Bransford and author of "How People Learn" when he first became acquainted with SENCER many years ago. Bransford asserted that SENCER "brought to life" the recommendations in his book. As is his custom, Stephen wove together a synopsis of cognitive science, practical wisdom, classroom examples, and real-time "exercises" to help those gathered learn. The slides he used in his talk are available here: Carroll Chesapeake Bay Presentation (Acrobat (PDF) 5.7MB Oct4 13).

Following Stephen, David Burns, co-founder of SENCER and executive director of the National Center offered an account of the history, rationale, "ethos" and aims of SENCER designed to bring the many newcomers to our work up to date on our accomplishments, aims and future plans. Tom Wood, one of the SCI co-directors, completed the more formal presentations with an account of the formation of the Chesapeake Bay network, his vision for how the bay itself can become the organizing themes around which SCI activities might be centered, and an outline of plans for the gathering. Tom also provided a brief history of the Smithsonian Mason Semester program, a partnership of formal and informal educators that he generously credits SENCER with helping to inspire.

Plans were made to initiate a portfolio of collaborative projects including new courses, a new minor focused on study of the Chesapeake Bay, and cross-institutional programming focused on student learning and civic engagement in the Bay context. Tentative plans for a follow up gathering in January were discussed.

Of the meeting, David Burns observed: "This was such an inspiring event, influenced by the amazing setting that melds a nature center, an active and sophisticated research program, and an instructional facility in one magnificent place. Something even more significant seemed to be making it work, however. Thanks to the good work of Alix and Tom, the gathering included NGO reps, government officials, student leaders and other newcomers whose participation was enthusiastic. The eagerness to collaborate was stunning. I hear a lot of good things said at these meetings, but this is the first one ever when a newcomer—and a state education official, no less—said that, after she heard Stephen's talk, Tom's and my introductions and the accounts of what fellow participants were doing, she 'wanted to go out in the parking lot and do cartwheels' (or was it 'backflips'?) Whatever it was, the sentiment expressed was inspiring to all of us, especially to the many SENCER veterans who were also in attendance."

Tom made a special arrangement for participants to have guided tours of the Smithsonian Institution Conservation and Research Center at Front Royal's facilities following the meeting's scheduled conclusion after lunch on Sunday. The Smithsonian's Front Royal installation, located on the site of a former federally-supported cavalry and workhorse breeding facility established at General Pershing's urging following the Spanish-American War, is in part a working farm that produces feed and bedding material for some of the animals at the National Zoo. As a research entity, the facility serves as a breeding center for endangered birds and mammals. Our tour featured glimpses of a collection of rare cranes, horses, deer, and oryx. A highpoint for many of us on the tour was a chance to see the cheetahs, including some really fetching and fluffy cheetah babies, a triumph of the program's breeding and conservation efforts. Participants also got to meet two impressive young scientists with responsibility for parts of the program and had the pleasure of being guided by extraordinary docent volunteers. While we were asked to not take photographs of the facilities, a brief visit to the Smithsonian's website will make clear just how extraordinary the opportunity to have this intimate encounter with the Center and its work was.

The next meeting of the SCI-Chesapeake Bay will coincide with the annual NCSCE Washington Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Session. All SENCER community members interested in the Bay are invited to attend. More information about the Washington Symposium, including dates and how to participate, will be shared through the eNews soon.