About SENCER: Overview

Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) was initiated in 2001 under the National Science Foundation's CCLI national dissemination track. Since then, SENCER has established and supported an ever-growing community of faculty, students, academic leaders, and others to improve undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education by connecting learning to critical civic questions. SENCER is the signature program of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, which was established in affiliation with Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

Our Approach

SENCER applies the science of learning to the learning of science, all to expand civic capacity.

John Bransford, a member of the Board on Science Education of the National Academies and Mifflin Professor of Education at the University of Washington, claims that SENCER is "bringing to life the recommendations we made in How People Learn."

In designing SENCER we used methods and strategies derived from existing knowledge concerning undergraduate STEM education so that both the STEM learning and the curricular reforms would be durable. Students and faculty report that the SENCER approach makes science more real, accessible, "useful" and civically important.

SENCER improves science education by focusing on real world problems and, by so doing, extends the impact of this learning across the curriculum to the broader community and society. We do this by developing faculty expertise in teaching "to" basic, canonical science and mathematics "through" complex, capacious, often unsolved problems of civic consequence.

Using materials, assessment instruments, and research developed in the SENCER project, faculty design curricular projects that connect science learning to real world challenges.

Our Aims

Our goals are to: (1) get more students interested and engaged in learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, (2) help students connect STEM learning to their other studies, and (3) strengthen students' understanding of science and their capacity for responsible work and citizenship.

What We Offer

SENCER promotes work that increases the STEM knowledge base and broadens the impact of campus work. We support a community of practice by offering faculty development programs through regional symposia and our annual Summer Institutes, and supplement those interactions with a collection of resources, including
field-tested featured and emerging course models, backgrounder papers, and a monthly e-newsletter. We also encourage and participate in the development of assessment strategies and tools that help educators better evaluate and promote student learning and engagement. We also support advanced research in these areas. A new partnership between the Carnegie Foundation's Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement provides will provide opportunities for the SENCER community to apply the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) approach to their analysis of the effectiveness of the SENCER approach.

Our Partners

Since its inception, SENCER has established formal projects designed to develop and implement SENCER courses with teams that have included more than 1,100 faculty, administrators, and students from over 300 high schools, colleges, and universities located in 166 US congressional districts and 13 foreign nations.

Since its inception, the SENCER ideals, programs, and materials have been shared with thousands more STEM faculty and academic leaders at symposia, poster sessions, disciplinary society meetings and other workshop venues in the US and countries around the world.

Our Background and Intellectual Traditions

SENCER's particular origins can be found in a course developed at Rutgers University that focused curricular resources on the HIV epidemic. Using the HIV epidemic to teach biological concepts increased student learning. Other faculty members using similar approaches to teaching reported similar results in learning. (For a discussion of the "genealogy" and the philosophy of SENCER can be found in the article "Knowledge to Make Our Democracy.")

While SENCER's approach to science education has been called unique, it builds on longstanding traditions from those now denominated as Aristotelian to the Enlightenment linkage of the liberal arts and the natural sciences.

In the more modern era, we find roots in the "extension service" model of practical education and American pragmatism. Our understanding of learning acknowledges a debt to the philosopher, William James, who, in his "Talks to Teachers" wrote:

Any object not interesting in itself may become interesting through becoming associated with an object in which an interest already exists. The two associated objects grow, as it were, together: the interesting portion sheds its quality over the whole; and thus things not interesting in their own right borrow an interest which becomes as real and as strong as that of any natively interesting thing. The odd circumstance is that the borrowing does not impoverish the source, the objects taken together being more interesting, perhaps, than the originally interesting portion was by itself.

This is one of the most striking proofs of the range of application of the principle of association of ideas in psychology. An idea will infect another with its own emotional interest when they have become both associated together into any sort of a mental total. As there is no limit to the various associations into which an interesting idea may enter, one sees in how many ways an interest may be derived.

Still more contemporaneously, SENCER's work is informed by the National Academies' commissioned reports on learning, notably How People Learn and Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment.

Since that pilot project to link biology education to an emerging disease, the SENCER ideals have been applied to develop field-tested courses for many disciplines on a broad range of topics from brownfield reclamation to natural catastrophes, and from nanotechnology, the mathematics of secrecy, water quality, to tuberculosis, diabetes and obesity, to name just a few.

Results So Far

Barbara Tewksbury, the William R. Kenan Professor of Geosciences at Hamilton College and one of the PIs for the "On The Cutting Edge" project, notes that "promoting teaching of SENCER-type courses helps move faculty away from thinking of teaching science as a way to transmit a body of information and helps students to experience first-hand that science is a way of thinking, of asking and answering questions ."

Key findings from the extensive, independent multi-year evaluation of the SENCER project, conducted by Elaine Seymour, Tim Weston and Heather Thiry, confirm this. Their report provides evidence that "SENCER's goal of encouraging faculty to teach courses with civic content and innovative pedagogy is a reality." The researchers also confirm that the SENCER reforms are durable, noting that they found that "92% of instructors believed that their courses would be continued in the future, and 80% considered their course part of the permanent curriculum at their institution." The data provided by 10,000 students in 345 SENCER courses who completed the SENCER-SALG have been analyzed. In addition to the important outcome of helping faculty make "meaningful changes to their instruction," the data tell who gains and what they gain from their study in SENCER courses. There is also evidence that the SENCER approach strengthens learning for women, minorities, and students who major in non-STEM fields, as well as for those who have chosen to major in a STEM field. More detailed information, including the full text of the 2006 final report, can be found in the Assessment section of this website.

Future Challenges and Directions

These results have lead us to propose initiatives that build on what has been accomplished, promise broader and deeper disseminations, enlarge the community of practice, and sustain the project for the future. What made SENCER necessary in 2001 is still true today: more than ever we need to attract more students to the STEM fields, cultivate a basic understanding of science and mathematics in all educated people, and develop a paradigm of science education that prizes rigor and success, as opposed to confusing quality with high casualty rates in introductory courses. SENCER offers a promising pathway to success in all these areas. Cross-cutting issues that animate dimensions of SENCER's current and future work include: (1) increasing the level of science and mathematics learning achieved in SENCER courses and connecting this knowledge to workforce challenges, (2) using the SENCER approach to attract more students to pre-service teacher education (especially at the elementary school level) and exploring the feasibility of developing primary and secondary school SENCER course and curricular projects in college-level courses, (3) extending the SENCER approach to the education of STEM majors, and (4) using the diverse SENCER community to strengthen connections between community and four year colleges. These matters are critical to our nation's economic competitiveness and civic welfare.