SENCER Summer Institute

Just returned with Jorge Santiago-Blay from 5 wonderful days in Asheville, NC at the University of NC A for the SENCER Summer Institute. SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements & Responsibilities) is an NSF funded program whose mission is to strengthen student learning and interest in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics by connecting course topics to issues of critical local, national, and global importance.

What a wonderful experience. The participants were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Each day had a keynote speaker and workshops to help you plan a SENCER course or program. We were assigned a coach – ours was a fantastic faculty  member, Dr. Garon Smith from the University of Montana – who worked with us each day to get our fledgling ideas into concrete form. By the end of the institute, we had the beginnings of a project to get started with. We met many engaged faculty members in the sciences and humanities (SENCER is multidisciplinary in nature) from across the US. It was really energizing and incredibly practical! With our PSU gen-ed re-design conversations on-going, this could be a great model!

David Burns, Principal Investigator of the NSF grant, opened the institute with a special 3 hour orientation for new participants giving a background for SENCER and introductions to the regional coordinators and other helpful folks – very useful!!  Goal is to help students overcome BOTH unfounded fears and unquestioning awe of science. Involve students in finding real questions that they are interested in solving. SENCER ideals are worth a look! David was a great ambassador for SENCER – he talked about 4 promises:

1) Responsibility of what it means to know or learn s/thing – brings with it the moral imperative to use it to do something good

2) Use what we know to enlarge what we all know – not to tear down – to assume there is much that we all don’t know…so we add, not subtract from others….

3) If we increase the risk for people to try something, we also should increase the protection/support

4) Help students and ourselves to stick with hard things longer – point is to pursue things – not just to persuade people – sticking with it longer gives more opportunities to make connections to other disciplines and larger goals like critical thinking and ethics.

Highlights of other sessions were:

1) Importance of communicating scientific ideas effectively which are audience appropriate.  How often does the message get misconstrued or lost because it isn’t written so that it can be understood by the intended audience?

2) Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale was the first keynote speaker – Difficult realization… that often knowledge about science still doesn’t impact beliefs… Belief and comprehension do not correlate!!!

So students can understand the concepts underlying global warming or evolution, but still not believe in them…so how is this possible??

Because our beliefs are deeply held parts of our identities and changing them is risky business – threatens belonging to important groups in our lives… and therefore sense of security…so changing them is unlikely. So is it impossible to change opinions? Not exactly… What is needed is a local approach – what problems in the local community need addressed – like flooding due to rising sea levels… get local leaders (who may be non-believers in global warming) together with all concerned citizens to solve the problem… in the end, that’s what is important and people will act (even if they say they don’t’ believe) and people will change their beliefs when leaders in their cultural group say it is a good idea to do so.

So at the end of your course, you shouldn’t ask student whether they now believe in global warming, but rather ask something like this, “According to climate scientists, the most important notion about global warming is x,y,z..” That way, students can answer the question without it challenging their own beliefs and group identification.  This was a fascinating talk!

At the same time, asking yourself, “Are you measuring the right thing when looking for data on learning gains?” – i.e – why do conversations about tough topics like global warming often get sidetracked into polar political opposites? Because the questions being asked are the wrong questions – about belief rather than comprehension…and that’s a much stickier problem…change happens locally, when it impacts people directly and they have to act.

3)  Scientific Endeavors and Human Rights – Jessica Wyndham, a lawyer with AAAS, gave a presentation on scientific responsibility, human rights, and the law which created a new awareness by many in the audience about how we think about science and human rights – rights for scientists and rights for those impacted by science or the lack of access to the benefits of science. It made me think about the story recently in the news about the US medical doctors being treated with a special drug for Ebola virus and the questions being raised about who has access to the drug, and who doesn’t and why… Awareness… I wouldn’t have thought of this perhaps as a human rights issue if I hadn’t heard Jessica’s talk…

4) Assessment and SENCER SALG – This is a free survey tool with a pre- and post-test – researched over 10 years and found to to be reliable and valid to measure learning gains in STEM courses. It is being used on the West Coast and accepted by their accrediting body for evidence of learning gains. Read more at

5) Barbara Tewksbury, Hamilton College – did a NICE job on course design, implementation, and assessment. A professor of geology with a natural bent for instructional design. It was a practical working session and focused on getting to the underlying areas of meaning and importance of the course! Assess what you value!

She added the idea of concept sketches... Draw a picture to illustrate what a process or concept IS… then add a caption to explain what’s happening – the process.

6) KQED San Francisco presentation on using media in STEM courses: Resources and 2 good ideas for using video/media – 1) watching videos silently and filling in what you think is happening…generating questions about what’s happening…. and 2) DO NOW Projects – create resources around an activity that you ask them to do  or question to answer at the beginning of class to get everyone on the same page… and 3) Resources – – good resources for using media in classes,, and are all good resources!!!!

What will we do with all of this???? Ahhhhh well, stay tuned to find out :)

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