SENCER E-Newsletter, May 2008, Volume 7, Issue 7
Symposium Participants Present Campus Projects to Congress
Participants in the 2008 Washington Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Session shared enthusiasm for improving STEM education and a depth of experience with colleagues and legislators. This year's Symposium reconnected colleagues working on large campus projects and opened opportunities to build relationships with teams new to SENCER.
Just under one hundred students, administrators, and faculty gathered in DC for the Symposium and Poster Session. As organizers, we were especially pleased to welcome such a large group of students to this event and to have had the opportunity to listen to their thoughts on science education. Several panels were organized to feature campus-based work and to encourage discussion on on-going challenges in science education on campus and the place of science in the larger society.
Keynote speaker Philip Glotzbach, philosopher and president of Skidmore College, framed the work of all members of the SENCER community in discussing the importance and evolution of scientific discourse in society and a related topic, the necessity of improving current STEM teaching and learning to create a scientifically literate public. He explored why people should learn science - where the public good lies in the results of this work - and how educators can create a culture that encourages students to engage in the critical examination of scientific issues. Instilling the ability in students to be able to "function as informed, responsible citizens" is an obligation of higher education, and if it is not a priority, it should be. Of SENCER, Dr. Glotzbach noted that, "[its] strength lies in its focus on situated learning in science, connecting science with policy...and, one might say, the larger dimensions of human existence."
The immediate challenges of STEM education were analyzed from a National Science Foundation perspective by Karen Oates and Myles Boylan during the Symposium's opening plenary. Educating all students to be scientifically literate is crucial not only to have citizens who are able to comprehend implications of science-based topics on a daily basis, but also because citizens - including people working in government - who are not scientists need to be able to make sound decisions about scientific issues. The NSF uses multiple avenues to encourage better science education and that work, including SENCER's, is key to achieving one of the main objectives that Congress has set for NSF. To assure that the contributions of taxpayers to this effort are well managed and spent, NSF is placing added emphasis on assessment and evaluation. During a workshop on Monday, Russ Pimmel, also of the National Science Foundation, discussed components of assessment that are especially effective. He emphasized the careful construction of goals, outcomes, and questions to be answered (as opposed to simple lists of things that will be done ion the course of a grant's lifetime). A thorough evaluation plan is a critical component of a strong grant proposal. It also serves as a strategy to ensure that a project actually does what the educator aims to achieve.
Student participants, who composed over one third of the symposium attendees, engaged in a special roundtable discussion moderated by Rich Keeling on their own STEM education experiences (undergraduate and secondary). Many specifically discussed their experiences in taking or teaching SENCER courses.
The group consisted primarily of students who are not currently majoring in STEM disciplines, but did include several pre-service teachers and graduate students who were involved in both research and in instructing first-year undergraduate students. Students who had previously been uninterested in science indicated that doing science and being able to see the connection to everyday life was one of the more helpful parts of their SENCER experience, making science "more authentic, tangible." The increased interaction with faculty who are engaged in the course content and its application to problems in society was another common point in SENCER courses that students found to be different than other science courses they had in the past. Two of the pre-service teachers present remarked that the SENCER course they had taken had encouraged them to change their concentrations to science. One pre-service teacher commented that she added science as a concentration because "in order to teach [science] well, [she] needed to be able to think like a scientist." Many students indicated that they had found ways to continue the service connections formed in their courses in other areas of their lives.
Panel discussions gave participants the chance to share with each other what they are doing to create environments that encourage students to explore scientific topics in real-world contexts. Themes of the panels were public health, teacher preparation, conservation biology, learning communities, the environment, food and water analysis, high school partnerships, sustainability on campus, and ethics and emerging technology. A complete catalog of poster and presentation abstracts is available here, and PDF copies of many posters displayed on Capitol Hill may be viewed at SENCER Outreach.
An important feature of the annual Symposium is the opportunity for participants to meet privately with members of Congress to discuss the work they are doing on campus to improve STEM education and, often, how that benefits the campus' local communities. This year, meetings for each campus team were arranged on Tuesday morning, just prior to the poster presentation session in the Rayburn House Office Building. Attendees took materials, such as their posters, to the meetings to illustrate the course or curricular activities and how these projects are helping to better prepare a scientifically literate public. To prepare for these meetings, the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement invited Michal Freedhoff, policy director for Congressman Edward J. Markey, to share an overview of the inner workings of a congressional office and how things get accomplished on Capitol Hill. As a scientist and a member of a congressional office, Michal broke down the fast-paced daily activities on Capitol Hill and provided advice on how best to convey the information about campus-based projects to congressional delegations in a time-effective way. Many participants have plans to keep in touch with the person they met with, and several will host their members of Congress or their staff members on campus for a visit in the next academic year.
The Poster Session and Reception on Capitol Hill served as the formal launch of the five SENCER Centers for Innovation (SCI), each of which will offer workshops during the year to supplement national SENCER events such as the Washington Symposium and the Summer Institutes. They will provide local networks for educators and institutions looking to connect with others close by who are applying SENCER to courses or large-scale curricular reform.
The centers will be based at Santa Clara University (West, Co-Directors: Steven Bachofer of Saint Mary's College and Amy Shachter of Santa Clara University), Harold Washington College (Midwest, Co-Directors: Marion Fass of Beloit College and Dennis Lehman of Harold Washington College), the University of North Carolina at Asheville (South, Co-Directors: Edward Katz and Keith Krumpe, both of the University of North Carolina at Asheville), Rutgers University (Midatlantic, Co-Directors: Monica Devanas and Terry McGuire, both of Rutgers University), and the University of Southern Maine (New England, Co-Directors: DonnaJean Fredeen of Southern Connecticut State University and Rob Sanford of the University of Southern Maine). Each region has a strong council led by educators who have expertise in applying innovative pedagogies to course and curricula reform/design. The posters that the co-directors presented at the reception are available on our website, and the information can also be found in the new section of the SENCER site dedicated to the Centers for Innovation. Information on planned symposia, leadership council members, and how to get involved is included on the main and SCI-specific web pages.