About NSEC: Network of STEM Education Centers

Project Leadership Team »With the remarkable attention being paid to STEM education nationally, with the growing engagement of universities and colleges in STEM education reform, and with the proliferation of STEM education centers assisting universities to achieve these STEM education reforms, we are now positioned to create a potentially transformative form of infrastructure: a network of STEM education centers. This work is funded under grant #1524832 from the Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program of the National Science Foundation. View the Network of STEM Education Centers poster (Acrobat (PDF) 746kB Aug2 16) that we presented at NSF's EnFUSE meeting on April 27-29, 2016.

As of July 15, 2019, NSEC links 213 STEM Education Centers/Institutes/Programs (SEC) at 168 institutions (from 293 SECs at 220 institutions identified to date). Yellow stars indicate institutions with centers with a profile at NSEC. Blue stars are centers that are engaged with NSEC through meetings and the listserv.

Accomplishments to Date

STEM education centers (SECs) serve as the hubs of campus-based efforts to transform undergraduate STEM education. They are positioned to serve as unique and powerful agents to scale evidence-based practices and programs that support student success in STEM across departments, colleges, and institutions.Centers are the primary locus for translating research into practices and programs that support the success of students (majors, non-majors, and future teachers) in STEM.

The purpose of the Network of STEM Education Centers (NSEC) is to support and amplify the work that STEM Education Centers are doing to improve undergraduate education by:

  1. Building a learning, research, and implementation network for centers via conferences, workshops, communications, staff interactions, and an online platform.
    • NSEC Conferences and Workshops – 7 national conferences including 100+ centers; with additional 5 national workshops, webinars and other community-building efforts.
    • Listserv of 450+ members from 200+ institutions
  2. Showcasing, celebrating, and understanding the work of centers that are transforming undergraduate STEM education via case studies, research on center impacts, and center profiles.
    • NSEC has a robust and growing web presence: with 130 live center profiles, a STEM Education Innovation Database , resources, & news for the community and stakeholders,
    • Leading research on Understanding STEM Education Centers with 10 site visits, cross site analysis, case studies and survey.
      1. Carlisle, Deborah L., and Gabriela C. Weaver. "STEM education centers: catalyzing the improvement of undergraduate STEM education." International Journal of STEM Education 5.1 (2018): 47. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-018-0143-2 (doi:10.1186/s40594-018-0143-2). This article provides insight into the role of six SECs. Through a multi-dimensional cross-site comparison we provide a lens into the ways in which SECs function on their campuses, illuminating possibilities for those seeking to strengthen undergraduate STEM education.
      2. A second manuscript, titled: The Role of Centers: Disrupting the Status Quo While Stabilizing Initiatives in Undergraduate STEM, describes a framework for centers as disruptors and stabilizers in undergraduate STEM education has been submitted to Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. (Upon the initial review in early July, the editor anticipates publication in the Nov/Dec 2019 issue.) This publication utilizes our research findings to frame the ways in which SECs and CTLs offer balance to one another's roles. Here our research describes the roles of SECs that disrupt institutional norms and the roles of CTLs that promote iterative improvement and stabilize initiatives such that they may have a sustained impact. Both of these roles assist with the educational mission and innovative capability of the institution.
      3. A third manuscript, titled: The Role of STEM Education Centers and Centers for Teaching and Learning in Undergraduate STEM Education at U.S. Universities and Colleges, is in the final stages of preparation. This manuscript has theoretical underpinnings in organizational learning theory and innovation in higher education (Baregheh, Rowley, and Sambrook 2009), and it utilizes data from the site visits and the survey to frame the hypotheses and findings to inform the work of centers (SECs and CTLs) in undergraduate STEM education. The results describe the primary roles of centers in educational research, vertical and horizontal communication, the translation of research to practice, and explores key aspects of center networks.
  3. Serving as a resource and catalyst for centers, policy-makers, funders, administrators, and the public on what works in STEM education.
  4. Creating a coalition to address and engage in practices that are cross- and multi-institutional via seed grants for collaborative research and implementation proposal.
  5. Collectively working to improve institutional and national policies which strengthen undergraduate STEM education
    • NSEC collaborates with National Academies, disciplinary societies, and professional organizations (AAU, ASCN, BVA, CIRTL, NABI, QUBES, POD, and others), to advance and advise on national issues in STEM education.

NSEC is building a community of centers that helps address key needs of centers, university administrators, funders, policymakers, and national constituents.

The Need for a Network of Centers

Because centers are a locus of educational change on campuses, they are positioned to serve as unique and powerful agents to address the calls for scaling and sustaining educational change (Olson & Riordan, 2012; Singer, Nielsen, & Schweingruber, 2012). Centers act as catalysts to link programs within an institution providing breadth of impact and attention, serve as vertical integrator within an institution (linking administration to on-the-ground programs), and connect as horizontal integrators across institutions.

Individual centers (or directors of such centers) are seeking community – to share ideas; identify effective approaches; develop, import and export programs and people; and establish a sense of collective identity and legitimacy. We are building a network that supports and catalyzes these centers to help solve a perennial problem in STEM education reform: translating research into practices that will spread, be adapted, and sustained. This project will seed the development of a network and provide programming and resources for established and nascent centers such as: conferences, learning communities, online engagement platform, toolkits of resources, and directory of centers for the community and external stakeholders.Because no formalized network of STEM education centers exists, the current effort will address calls from the White House (Olson & Riordan, 2012) and National Academies (Singer et al., 2012) for such multi-institutional / nation-wide approaches. Uniquely, this network serves those centers that have a focus on STEM education and undergraduate transformation within individual colleges and universities.

Our pilot work, demonstrated the breadth of centers, interest in the formation of national network, and potential for such a network as catalyzing agent and research venue (Riordan, 2014). As of January 2015, we have engaged 124 centers at 108 institutions and have identified 207 centers at 163 institutions. Sixty-nine centers have completed extensive profiles and another 31 centers have profiles in progress. We have launched a listserv of 196 directors and staff.

We propose to catalyze a STEM education center network by facilitating meetings that employ a variety of communication channels (including an online community platform) to foster ongoing access and exchange of information. Our work is modeled after successful scientific and practitioner networks (Goldstein & Butler, 2010a,b; Goldstein, Wessells, Lejano,& Butler, 2013) and successful networks supporting change in STEM instruction operating at the faculty level (Narum & Manduca, 2012; Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011; Kezar & Gerhke, 2014). Where possible we draw on research that examines the social network construct with regard to change in higher education (Kezar, 2014). We are focused on opportunities to learn, communicate and share, and develop leadership. Our goal in this activity is to catalyze a learning network that becomes self-sustaining.

The broad array of potential outcomes from building the network include:

  • incubating, supporting, and empowering individual centers across the US;
  • a new national network (even possibly a national association of centers);
  • and new resources for addressing key identified challenges in STEM education transformation (such as retention, participation, and public endorsement of STEM education).

We will have a robust and sustained STEM education center network with a governance structure, financial plan, and management; toolkit for centers (i.e. organization charts, reporting structures, budgets, communication materials, model programs); taxonomy of center types and approaches, noting center diversity; an online presence for community building to share successes and challenges; a mechanism for university administrators to identify various models of centers; resources for policymakers and funders to reach into and coordinate with the STEM education community; and reports on what is known about centers and about creating effective STEM education networks.

A Focus on Centers that are Engaged in Undergraduate STEM Education Reform

Analysis of the exiting center profiles helps map the objectives of centers interested in forming a community. While many centers have multiple foci, two larger groups focus on teacher preparation/K-12 partnerships and broader impacts, and a smaller group of centers serve undergraduate STEM education reform. Existing associations of STEM education centers either do not address the needs of this latter group or try to address the entire range of objectives. Given that shared identity in a network is an essential component of success (Wenger, 1998; Goldstein and Butler, 2010a,b), we have chosen to build a network of centers whose focus is on undergraduate STEM education reform. Having a tightly focused agenda where centers with similar missions can share successes and challenges is the key to building a robust network. At the same time, we will create strong ties to overlapping communities in the K12 and Broader Impacts worlds.


Building and sustaining the network is modeled after successful scientific and practitioner networks (Goldstein & Butler, 2010; Narum & Manduca, 2012; Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011). The network is led by two co-directors, with input from a Steering Committee and an Advisory Board of national experts in STEM education and change in higher education.

To create a community of center directors and staff, NSEC will host a national conference and two workshops per year with networking, learning, and professional development opportunities; host a national platform of centers through the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) website; provide seed grants for cross-institutional work; and provide regular communications on STEM education.

To stay current with trends in STEM education, research is being carried out on the role of STEM education centers and their intersection with centers for teaching and learning (CTL) as well as network formation. Additionally, the project will benefit from activities from an evaluation team, who will collect feedback and data with the intent of improving upon network programming and resources.

Synergy with other Communities, Networks, and Associations

We are drawing on insights from other efforts such as:

This STEM Education Centers Network will also complement efforts from disciplinary and professional societies and others that have more targeted focus and communities, or do not engage centers directly. In this effort, we will bring leadership from these other key networks and will draw from their models of what works to ensure synergy rather than competition and to enhance the capacity of all networks.

Broader Impacts

Creating a national network of roughly 200 university-based education centers that enhances their capacity and allows for novel forms of educational transformation by working across institutions will directly impact hundreds of faculty and positively influence the educational experiences of hundreds of thousands of undergraduates.

Pilot Work - demonstrating need and capacity to build the network

The present effort grows out of pilot work from APLU, which convened STEM education center directors with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in 2013. APLU invited centers that focus on undergraduate STEM education transformation because the association regularly convenes presidents, provosts, and other academic leaders who are seeking solutions to improve undergraduate STEM education. We have held three meetings with the directors of STEM education centers (September 2013, October 2014, and June 2015 with 167 participants from 100 centers). These meetings established a first cohort of leaders, identified interest and needs for an ongoing community or network, and created a public online presence for the community addressing the priority need to learn more about other centers. Participants concluded that the next step was to build a community that can share ideas, practices, and resources through on-line mechanisms and convene when needed to address specific topics.More about the Pilot Project »

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1524832. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Olson, S. & Riordan, D. G. (2012). Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Report to the President. Executive Office of the President.

Singer, S. R., Nielsen, N. R., & Schweingruber, H. A. (Eds.). (2012). Discipline-based education research: Understanding and improving learning in undergraduate science and engineering. National Academies Press.

Riordan, D.G. (2014). STEM education centers: a national discussion. APLU/SMTI Paper 8. Washington, DC: Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Goldstein, B. E. & Butler, W. H. (2010a). Expanding the scope and impact of collaborative planning: combining multi-stakeholder collaboration and communities of practice in a learning network. Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(2), 238-249.

Goldstein, B. E. & Butler, W. H. (2010b). The US Fire Learning Network: Providing a narrative framework for restoring ecosystems, professions, and institutions. Society and Natural Resources, 23(10), 935-951.

Goldstein, B. E., Wessells, A. T., Lejano, R., & Butler, W. (2013). Narrating resilience: transforming urban systems through collaborative storytelling. Urban Studies, 0042098013505653. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0042098013505653

Narum, J. and Manduca, C. (2012). Workshops and Networks in Bainbridge, W. S. (Ed.). (2011). Leadership in science and technology: A reference handbook. Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1-4129-7688-6 p. 443-451

Henderson, C., Beach, A., & Finkelstein, N. (2011). Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: an analytic review of the literature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(8), 952-984.

Kezar , A. & Gehrke, S. (2014). Lasting STEM Reform: Sustaining Non-Organizationally Located Communities of Practice Focused on STEM Reform. Paper prepared for the 2014 ASHE Annual Conference, Washington, DC

Kezar, A. (2014). Higher Education Change and Social Networks: A Review of Research. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(1), 91-125.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press. Goldstein, B. E. & Butler, W. H. (2010a). Expanding the scope and impact of collaborative planning: combining multi-stakeholder collaboration and communities of practice in a learning network. Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(2), 238-249.

Goldstein, B. E. & Butler, W. H. (2010b). The US Fire Learning Network: Providing a narrative framework for restoring ecosystems, professions, and institutions. Society and Natural Resources, 23(10), 935-951.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. (1524832). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.