Tribute to Alan J. Friedman

Eric Siegel,
New York Hall of Science

Dr. Alan Friedman was a brilliant science educator with whom I worked closely for about a decade. Early in our collaboration, he described how the best ideas are found at the intersection of science with the arts and humanities. Throughout his career, Alan explored that intersection, and he was always excited by projects at the New York Hall of Science and elsewhere that drew from the best of the sciences, the arts, and the humanities. In his lifelong exploration of this juncture, he presaged more recent efforts to integrate science with the arts under the banner of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). This short article will explore some of Alan’s published work in which he very systematically examined the mutual influence among science, art, and the humanities. I will also connect his engagement with the arts and the humanities to his museum work.

Early in Alan’s career, he demonstrated a predilection for creating his own path and framework for understanding the impact of science on society. After a successful career as an experimental physicist—he used to describe with relish how he loved putting together experimental apparatus from the kinds of random equipment he found around the lab—he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities Basic Research Program. This represented a radical turn away from the career path of his research peers who were pursuing academic positions, post-doc fellowships in physics, and National Science Foundation grants.

The fellowship supported a collaboration with literary critic Carol C. Donley that resulted in a book published in 1985 called Einstein as Myth and Muse (Cambridge University Press). Donley and Friedman wrote about how “Einstein’s exciting ideas established him as a muse from science, inspiring and supporting interpretation in the arts…. With the explosions of the atomic bomb of 1945… Einstein suddenly came to represent a contemporary version of the Prometheus myth, bringing atomic fire to a civilization unprepared to handle its immense powers.” Einstein, they write, is a uniquely central character in the twentieth-century imagination, as he “did not merely move with the flow of cultural history, but cut a new channel across the conventional separations of science and the humanities” (Preface, ix–x). This invites speculation that Alan was inspired by Einstein not only in his scientific endeavors, but also in his desire to “cut a new channel across the conventional separations of science and the humanities.”

In the ensuing several years, Alan devoted his energies to the building of programs, audiences, and entire museums, first at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, then at Cité des Sciences in Paris, and finally at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI). His signature programs, such as the Science Career Ladder at the NYSCI were notable for how they put human and social concerns at the heart of the STEM learning enterprise. The first permanent exhibition at the NYSCI was called Seeing the Light and was created by the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco that has been the locus of art and science collaboration since the 1960s. Much of that exhibition was created by artists, so from NYSCI’s inception, art was at the core of the visitors’ experience. Alan also invited collaborations with artists and artists groups such as Art & Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI), resulting in a series of commissions, competitions, and installations.

The integration of art into the visitor experience at science centers had a specific focus at NYSCI. Alan’s vision, central to NYSCI’s mission, was always to make science accessible to diverse learners from different backgrounds. As Dr. Anne Balsamo wrote in her introduction to a catalog of NYSCI-commissioned artwork: “Located as it is in the nation’s—and the world’s—most ethnically diverse county, [NYSCI] is focused on addressing the diverse learning styles manifested by different visitors…Just as there are people who learn best from a linear and explicit display of scientific phenomena, there are others who draw important insights by contemplating the beauty and suggestiveness of a piece like Shawn Lani’s Icy Bodies” (Intersections: Art and Science at the NY Hall of Science 2006).

In 1997, Alan wrote a kind of credo about his belief in the mutuality of science and art, and why they are both critical for addressing his principal commitment to public education in science. Published originally in 1997 in the journal American Art (11 [3]: 2–7), the article begins with a deep and subtle reading of a pre-Hubble photograph of a cluster of galaxies. To the uninformed eye, particularly one jaded by the dramatic colorized images from the Hubble telescope, the picture has no particular drama. It is a series of small spirals, slashes, and dots of light in a reddish monochrome. Alan systematically uncovers the thrilling nature of discovery embodied in the image. Revealing that there are “trillions of suns” in the image, he systematically walks the reader through the distances involved, which are so great that they are not measured in kilometers, but in light years. The images we are seeing originated several hundred million years ago, and it has taken light all that time to reach us.

He then deftly connects the image to a profoundly contemporary phenomenon, the plasticity of space and time. He writes,

Einsteinian space-time tells us, among other things, that this particular arrangement of these galaxies in space and time cannot be thought of as a simple universal image. This photograph is valid from our own place in time and in space, but as seen from other locations in the universe, or even from within the Hercules Cluster itself, these galaxies would never have had this particular arrangement. Infinitely many valid descriptions of the cluster are possible, all different but all related precisely to each other by the equations of Einstein’s relativity theory. 

Simultaneity is one of the most profound casualties of the new Einsteinian view of the universe. Simultaneous events are strictly a local phenomenon, not a universal one. There can be no single snapshot of this cluster of galaxies which is uniquely “correct,” because there is no such thing as a “moment in time” for the universe as a whole. We can continue to think of our own time and our own planet as having moments, but we must learn that thinking about the whole universe requires different, less familiar organizing principles and metaphors (2–3).

Alan is clearly thrilled by the implications of this shift in perspective and wants all of us, young and old, to share that thrill. And this impetus leads him to a surprising turn. “Like most science educators I have thought long and hard about what is wrong with science education in this country. I have concluded that the solution is not just more good science teachers and good science curriculum, but also more and better arts education [my emphasis]. That is because what it takes to be astonished and moved by this photograph is not simply learning the names and numbers that go with the image, but understanding how those facts are part of the larger story of our history, cultural accomplishments, and aspirations” [my emphasis].

Because Alan was such a lucid and precise explainer, there is no way to summarize this seminal article that is shorter than the article itself. Suffice it to say that the essay draws deeply from poets, novelists, playwrights, and composers past and present to demonstrate the power of the arts not only as a way of understanding science, but as a critical perspective for understanding and constructing reality and a life full of interest and engagement. While he was passionate about the value of the scientific world view, “looking around at my colleagues…I would have a hard time proving that scientists are happier, have more stable marriages, vote more intelligently, or are more effective participants in their broader communities than are people with similarly deep professional commitments to the arts or the humanities.”

In 2000, a major essay on the life and work of Remedios Varo written by Alan appeared in a catalog raisonné of the work of this mid-century Mexican artist, who was closely aligned with the surrealist movement in Europe and Mexico. In this essay, he notes that the contemporary rediscovery of her work has taken place among both the science- and art-interested public. Through a close reading of her paintings, Alan carries through his theme of the explanatory power of imagination and the mutual inspiration offered between the arts and the sciences. Varo came of age during the great scientific revolutions of the twentieth century, and Alan’s research demonstrates that she read widely among the classic popular science writers of the time such as Fred Hoyle, a particular favorite of both Varo and Alan.

Through this reading, Varo connected the formation of the universe, all its elements, and human beings. Life is built on the elements created during the cataclysms of the early universe. Alan acknowledges that, on the surface, Varo’s paintings appear to be influenced by more imaginative worldviews, such as the world of alchemy and magic, but his ability to read the paintings empathetically with the eyes of a scientist and a humanist reveals the deep interweaving of scientific understanding. Alan is an excellent art critic in the Varo catalog, revealing new science-informed richness in the paintings while honoring the centrality of imagination, of beauty, and of the complexity of Varo’s worldview. The final paragraph of the essay is resonant and revealing: “The world doesn’t have to make sense; but scientists bet their careers that it does. That is their ultimate act of faith. It sometimes makes scientists feel lonely, particularly in cultures where ‘bad luck’ is a more common explanation than a painstakingly crafted, if only partially successful, model. But scientists believe that the universe is ultimately understandable. I think Remedios Varo shared that faith with us.”

A few times a month, I would drop into Alan’s office next to mine and ask him to explain some bewildering aspect of contemporary science that I had encountered in my reading— the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal; “Spooky Action at a Distance” (quantum entanglement); the multiverse; string theory; the twentieth century’s panoply of counter-intuitive theories that are only distantly comprehensible for laypeople. Alan would patiently walk me through a vastly simplified explanation with no hint of condescension and a sense that there was nothing he’d rather be doing. I was edified and changed by these discussions and I know thousands of others had similar experiences over Alan’s lifetime. The breadth of his understanding was reflected in his engagement with the arts and humanities, and his ability to bridge between C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” is one his great legacies.

About the Author

Eric Siegel is Director and Chief Content Officer at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), where he leads the program, exhibition development, research, and science functions.  Eric has been in senior roles in art and science museums for more than 30 years and has published extensively in the museum field.  He has taught on the graduate faculty of the New York University Museum Studies program and Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and as invited lecturer throughout the country.  He has served as President of the National Association for Museum Exhibition; Board Member of Solar One, an urban environmental organization in NYC; and Chairman of the Museums Council of New York City.


Remembering Alan Friedman

Sheila Grinell

I last took a long walk with Alan on February 3, 2014, along the corniche in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, where we had gone to teach 18 Saudis how to run science centers. This workshop would be our last joint gig, after 40 years of parallel careers and many shared projects. We had half a day before the workshop was to start, and so we strolled beside the Persian Gulf and chatted.

Not then but in earlier conversations, Alan had told me about SENCER-ISE, and how gratified he was by its progress. He had worked hard to bring together people with differing institutional perspectives, and he was optimistic about the future. No Pollyanna, he knew both sides would have to bend. He said—not in so many words but this is the gist of it—that the universities would have to deal with real people as opposed to an amorphous “general public,” and that the science centers would have to up their content game. But there was so much to be gained. He envisioned many more cross-sector projects, and, if he were still with us, he would have inspired collaborations to help them flourish. Everyone at SENCER-ISE knows Alan had the desire, the imagination, and the political acumen to make it happen.

SENCER-ISE was not the first time Alan worked across sectors or disciplines. As an undergraduate he had contemplated majoring in English, but even after physics won out, he continued to relish literature and art. Early in his career, he wrote about connections between science and literature. Later he experimented with theater in the science center: at the New York Hall of Science he commissioned and produced a one-act play dramatizing disagreement between two scientists about quantum mechanics. And for more than 40 years, he delighted in his wife’s career as a columnist and mystery writer. Alan was a connoisseur; he could talk eloquently about so many things—and he would go on and on, unless you stopped him. Which brings me back to our conversation beside the sea.

I asked Alan why he hadn’t brought one of his beloved radio-controlled helicopters to Saudi Arabia—for years he flew them at all sorts of meetings to illustrate points and for fun, because fun is a terrific teacher. He explained that since he had had to bring two sets of light sources and adapters for a demonstration—our students would be segregated by gender in adjoining rooms—there was no room in his luggage. I asked how large his ‘copter collection had become. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of what followed:

  • The best piece in his small collection of scientific instruments was a sixteenth-century, orrery-like device that maps the motions of Jupiter. His wife, Mickey, had spotted the curiosity and they took it home, later to discover its meaning and rarity. (Alan respected the work of all scientists, even ancient ones. He wanted everyone to appreciate science as he did, and he believed that, given the right tools, everyone could.)
  • Speaking of Mickey, she had just finished re-issuing seven mystery titles in e-book form. Alan said the moral of the story was “be sure to get electronic rights for anything you publish, and guard your name.” It seems there was another (male) Mickey Friedman who wrote mysteries, which screwed things up for a while. (Ever the raconteur, Alan made a frustrating escapade in electronic publishing sound downright funny.)
  • Speaking of family, Alan asked, “How’s Michael now that he’s a married man?” He had last seen my son at age eight, but he always seemed to know Michael’s actual age and stage of life. Other colleagues might ask after my “little boy,” but Alan would keep track. He was my friend as well as my colleague, so he cared about what I cared about.
  • Speaking of kids, Alan worried that the New York mayor’s single-minded pursuit of extended kindergarten was siphoning support from other important endeavors, like the cultural organizations Alan had worked so hard to defend. (Some years ago, he led the fight against retaliation by the former mayor’s office against the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting scatological art—and won.)
  • Speaking of cities, Al Khobar appeared to be a refuge for the wealthy. The mansions were barricaded behind tall fences with elegantly crafted gates. As we walked, Alan photographed gate after gate, stopping to admire one particular gate bearing two lovebirds perched on a branch, in silhouette, in iron work against white opaque glass. It was lovely. Alan had an eye, as well as the urge to document. (In fact, his image collection—many thousands of slides and jpegs of the science museums he visited over the decades—will be catalogued by the Association of Science-Technology Centers and made available to all in late summer 2015.)

Every so often a passing car would honk at the two of us as we crossed a street. We wondered if we had failed to observe an Arabic sign. Or maybe the fact that I was wearing jeans, although my head was covered, was provoking a wolf-whistle. But I didn’t worry. Walking with Alan Friedman, I felt safe. He was a man—and a thinker, teacher, leader, and mentor—in whom everyone could have confidence.


About the Author

Now retired, Sheila Grinell enjoyed a forty-year career as a leader of science centers. In 1969, fresh out of graduate school, she joined Frank Oppenheimer to create The Exploratorium, a seminal science center widely emulated around the world, serving as Co-director for Exhibits and Programs. Later, she helped restart the New York Hall of Science, serving as Associate Director. From 1993 to 2004 she served as founding President and CEO of the Arizona Science Center, leading the effort to create a new, vibrant institution for greater Phoenix.

For the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), Sheila created a week-long professional development program for people starting science centers offered 1988-1996. While consulting for a wide range of agencies that included corporations, professional associations, museums, and public television producers, she wrote the leading book on science centers. She was elected a Fellow of both ASTC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in recognition of her innovative work.

Remembering Alan J. Friedman

Ellen F. Mappen,
National Center for Science and Civic Engagement

I am honored but saddened to write a brief introduction to this section that includes remembrances from a number of Alan J. Friedman’s colleagues. Alan was the inspiration behind the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement’s SENCER-ISE initiative, a project to encourage cross-sector partnerships between informal science and higher education institutions, and was also its founding project director.

Wm. David Burns, in his introduction to this special issue of Science Education & Civic Engagement: An International Journal on informal science education, notes that he “saw Alan as a humanist and scientist.” Certainly the selections that follow from Alan’s colleagues bear witness to the multifaceted nature of his interests, experiences, ideas, and lasting contributions to the field of education, science, and literature and to the impact he had on the lives of the many colleagues who knew him. Alan’s interests were wide ranging and included not just a desire to communicate science to the general public, students, and teachers but also to examine cultural influences on science and technology.

In an interview published in these pages in the Summer 2011 issue, Alan described how he came to the field of informal science education. He was a solid-state physicist by training and in 1973 held a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. He mentioned how he had wandered into the Lawrence Hall of Science, one of the pioneering public science-technology centers. This experience changed his life and he ended up spending twelve years at that institution, primarily as the Director of Astronomy and Physics, with a short leave to serve as the Conseiller Scientifique et Muséologique at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris from 1982–1984. In 1984, he became director of the New York Hall of Science, a position he held until he retired in 2006. At NYSCI, he revitalized the moribund institution. A description of what he found in 1984 (“zero attendance the year before he arrived”) compared with what NYSCI had become by 2006 when he retired can be found on the NYSCI website: 447,000 visitors with over 90 full-time staff and 150 high school and college students who served as Explainers in the Science Career Ladder program, one of Alan’s lasting initiatives. In his retirement years, Alan was a Museum Development and Science Communication Consultant and a cherished scholar at the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement.

To open this section, Sheila Grinell shares her memories of Alan’s last trip abroad, to Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and of her long working relationship with him. In relating her conversation with Alan that took place before their meetings started, she mentions his goal of using SENCER-ISE to bring together educators who have different “institutional perspectives” and also gives us a “Reader’s Digest” version of what they discussed. From Eric Siegel, we learn about how Alan always explored the “intersection of science with the arts and humanities” and wanted to understand “the impact of science on society,” and we learn much about Alan’s intellectual interests and pursuits that ranged well beyond directing a major science center. Alan Gould’s brief remembrance highlights how much he learned from Alan Friedman about planetarium presentations and how best to engage audiences in this exciting experience. Priya Mohabir focuses on Alan’s contribution to the education of high school and college students and his vision to empower them as science communicators while they themselves learned science. David Ucko’s “SENCER Synergies with Informal Learning” gives us an overview of how David Burns and I came to collaborate with Alan in our efforts to work across different educational sectors. David Ucko also provides us with an understanding of the differences between formal and informal learning and his thoughts about SENCER as “a model for synergistically integrating aspects” of these different modes of education. We end this section with a reissuing of “In Memoriam,” David Burns’ memorial tribute that he wrote on May 5, 2014, the day after Alan’s untimely death.

We have lost Alan Friedman and greatly miss his wisdom and friendship. But as Alphonse DeSena, our Program Director in the Division of Research and Learning at the National Science Foundation (NSF), wrote recently,

Over several decades of service to education and science, Alan Friedman’s ideas, actions, and accomplishments were many, insightful, and significant.   His contributions in varying capacities to NSF’s mission and programs were frequent, critical, and game changing.  We at NSF and in the informal science education field cherished him as a colleague, as (in my case) a mentor, and as a friend. His legacy will continue for years to come.


About the Author

Ellen F. Mappen is a senior scholar and current director of the SENCER-ISE initiative at the National Center for Science & Civic Engagement. She was the founder and long-time director of the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science, and Engineering at Rutgers University and was the director of Healthcare Services at the New Brunswick Health Sciences Technology High School. In these positions, she has worked to provide opportunities that encourage women and students of color to enter STEM fields. She served as SENCER coordinator for SENCER-ISE. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University.


Winter 2014: From the Editors

We are pleased to announce the publication of the Winter 2014 issue of Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal. This issue contains four project reports that illustrate a variety of creative approaches to liking science education and civic engagement.

Peter Bower (Barnard College) and colleagues describe the dissemination of a SENCER model curriculum based on the Brownfield Action simulation. This project was accomplished by establishing a STEM education network of 10 colleges, universities, and high schools. The curriculum was adapted and implemented for a variety of different student groups, from introductory general education science courses to upper-level courses on environmental site assessment. The collaborative network described in this article provides a successful model for dissemination of innovations in STEM education.

In a second project report, Alex T. Chow, Juang-Horng Chong, Michelle Cook, and David White (Clemson University) provide an account of a citizen scientist project that uses fireflies as an indicator of environmental quality. Counting the bioluminescent flashes of fireflies at night provides a simple way to engage students, teachers, resource managers and members of the local community in creating a collaborative firefly survey. The article describes the implementation and outcomes of a three-year project that includes service-learning, sustainability, and environmental stewardship.

In the third article, a team of faculty members and civic engagement professionals from Southwestern University—Meredith Liebl Kate Roberts, Amanda Mohammed, Megan Lowther, Erica Navaira, Anna Frankel, Suzy Pukys and Romi L. Burks—describe a partnership with local elementary schools to integrate science into an affordable afterschool program. After participating in a 10-week initiative called Science and Math Achiever Teams (SMArTeams), elementary school students showed gains in confidence, experimental design, curiosity and science enjoyment. Future directions for this project include the development of strategies to broaden elementary students’ awareness of STEM career pathways.

The final project report in this issue is provided by a team of educators at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Matthew Baideme, Andrew Pfluger, Stephen Lewandowski, Katie Matthew, and Jeffrey Starke established a curriculum linkage between an environmental engineering course and a marketing course, with the goal of developing students’ skills at researching complex environmental issues. Students from the two courses collaborated on a semester-long project to develop sustainable environmental solutions to address community needs. A pre/post assessment of the project showed student gains in confidence, motivation, and research skills.

We wish to thank all the authors of these reports for sharing their interesting and important work with the readers of this journal.

Trace Jordan and Eliza Reilly

Download and read the entire issue:


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Brownfield Action: Dissemination of a SENCER Model Curriculum and the Creation of a Collaborative STEM Education Network


Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based environmental site assessment (ESA) simulation in which students form geotechnical consulting companies and work together to solve problems in environmental forensics. Developed at Barnard College with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, BA has been disseminated to 10 colleges, universities, and high schools, resulting in a collaborative network of educators. The experiences of current users are presented describing how they have incorporated the BA curriculum into their courses, as well as how BA affected teaching and learning. The experiences demonstrate that BA can be used in whole or in part, is applicable to a wide range of student capabilities and has been successfully adapted to a variety of learning goals, from introducing non-science-literate students to basic concepts of environmental science and civic issues of environmental contamination to providing advanced training in ESA and modeling groundwater contamination to future environmental professionals.


Figure 1. Call for a Brownfield Action Seminar using the Brownfield action logo that shows a contaminant plume from a factory migrating in the saturated zone of an aquifer.

Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based, interactive, three-dimensional digital space and learning simulation in which students form geotechnical consulting companies and work collaboratively to explore and solve problems in environmental forensics. Created at Barnard College (BC) in conjunction with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, BA has been used for over ten years at BC for one semester of a two-semester Introduction to Environmental Science course that is taken each year by more than 100 female undergraduate non-science majors to satisfy their laboratory science requirement. BA was selected in 2003 as a “national model curriculum” by SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities), an NSF science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education initiative. The BA curriculum replaces fragmented, abstract instruction with a constructivist interdisciplinary approach where students integrate knowledge, theory, and practical experience to solve a complex, multifaceted, and realistic semester-long interdisciplinary science problem. The overarching themes of this semester are civic engagement and toxins, focusing on toxification of the environment, pathways taken by environmental toxins, and the impact of toxins on the natural environment and on humans. Readings that have been used to complement teaching using BA include Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The pedagogical methods and design of the BA model are grounded in a substantial research literature focused on the design, use, and effectiveness of games and simulations in education. The successful use of the BA simulation at Barnard College is fully described in Bower et al. (2011). This article describes multiple formative assessment strategies that were employed using a modified model of Design Research (Bereiter 2002; Collins 1992; Edelson 2002), culminating in a qualitative ethnographic approach using monthly interviews to determine the impact of BA on the learning process. Results of these ethnographies showed at a high confidence level that the simulation allowed students to apply content knowledge from lecture in a lab setting and to effectively connect disparate topics with both lecture and lab components. Furthermore, it was shown that BA improved student retention and that students made linkages in their reports that would probably not have been made in a traditional teaching framework. It was also found that, in comparison with their predecessors before the program’s adoption, students attained markedly higher levels of precision, depth, sophistication, and authenticity in their analysis of the contamination problem, learning more content and in greater depth. This study also showed that BA supports the growth of each student’s relationship to environmental issues and promotes transfer into the students’ real-life decision-making and approach to careers, life goals, and science (Bower et al. 2011).

BA is one of a small but growing number of computer simulation-based teaching tools that have been developed to facilitate student learning through interaction and decision making in a virtual environment. In STEM fields, other examples include CLAIM (Bauchau et al. 1993) for mineral exploration; DRILLBIT (Johnson and Guth 1997) and MacOil (Burger 1989) for oil exploration; BEST SiteSim (Santi and Petrikovitsch 2001) for hazardous waste and geotechnical investigations; Virtual Volcano (Parham et al, 2009) to investigate volcanic eruptions and associated hazards; and eGEO (Slator et al. 2011) for environmental science education. These virtual simulations give students access to environments and experiences that are too dangerous, cost-prohibitive, or otherwise impractical to explore (Saini-Eidukat et al. 1998). Through directed role play they also provide opportunities for social interaction and student inquiry into the human element of technical analysis and decision making (e.g., Aide 2008).

What makes the Brownfield Action SENCER Model Curriculum unique among these STEM online simulations is that it includes a significant component of engagement with the civic dimensions of environmental contamination, interwoven with the technical investigations being conducted by the students. The BA simulation is also unique in that it has been disseminated to ten colleges, universities, and high schools, and a collaborative community of users has developed. To the best of our knowledge, BA is the only SENCER national model curriculum with a network of faculty collaborating in a community of practice. Moreover, this network has adapted the original simulation and its related products for use with a widening diversity of students, in a variety of classroom settings, and toward an expanding list of pedagogical goals. This paper documents the experiences of ten teachers and professors (in addition to those at Barnard College) who are using BA to improve student learning and teaching efficacy, to improve retention in the sciences, and to increase student motivation and civic engagement. All of these teachers and professors have shared their experiences, course materials, and curricula developed using the BA simulation in their courses, and the evolution of this collaborative network has now begun to define the direction that BA is taking. Currently the network consists of environmental scientists, an environmental engineer, a sociologist, geologist, GIS specialist, a smart growth and landscape architect, and high school science teachers, all sharing the goal of teaching science from the perspective of promoting civic engagement and building a sustainable society. Team members have developed course content specific to their individual fields of expertise and have made their course materials available to the community. The goals of this collaborative network also include telling the story of the dissemination of BA and thereby encouraging the dissemination of other successful SENCER model curricula. Ongoing efforts are being made to expand the BA network, especially among the hydrogeologic, brownfield, and environmental site assessment community. The BA SENCER Team has also begun to develop BA for use in online education.

The purpose of this paper is to present the collective experiences of the college and university faculty and high school teachers who have incorporated the BA simulation and curriculum into their courses. The experiences using BA reported here demonstrate how the BA simulation can be adapted for use, in whole or in part, for a wide range of student capabilities, and the authors describe how BA affected student learning and satisfaction. The descriptions that follow include applications of the BA simulation to environmental instruction at the high school level (Liddicoat, Miccio, Greenbaum), to the fundamentals of hydrology and environmental site assessments at an introductory to intermediate undergraduate level (Bennington, Graham), and to training both undergraduate and graduate students in advanced courses in hydrology and environmental remediation (Lemke, Lampoousis, Datta, Kney). Although many of the applications reported here apply to courses in STEM curricula, BA is not restricted in its utility to teaching students with advanced STEM skills. Rather, BA has proven to be equally effective whether it is used to introduce non-science-literate students to basic concepts of environmental science and basic civic issues of environmental contamination or to provide advanced training in environmental site assessments and to model groundwater contamination to future environmental professionals.

Figure 2. Data can be obtained for surface and bedrock topography, water table, water chemistry, soil characteristics, and vegetation, as well as data from tools like soil, gas, seismic reflection and refraction, metal detection and magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and drilling.

For interested instructors, information about BA and a guided walkthrough of the simulation can be found at By contacting the lead author (Bower), one can obtain a username and password to access the simulation, see the library of documents, maps, and images related to the simulation and its use in the classroom, and visit the “User Homepages” where the authors from the collaborative network describe their use of BA in more detail than is done in this paper and provide additional documents and maps. These instructors have expanded the pedagogy of BA by utilizing the simulation in unique ways and in contributing new curriculum. In the “User Homepages,” new or potential users can find an instructor whose use of BA parallels their own, begin a dialogue, and become part of the collaborative network.

Teaching High School Students the Fundamentals of Environmental Science

Joseph Liddicoat, Barnard College

Using the interactive, web-based Brownfield Action simulation, a total of 48 public high school students from the five boroughs of New York City who were enrolled in the Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF) were taught environmental science in a way that combines scientific expertise, constructivist education philosophy, and multimedia during 12-week programs in the fall of 2009, 2010, and 2011 at Barnard College. In the BA simulation, the students formed geotechnical consulting companies, conducted environmental site assessment investigations, and worked collaboratively with Barnard faculty, staff, and student mentors to solve a problem in environmental forensics. The BA simulation contains interdisciplinary scientific and social information that is integrated within a digital learning environment in ways that encouraged the students to construct their knowledge as they learned by doing. As such, the approach improved the depth and coherence of students’ understanding of the course material.

In Barnard’s partnership with HEAF, BA was used in modular form to gather physical evidence and historical background on a suspected contamination event (i.e., leakage of gasoline from an underground storage tank) that resulted in the contamination of the aquifer in a fictitious municipality, Moraine Township. The HEAF students assumed the role of environmental consulting firms with a fixed budget to accumulate evidence about a parcel of land intended for a commercial shopping mall and to report the feasibility of using the property for that purpose. Through the integration of maps, documents, videos, and an extensive network of scientific data, the students in teams of three and working with a Barnard undergraduate mentor engaged with a virtual town of residents, business owners, and local government officials as well as a suite of geophysical testing tools in the simulation. Like real-world environmental consultants, students had to develop and apply expertise from a wide range of fields, including environmental science and engineering as well as journalism, medicine, public health, law, civics, economics, and business management. The overall objective was for the students to gain an unprecedented appreciation of the complexity, ambiguity, and risk involved in investigating and remediating environmental problems.

The Barnard undergraduate mentors were familiar with BA from doing the simulation as part of an introductory science course. The mentoring included weekly assistance with writing and mathematical exercises, and guidance in writing a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment report that was required of each HEAF student. Assessment of the program included weekly journals reviewed by one of us (RK) at Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. The student mentors also provided information throughout the program on the progress of the students and their role in the program.

Overall, the students responded well to computer-based learning, especially the students who perceived themselves to be visual learners. Videos were especially effective in the instruction, as were hands-on laboratory activities (e.g., sieving of sand, permeability measurement exercise, measuring movement of a fictitious underground plume in a water model) as evidenced by open-ended journal responses from the students. One additional activity mentioned by nearly every participating student was the weekend retreat to Black Rock Forest, a 3,830-acre second-growth forest near West Point, NY, which Barnard helps to support. This retreat provided the HEAF students an opportunity to interact informally with each other and the HEAF staff, their mentors, and the Barnard instructors. Those two days allowed immersion in topics about geology, biology, botany, and ecology that the students did not encounter in the urban environment they lived in. As the 12-week program progressed, students frequently expressed their concern about gas stations in their neighborhood, which is a potential form of brownfield known to all of them. An indication of sustained interest in the program was the high percentage of student attendance, considering the students’ sometimes difficult commute on public transportation from the five boroughs to Barnard within an hour of when they were dismissed from their high school. Average weekly attendance was 91% in year one, 98% in year two, and 92% in year three. Recommendations made by student mentors based on their experiences with the program include the suggestion that the mentors be utilized more fully in the instructional process to allow them to provide more context and other scaffolding support during group work time. This would allow for less large group lecturing and more peer instruction, as participants reported benefitting more from structured group time with mentor guidance than from the full group lecture components of the curriculum.

Briane Sorice Miccio, Professional Children’s School

Brownfield Action has been used for four years in a high school Environmental Science class consisting of students in grades 10, 11, and 12. The class met 40 minutes each day, five days a week for seven weeks. During this time, the students investigated the gasoline plume emanating from the BTEX gas station and then wrote a Phase II ESA.

BA has been an invaluable tool in demonstrating many of the concepts covered in the curriculum. It has given the students a “hands-on” opportunity to put into practice the topics and skills they have learned. They were able to study a number of concepts, including groundwater movement (porosity, permeability, D’Arcy’s Law), topography and contour mapping, and the chemical and physical properties of gasoline, while simultaneously experiencing how the knowledge of these concepts can be applied in a real-world situation. There was also an in-class demonstration of the movement of a contamination plume through a cross section of an aquifer, as well as a sediment size analysis using sieves to separate a sediment sample “taken” from the ground near the BTEX gas station. Students were able to physically see the different components of sediment and relate the different sized particles to the speed with which groundwater, and any inclusive contamination, is able to flow. With BA, students are able to learn, apply their knowledge in an ongoing interdisciplinary exercise, and see how all of these separate concepts taught in environmental science class tie together in the real world.

The Environmental Science course has been taught for seven years with BA being used for the past four years. BA made a tremendous difference, satisfying both the goals of the curriculum as well as enhancing student interest. Students are given the opportunity to investigate the environmental, social, and economic issues facing a community that is forced to deal with a brownfield and contamination of the local environment. New York City has over 40,000 brownfield sites, many of which are unknown to its residents. When students who live in the city work with BA, whose narrative deals with the ramifications of contamination in a small town, they are able to gain a better understanding of the magnified ramifications in a larger city. This, in turn, will make them socially aware of the effects of a brownfield on the people surrounding it.

Typically, students execute the “learn and apply process,” where they learn in class and apply these concepts to a one-time lab exercise and exam before moving on to the next topic. However, with BA, the students are enthusiastic about applying what they have learned in a more interesting, realistic, and interactive format. Since the implementation of BA, students have been more receptive, and it has sparked more questions and comments than ever before. The students’ questions have also demonstrated a deeper understanding of the subject matter than with traditional textbook work. The students are also able to incorporate problem-solving skills, exercise leadership skills and management strategies, and work collaboratively. Moreover, they are able to recognize the social and economic ramifications of pollution. In addition, BA’s demonstration of the work of an environmental site investigator has, on more than one occasion, inspired students of mine to pursue the field of environmental science in college. Since my students are all college bound, the fact that Brownfield Action inspires interest in this field, particularly now when we need the next generation to be environmentally conscious, is gratifying and demonstrates the value of Brownfield Action within a high school curriculum.

Bess Greenbaum, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School

Columbia Grammar & Prep is a private K-12 school in Manhattan, NY. The Brownfield Action simulation was utilized in two sections of the yearlong environmental science elective course, open to juniors and seniors. (One section had nine students; the other had 14. All of the 23 students were in either 11th or 12th grade, except for one in 10th grade). The high school students investigated the gasoline plume and associated drinking water well contamination portion of BA simulation. The goal of the project was to engage the students in some real methodologies used to detect and delineate contaminant plumes.

Students completed the investigation in teams of two or three over seven weeks. Groups were chosen by the instructor, who had, at this point, a fairly good sense of each student’s ability and motivation level. In order to avoid the common pitfall of one student in the group doing all the work, students were grouped according to similar ability and motivation levels. This was a successful tactic. First, students were introduced to the concepts of brownfields and superfund sites. Then, they were shown how to log onto and navigate the BA computer simulation and the features for each new test. The students found the online interface to be very user-friendly.

Each team conducted tests and made maps of the gasoline plume, but each student was responsible for submitting their own final four- to six-page report along with four hard-copy maps. One map was a basic site map, and three were topographic maps of the site highlighting different data: surface topography, bedrock topography, and water table elevations. Students utilized two tests for contamination provided in the simulation: soil gas sampling and analysis and drill/push testing. Prior to conducting these tests, the instructor spent two or three class periods discussing with the students the major components and characteristics of gasoline. Students discovered that gasoline is a mixture of many substances, each with its own physical and chemical properties. We discussed that gasoline contained floating, volatile, and water soluble parts. For this investigation, we focused on two tests for the presence of gasoline provided in the simulation. First, the Soil Gas Sampling and Analysis (SGSA) tested for hexane, a volatile component found in the air pockets of the soil. The second test detected the presence or absence of benzene, a water-soluble component. Once the presence of hexane in the soil was confirmed, students used the Drilling and Direct Push test to see if there was any benzene in the groundwater. Students learned that the tests were performed in this order because it was financially practical; if gasoline had not been present in the soil, it would have likely been wasteful to perform the more expensive and time-consuming test on the groundwater. The final report submitted by each student had three main parts: (1) a summary letter to the EPA outlining reasons for, and results of, their investigation; (2) a description of investigation methods, testing procedures, and data; and (3) analysis and interpretation of the data.

Students varied widely in their spatial visualization abilities. Some were quite challenged by creating and understanding the meaning of the hand-drawn topographic maps. While tedious, this tactile and methodical process improved student understanding of mapping; however, comprehending the meaning of the aerial view of the plot of the hexane data (from soil gas measurements) and the cross-sectional view of the benzene data in the groundwater contaminant plume was not so obvious for some. The concept that each contamination map represented a different orientation (either cross-section or aerial view) of the contaminant plume was repeatedly emphasized. Students understood why there was a need to test for a volatile compound (hexane) in the soil and a soluble one (benzene) in the water table, but their understanding of sediment properties and the movement of groundwater was simplistic.

The BA simulation was a good classroom experience. Based on observations, students enjoyed the self-paced group work. Two adjustments for future use are suggested. First, introduce exercises in spatial orientation earlier on in the year. This would help students grasp the concept of topographic maps more easily, and they would be better equipped to identify and draw contour lines based on elevation points. Second, the experience could be enhanced with hands-on demonstrations of sediment size class and porosity/permeability of different sediments. These adjustments would likely allow students to take a more independent role in the investigation, and require less instructor guidance as they investigate the task at hand.

Although students were given a budget, the focus was on completing the Phase II investigation—regardless of cost. Some students were initially mindful of how much each test cost, but once they knew that it did not really matter how much they spent, they no longer paid attention to this feature of the simulation. Students did, however, take advantage of the Moraine township history and interviews with the citizens in order to make their final assessment and report. Another tactic that might improve student autonomy and the BA experience would be to have them work together to figure out the most logical order of steps to take in the investigation process. A class discussion of crime shows or A Civil Action would facilitate this. Once they reach consensus on a logical way to carry out the investigation, they could be introduced to the simulation’s tools.

Teaching Environmental Science Students Fundamentals of Hydrology and Environmental Site Assessment

Bret Bennington, Hofstra University

Brownfield Action (BA) is used throughout the entire semester in both an undergraduate hydrology course (Hydrology 121) and a graduate hydrogeology course (Hydrogeology 674). These are combined lecture/laboratory courses taken by students pursuing degrees in geology, environmental science, or sustainability studies, most of whom are motived by an interest in applying science to solving environmental problems but who have little prior experience in groundwater science. Students are assigned to groups of three or four to form consulting teams. Teams are provided class time each week during laboratory to meet and coordinate online work performed individually outside of class hours. Students use the simulation to conduct a Phase I ESA (Environmental Site Assessment), and each group is required to make a presentation to the rest of the class detailing their findings and to submit a Phase I ESA report midway through the term. During the second half of the semester the teams work on a Phase II investigation. Final group presentations communicating the results of the Phase II investigation are made at the end of the term, and each student is required to submit an individual Phase II ESA report for evaluation. Students use critical feedback from the assessment of the Phase I materials to improve their Phase II presentation and reports.

A useful attribute of the BA simulation is that important hydrologic concepts introduced in lectures and labs can be incorporated into different stages of the online BA investigation, providing students the opportunity to practice applying these concepts in realistic, problem-solving activities. For example, in one laboratory exercise, students measure the porosity and hydraulic conductivity of a sediment sample obtained (hypothetically) from the abandoned Self-Lume factory site in the BA simulation. In another exercise, students learn how to calculate the direction and magnitude of a hydraulic gradient from hydraulic head data collected from monitoring wells. As part of their Phase I and Phase II investigations, students use these sedimentological measurements and groundwater analytical methods, in combination with data obtained in the online simulation, to calculate flow volume and seepage velocity beneath the Self-Lume site to assess potential impacts to the town water supply well. Students must also incorporate into their investigations knowledge of groundwater law and the regulations and standards governing environmental investigations, methods of aquifer testing and analysis, and the behavior of different forms of groundwater contaminants. To complete their ESA investigations within the BA simulation, students are thus required to integrate a wide range of data, methods, and concepts learned across the course.

Navigating the BA simulation also introduces students to the different components of civil government and the variety of agencies and departments involved in regulating and maintaining public health and groundwater quality. Students are drawn into the simulation by the authenticity of the online world provided, which is supported by realistic, richly detailed documents, newspaper articles, videos, and video and text interviews with public officials. It is a revelation to most students that so much useful information on potential environmental problems can be obtained just from interviews and municipal documents. In addition, the BA simulation provides many opportunities for students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as professional and technical skills, most importantly the ability to interpret, summarize, and effectively communicate technical information. As part of their course requirements, students must produce two formal, professionally written and formatted technical reports, and one informal and one formal oral presentation, and they must draft topographic, water table, and bedrock contour maps, as well as maps summarizing data from different aquifer tests and analyses. Finally, students gain valuable experience working cooperatively as part of a team focused on solving problems on time and within a reasonable budget. (Student teams are billed for all activities within the simulation and are assessed on how cost-effective their investigations are.)

Figure 3. Average student responses to questions asking them to rate the effectiveness of the Brownfield Action simulation for aiding student learning. Responses ranged from 1 (most negative) to 10 (most positive). Error bars indicate average +/- one standard deviation.

In the past year and a half students were surveyed to determine their perceptions of the effectiveness of BA as a teaching tool. Student response to the BA simulation has been overwhelmingly positive, with a large majority of students indicating that BA was successful in facilitating student learning and providing experience with data analysis, interpretation, and problem solving (see Figure 3). More recently, in the fall of 2013, a SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) instrument was deployed in the Hydrology 121 course at Hofstra University (nineteen undergraduate geology and environmental resources majors) to assess student gains in understanding and skills derived from their experiences with the semester environmental site assessment project built around the Brownfield Action simulation. Results from this assessment indicate moderate to large gains in understanding of course content (Figure 4) and relevant cognitive skills (Figure 5) learned and practiced while working with the BA simulation.

Figure 4: Changes from the beginning to the end of the semester in the mean d Mean) and standard deviation (d Std dev)value of responses to questions asking students to rate their understanding of environmental and hydrologic concepts learned in the course working with the Brownfield Action simulation. An increase in the mean of the responses indicates a gain in understanding relative to a 5 point scale. A decrease in the standard deviation value indicates greater agreement among student responses.

Many students report that BA increased their interest in pursuing hydrogeology and environmental consulting as a career (although some have also indicated that they learned from using BA that this was not the career path for them). Students have also reported that knowledge and experience of how to conduct Phase I and Phase II ESA investigations obtained through the BA simulation have been a very positive factor in interviews for jobs in environmental consulting. As one student wrote, “The Brownfield Action simulation not only helped me define a career goal, but it also helped me land a job in the environmental field. The skills and knowledge I gained through the simulation not only made my résumé look stronger to future employers but it allowed me to impress interviewers through conversation. Many potential employers were impressed by the fact that I knew enough about federal regulations and environmental concepts to even just carry on a discussion about Environmental Site Assessments.”

Figure 5. Changes from the beginning to the end of the semester in the man (d Mean) and standard deviation (d Std dev) value of responses to questions asking students to rate their ability to apply academic skills learned or practiced in the course working with the Brownfield Action simulation. An increase in the mean of the responses indicates a gain in ability relative to a 5 point scale. A decrease in the standard deviation value indicates greater agreement among student responses.

The BA simulation has proven to be an effective teaching tool for three main reasons. It recreates the ambiguity of real-world problem solving by providing students with an open-ended set of environmental problems, and it requires that they apply what they have learned in the classroom without ever being told exactly what to do. It provides a richly detailed and realistic virtual world that students find interesting and that engages their curiosity by presenting them with realistic environmental problems to solve. Finally, the BA simulation provides a framework for demonstrating key concepts developed in hydrology/hydrogeology courses. Because much of the lecture instruction in these courses involves the mathematical analysis of groundwater flow, the students benefit from being able to apply concepts such as hydraulic conductivity, hydraulic gradient, hydraulic head, and seepage velocity to solve applied problems within the framework of the BA simulation. This helps the students to better understand these concepts, and it greatly increases their interest and engagement in hydrogeology. Students routinely comment on how much they enjoy working in the simulation and it has inspired a number of students to pursue careers in environmental consulting and groundwater remediation.

Tamara Graham, Haywood Community College

Haywood Community College serves a predominantly rural community in the Appalachian Mountains roughly one-half hour west of Asheville, North Carolina. Haywood’s Low Impact Development (LID) Program was launched in 2009 to provide workforce training and resources to foster more sustainable development in the region. Though the LID Program is relatively new, it is part of the College’s highly regarded Natural Resources Management Department, which has offered two-year associate degrees and professional certificates in Forestry, Horticulture, and Fish and Wildlife for more than 40 years. The LID Program complements these established programs by offering students the opportunity to study innovative strategies for mitigating the impact of development on natural systems, particularly the hydrologic cycle.

LID 230, The Remediation of Impacted Sites, is a required course in the LID Program that surveys issues related to environmental contamination from the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century to contemporary 21st-century brownfields remediation programs:

This course is designed to familiarize students with various scale remediation projects to enhance understanding of the role environmental repair has in sustainable development. Emphasis will be placed on case studies that cover soil and water remediation efforts necessitated by residential, commercial, industrial, governmental, and agricultural activity. Upon completion, students will be able to discuss and utilize the tools and technologies used in a variety of soil and water remediation projects. (Course description fromHCC Catalog & Handbook )

From the perspective of LID, the remediation of brownfield sites offers communities perhaps the greatest return on investment in terms of sustainability. Brownfields are among the most contaminated sites environmentally, and their remediation spurs reinvestment in otherwise dilapidated urban areas, creating walkable, vibrant spaces for living and working where infrastructure already exists, rather than necessitating further encroachment of development on rural land or “greenfields.”

In addition to a Brownfield Action (BA) training seminar held at Barnard College, the BA website contains a User Section with curriculum resources that have been have been an invaluable, engaging resource for developing Haywood’s LID 230 course. In the spring semester of 2011 and 2012, BA resources were first introduced at approximately week five of the sixteen-week semester course, with a close reading of A Civil Action. The shared curricula and resources, such as reading guides made available in the BA User Section, provided students with compelling historical background on the origins of current brownfields programs. Building on this foundation, in the final third of the semester students worked in small teams with the simulation to develop a Phase I ESA Report and supporting topographic and inventory maps. The BA video interviews, narrative, and interactive simulation piqued student interest and facilitated understanding of the complex, interdisciplinary, even labyrinthine nature of environmental remediation. Site exploration afforded by the simulation allowed LID students to work at their own pace to cultivate attention to detail (careful detective work) while simultaneously being mindful of the bigger picture. Coupled with students’ study of case studies of local remediation projects, the simulation effectively conveyed the complex and interrelated political, environmental, economic, and social factors at issue in environmentally contaminated sites and the necessity of collaboration among diverse entities to facilitate remediation and reuse.

Rather than appearing trite in the face of the somber topic, the playful nature of the simulation, with myriad puns and entertaining diversions woven through the narrative, helped to engage students and demystify the otherwise intimidating content. The fear of the effects of environmental contamination and intimidation regarding the process are perhaps the largest factors hindering collaborative public and private action to remediate sites. The BA simulation effectively addresses these barriers through its appealing, approachable format, effectively fostering collaboration among students to address complex problems and work toward solutions.

The BA simulation has provided an engaging learning opportunity for HCC’s students. Several LID graduates have obtained employment with local and regional planning agencies, where their experience with the BA simulation has proven invaluable in addressing complex brownfields projects in their respective communities. HCC appreciates the opportunity to integrate this innovative simulation into our curriculum and is eager to assist Barnard College in expanding its access as an educational resource to further sustainable development goals in the region.

Douglas M. Thompson, Connecticut College

The Brownfield Action (BA) simulation has provided an important component of the course Environmental Studies/Geophysics 210: Hydrology at Connecticut College since the fall of 2004. Attendance at a Brownfield Action seminar the previous year showed that the simulation was an ideal means to replace a paper-based simulation used previously. As an experienced user of BA, I can confirm that it is a wonderful learning tool that has brought a very realistic group activity to my classroom. The program also does a very good job helping students develop the scientific background and confidence needed to find employment in the groundwater consulting industry. More importantly, students enjoy the BA module and learn a great deal about basic project management and group collaboration skills that apply to a range of disciplines.

My first job after college was as a Project Geologist for a groundwater consulting company in New England. It was a good first job, but my undergraduate geology major and hydrology course had not prepared me for the types of decisions faced on the job. Years later as an instructor of a hydrology course, it was important that I share my consulting experiences in order to help prepare undergraduates for what can be a very good job opportunity after graduation. The BA simulation provides an excellent replication of many of the components of a Phase I site investigation. Several former students who now work in the groundwater consulting industry have said that they greatly appreciated the background they developed using the simulation.

Figure 6. The Brownfield Action “playing field” in the reconnaissance mode visiting the BTEX gas station.

In my class, students are divided into groups of two or three and are asked to investigate the contamination at the BTEX gasoline station. The students are required to determine whether contamination exists and to delineate the nature, extent, and source of contamination. Students are encouraged to use the soil gas sampling and analysis tool and to determine a rough map of where volatile organic compound concentrations are highest. The students are then required to install at least three shallow wells and one deep well to document the approximate source of the contamination and direction of flow in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Drilling location and well placement are important decisions for a successful project, and students often display a great deal of trepidation when they begin to install monitoring wells. The cost of a poorly placed well is an important reason for this. As someone who has stressed over drilling holes for real monitoring wells, I know that the angst that students display is a good indication that BA realistically simulates the decision-making atmosphere. The students then use the survey instruments, sample analysis options, and the resulting data to produce maps of the BTEX gasoline contamination plume and the free-product plume. Students complete a group report that presents their findings.

To supplement the basic materials supplied with the computer simulation, the program is augmented with additional data sources and activities. Existing documents as well as newly created documents are placed as a reserve in our library to replicate the task of going to government buildings to search municipal and state records. Each group is provided with a small sample of loess and asked to classify the soil based on a textural method. Students are taken on a field trip to the campus power station to see two large underground storage tanks. A mock site visit is also made there to identify potential sources of contamination and locations where monitoring wells might be installed. The BA simulation is also used as a means to demonstrate the basic principles of Darcy’s Flow and hydraulic conductivity learned in the class. The students are asked to complete an estimate of the rate of groundwater movement based on some simulated pump test data created for this purpose and the groundwater table slope they determine from their BA wells.

BA provides an excellent opportunity for students to understand how the site assessment process is approached. The simulation adds a sense of realism to the sometimes abstract topics learned. BA has become a very important component of Environmental Studies/Geophysics 210: Hydrology, and the program will be used as long as its software is viable.

Training Undergraduate and Graduate Students in Advanced Courses in Hydrology and Environmental Remediation

Larry Lemke, Wayne State University

Brownfield Action was originally incorporated into GEL 5000—Geological Site Assessment—at Wayne State University during the Winter-2010 semester as part of an NSF CAREER grant that focused on groundwater contamination in previously glaciated urban areas. BA continues to play an integral role in this course, which is offered to both graduate students and upper division undergraduates and typically attracts 20 to 24 students each time it is offered. BA forms the basis for a term project in much the same way that it is employed at Barnard College: teams of students at Wayne State use the BA simulation as the basis for formulating Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments and reports.

In the first phase, students strictly follow ASTM Standard E 1527-13 (formerly E 1527-05). After completing site reconnaissance, records review, and interviews (no sampling is allowed except for Topographic Surveys), students document their findings, opinions, and conclusions following the ASTM specified report format. In the second phase, students choose two Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs) to be investigated following ASTM Standard E 1903-11. The 2011 revision of this standard prescribes application of the scientific method to evaluate RECs. To begin this process, students must schedule an interview with their client (the course instructors) to recommend Objectives, Questions to be answered, Hypotheses to be tested,Areas to be investigated, a Conceptual Modelfor contaminant migration including target analytics, a proposed Sampling Plan, and an estimated Budget. During the interview, one course instructor plays the role of a naïve business manager focused on liability and budget issues, while the second course instructor plays the role of an environmental manager who asks probing technical questions. After receiving client authorization, student teams proceed to implement their sampling plan and complete the Phase II ESA. In our experience, the role play exercise adds another realistic dimension to the BA simulation by providing students practice in communicating technical information and recommendations to clients in an oral format (in addition to writing professional reports).

Most recently, Gianluca Sperone, a co-instructor in the WSU course, developed an effective innovation by utilizing ESRI ArcGIS tools to perform the Phase I ESA analysis. After converting available materials from the BA simulation into ArcGIS Geodatabase format, he mapped the information accessible to student investigators during the Phase I site visit and interview process. Subsequently, he used the ArcGIS Spatial Analyst Extension to model potential subsurface contaminant migration in the event of a release into the BA simulation environment. In this way, Sperone was able identify potential areas for Phase II ESA recommendations and demonstrate the utility of GIS tools to perform analyses and prepare professional materials for communicating project results.

Feedback from our students has indicated that the authentic, realistic nature of the BA simulation greatly enhanced their ability to understand and apply the relevant ASTM standards. One student wrote: “I thought the BA simulation was invaluable to students. The Phase I ESA knowledge gained from reading through the standard is reinforced with the game. It puts a practical twist on a document that can be difficult to focus on (hooray for legal jargon!). The experience will greatly aid students heading into consulting/government jobs.”

Angelo Lampousis, City University of New York

The Brownfield Action simulation and curriculum has been used at two different colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY). In both cases BA was adopted at the undergraduate and graduate levels of the course “Phase II Environmental Site Assessments” (City College of New York EAS 31402 [undergraduate] and EAS B9235 [graduate], Hunter College GEOG 383 [undergraduate] and GEOG 705 [graduate]). The combined number of students introduced to the BA simulation to date is 24. The academic background of the students involved ranged from geology, environmental sciences, and geography, to urban planning and sustainability.

The BA simulation was used as a refresher for the Phase I process, since most students had already completed the Phase I environmental site assessment course that is also a prerequisite for the Phase II course. The BA simulation served this purpose exceptionally well. Students had the opportunity to experience and practice a realistic interview component of writing Phase I reports as they interacted with the characters of the simulation. This addressed a specific gap in the CUNY curriculum that, while strong in using real data on real estate properties located in New York City (Lampousis 2012), treated interviews as a data gap (i.e., per ASTM designation E1527 – 05) due to legal and other restrictions on allowing college students to interact with property owners in an unsupervised manner. The BA simulation addresses this gap through its incorporation of a wide range of very thoughtful fictional interviews. The BA simulation experience for CUNY students was realized through several homework assignments culminating in a Phase I report. Due to time constraints, considerable amounts of information from the simulation, including data for topography, depth to bedrock, and depth to water table, were made available to CUNY students from the very beginning. Students were also assisted by the instructor in their construction of a conceptual site model.

Overall, the adoption of the BA simulation within the two CUNY colleges greatly reinforced student learning on the topic of environmental site assessments. The BA simulation provided an opportunity to test the knowledge and level of students’ understanding achieved up to that point. Students were able to get a panoramic view of the process, from signing the initial contract to submitting a final report. Because everything they did in the simulation cost them money, they also experienced working within a budget. The BA simulation will be used in the future starting in the Phase I course offered in the fall, and there are plans to adapt the BA simulation for a geographic information systems platform in the “Introduction to GIS” scheduled for the spring semester 2014. The latter will be in collaboration with Gianluca Sperone of Wayne State University.

Saugata Datta, Kansas State University

Brownfield Action has been used at Kansas State University (KSU) since 2009 for the undergraduate and graduate students in the lecture and laboratory courses of Hydrogeology (GEOL 611, with an average of 20 students mainly from the geology, biology, agricultural and civil engineering departments), Introduction to Geochemistry (GEOL 605/705, 10 students, mainly from the geology, agronomy, and chemistry departments), and Water Resources Geochemistry (GEOL 711, eight students from veterinary medicine, geology, and agronomy). All three have been offered as interdisciplinary courses.

Figure 7. The Brownfield Action “playing field” in Testing Mode with zoom function applied and magnetometry/metal detection measurements being made.

In Hydrogeology, BA is utilized as the foundation for a one-month practicum. Students work in teams of three and are given complete access to the BA simulation and website including all data and documents. Student teams must choose a topic or specific problem to be solved within the BA simulation. Topics range from using the BA simulation and database for a Phase I ESA of the Self-Lume property or the BTEX Gas Station, for flow net exercises to delineate various contaminant plumes (gasoline or tritium), for simple permeameter measurements to understand hydraulic conductivity, or for utilizing the many soil exploration tools (drilling, seismic reflection and refraction, ground penetrating radar, soil gas) to determine plume location and its migration paths, and chemical characteristics of different contaminants. Lectures are developed based on the topics chosen. Each team is required to write a report on their findings and evaluate what they have learned from their practical experience with the simulation. Poster sessions have often been assigned so that students may share their experiences using the BA simulation with other students to demonstrate how different methods and principles are used to solve complex hydrological problems. Additional faculty members are invited to these poster presentations and interact with and question the student teams.

In Geochemistry, BA is used for one month as a case study as part of the final project. Students use BA in order to understand the chemical characteristics of organic contaminants, the chemistry of groundwater, and the use of various field or laboratory geochemical analytical tools to measure various contaminants, map these contaminants in the surficial soil cover, and create hydrochemical maps with piper diagrams for various inorganic contaminants. Students learn how different plumes will mix or impact each other. BA allows students to develop a clear understanding of the composition of different contaminants and their MCLs in the environment.

In Water Resources Geochemistry, BA has been used in collaboration with other users of BA from Lafayette College (LC) and Wayne State University (WSU). Students are assigned to investigate BA in order to write Phase I and II ESA reports. There are invited lectures from within KSU as well as video lectures transmitted by instructors from LC and WSU. Students from KSU present their findings to students in an Environmental Engineering course at LC and a geology course at WSU, who in turn present their findings to the KSU students. Working with instructors from WSU, students at KSU learn how to use ARC GIS on the BA database. The topics in this video conferenced course evolved from the joint use of MODFLOW and Groundwater Modeling Systems (EMS-i) in tracing groundwater contaminants in the BA aquifer.

Typical student comments about the use of BA include: “One of the greatest ways to connect to a real world problem and it was interesting how we were acting as consultants, and tried not to leak ideas to the other groups,” and, “I learnt more about the application of Darcy’s law when I was taught with BA, even the water table characteristics, and the direction of groundwater flow were more clear when BA was demonstrated to us.” Students also commented on how they learned to work as a consultant and that one cannot make mistakes that might result in losing the contract or not making a profit. Several students have gone to job interviews and used BA to demonstrate their knowledge of ESAs and to respond to questions from the interviewers. BA played a significant role in the hiring of these students by government agencies and has also led to a dialogue with these agencies on how to use BA within communities they serve that are affected by brownfields.

Arthur D. Kney, Lafayette College

Over the last seven years the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CE) program at Lafayette College has used Brownfield Action successfully in two courses: Environmental Engineering and Science (CE 321) and Environmental Site Assessment (CE 422). CE 321 is an introductory course, and BA is used to introduce the issues of brownfields, remediation, and environmental regulations. CE 422 is a course in which students learn how to do Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) consistent with ASTM 1527. Because most of the fundamental science needed to understand and participate in the BA scenario is taught to CE students throughout their first few years of our CE program, use of BA in CE 321 and 422 is targeted at applying their accumulated fundamental skills and knowledge in a realistic simulation in addition to teaching the details of the ESA process. Following a two-week exercise utilizing BA, students are prepared to do a real-time site assessment on neighboring properties.

My experience has shown that BA is very applicable to the field of civil engineering from initial investigation through remediation and that the interdisciplinary, realistic nature of BA provides an effective tool with which to teach aspiring civil and environmental engineers. Connections to the practice of civil engineering are played out in numerous scenarios in BA. For example, understanding how chemicals move through the water and soil is made evident through models that civil engineers are taught in water quality and water resource classes. Methods and practices used in remediation are common themes taught in upper level environmental engineering courses. Additionally, ESAs must be accomplished by an “Environmental Professional” as outlined in the US CFR 40:312.21. BA provides a wonderful storyline linked to believable data that ties together individuals and their community with industry and very real economic and environmental concerns. In order to piece together the truth, critical thinking skills must be used to interpret and communicate the significance of data obtained from the simulation.

In CE 422 especially, the incorporation of BA has tremendously improved student understanding of the ESA process as compared to classes taught prior to use of BA. Anecdotal evidence from student conversations, faculty observations, student test scores, and the fact that BA continues to be a central part of CE 422 all support this statement. Beyond CE 321 and 422, students have reported that BA has strengthened their ESA skills in senior-level design projects and has provided evidence of competence when applying for jobs. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear that students have not only gotten jobs because of their ESA skills but have also gone on to perform ESAs in their jobs. Because of these reports from students, future plans include introducing some form of an ESA course for engineering professionals. Incorporating BA would be integral, because of the fact that one can quickly comprehend the overall ESA process through the interactive, informative framework of the simulation.

As part of the collaborative network, Saugata Datta from Kansas State University (see above) and I have used BA to complement several courses. Our most recent course development is a team-taught course module between Kansas State and Lafayette. Graduate and undergraduates from both institutions have worked together reconstructing plume flow via groundwater models like MODFLOW and Groundwater Modeling System (EMS-i), using data from the BA simulation. Students connect the groundwater solution to the models in the existing BA simulation and make the BA narrative come alive as they learn how the various chemical and kinetics principles of contaminants behave throughout the BA storyline. In addition, other collaborative engagements have blossomed through BA team interactions, such as a recent set of academic video discussions between Wayne State University, Kansas State University, and Lafayette College students and faculty revolving around the overuse of key nutrients, phosphorous and nitrogen. Consistent with professional practice, future plans include developing a workshop open to environmental professionals interested in learning how to conduct ESAs. BA would be used to help professionals connect to the task at hand just as it has been used in CE 422.


Assessing the Effectiveness of the Brownfield Action Simulation

All faculty using BA in their courses report high levels of student engagement with the simulation and increased confidence in students’ ability to understand and apply science to solve problems. Although a simulation, BA is grounded in civil, legal, and scientific reality such that experience gained through BA is directly applicable to the real world. This is demonstrated by the many students who report that BA has assisted them in gaining employment as environmental professionals. Other important professional and conceptual skills reported being taught and learned in the context of the BA simulation include data visualization, map-making, budgeting, formal report writing, making formal oral presentations, as well as decision-making, dealing with ambiguity, teamwork, and networking in information gathering.

Reliable summative assessment of the pedagogical effectiveness of the BA simulation has not yet been performed due to the lack of appropriate control groups (the courses discussed above are not taught in multiple sections with some instructors using BA and some not) and a lack of appropriate data on student performance prior to the adoption of BA in courses. However, a variety of formative assessments of the BA simulation were incorporated throughout the design and initial use of BA at Barnard College to provide feedback and confirmation of the effectiveness of the simulation (Bower et al. 2011). We are currently developing and testing a survey-based formative assessment utilizing the SENCER SALG tool available online ( A SENCER SALG instrument consists of a pre- and post-course survey taken online that provides instructors with useful, formative feedback for improving their teaching. A SALG instrument provides a snapshot of student skills and attitudes at the start and end of courses, allowing instructors to gauge the effectiveness of teaching strategies, methods, and activities such as the BA simulation (Seymour et al. 2000). A preliminary version of a SALG instrument designed to measure student learning gains resulting from working with the BA simulation has recently been deployed by Bret Bennington and analysis of the results show marked gains from the beginning to the end of the semester (see discussion above). At the next meeting of BA users in the spring of 2014 we will finalize this SALG instrument and begin deploying versions of it to measure the impact of BA on student learning in a variety of educational settings and applications.

Ongoing Work and Future Directions

The tenth in a series of seminars and training sessions for Brownfield Action will be held at Barnard College in April of 2014. Most of the early seminars were devoted to training new users of the simulation and to troubleshooting problems existing users were having. As the simulation evolved, two new versions of BA were produced making the simulation web-based, enhancing the features of the “playing field,” and developing a “modularized” version that is more adaptable to creative new uses. While new users are still being trained, the ninth seminar held in the spring of 2013 was devoted primarily to the sharing of experiences teaching with BA and presenting new applications of BA developed by current users. These included using the data in the BA simulation to teach modeling and analysis using GIS, using the simulation to teach undergraduates about Phase I Environmental Site Assessments incorporating GIS, the use of the gasoline contaminant plume in the simulation as the basis for a six-week unit on toxins and environmental site investigations for high school students, the creation of evaluation tools for the assessment of the effectiveness of BA in an undergraduate hydrogeology course, the modeling of groundwater contaminant plumes from the BA database as part of graduate level student exercises, and discussion of new possibilities for furthering the BA simulation using 3-D gaming technologies.

It is apparent from the above reports that users continue to develop new ways of using BA to teach science in the context of civic engagement. While BA was not developed to teach GIS, the work done in this area suggests that the BA simulation can be easily adapted to enhance GIS instruction. The data- and context-rich virtual world of BA provides an ideal tool for realizing SENCER goals for teaching science through important civic issues and motivating students to learn and understand basic science. Environmental contamination and brownfields are universal problems in today’s world and incorporate civic issues to which every student can relate. BA provides a virtual world and narrative in which students figure out for themselves how to apply basic scientific concepts learned in a course to solve real, practical problems. There is significant potential for further growth of the community of BA users but it is also apparent that BA must undergo significant technological change to bring it up to date with new advances in online delivery and learning technology. A “next-generation” Brownfield Action project is in the early stages of development in order to create a more interactive, 3-D game-based learning environment for the simulation. We would also like to add new data to the simulation, expanding the range of environmental toxins represented to include dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLS) and nitrates, two major sources of groundwater contamination. Developing the next generation of BA will require funding, and appropriate documentation of learning gains will be needed to make a case for continued investment in BA. To this end we are currently developing standardized student assessment tools using the SENCER SALG that will be deployed across the community of BA adopters. But most importantly, improvement of the Brownfield Action simulation will be facilitated through expansion of the community of instructors who use BA in their courses and who will continue to develop innovative approaches that can be shared across the BA collaborative network.

About the Authors

Peter Bower

Peter Bower, conservationist and educator, is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science at Barnard College/Columbia University, where he has taught for 28 years. He has been involved in research, conservation, and education in the Hudson River Valley for 35 years. He is the former Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, where he served on the City Council, Planning Board, and Environmental Commission for eight years. He received his B.S. in geology from Yale, M.A. in geology from Queens, and Ph.D. in geochemistry from Columbia.

Ryan Kelsey

Ryan Kelsey is a Program Officer for Education at the Helmsley Trust, where he focuses on national work in improving educational practices, with a special emphasis on higher education, STEM learning, and effective uses of technology. Prior to coming to the Trust, he spent thirteen years at the Columbia University Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, most recently as the Director of Projects. Ryan earned his Ed.D. and M.A. in Communication and Education from Teachers College and his B.S. in biology from Santa Clara University.

Joseph Liddicoat

Joseph Liddicoat has been teaching Brownfield Action since it became part of the Introductory Environmental Science course at Barnard in 2000. He is now retired from Barnard but still teaches Astronomy, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Global Ecology at New York University where he has been an Adjunct Professor of Science for nearly 25 years, and as a SENCER Leadership Fellow has represented NYU at the SENCER Summer Institutes since 2008. He received his B.A. in English Literature and Language from Wayne State University and his M.A. and graduate degrees in Earth Science from Dartmouth College (M.A.) and the University of California, Santa Cruz (Ph.D.).

Douglas Thompson

Douglas Thompson is a scientist trained in the field of fluvial geomorphology. He has taught for seventeen years at Connecticut College in the Environmental Studies program and has written one book, over 30 scientific articles and book chapters, and made over 50 scientific presentations. He currently serves as the Karla Heurich Harrison ’28 Director of the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College. He received his B.A. from Middlebury College, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from Colorado State University.

Angelo Lampousis

Angelo Lampousis is a Lecturer in the Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences of the City College of New York. He is a member of the ASTM subcommittee E50 and the task group responsible for developing the ASTM Standard E1527, Practice for Environmental Site Assessments. He received his B.S. in agriculture from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and M.Phil. and Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Bret Bennington

Bret Bennington conducts research in paleontology and regional geologic history at Hofstra University where he has taught for 20 years. In addition to paleontology, he teaches courses in physical geology, historical geology, hydrology, geomorphology, and the history of evolutionary thought. He also co-directs a study abroad program that brings students to the Galápagos Islands and Ecuador to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin in studying the relationships between ecology, geology and evolution. He received his B.S. in biology / geology from the Univ. of Rochester and his Ph.D. in paleontology from Virginia Tech.

Bess Greenbaum Seewald

Bess Greenbaum Seewald has taught middle and high school science for nine years. She currently teaches high school level biology and environmental science at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School in New York City. Bess graduated from Barnard College in 2000 double majoring in Biology and Film Studies and received a M.A. in secondary science education from The City College of New York.

Arthur Kney

Arthur D. Kney is an Associate Professor and Department Head in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Lafayette College. He has served as chair of the Pennsylvania Water Environment Association (PWEA) research committee and of the Bethlehem Environmental Advisory Committee, vice president of Lehigh Valley Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and secretary of ASCE/Environmental and Water Resources Institute (EWRI) Water Supply Engineering Committee. He received his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Lehigh University in 1999 and his professional engineering license in 2007.

Saugata Datta

Saugata Datta is an Associate Professor of Chemical Hydrogeology and Environmental Geochemistry in the Dept. of Geology in Kansas State University. He teaches courses in hydrogeology, low temperature geochemistry, water resources, and soils and environmental quality with research expertise in trace element and oxyanion migration and contamination, especially in groundwater, urban air particulates, subway microenvironments, and unproductive soil environments. He received his M.Sc. in geology from the Univ. of Calcutta and his Ph.D. in geochemistry from Univ. of Western Ontario, Canada.

Larry Lemke

Larry Lemke is an Associate Professor of Geology and Director of the Environmental Science Program at Wayne State University. He spent 12 years exploring for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. At Wayne State, his research focuses on modeling the fate and transport of contaminants in groundwater, air, and soil in natural and urban environments. He received a B.S. in geology from Michigan State University, an M.S. in geosciences from the Univ. of Arizona, an M.B.A. from the Univ. of Denver, and a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the Univ. of Michigan.

Briane Sorice Miccio

Briane Sorice Miccio has taught environmental science at the Professional Children’s School for seven years. She received her BA from Barnard College in Environmental Science and Education and her MA in Climate Science from Columbia Univ. She has worked at the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation as well as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia Univ. While at Barnard, she used the Brownfield Action simulation as a student and has successfully adapted the simulation in her own classroom for the past 4 years, thereby creating a curriculum for use by high school educators.

Tamara Graham

Tamara Graham is an Instructor in the Department of Low Impact Development and Natural Resources Management at Haywood Community College. In her work as a designer and project manager for landscape architecture firms and in community development, she utilizes sustainable and smart growth planning approaches to create projects that simultaneously accommodate sound development, contribute to a vibrant sense of place, and strengthen community connections to the environment. She has worked as a consultant on park and greenway projects in Asheville, North Carolina. She received her BA from Yale Univ. in art and architecture and an M.L.A from the School of Environmental Design at the Univ. of Georgia.


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Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process—ASTM Designation E1527 – 05

Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Process—ASTM Designation E1903 – 11


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Discussing the Human Life Cycle with Senior Citizens in an Undergraduate Developmental Biology Course


A civic engagement project was designed for undergraduate students in a developmental biology course to promote their understanding of the material as well as its relevance to issues in the local community. For this project, students prepared posters that focused on different stages of the human life cycle: gametogenesis, fertilization, embryonic development, fetal development, childhood (including adolescence), and adulthood (including senescence). Their posters were accompanied by activities designed to further engage the senior citizens who visited during a lab period at the end of the semester. While the senior citizens completed surveys, the students wrote short essays reflecting on the value of the project. The surveys demonstrated an increase in the senior citizens’ understanding of human development and of current issues related to the discipline. The students’ essays revealed that the project was beneficial for many reasons, most notably because it fostered a sense of civic responsibility among the next generation of scientists. [more]


Civic engagement is a pedagogical strategy that is successfully employed in a variety of educational contexts (Colby et al. 2003). It is particularly well suited for undergraduates, including those at liberal arts institutions, where the mission often encourages interdisciplinary integration of skills and knowledge to engage with critical issues facing society. The incorporation of civic engagement into specific courses has reciprocal benefits for the students and the local, national, or even international communities to which they belong. Students gain critical insight into specific topics addressed in their coursework while also developing a sense of civic responsibility. In turn, communities may receive benefits when projects promote “quality of life” as envisioned in one definition of civic engagement (Ehrlich 2000). Such projects usually focus on important issues including, but not limited to, poverty, hunger, disease, voter registration, and environmental contamination; moreover, they impact a variety of constituencies, ranging from individuals to groups such as agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations. While civic engagement manifests itself in diverse ways, there are some common themes, such as clearly defined learning goals and the opportunity for students to reflect carefully on the educational value of the experience. In many cases, academic credit is based on learning and not the on outcome of the project itself (Howard 1993).

Civic engagement is often discussed in the context of coursework in the social sciences. However, it has been argued that it is equally important that such pedagogy be implemented in the natural sciences, for a variety of reasons (Kennell 2000). For example, the projects can provide students with a better sense of how their acquired knowledge is, in fact, relevant to “the real world.” The projects can also help to educate citizens in the local community who have little or no background in the natural sciences, but who must often vote on issues related to the use of stem cells in regenerative medicine, the protection of organisms from the effects of climate change, and the creation of genetically engineered organisms to deal with agricultural pests. In fact, the estimated percentage of citizens who are “scientifically literate” is only 28 percent in the U.S. (Raloff 2010). In addition to promoting scientific literacy, the projects can help to demystify the process by which scientists collect and analyze data, which is important given the results of recent surveys reported by the National Science Board (2012). A variety of effective projects have already been implemented by scientists, including one in which students used emerging technologies as tools in projects related to environmental sustainability and designed to meet the specific needs of their community (e.g. an interactive trail map for a nature preserve prepared using GIS) (Green 2012). In the case of this particular project, the faculty member asked the students to complete surveys, provide anonymous feedback, and write an essay reflecting on their experiences. This project and others provided the inspiration for my own recent initiatives to incorporate civic engagement into advanced biology coursework.

Description of the Service Learning Project

I have incorporated a civic engagement project into a developmental biology course at Denison University, a small liberal arts institution in Granville, Ohio. An undergraduate course in developmental biology usually focuses on model systems—the fruit fly, frog, and chicken, for example— from which biologists have gained insight into the molecular basis of human disease and development. Fertilization, cleavage, and gastrulation are quite complex; accordingly, instructors usually devote several weeks to these earliest stages of embryonic development. In the absence of conversations about issues like stem cell research, however, it is easy for students to lose sight of the “big picture.” I therefore decided to design a project that would allow students to “come full circle” at the end of the semester by having them engage in a conversation about the human life cycle with local senior citizens. I chose to have the students work with senior citizens since many of the campus outreach programs are focused on local youth. In addition, I expected that the senior citizens would have many interesting, relevant experiences to share with the students, and that they would be a more appropriate audience given the nature of the course material.

For the project, I divided my 24 students into six groups, each focusing on one stage of the human life cycle: gametogenesis, fertilization, embryonic development, fetal development, childhood (including adolescence), and adulthood (including senescence). I provided each group with a poster template with three sections titled “Concept,” “Concept Explained,” and “In the News.” In the “Concept” section the students defined their stage in no more than two or three sentences, while in the section titled “Concept Explained,” the students provided more detailed information and, in some cases, divided their stage into several distinct steps (e.g. sperm attraction, acrosome reaction, fusion of the plasma membranes, prevention of polyspermy, activation of egg metabolism, and fusion of the genetic material, in the case of fertilization). Finally, in the section titled “In the News,” the students provided information on one recent issue, debate, or controversy related to their stage (in the case of fertilization, for example, the availability of a male contraceptive). In addition to the poster, I asked the students to develop a simple activity to further engage their audience. I provided them with a few ideas—completing a quiz, watching a short video on a laptop, and examining eggs, embryos, and/or larvae under a microscope—although I encouraged the students to think creatively about other options to facilitate learning. As the final component of the project, the students wrote a short essay on the value of civic engagement in the context of a liberal arts education and one thing they learned from their interactions with senior citizens. I was particularly interested in having them reflect on the value of this educational strategy in the natural sciences.

Other than providing them with a poster template, I offered little or no guidance to the individual groups; the students assumed responsibility for their poster displays as well as for the tasks required to prepare for the arrival of the senior citizens. During their visit, student volunteers escorted the senior citizens from one station to the next, giving them at least ten minutes to learn about each stage of the human life cycle. In many cases, the senior citizens were so engaged with the material that they remained at a station for much longer in order to ask questions and/or have an extended conversation with the students. The students ensured that there was sufficient seating in front of each poster display, since many of the senior citizens spent a total of about two hours rotating through the different stations. They had learned about this opportunity through an e-mail sent to retired staff or through an advertisement in the local newspaper, although a few were recruited from a local senior center by the John W. Alford Center for Service Learning at Denison. Snacks were purchased from the Smiling with Hope Bakery, which is run by special-needs students at Newark High School in Newark, Ohio.

Outcomes of the Service Learning Project

In an effort to assess the senior citizens’ learning, I prepared a short survey in which they rated their understanding of 1) human development, and 2) current issues in developmental biology both before and after visiting the poster displays. A total of 17 local senior citizens were recruited for the project, with thirteen of them completing the survey at the end of the afternoon (Table 1). In both cases, there was a statistically significant increase in their understanding, with several individuals offering positive comments about the experience, either through e-mail or through comments at the bottom of the survey. Indeed, students noted in their essays that the senior citizens were “focused,” “inquisitive,” and “enthusiastic,” with “a genuine interest in learning.” As the afternoon progressed, I came to realize that the senior citizens were modeling the idealistic concept of “lifelong learning” for my students through their intellectual engagement (McClure 2013).

To assess the students’ learning, I evaluated their poster displays and the essays that they wrote following the senior citizens’ visit. Since this was a pilot project, each component was worth only five percent of their final grade in the course. As I had expected, many students indicated that teaching what they had learned in the course helped them to gain a more complete understanding of important concepts in developmental biology. On a related note, they recognized civic engagement as an effective strategy to improve upon their communication skills. Many students also appreciated the opportunity to leave the “bubble” of campus life and interact with members of the local community, while learning how to “effectively converse [with them] about key issues facing society.” However, the students’ essays revealed that the project was beneficial in ways that I could not have predicted. For example, many students described their initial uncertainty about the value of civic engagement, but then wrote about how they came to view it as an “innovative way to incorporate many themes from our mission statement” and “a prime example of the types of endeavors [the institution] should continue to pursue to more fully provide its students with a liberal arts education.” They recognized it as an opportunity to “interact with diverse groups of people” and to “facilitate [their] growth into change makers that will work to fix the problems faced by humanity.” Several of them even described how rewarding it was to communicate knowledge with those who may not have had the opportunity to pursue an undergraduate education, noting their status as “privileged students,” who have a responsibility to “share [their] experience with others.”


I was quite satisfied with the extent to which the students reflected on the project and expressed “joy” (in their own words) in having the unique opportunity to engage with the local community as part of a biology course. In the future, I hope that this project will be extended to senior citizens from more impoverished communities, perhaps with students actually meeting them at a retirement facility. In addition, I hope to design alternative projects that address senior citizens’ specific interests (besides the human life cycle), since some of our visitors indicated on their surveys that they wanted to learn more about such topics as environmental influences on aging. And finally, I hope to encourage my peers to consider incorporating a civic engagement project into their own courses, since this educational strategy obviously has much to offer to students in the natural sciences, even in the realm of cellular and molecular biology. It can be easily accomplished during a single lab period, although it can be more extensive with activities spanning one or more semesters (e.g. Hark 2008; Imoto 2013; Larios-Sanz et al. 2011; Santas 2009). Regardless of the size and scope of the project, civic engagement can transform students’ thinking and inspire them to make important contributions to the world, whether as a nurse, teacher, or conservation biologist. It should be an integral component of every academic institution, “across all fields of study” as the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement has declared (2012). In summary, I would argue that scientists have an important role to play in developing students’ sense of civic responsibility in the 21st century.

About the Author

Laura Romano

Laura Romano is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Denison University in Granville, OH. She earned her BS in Biology from the College of William and Mary, and her PhD from the University of Arizona. She also completed three years of postdoctoral research at Duke University. She teaches introductory biology courses as well as advanced courses in developmental biology and invertebrate zoology. In addition to teaching, she enjoys advising students and mentoring them in her laboratory where she studies the evolution of developmental mechanisms using the sea urchin as a model system.


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Kennell, J. 2000. “Educational Benefits Associated with Service-learning Projects in Biology Curricula.” In Life, Learning, and Community: Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Biology, D. Brubaker and J Ostroff, eds., 7–18. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Larios-Sanz, M., A. Simmons, R. Bagnall, and R. Rosell. 2011. “Implementation of a Service-learning Module in Medical Microbiology and Cell Biology at an Undergraduate Liberal Arts University.” Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 12 (1). (accessed July 9, 2014).

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Raloff, J. 2010. “Science Literacy: U.S. College Courses Really Count.” ScienceNews. (accessed July 9, 2014).

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Summer 2014: From the Editors

In the Summer 2014 issue of Science Education and Civic Engagement: An International Journal, you will find four very different approaches to the impact, both locally and internationally, of science education on civic life. In a strong example of the scholarship of teaching and learning Elizabeth Olcese, Gerald Kobylski, and Charles Elliott of the U.S. Military Academy and Joseph Shannon of South Seattle College, have documented their systematic and research-based approach to developing a valid assessment rubric for West Point’s interdisciplinary Core Program. Their article “Meeting the Challenge of Interdisciplinary Assessment,” notes that preparing students to address increasingly complex civic and societal challenges will demand a STEM-rich education that places greater emphasis on interdisciplinary courses and curricula. However, the problem of defining, and then measuring, “interdiscplinarity,” has acted as a brake on the development of programs and courses that give students essential experience in integrating and synthesizing knowledge from multiple disciplines. The detailed report of their process, and the results of their first implementation, is a valuable contribution to a larger conversation, both about efforts to increase the civic impact of STEM learning, and the strategies used to assess those innovations.

Laura Romano, Denison University contributed an article detailing the integration of service learning and civic engagement activities into an undergraduate biology course. In “Discussing the Human Life Cycle with Senior Citizens as a Service-Learning Project in an Undergraduate Developmental Biology Course,” the author describes how her students prepared posters explaining different stages of the human life cycle: gametogenesis, fertilization, embryonic development, fetal development, childhood (including adolescence), and adulthood (including senescence). Their posters were accompanied by activities designed to further engage the senior citizens who visited during a lab period at the end of the semester. While the senior citizens completed surveys, the students wrote short essays reflecting on the value of service-learning. The surveys demonstrated an increase in senior citizens’ understanding of human development as well as current issues related to the discipline. The students’ essays revealed that the project was beneficial in many ways, most notably, fostering a sense of civic responsibility among the next generation of scientists.

In “Science Bowl Academic Competitions and Perceived Benefits of Engaging Students Outside the Classroom,” Robert Kuech and Robert Sanford of the University of Southern Maine offer a report on data they have collected on a well-established, but often overlooked and little studied, program of community-based informal science education, The National Science Bowl®. In the past 25 years over 240,000 high school and middle school students have voluntarily entered this highly competitive Department of Energy sponsored contest. To find out whether the time, discipline, and effort it takes to organize and participate in the Science Bowl is well invested, the authors surveyed the contestants in a Regional Science Bowl competition to ask what impact this program had on student learning and attitudes about science, as well as on other dispositions important to civic life, including leadership and teamwork. Their results strongly indicate that further research on the impact of The National Science Bowl competitions could yield valuable data on the impact of co-curricular and team-based efforts on students’ engagement with science.

Robert Franco, Professor of Pacific Anthropologyat Kapi’olani Community Collegein Hawai’i offers a summary of his experiences as an invited participant at two international conferences held in East and South Asia, both of which of which involved partnerships between U.S. Community Colleges and government educational initiatives in the respective countries. The first, an International Water Conference, was held at Sias University, Henan Province, China, which is a solely American owned university affiliated with both Zhenzou University and Fort Hays State University in Kansas. The conference brought together scholars and researchers from around the world to discuss the environmental and geo-political implications of climate change, droughts, and sea level change on the region’s future development, and the role that regional educational institutions and their students can play in addressing the problems. The second was a workingcoference of academic leaders seeking to establish a community college system in Mumbai, a joint project of Kapi’olani Community College, the University of Hawai’i, and the University of Mumbai. Franco’s detailed report of these important international developments highlights the importance of the US community college model to other countries as they work to develop educational systems that are immediately responsive to the civic and economic needs of their regions.

– Trace Jordan and Eliza Reilly, Editors-in-Chief

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Meeting the Challenge of Interdisciplinary Assessment


Introduction to Interdisciplinary Education

“As the pace of scientific discovery and innovation accelerates, there is an urgent cultural need to reflect thoughtfully about these epic changes and challenges. The challenges of the twenty-first century require new interdisciplinary collaboration, which place questions of meanings and values on the agenda. We need to put questions about the universe and the universal back at the heart of university.” William Grassie (2013)

As the world becomes more complex, given the rapid expansion of technology, the changing nature of warfare, rising energy, and environmental crises, the value of an interdisciplinary education is increasingly obvious. Social, political, economic, and scientific issues are so thoroughly interconnected that they cannot be explored productively, either by experts or students, within clear-cut disciplinary boundaries.

Despite this fact, several problems arise when institutions try to incorporate interdisciplinary education into their programs. Boix Mansilla (2005) noted that the assessment of interdisciplinary work by students is of great concern. She explains that because faculty are often discipline-specific experts, they are unfamiliar with disciplines outside their realm of expertise and have difficulty defining interdisciplinary work. She goes on to explain that, as a consequence, “the issue [of standards] is marred by controversies over the purposes, methods, and most importantly, the content of proposed assessments” (2005, 16).

This paper offers one solution to this dilemma. The following analysis explores the current state of interdisciplinary education, both in academia broadly, and specifically, at West Point through its interdisciplinary Core Program. The sections that follow will highlight the current issues inherent in interdisciplinary education, define interdisciplinary education objectives, and finally, explain the adaptable, multi-functional, interdisciplinary rubric being implemented at the United States Military Academy (USMA), a rubric designed to resolve many of the issues interdisciplinary educators encounter.

The Current State of Interdisciplinary Education in Academia

The demand is clear. Whether we try to take a stance on the stem cell research controversy, to interpret a work of art in a new medium, or to assess the reconstruction of Iraq, a deep understanding of contemporary life requires knowledge and thinking skills that transcend the traditional disciplines. Such understanding demands that we draw on multiple sources of expertise to capture multi-dimensional phenomena, to produce complex explanations, or to solve intricate problems. The educational corollary of this condition is that preparing young adults to be full participants in contemporary society demands that we foster their capacity to draw on multiple sources of knowledge to build deep understanding.” Veronica Boix Mansilla (2005, 14)

There are currently several studies, including evaluation measures, defining the essence of interdisciplinary education. The above quote from Boix Mansilla’s “Assessing Student Work at Disciplinary Crossroads” highlights the challenge educators are experiencing in preparing students to meet today’s most pressing problems. This paper will not attempt to address the structure of interdisciplinary education as an institutional convention, but only to define the essential skills and capacities that a student with interdisciplinary understanding would demonstrate. These definitions are essential to understanding and creating a framework for interdisciplinary learning, which is arguably the first step in adequately integrating it into educational programs. Interdisciplinarity is a difficult construct to quantify, and many educators have been unable to frame a definition of it or to assess it in student work. As a consequence of these and other challenges, only a limited number of colleges or universities have implemented formal interdisciplinary programs at the institutional level.

Several analyses (Boix Mansilla 2005; Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007; Rhoten et al. 2008; Stowe and Eder 2002) address the key issues surrounding interdisciplinary learning in higher education and offer proposals on how to address them, starting with the definition of the term “interdisciplinary.” One definition of interdisciplinary understanding is “the capacity to integrate knowledge and modes of thinking drawn from two or more disciplines to produce a cognitive advancement—for example, explaining a phenomenon, solving a problem, creating a product, or raising a new question—in ways that would have been unlikely through single disciplinary means” (Boix Mansilla 2005, 16; Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007, 216). A definition is particularly important because “a clear articulation of what counts as quality interdisciplinary work, and how such quality might be measured, is needed if academic institutions are to foster in students deep understanding of complex problems and evaluate the impact of interdisciplinary education initiatives” (Boix Mansilla 2005, 16). An agreed-upon definition is currently lacking in academia, and this has resulted in inconsistent grading, teaching, and learning in interdisciplinary education.

One study of well regarded and established interdisciplinary programs in the U.S., which included Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Interpretation Theory at Swarthmore College, Human Biology at Stanford University, and the NEXA Program at San Francisco State University, involved “69 interviews, 10 classroom observations, 40 samples of student work, and assorted program documentation” (Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007, 4). The data were gathered in one-hour to 90-minute semi-structured interviews with faculty and students inquiring about the manner of assessment used in their respective programs. Next, examples of student work were used to give examples of what the institution viewed as meeting the definition of interdisciplinarity. From the interviews and student examples, the authors concluded that there are three core dimensions to student interdisciplinary work: disciplinary grounding, advancement through integration, and critical awareness (Boix Mansilla, 2005, Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007). These core elements are represented graphically in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Three Interrelated Criteria for Assessing Students’ Interdisciplinary Work (Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007, 223)

The first core element in Figure 1, disciplinary grounding, calls for strong base knowledge in individual disciplines. During the interviews, 75 percent of the interviewed faculty felt that strong subject-area knowledge was necessary for interdisciplinary education that did not sacrifice depth in exchange for breadth. However, the authors noted that the key to successful disciplinary grounding also included the thoughtful selection of which disciplines to use and how to use them. Advancement through integration, the second principle, is universal in all student work in the sense that students are supposed to learn from the work they do; however, what sets it apart in interdisciplinary education is that “students advance their understanding by moving to a new conceptual model, explanation, insight, or solution” (Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007, 225). In the study, sixty-eight percent of faculty identified advancement through integration as a necessary element in interdisciplinary understanding and as the quintessential element for the advancement of student understanding. However, various programs and their students interpret this core element differently. For example, some students in in the NEXA Program at San Francisco State University strive for complex explanations, which evaluate the extent to which disciplines are interwoven to create a broad picture of how interconnected different disciplines are on a given topic. Other students in the same program prefer to use aesthetic reinterpretations to connect the literary, historical, and social elements of a given topic. Other students, such as those in the Bioethics program at the University of Pennsylvania, choose to focus on the development of practical solutions based on of the use of multi-disciplined ideas. The final principle from Figure 1, critical awareness, refers to student work being able to withstand examination and criticism and explicitly calls for evidence of student reflection in their work. Student work needs to “exhibit clarity of purpose and offer evidence of reflective self-critique” (Boix-Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007, 228).

Rhoten et al. (2008) also conducted a study focused on the similarities and differences between the learning outcomes of liberal arts and interdisciplinary programs. For this particular study, the researchers used student and faculty surveys, interviews, and tests to gather data for their analysis. The authors explain that most liberal arts programs “must develop student capacities to integrate or synthesize disciplinary knowledge and modes of thinking,” which is very similar to the type of synthesis that is expected from an interdisciplinary curriculum (Rhoten et al. 2008, 3–4). The main purpose behind this study was to identify the parallels between interdisciplinary and liberal arts programs, in order to show how a program can be made more interdisciplinary without changing its structure or content. Table 1 shows a summary of several parallels between a liberal arts education and an interdisciplinary education.

Table 1. Comparison of Liberal Arts Education and Interdisciplinary Education Objectives (Rhoten et al. 2008)

Rhoten et al. (2008) also analyzed empirical data to draw out trends on the “222 institutions considered ‘Baccalaureate College-Liberal Arts institutions’ under the 2000 Carnegie Classification system,” whether the interdisciplinary programs offered were majors, minors, optional courses, or required courses (Rhoten et al. 2008, 5). In general, “interdisciplinary programs are still ‘personally driven,’ whereas departments are ‘self-perpetuating'” (Rhoten et al. 2008, 6). “Personally driven” simply means that if students want to broaden their subject-area exposure they must do so on their own. “Self-perpetuating” refers to fact that departments within an institution need to act in their own self-interest in order to survive and thrive; therefore they tend to avoid interdisciplinary efforts. Interdisciplinary education does not support the mission of individual departments, and if students seek it, they must do so on their own initiative. One would therefore conclude that the only way to truly incorporate interdisciplinary education into schools is by making it institutionally mandated, at least for the core curriculum that all students are required to take.

Schools should strive to integrate interdisciplinary efforts into their institutions because “interdisciplinarity breeds innovation” (Rhoten et al. 2008, 12). Although such innovation carries tremendous benefits, the difficulty of measuring student and educator success was again identified as a barrier. Most schools that are already making efforts towards interdisciplinarity believe that they are somewhat successful according to Rhoten et al. (2008). However, in order to mark and measure success, and to continually improve interdisciplinary programs in schools, the authors propose a value-added assessment, which is intended to provide an “assessment regime that measures growth that has occurred as a result of participation in the institution or academic program” (Rhoten et al. 2008, 14). Moreover, some cross-cutting goals that are embedded especially in interdisciplinary studies, such as life-long learning, curiosity, creative thinking, synthesis, and integration, have acquired the reputation of being ineffable and, correspondingly, unassessable” (Rhoten et al. 2008, 83). This common problem was addressed by Stowe and Eder (2002) who identified several assessment measures that are placed on a continuum, as seen in Figure 2. These measures can also be used to better define interdisciplinary standards by providing a multi-tiered adjustable scale that can help to quantify the assessment of student work based on an instructor’s desired outcomes.

Figure 2. Perspectives on Assessment (Stowe and Eder 2002, 84)

Stowe and Eder (2002) state that using a rubric to define and measure interdisciplinary work would improve the “apparently subjective nature” of interdisciplinary assessment. They further recommend the rubric as a “visible standard—a scoring guide—that allows the assessor and the public, for that matter, to recognize expectations and make increasingly fine distinctions about the quantity and quality of student learning” (96). They expand on their recommendation by noting that assessment must be focused on both improving interdisciplinary learning and “improving student learning,” and should be “embedded within larger systems… and create linkages and enhance coherence within and across the curriculum” (80). Without cooperation across different programs, it is impossible to foster an interdisciplinary learning environment.

An example of such cooperation can be seen at USMA, where several academic departments have moved towards a cooperative environment focused on interdisciplinary learning (Elliott et al. 2013). This paper will focus on the education of the USMA Class of 2016 from their freshman year, when the plan to use energy conservation and the NetZero project (an energy initiative by the Dept. of the Army on several Army posts, including West Point, to produce as much energy as it consumes by the year 2020) was adopted to infuse interdisciplinary themes into their core courses. The five Student Learning Outcomes from this effort include four individual discipline-focused outcomes as well as a fifth, which aims to “develop an interdisciplinary perspective that supports knowledge transfer across disciplinary boundaries and supports innovative solutions to complex energy problems/projects” (Elliott et al. 2013, 33). In a larger sense, this objective illustrates that interdisciplinary education addresses the mission of USMA and the Army’s focus on the “development of adaptive leaders who are comfortable operating in ambiguity and complexity will increasingly be our competitive advantage against future threats to our Nation,” as outlined by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (Elliiott et al. 2013, 30).

Framing the Problem

The Academy produces graduates who can think dynamically in the ever-changing world described in the quotes from Grassie and Boix Mansilla at the beginning of this article. At West Point, this is accomplished by taking not only a multi-disciplinary approach to education, but also an interdisciplinary one. The Academy’s Core Curriculum describes the required classes that all cadets must complete or validate. The Core Curriculum does not include any classes required for a cadet’s major. Other non-academic requirements include three tactics courses and seven physical education courses. The interdisciplinary aspect is a new addition to the curriculum. In recent years, several committees have recommended promoting interdisciplinary approaches to better meet both the Academy’s and the Army’s goals as outlined in Elliott et al. (2013).

To achieve these goals, several academic departments involved in the Core Curriculum developed an interdisciplinary program for the entering plebe class, the Class of 2016. During the first week of classes, freshmen wrote an essay in their Introduction to Mathematical Modeling course, or MA103, about how they would use concepts from different courses to tackle the challenges that NetZero and the alarming problem of energy consumption in the Army pose to West Point. After 30 instruction sessions (approximately thirteen weeks), the freshmen revised these essays in their Composition course EN101. This time they used the knowledge acquired throughout the semester in the English course and in the other courses they were taking. Faculty from the Department of Mathematical Sciences and the Department of English and Philosophy evaluated these revised essays from different perspectives to emphasize the importance and relevance of multiple disciplines. This led to the realization that it was impossible to adequately compare the essays, since the assignments, rubrics, and faculty were not consistent and there was no common rubric to standardize the grading approach. To mitigate this challenge, the essays were compared in our study using the Flesch-Kincaid test (a formula designed to evaluate the difficulty and complexity of technical writing. It consists of two readings: grade level and reading ease) and a comparison of the final grades for the various essays. Scores for a sample of three essays for 25 students, a total of 75 essays, were used to compare improvement in a measureable, quantitative manner. The test consisted of a null hypothesis that there was no significant difference among the ratings, indicating neither improvement nor deterioration of scores from the different assignments throughout the semester, and an alternative hypothesis that there actually was a difference between scores. A two-tailed t-test yielded p-values ranging between 0.3 and 0.6. This indicated that the Flesch-Kincaid results were inconclusive, meaning that neither the null nor the alternative hypothesis could be rejected.

Despite the inconclusive results of the Flesch-Kincaid test, there was a demonstrated improvement in student work, albeit an improvement that was perceived on the basis of a subjective analysis of the essays. Therefore, a new rubric was developed to re-grade all of the essays in a standardized fashion against the desired elements for that particular set of assignments. To facilitate a comparison, this new and straightforward rubric aimed at grading each assignment from the different departments on the same scale. The grades were on a 1–10 scale, and the rubric can be seen in Table 2. The essays were then re-graded according to the same rubric and the results were compared again using a two-tailed t-test.

The challenge in evaluating interdisciplinary work is that the term “interdisciplinary” is not well-defined or broadly understood. This became even clearer after the Chemistry faculty conducted an interdisciplinary group capstone in the General Chemistry course with the Class of 2016 during the second semester of their freshman year. The capstone presented the students a complex and challenging energy problem that was both current and militarily relevant to their future roles as Army officers. This project required groups of students to write a memorandum summarizing their findings on an experimental, portable, and green battery recharger for soldiers in the field, and then to provide a presentation of their results to their commander. Cadets conducted an experiment on the battery recharger to test its efficiency, to compare it to current recharging methods, and to address the social and leadership challenges that would occur when this new equipment was integrated into a unit. In addition, the capstone leveraged the students’ various courses and experiences to scaffold understanding of key concepts and technology necessary to engage the problem. The freshman cadets were expected to utilize what they learned from math modeling, information technology, general psychology, and general chemistry courses in formulating their solution.

The rubric used to grade these capstones was developed by the Chemistry faculty with input from all the participating courses, and then later utilized by the Chemistry faculty in assessing the capstones. The collaborative rubric identified numerous concepts in each course, and as a result, it was several pages long. Perhaps most significantly, it did not define the term “interdisciplinary” for the faculty and the students in the capstone, nor did it make clear the associated expectations. At the conclusion of the rubric, faculty were asked to rate on a 1–10 scale how interdisciplinary their students’ submissions were. The results, displayed in Figure 3, had a standard deviation of .186 and were inconsistent in both the average instructor rating and the range of different ratings faculty assigned. This indicated that the faculty did not share the same understanding of “interdisciplinary” in assessing student work.

Table 2. Rubric used to evaluate the population sample of NetZero essays from fall 2012

Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising (2007) state that student interdisciplinary work should “be well-grounded in the disciplines” “show critical awareness,” and “advance student understanding” (223). These criteria both define the basic learning objectives of an interdisciplinary education and address the need for baseline knowledge in the subjects being addressed in student work. While these criteria may not be included in a rubric or other grading mechanism, they provide more of a defined objective regarding interdisciplinary student work.

Although the idea of graduating interdisciplinary-minded students is appealing to many programs, the challenge of measuring the success of interdisciplinary curriculums in producing these “multi-disciplined” graduates has yet to be addressed. The problem of scaling and measuring interdisciplinary education is itself interdisciplinary in nature and, consequently, an abstract idea for many (Boix-Mansilla and Dawes Duraising 2007, 218). Interdisciplinary education evaluation currently lacks a “sound framework” for assessment since the effects of interdisciplinary efforts on student learning are neither well-defined nor proven (Boix Mansilla 2005, 18). As seen in Figure 2 (Stowe and Eder 2002), the assessment of interdisciplinary work is a non-static scale where the balance between the perspectives and entities is never quite the same from project to project, or from class to class. Stowe and Eder (2002) offer a flexible scale for assessment that allows each interdisciplinary quality to be judged according to faculty expectations: how discovery-oriented versus objective-orientated do they want student assignments to be? Rhoten et al. (2008) do correlate several common learning outcomes of a liberal arts education with their interdisciplinary counterparts as seen in Table 1. Although useful for demonstrating extensive possible outcomes and correlations, the linkages are broadly defined and do not specify objectives; this exemplifies the issues of scale, definition, and the non-quantified nature of interdisciplinary education that currently prevail in academia.

Figure 3. Chemistry instructor evaluation of interdisciplinary synergy in capstone projects during Spring 2013. Courtesy of the United States Military Academy Department of Chemistry and Life Sciences.

All of the aforementioned problems can be traced to a lack of clarity on standards (Boix-Mansilla 2005, 16). Stowe (2002) explicitly calls for a standard for grading, collecting data, and creating a shared understanding, which he suggests could be found in a rubric. A standardized rubric, which is adaptable to several mediums and is general enough to be applicable to several disciplines, is desperately needed for evaluating and assessing interdisciplinary work. Such a rubric needs to clearly define the necessary elements of an interdisciplinary product and be sufficiently adaptable to align with project requirements; this would resolve several of the problems we have identified. In addition, Stowe and Eder (2002) call for the inclusion of very specific elements in a rubric, so that it can address current problems and properly evaluate interdisciplinary work. Among these requirements are assessing complex intellectual processes, promoting objectivity, reliability, and validity in assessment, clearly defining learning objectives for students, and being flexible and adjustable for course or curriculum progression (96). Although we conducted a thorough search, we failed to find a rubric that adequately fulfills this need.

Interdisciplinary Rubric Development

The goal of the rubric developed at USMA is to create a grading mechanism that can be used in multiple project mediums across multiple disciplines. Simultaneously this rubric maintains the integrity of the interdisciplinary goals by creating a more defined standard with which to grade interdisciplinary student work. The rubric also contains open areas for point allotment as well as weighting for each category, which allows faculty to allot points and focus where they see fit. Developing such a rubric required several steps: defining the term interdisciplinary, identifying the elements that student work needs to demonstrate in order to illustrate interdisciplinary thinking, creating a model that visually represents the interconnectivity of these elements, and then using the defined elements and model to arrive at the rubric categories.

The first step in the rubric development process was to define the term interdisciplinary:

Interdisciplinary: The seamless integration of multi-dimensional, multi-faceted ideas into a clearly demonstrated understanding of an issue’s breadth and depth, with sound judgment and dynamic thinking.

Boix Mansilla’s definition of interdisciplinary understanding provided the starting point for the development of the rubric. Additionally, material from the research discussed above identified missing elements from Boix Mansilla’s definition. For example, the best students’ interdisciplinary work included ideas from multiple disciplines that were integrated to demonstrate the level of understanding that the student has attained.

The second step in the rubric development process was to expand the definition of interdisciplinary, in order to create a shared understanding between students, faculty, and those evaluating the interdisciplinary work. To this end, the feedback and lessons learned from previous student work were used to identify the elements common to successful interdisciplinary work. These principles include: discipline specific knowledge, multi-perspective understanding, integration, practical integrated solutions, reflection, and clarity of purpose. To illustrate the interconnectivity of these principles, a conceptual model of the characteristics was created. Initially, the intention was to create a linear model to represent the core principles. However, several issues, such as missing connections and limited complexity, led to the immediate conclusion that a linear model could not completely describe complex nonlinear problem solving. The resulting model, which illustrates a cyclical thinking process, is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. The Cyclican Model of the Key Interdisciplinary Characteristics. This model demonstrates the interconnectivity of the d defined interdisciplinary elements.

The model begins with the framing and scoping of the problem before the application of discipline-specific knowledge, which as we have seen is an essential starting point for interdisciplinary work. The core principle of the integration of ideas was partitioned into multi-perspective understanding, integration, and practical integrated solutions. Multi-perspective understanding and discipline-specific knowledge are connected by an addition sign, which symbolizes understanding a topic from multiple perspectives. This illustrates that students must be able to use discipline-specific knowledge to make this essential connection. The arrow labeled “integration” in the lower part of the model represents the synthesis of discipline-specific knowledge and multi-perspective understanding into practical integrated solutions. Practical integrated solutions are then connected to reflection via a multiplication sign to show that reflection has a multiplicative effect on interdisciplinary understanding. The arrow labeled “clarity of purpose” represents the cyclical process and shows the compilation of all the previous elements back into discipline-specific knowledge. The knowledge gained from the various parts of the cycle can be used in the further learning of other applicable disciplines. This model’s goal is not to explain the rubric, but to illustrate how interdisciplinary education is cyclical in nature, how the characteristics of interdisciplinary understanding are relevant to interdisciplinary education, and how student learning should continue to build.

Next, the core principles of what makes student work interdisciplinary were established, defined, and examined. The elements in Figure 1 above, taken from Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraising (2007), were used as a starting point for the development of this rubric’s core principles: be well grounded in the disciplines, show critical awareness, and advance student leaning through understanding (223). For the purpose of this rubric, some elements were modified and expanded to create six core principles. A list of the six core principles that were incorporated into the rubric, along with their definitions, appear in Table 3.

Problem framing and scope are derived from the idea that interdisciplinary work should show critical awareness. The definition used in the rubric is very flexible, so that educators can adapt it for different project mediums and faculty, departments, and/or university requirements. Critical awareness, as defined by Boix Mansilla (2007), includes the definition of purpose as well as the integration of ideas. The definition used for problem framing and scope in the rubric requires that the student’s work have a clearly defined purpose. This was created as a separate category because we had observed a clear trend of misunderstanding among faculty regarding the level of complexity that they expected. This is an important aspect of student interdisciplinary understanding; it allows the faculty to scale assignments according to the expected level of student understanding and allows the student to recognize just how complex and multi-disciplined a product the instructor is seeking. For example, if students were assigned a project on how to effectively stock a warehouse, an instructor would not have the same expectations of a freshman who has taken only introductory courses in mathematical modeling and economics as of a senior who had taken nonlinear optimization, supply chain management, and microeconomics courses. Having this requirement in the rubric makes clear the expectation that students will properly identify what they want to address, and also allows the instructor to have a frame of reference in a project.

The rubric’s second core principle, discipline knowledge is well grounded in the disciplines and is intentionally more open-ended, so that it can be readily adapted to different departments, projects, and situations (Boix Mansilla 2007). Identifying theories, examples, findings, methods, etc. may not be relevant or necessary in a given problem. Therefore, although the evaluator is given an area in the rubric that calls for disciplinary knowledge, the rubric does not explicitly indicate how that knowledge is to be graded. For example, in our warehouse stocking project, a freshman might be expected to mathematically model the effects of changing employee wages on productivity. A university senior, on the other hand, might be expected to produce a business recommendation to stakeholders by addressing the intricacies of supply chain management on warehouse profits as well as its psychological implications for employees. The discipline knowledge area of the rubric enables the evaluator to determine how much knowledge and understanding students are expected to demonstrate, while ensuring that the importance of disciplinary understanding is not lost on an interdisciplinary project.

The integration of ideas principle is really the quintessential element for the interdisciplinarity of this rubric. All six core principles are important interdisciplinary factors, but if this element were removed, the rubric could be used for a project that is not interdisciplinary. Integration of ideas derives its meaning from the critical awareness and advanced student understanding pieces identified above in Figure 1. This rubric defines integration of ideas as multi-dimensional, feasible, practical solutions with multi-faceted and seamlessly connected ideas. It is important to note the difference between being integrated and being seamlessly integrated. The seamless integration of ideas, which can take on different meanings depending on the assignment, is an indicator of true multi-dimensional, multi-faceted understanding. Seamless integration. We define the term seamlessly integrated to mean that ideas are not simply laundry-listed, but instead are connected in an intelligent and logical fashion. The definitional elements of multi-dimensional and multi-faceted identify the need for complexity in student work. It is multi-dimensional when students make use of multiple dimensions of their education or, in other words, use multiple disciplines, in their work. Multi-faceted means that students are able to use evidence and knowledge to back up their multi-dimensional claims. The most important component is that students be able to demonstrate a clear understanding of what they are presenting. This also relates to a student’s ability to demonstrate the span of an issue’s breadth and depth. In other words, students should be able to apply disciplines to an issue or topic with an appropriate understanding of the level of each of the disciplines. The use of extraneous disciplines merely for the sake of incorporating more disciplines does not necessarily make student work interdisciplinary. In fact, it contradicts the idea of advancing the complexity of the student’s thought process.. Students who apply the appropriate level of discipline breadth and depth indicate their ability to use sound judgment or logic, as well as their ability to think dynamically.

The next two core principles, clarity of purpose and reflection, were added to address the students’ failure to internalize what they were learning and understanding; this was revealed during the analysis of the USMA interdisciplinary program. The main challenge was that students did not fully grasp why a given project was interdisciplinary, or why that was important. To alleviate this, the core principle clarity of purpose was added to the rubric to help students understand the “why”; the intent was to motivate them to define the purpose of their investigation and to take an in-depth approach to the problem. This is different from problem framing and scope in a very important way: problem framing and scope focuses on a well-defined thesis statement or purpose statement, whereas clarity of purpose focuses on the content of student work. In other words, problem framing and scope ask whether students have a clearly stated framework for their project, while clarity of purpose asks whether they demonstrate their personal interdisciplinary understanding and then explain it well to their audience. Similarly, the next principle, reflection, calls for a clear and delineated connection of ideas and an indication that students have reflected on the interconnectivity and importance of their areas of study. These two core principles are drivers of internalization and cognitive advancement in interdisciplinary learning. They are particularly important because often students do not reflect on what they have learned. The reflection piece is intended to facilitate a deeper understanding of what they are learning and to encourage students to consider how the material fits into the greater scheme of their education.

The final element of the rubric shown in Table 3 is the presentation principle. This principle calls for information that is presented in a suitable medium with proper tone, word choice, spelling, grammar, etc. In short, did the students address the audience correctly and present their knowledge intelligently while doing so? This section can be adapted to the type of project and course for which the rubric is being used. For example, English faculty would probably expand this section because of its importance to their learning outcomes, whereas chemistry faculty may place more emphasis on the discipline-knowledge portion.

The newly developed rubric was presented to the Math course leaders for use on the freshman’s “mini” capstone exercise in December 2013. The rubric was sent to the faculty with minimal guidance. The feedback from the course director made it clear that the students and faculty did not fully grasp the intention or expectations behind the rubric. A few factors contributed to this: sixty-six percent of the faculty were new to the department; the interdisciplinary expectations were not fully explained to the faculty; although everyone received the rubric, each instructor created his or her own rubric for the mini-capstone; and the students who took the mini-capstone and the faculty who graded their work were under significant time pressure. The mini-capstone in its creation, execution, and grading was not given adequate time due to end of semester requirements at USMA during the November-December time period. An important conclusion from this feedback was that the faculty needed to have a common understanding of what is expected on an interdisciplinary project. To achieve this for the General Chemistry capstone project in the spring of 2014, a grading calibration exercise was conducted. This calibration included good and poor examples of interdisciplinary work from the previous year’s chemistry capstone, and showed faculty how to distinguish between good and poor work and how to use the rubric in assigning a grade.

Implementing the Interdisciplinary Rubric

The first step in implementing the rubric was calibration with the faculty. With such an exercise, the faculty should take away a common understanding of what exactly interdisciplinarity is as well as the knowledge of what constitutes a good final project. The plan for the calibration exercise developed for USMA faculty who would be grading the CH102 General Chemistry capstone in the spring of 2014 was an hour-long presentation and discussion. Prior to the presentation, faculty received a packet of examples of cadet work in each of the major portions of the previous year’s capstone project. The examples included “A” work as well as examples of common integration errors students make: the “laundry list,” the “tacked on at the end,” and the “no real knowledge” integration errors. The “laundry list” is an example of how a student may mention and be knowledgeable in multiple disciplines but does not integrate them, providing instead a “laundry list” of the different disciplines and explaining the relevance of each individually. The “tacked on at the end” error (or whatever we may call it) exemplifies how a student may go in-depth in one discipline, particularly in the discipline for which the assignment was given, then tack on a sentence or two at the end mentioning other disciplines in order to call the project interdisciplinary. The “no real knowledge” example presents a plethora of ideas but does not demonstrate that the student learned or integrated disciplines and/or ideas. With these examples, faculty became more familiar with what correct and incorrect work looked like. The “A” level example was not meant to illustrate the perfect or only solution; it was merely one example. Faculty evaluated each example using the standard A, B, C, D, F grading scale based on how interdisciplinary they felt each project was.

At the start of the presentation portion of the rubric calibration, faculty were introduced to the interdisciplinary characteristics and model from Figure 4. This ensured understanding of interdisciplinary characteristics prior to the introduction to the rubric itself. After the characteristics were covered, the results from the exercise, which the faculty just had completed, were discussed. This clarified any misunderstandings that faculty had about the interdisciplinary characteristics, while the examples of chemistry capstones from the previous year provided a frame of reference. Next the rubric was thoroughly explained, showing how it was scalable, expandable, and concise to meet instructor needs for interdisciplinary student projects.

The General Chemistry capstone rubric for 2014 differs from its 2013 predecessor in two very important ways. First, it is significantly shorter; its two pages (compared to seven pages) emphasize quality over quantity. Instead of listing every detail of the project, the new capstone rubric has five categories that address the math modeling, leadership, information security, oral communication, and the required submission components of the project, all without specific details. This allows the students to be more creative in their answers to the given problem.

The 2013 rubric was not based on any interdisciplinary principles or examples. Instead, it listed specific requirements from the disciplines the students were supposed to integrate. The result was quite the opposite: the 2013 capstone projects tended to be disjointed because of the slew of specific requirements. This year’s capstone rubric incorporates the interdisciplinary principles described in Table 3.Problem framing and scope is addressed in the Project Summary section with the requirement for a bottom line up front (BLUF), or thesis. Discipline knowledge is asked for in the Discrete Dynamic Modeling, Persuasion and Conformity in a Leadership Environment, and Information Security sections. Although the course-specific requirements must be addressed, Integration of ideas is assessed in the Oral Communication and Project Summary sections, which requires that fluid transitions and logically ordered and related ideas be integrated. Appropriate presentation is also adequately addressed in these sections, as the rubric lays out clear expectations of the written and oral presentations for students, including their tone, body language, and level of professionalism. Clarity of purposeand reflectionare asked for in the Project Summary section, which calls for contingency plans and thoroughly explained analysis of the total problem.

Initial instructor feedback on the use of this rubric is that it better defined expectations for the students’ interdisciplinary work, for both the instructor and the students. After using the rubric in the calibration exercise, instructors stated that they felt more confident and prepared than they had in 2013 when there was no such exercise and assessment tool available; this year they understood what was asked of them and of the students. Initial comparisons of the interdisciplinary assessments of the students’ work from 2013 and 2014 are quite positive. On a scale of 0–10, the average interdisciplinary score given by instructors was 5.69 in 2013, with zero being the least interdisciplinary and 10 the most. (See Figure 3 for these data.) In 2014 this improved to 7.79 (actually 15.5/20). There was also less variability between instructors. For example, in 2013 the standard deviation of the mean scores assigned by each of the instructors was 1.86 (Figure 3). In 2014, the standard deviation between the instructors’ mean scores was .98 (1.96/20), a decrease of over 47%.

Future Work and Conclusion

Now that the General Chemistry capstone for USMA Class of 2017 has concluded, several analyses must be completed to evaluate the progress of interdisciplinary education at USMA. At a minimum, an analysis of the grades and feedback from the students and faculty needs to be conducted. The analysis of the grades should include a distribution of grades compared with their expected distribution, as well as a quantitative and a qualitative analysis of the capstones compared to the previous years’ capstones. This could be done using the methods previously employed, including the use of Flesch-Kincaid, paired t-test, the distribution of the faculty’s interdisciplinary rating similar to Figure 3, and/or a cross-course sample of projects re-graded by the course director.

The discussion and research that have taken place at West Point since the first General Chemistry capstone project in 2013 indicate that the results of this year’s changes should be positive. Although there is as yet no statistical evidence to demonstrate improvement, the general understanding of how interdisciplinarity looks, how to produce it, and how to assess it is much more expansive now than in 2013. The reason for this might be that faculty and students at USMA are now experienced with interdisciplinary work and have a clearer understanding of interdisciplinary assessment and its importance over the course of a year.

The world is a complex and rapidly changing place that requires its future scientists, scholars, engineers, teachers, and leaders to think dynamically and across disciplines.. Interdisciplinary assessment is necessary for the future of education, particularly at West Point where we recognize that “adaptive leaders who are comfortable operating in ambiguity and complexity will increasingly be our competitive advantage against future threats to our Nation” (Elliott et al. 2013, 30). Only time will tell whether this interdisciplinary rubric has met its goal of creating a grading mechanism that can be used in multiple project mediums across multiple disciplines. Given the extensive research and analysis done at West Point to create this much- needed and useful tool, the prospects for future interdisciplinary education are promising.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Olcese

Elizabeth Olcese graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Operations Research from the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY in 2014. She served as a student researcher for West Point’s Core Interdisciplinary Team focused on enhancing opportunities for interdisciplinary learning in West Point’s core academic curriculum. Upon completion of the Quartermaster Basic Officer Leader Course at the Army Logistics School in Fort Lee, VA, she will serve as a second lieutenant for the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield, Hawaii.

Joseph C. Shannon

Joseph C. Shannon graduated with a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus in Science Education from the College of Education at the University of Washington, WA. He is a former member of West Point’s Core Interdisciplinary Team that was focused on enhancing opportunities for interdisciplinary learning in West Point’s core academic curriculum. He is a former Academy Professor at the United States Military Academy and Program Director for the General Chemistry Program in the Department of Chemistry and Life Science. He is currently the Dean of Academic Programs at South Seattle College in West Seattle, Washington.

Gerald Kobylski

Gerald Kobylski graduated with a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies (Systems Engineering and Mathematics) from Stevens Institute of Technology, NJ. He currently is co-leading a thrust to infuse interdisciplinary education into West Point’s core academic curriculum. He is also deeply involved with pedagogy, faculty development, and assessment. Jerry is an Academy Professor at the United States Military Academy, a Professor of Mathematical Sciences, and a Commissioner for Middle States on Higher Education.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles (Chip) Elliott

Lieutenant Colonel Charles (Chip) Elliott graduated with a doctorate in Geography and Environmental Engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and is a registered professional engineer in Virginia. He is currently the General Chemistry Program Director and the Plebe (Freshman) Director for the Core Interdisciplinary Team at the United States Military Academy. He has previously taught CH101/102 General Chemistry, EV394 Hydrogeology, EV488 Solid & Hazardous Waste Treatment and Remediation, EV401 Physical & Chemical Treatment, and EV203 Physical Geography. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Life Science.


Boix Mansilla, V. Interdisciplinary Understanding: What Counts as Quality Work?” Interdisciplinary Studies Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Boix Mansilla, V. 2005. “Assessing Student Work at Disciplinary Crossroads.” Change 37 (1): 14–21.

Boix Mansilla, V., and E. Dawes Duraising. 2007. “Targeted Assessment of Students’ Interdisciplinary Work: An Empirically Grounded Framework Proposed. The Journal of Higher Education 78 (2): 216–237.

Elliott, C., G. Kobylski, P. Molin, C.D. Morrow, D.M. Ryan, S.K. Schwartz, J.C. Shannon, and C. Weld. 2013. “Putting the Backbone into Interdisciplinary Learning: An Initial Report.” Manuscript submitted for publication, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY.

Grassie, W. (n.d.). “Interdisciplinary Quotes.” (accessed November 16, 2013).

Ivanitskaya, L., D. Clark, G. Montgomery, and R. Primeau. 2002. “Interdisciplinary Learning: Process and Outcomes.” Innovative Higher Education, 27 (2): 95–111.

Newell, W.H. 2006. “Interdisciplinary Integration by Undergraduates.” Issues in Integrative Studies 24: 89–111.

Repko, A.F. 2007. “Interdisciplinary Curriculum Design.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 11 (1): 130–137.

Repko, A.F. 2008. “Assessing Interdisciplinary Learning Outcomes. Academic Exchange Quarterly 12 (3): 171–178.

Rhoten, D., V. Boix Mansilla, M. Chun, and J. Thompson Klein. 2008. “Interdisciplinary Education at Liberal Arts Institutions.” Teagle Foundation White Paper.

Stowe, D.E., and D.J. Eder. 2002. “Interdisciplinary Program Assessment.” Issues in Integrative Studies 20: 77–101.

Appendix 1

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A Report on Community Colleges and Science and Civic Engagement in Asia: A Yearlong and Continuing Journey


Throughout 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to East and South Asia, to explore connections between the work of community colleges and civically engaged science. What follows is a general summary of what was learned through a combination of ethnographic observation and ongoing scholarly engagement with Sias University in China, the Asia Pacific Higher Education Research Program (APHERP) at the East-West Center in Hawai’i, and the University of Mumbai in India. The report will conclude by suggesting how these international interactions relate to a new Teagle Foundation-funded project at Kapi’olani Community College and the Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE).

International Water Conference at Sias University, Henan Province, China

Sias University is the first solely American-owned university in Central China, affiliated with both Zhengzhou University and Fort Hays State University, Kansas. It is located in Henan Province, which was the center of a rising Chinese civilization nearly 5,000 years ago. Today, more than 100 million people live in Henan, which is two-thirds the size of Arizona. Although the Yellow River does not flow through Henan Province as it once did, the river skirts the boundaries of the Sias campus.

Dr. Paul Elsner, who for 22 years served as Chancellor of the 10-campus Maricopa Community College System, invited me to make a presentation at the Sias University International Water Conference, May 22–25, 2013. Dr. Elsner knew that Kapi’olani Community College (KCC) and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa (UHM) had developed and sustained a strong service learning and civic engagement program called Malama i na Ahupua’a (to care for the ahupua’a), which engages students and faculty in restoring ancient Hawaiian watersheds throughout the island of O’ahu.

He knew about “Kapi’olani Sustainability and Service Learning” (KSSL, our new name), through our two-decades-long partnership with the CCNCCE, an organization that he founded and strongly supported as Chancellor. Dr. Elsner is currently on the Board of Sias University and saw striking similarities between water problems in Arizona and central China.

However, Dr. Elsner did not know of my earlier anthropological work in this field and its relevance to the conference topic. In 1995 I published a report for the UHM Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) entitled, “Water: Its Meaning and Management in Pre-contact Hawaii.” This paper was developed in professional collaboration with Dr. Marion Kelly, who was an advocate for Native Hawaiian people and history and founded the UHM Ethnic Studies Department. Both the report and the collaboration coincided with the development of the Malama i na Ahupua’a program.

The WRCC report was set against the controversial theory linking irrigation with “oriental despotism” that Karl A. Wittfogel presented in in Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1957). Wittfogel analyzed the role of irrigation works, the bureaucratic structures needed to maintain them, and the impact that these had on society, coining the term “hydraulic empire.” This theory has led many Western archaeologists to focus on early forms of irrigation and water management.

During the late prehistoric period in ancient Hawaii, irrigation and other water management practices supported the sociopolitical evolution of a proto-state. The report used archaeological data as a point of departure to analyze the meaning and management of water in this period. An analysis of Hawaiian chants, legends, and proverbs was woven into the archaeological data in an in an attempt to better understand the meaning of water to the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands. (I used similar data in deriving pre-contact Samoan perceptions of the meaning of “work” in my dissertation in 1985.) The report concluded that intra-island (windward-leeward) and inter-island (geological-hydrological) variation produced important localized meanings of water, and that these meanings changed over time, largely in relation to population growth, production, intensification, and increasing sociopolitical complexity. My own research in this area provided a useful context for my participation in the international discussions that took place during my visits.

The Sias International Water Conference brought together international and Chinese scholars. Prominent international researchers included Dr. Jonathon Overpeck, who served as a coordinating lead author for the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment (2007); Dr. Sharon Megdal, Director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center; and Dr. Brian Fagan, with whom I studied archaeology at UC Santa Barbara in the early 1970s, and who is the celebrated author of The Attacking Ocean (2013), and other major world archaeology publications. Chinese researchers included: Dr. Zuo Qiting, Professor, College of Water Conservancy and Environmental Engineering, Zhengzhou University, and Director of the Water Science Research Center; Dr. Zhang Qiang, Deputy Director of Department of Water Resources and Environment, Sun Yat-Sen University; and Yao Tandong: Glaciologist at China’s Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research.

China is one of the most water-rich countries in the world, but water resources are unevenly distributed and overwhelmingly concentrated in the south and far west on the Tibetan Plain, which also serves as a major water source for India. Water scarcity has always been a problem for Northern China and has been increasingly so as a result of rapid economic development. Major water engineering projects have been completed, and more are underway, to move water from the south to the north, with significant implications for Tibet-India-China relations. Major conference topics included severe water scarcity in Northern China, water quality and severe pollution in both Northern and Southern China, rural and urban challenges, and the likely deleterious future impacts of climate change, mega-droughts, and sea level.

The conference also served as a showcase for Sias University’s innovative approaches to teaching and learning about water issues in China, such as a mesmerizing theatrical representation of water history in China, and their World Academy for the Future of Women (WAFW), which requires service projects as part of membership activities. Hundreds of students have gone through the Academy and created both short- and long-term projects of great value and impact. According to Dr. Linda Jacobsen, former Provost at Sias:

Some young women shared that they applied to study at Sias because of the exciting service projects the WAFW members were sharing at home on semester breaks. Projects include the installation of drinking water filtration systems, environmentally safe agricultural practices, communal water area clean-ups, and eliminating violence against women. Over the years, these projects, which started locally in the university community, have expanded to regions within China where the members live. (Linda Jacobsen, Provost, Paper for 2014 Continuums of Service Conference, Honolulu)

My own presentation at the Water Conference was titled, “Service-Learning: Social Responsibility and Caring for Our Water Resources.” The talk sidestepped the concept of “civic responsibility,” partly because it was implied by the name of the host institution, the incipient “Institute for Social and Environmental Responsibility,” but also because I was not sure whether the discourse on the “civic” was widely understood, or even acceptable in China. My presentation was the only one addressing sea-level rise and coastal water issues and it offered the GLISTEN project (Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship through Education Network) as a model for tackling major water issues in China. The paper was very well received (I’m sure the beautiful photos of Hawaiian ecosystems helped), and Dr. Jacobsen and I continue to dialog about future directions and partnerships.

East-West Center: Asia Pacific Higher Education Research Program (APHERP), Senior Seminar, at Hong Kong Institute for Education

In July 2013, I was invited to participate in a Senior Seminar entitled, “Research, Development and Innovation in Asian Pacific Higher Education,” September 26–28, 2013. The seminar was led by APHERP Co-Directors, Drs. Deane Neubauer (UH Emeritus) and Dr. John Hawkins (UCLA), and brought together 14 higher education researchers, administrators, and faculty from China, Taiwan, South Korea, Malysia, Thailand, Australia, Chile, and the United States. My participation constituted a follow-up to East West Center-sponsored seminars in Honolulu and Indonesia that focused on developments in Asian-Pacific Education with a view toward 2020.

Dr. Neubauer’s concept paper provided a focus for the seminar:

Research and development (R&D) have long been a key component of what has generally been called “research universities.” There is also recognition that in order to stay on the cutting edge of R&D, higher education institutions (HEIs) must increasingly strive for innovative R&D, and this has important implications for the structure and governance of higher education as well as numerous other factors of HE change and transformation. Furthermore, in a manner that may be unprecedented in the period of the so-called modern university, innovation, as almost a form of social responsibility, has been thrust upon the university. Interestingly and overwhelmingly, due to the role that the university is performing within the emergent knowledge society, innovation in the “knowledge transfer” functions of the university—the teaching role foremost among them—has become of increasingly greater importance.

I was invited to present a paper titled, “The University-Community Compact: Innovation in Community Engagement,” which focused on the evolution of the American community college and its essential functions: university transfer, workforce development, and educating for engaged citizenship. The paper discussed the central differences among three related concepts:

  • Civic engagement as the “participation of private actors in the public sphere, conducted through direct and indirect interactions of civil society organizations and citizens-at-large with government, multilateral institutions, and business establishments to influence decision making or pursue common goals” (World Bank).
  • Civic responsibility as “the active participation in the public life of a community in an informed, committed, and constructive manner, with a focus on the common good” (Robinson and Gottlieb, American Association of Community Colleges).
  • Community engagement as “the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity” (Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement website).

Significantly, all three definitions skirt the discourse on democracy, which was advantageous in this context as I was uncertain about the advisability of discussing democracy in contemporary China. The presentation also used the GLISTEN initiative as a model and explored strategies for taking civic action on major water issues in East and Southeast Asia.

Community colleges are emergent in East, Southeast, and South Asia. However, five core features of American community colleges are underdeveloped. American community colleges are

  1. Rooted in local communities, preparing local students for successful economic, social, and civic engagement in their regions;
  2. “Open door” institutions, with less rigorous entry requirements;
  3. Subsidized by states, with lower tuition rates;
  4. Focused on rigorous workforce and career development through one-year certificates, two-year degrees, and lifelong learning;
  5. Organized to prepare students to meet the requirements of rigorous baccalaureate programs.

In-depth interactions with the 14 seminar participants enabled deep and sustained discussions on these and other topics related to innovation in Asian-Pacific-American higher education. Most of the innovations discussed were not focused on the role of higher education in fostering civic engagement. They were instead focused on innovations in technology and on research and development as drivers of economic and workforce development. This was seen as higher education’s larger social responsibility.

The seminar papers are currently being considered for publication by Palgrave-Macmillan, which will be publishing a new volume onService Learning in America’s Community Colleges later this year. Kapi’olani’s contribution to that volume is entitled, “Service Learning’s Role in Achieving Institutional Outcomes” (Yao Hill, Bob Franco, Tanya Renner, Krista Hiser, and Francisco Acoba).

Developing Community Colleges with the University of Mumbai

After the Hong Kong seminar, I traveled to the University of Mumbai for the fourth stage in discussions about establishing the University of Mumbai (UM) community colleges. These discussions have largely taken place at the level of senior leadership at KCC, UH, and UM, and had contributed to a grant proposal submitted to the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, advocating the building of higher-education bridges between India and the United States, the world’s two largest democracies.

For three days in October, I participated in very full days of meetings. Major progress was made on the grant proposal, which focuses on the development of UM community colleges offering general education and training in Hospitality Management, Health Services, and Business.

India is determined to transform its future economic growth through higher education reform, seeking to expand access to quality workforce development programs as well as to improve employment prospects for India’s burgeoning youth population of 700 million. The U.S. community college model is increasingly seen as one of the key vehicles driving this reform across India, bringing a formal two-year associate degree, job-focused certifications and industry linkages, and broader community and societal impacts, particularly in spurring income growth for diverse communities and populations.

On the evening of October 2, the UM leadership graciously escorted me to the University’s glorious celebration of the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi. Earlier we had talked about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and their roles in inspiring civil and civic action. We also discussed Martin Luther King’s role in the American civil rights movement, and the concurrent development of America’s community colleges throughout the 1960s. During the intensive three days we even developed a course outline focusing on the lives of these two men and Nelson Mandela, which would be used as part of the new general education curriculum to be implemented at the UM Community College at Ratnagiri.

Mumbai, with a population of 13 million, and Ratnagiri, with a population of 1.7 million, are located on India’s long western coast on the Arabian Sea in Maharashtra State. This coastal ecosystem supports millions of residents and attracts millions of domestic and international visitors annually. We had in-depth discussions on how to promote sustainable tourism in Maharashtra State, particularly in the context of sea-level rise, and water challenges throughout India. Again, the SENCER GLISTEN model provided a pattern for collaborative and civic action.

Throughout the rest of October I developed the partnership proposal, which has four objectives:

  • Develop a best practice University of Mumbai Community College at Ratnagiri (UMCCR) with an initial degree program in Hospitality Studies, followed by Health Studies and Business and Financial Services Programs.
  • Develop at the University of Mumbai, Kalina Campus, The Center for Excellence in Community College Leadership, Teaching, Research, and Development (COE).
  • Develop articulated degree pathways linking UMCCR, UM, and KCC and UH, initially in Hospitality Studies, and then in Health Studies and Business and Financial Services.
  • Develop university-private-civil sector partnership agreements to support the UM-KCC-UH collaboration now and into the future.


Fresh water-saltwater convergences, and water availability and quality, are major global issues that affect the United States and East, Southeast, and South Asia. Higher education systems in all these areas are conducting research that informs public policy development. Meanwhile these problems are intensifying at an exponential pace. Our colleges and universities need to research, educate, and partner with non-profit organizations, and with local, state, and federal agencies to reduce the severity of the impact of water issues. The community colleges are well situated to do this work in close collaboration and authentic partnership with transfer universities that share the same ecosystems.

In January, 2014, KCC and CCNCCE received a three-year $270,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation titled “Student Learning for Civic Capacity: Stimulating Moral, Ethical, and Civic Engagement for Learning That Lasts.” In this project seven community colleges in six states, New York (2), New Jersey, Louisiana, Arizona, California, and Hawai’i, are integrating the following “Big Question” into first- and second-year courses: “How do we build OUR commitment to civic and moral responsibility for diverse, equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities?”

This question is the kind of capacious, contested, and civic issue that SENCER continues to emphasize in its work on the STEM curriculum. I hope to present some answers to this question, from a community college perspective, at SSI 2015. Meanwhile, I welcome discussions on this question with university colleagues through the SENCER network as it expands to include countries around the globe.

About the Author

An ecological anthropologist, Dr. Robert Franco has published scholarly and policy research on the changing meaning of work, service, schooling, housing, and leadership for Samoans at home and abroad; health disparities confronting Samoan, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander populations in the United States; the meaning and management of water in ancient Hawai’i; and sociocultural factors affecting fisheries in Samoa and the Northern Marianas. In 2009, he was lead editor in the publication of American Samoa’s first written history.

At Kapi’olani Community College, University of Hawai’i, he has chaired the Faculty Senate and the Social Science Department, and led planning, grants, and accreditation efforts. As Director of Institutional Effectiveness, he bridges the cultures of faculty, staff, students, administration, and community partners to shape an innovative ecology of learning. With institutional commitment and support from federal and foundation sources, the college has emerged as a leader in service-learning for improved student engagement, learning and achievement. He has authored successful National Science Foundation (NSF) grants totaling more than $13 million since 2008. He is a Faculty Leadership Fellow for NSF’s Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) initiative, NSF’s leading undergraduate science education reform program.

He is a senior consultant and trainer for national Campus Compact. He assisted in the development of the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, and was named one of 20 national “Beacons of Vision, Hope, and Action” by the Community College National Center for Community Engagement.

He is newly the national program lead for the 3-year Teagle Foundation grant to develop OUR commitment to civic and moral responsibility for diverse, equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities.


Robinson, Gail and Gottlieb, Karla, A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility Into the Curriculum, 2002:16, AACC Press, Washington, D.C.

World Bank,,contentMDK:20507541~menuPK:1278313~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:410306,00.html (accessed July 2014).


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Science Bowl Academic Competitions and Perceived Benefits of Engaging Students Outside the Classroom



The National Science Bowl® emphasizes a broad range of general and specific content knowledge in all areas of math and science. Over 20,00 students have chosen to enter the competition and be part of a team, and they have enjoyed the benefits of their achievements in the extracurricular Science Bowl experience. An important question to ask, in light of the effort it takes to organize and participate in regional or national science competitions, is whether the event makes a difference to the student. And if it does make a difference, does it improve student learning or student attitudes about science? In a preliminary survey, students competing in a Regional Science Bowl Competition report that the event has a positive impact and fosters learning in science and mathematics. These data support findings for other forms of extracurricular academic competitions associated with science and mathematics.


Since 1991, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Science Bowl® has been sponsoring annual regional and national competitions for high school students across the United States of America, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to seeing the pragmatic value of increasing the “feed” of science-educated personnel into DOE research facilities, the DOE recognized that the improvement of science education, broadly, would be of great benefit to the nation. Expanding its focus beyond formal science education at the college level, the DOE started the Science Bowl program to encourage high school student participation and interest in math and science. The idea was to increase science literacy in general and to encourage science- and mathematics-related careers specifically. The success of the high school competitions resulted in the expansion of the program to include middle schools in 2002.

The competitions feature teams of four to five students answering multiple choice and short answer questions in the areas of science, mathematics, energy, and technology. There are currently 67 regional high school and 36 middle school competitions. The high school competitions involve more than 15,000 students and the middle school contests more than 6,000. The winning team from each regional event is invited to Washington D.C. to compete with other winners.

Participation in Science Bowl involves working as a team, and a team’s level of success is determined not only by scientific knowledge, but also by teamwork and gamesmanship. The students’ engagement in group work directly benefits the individual team members, their social groups, and society as a whole (Greif and Ephross 2011, 6). The actual team formation and function is itself a model for both future community engagement and civic activism. In fact, creating teams is one of the three principal strategies for successfully placing students in service-learning opportunities within communities. (Harris 2009).

The National Science Bowl® emphasizes a broad range of general and specific content knowledge in all areas of math and science. Science Bowl experiences are independent of the classroom environment and generally occur because the students have volunteered to enter the competition and become part of a team. Each team must have a coach, who can be a parent or other interested person, but is usually a high school science teacher. The volunteer aspect of the competition as an extracurricular activity means that it is similar to robotics competitions, the Science Olympiad, and other interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and applied endeavors. All of these programs stress the collaborative and communal nature of the projects over the content, a characteristic shared by other civic engagement and volunteer endeavors (Jacoby and Ehrlich, 2009).

An important question to ask in light of the effort it takes to run regional or national science competitions is whether the event makes a difference to the student. And if it does make a difference, does it improve student learning or student attitudes about science? The literature on science competitions is not extensive. Abernathy and Vineyard (2001, 274) asked students who competed in the Science Olympiad why they did so. The number one reason for participating in the Olympiad was that it was fun. The number two reason was that the participants enjoyed learning new things. These findings held for both male and female participants; they seemed to think learning science and math in this context was enjoyable. Abernathy and Vineyard suggested that competitive events “may be tapping into students’ natural curiosity and providing a new context for them to learn in, without rigid curriculum or grading constraints (2001, 274).”

Competitive events such as the National Science Bowl® may provide the “initial motivation” and catalyst for helping students to discover the joy of learning (Ozturk and Debelak, 2008). Academic competitions can provide motivation for students to study, learn new material, and reinforce previously learned material so that they will be ready to compete (and collaborate) with their peers from other schools both regionally and nationally—not just in games but also in academic and work environments. This type of motivation is difficult to provide in a normal classroom environment. While it can be argued that this is solely extrinsic motivation and that students should not be dependent on it, it can nevertheless serve as the spark that ignites a discovery of the joy of learning science and math.

One of the more important effective benefits of competitions like the National Science Bowl®, is that the participants, who may be the academic elite at their home schools (big fish in a little pond), must test their knowledge and skills against the students from other schools who will be their peers once they get to college and the workplace. Ozturk and Debelak (2008) note that students “learn to respect the quality of work by other children and to accurately assess their own performance in light of the performance of their intellectual peers. They achieve an accurate assessment of where their level of performance stands in the world of their intellectual capacity and, in turn, develop a more wholesome self-concept” (51) . Developing a more accurate and grounded self-concept is an important stage for children to go through on their way to becoming healthy and mature adults. This realistic and comparative self-assessment can be difficult to foster in the case of elite students who have never faced stiff competition or external challenges to their academic abilities in their home institution.

Students in academic competitions also benefit from learning not only how to succeed, but how to accept failure, learn from it, and, “subsequently, grow as a person and improve in performance” (Ozturk and Debelak 2008, 52). This, again, may be one of the most important aspects of intramural academic competitions, one that cannot be easily provided in a typical classroom environment; learning to fail and being able to cope with the emotional aftermath may be riskier in a classroom environment than in a games environment where the experience of failure is shared among the group. Being thrust into a situation where participants must deal with failure (even after they have prepared and done their best) promotes the healthy development of a student’s resilience and self-awareness. Academic competitions like the National Science Bowl® and its many regional competitions may provide the type of environment that helps students to reflect on their knowledge and abilities and self-evaluate their performance, promoting improved personal growth and development for the participants.

Certainly, extreme competitiveness can cause anxiety and undue stress (see for example Davis and Rimm, 2004). Many of us can remember learning in our Psychology 101 course about test anxiety and how it can negatively affect student performance and achievement and lead to low self-esteem. But Davis and Rimm also report that competition can increase student productivity and achievement. Some students seem to need to compete with others in order to push themselves to produce at a higher level. It would follow that socially organized competitions like the National Science Bowl® and its many regional competitions could help to promote high levels of achievement and productivity in the participating math and science students. Some of the increased levels of achievement and productivity may be due to the practice in teamwork and study skills promoted by participation in this type of academic competition. Bishop and Walters (2007) report that the students involved in competition increased their ability to be leaders and team players, especially in the areas of directed studying (“cramming”), communication, and stress management.

Most studies of this nature tend to be based on student reporting of their own perceptions, and Bishop and Walters also discuss the viability of using a self-report, Likert scale survey to investigate how the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB) influenced the participants’ choice of major and courses in college. They further triangulate their data using follow-up interviews, information on the colleges the students attended, and lists of the college courses the students took following their participation in the NOSB. Their longitudinal study, which took place from 2000–2007, establishes the credibility of the students’ self-reported data using this type of survey (Bishop and Walters 2007).

What Do the Students Get from This Competition?

A brief survey was developed for the students who compete in the Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition, for the purpose of gathering information about the students’ perception of the impact the competition has on them and other students. The questions were developed by the Regional Science Bowl coordinators and distributed to the students (also to coaches, volunteers, and audience) on the actual day of the competition, which takes place each year in late February or early March. The students in the Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition come from the three northernmost New England states, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The competition is an extracurricular activity; the students in grades 9–12 have self-selected to be part of a team that practices and competes during non-school hours. The students making up the teams tend to be academically successful. As might be expected, these students usually like mathematics and science and are predisposed to participate in activities involving these subjects. The teams of students compete in a one-day event at the University of Southern Maine, which culminates in a single elimination tournament round. The winning team is offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. to compete with other regional winners for the national championship. Students at the regional bowl are given the survey. Completing and returning the survey is voluntary, although the students and coaches are made aware that their responses will help improve the event.

The Instrument

The first part of the survey was designed to collect general background information about the students and their role in the day’s competition. This section was a simple checklist:

  • This is my first experience.
  • I’ve been at previous science bowls here.
  • I was a volunteer today.
  • I am a spectator/guest.
  • I was one of the student competitors today.
  • I am a coach of one of the teams.

The next set of items was intended to gain insight into the students’ perceptions of how the regional competition affected the students who were taking part in the day’s activities and events. The questions consisted of three Likert-type response choice items:

1. I think this competition had a positive impact on the students:

2. Quiz competitions foster student learning about science and mathematics:

3. Quiz competitions are stressful in a negative way:

Each of these questions had a five-choice scale that ranged from strongly agree to neutral to strongly disagree. There were also two open ended questions:

The thing I enjoyed most about today was:

What I would recommend for next year:

And finally a yes/no question:

I’d like to come back next year.

Findings and Discussion

Data collection began with the 2004 Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition and continued through 2009. (After this year the Bowl was restructured and focused exclusively on Maine students, although participants continue to be surveyed.) This six-year longitudinal study has provided data representing a constant mix of new and returning students. Throughout the course of the study, there was an almost equal distribution of first-time and returning students who responded to the survey. Although the survey was distributed to students, coaches, and other volunteers who took part in the events, only the results of the student surveys were used as part of this report. The voluntary nature of conducting the study produced an average of fifteen percent of the students per year completing and returning the survey. Interviews with coaches and students indicate that the low response rate is most likely a result of its collection at the end of a long, intense day, when many teams were eager to start their journeys back to homes throughout northern New England.

Of the students participating in the Northern New England Science Bowl who responded to the survey during the study period, 93 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that the competition had a positive impact on them (Table 1).

Campbell and Walberg (2011) suggest that this type of positive impact follows the students throughout their life. Willingness to participate in events on their own time, especially during the weekend, demonstrates a high level of positive engagement that would foster feelings of positive impact. Akey (2006,16) reports that “student engagement and perceived academic competence had a significant positive influence.” on achievement. The survey results also suggest that the students perceive themselves as academically competent in math and science, and that is why they participate. This mirrors the findings of Abernathy and Vineyard (2001) who report that academic competitions tap into the natural curiosity and inclinations of students and provide an arena for them to learn new things. The science bowl event could provide the platform for these students to excel and receive recognition. Further, Ozturk and Debelak (2008) report that academic competitions may provide the motivation to find the joy in learning. Curiosity and motivation are important aspects of learning that would presumably have a positive impact on the lives of the participants in academic competitions like the National Science Bowl®.

Most (91 percent) of the respondents reported either that they agreed or that they strongly agreed that the Regional Science Bowl Competition fosters student learning in science and mathematics (Table 2).

These data again appear to support the research done by Abernathy and Vineyard (2001), indicating that academic competitions provide a forum to stimulate the students’ natural curiosity about learning new things, as well as the work of Ozturk and Debelak (2008), who have concluded that academic competitions may motivate students to discover the joy of learning.

The high positive response rate of these two questions indicates that the student participants in the Regional Science Bowl Competition are developing a strong positive sense of self. These responses, reinforced by our interviews of participating coaches, indicate that the students are reflecting on their experiences and developing a more complete self-image and perhaps an increased sense of their personal competence. Bishop and Walters report that an enhanced and comparative sense of personal competence or capability “translates as a very high factor influencing career choice” (2007, 69). It may well be that academic competitions such as the National Science Bowl® and its associated regional competitions provide experiences that positively influence student career choices.

Interestingly, the same students who reported that the Science Bowl Competition had such a positive effect on them in general, and a positive effect on their learning, did not necessarily think the competition was unstressful. Only 61 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the quiz competition was stressful in a negative way (Table 3).

Perhaps the wording of the question led students to equate “quiz” with “test,” which affected their response. It could also be that the students consider any kind of stress negative, and if they perceived that the competition created even a low level of stress, they would conclude that this was a negative effect.

In the open-ended question that asked what they enjoyed the most about the Science Bowl, the number one response was competition, the second most frequent response was meeting like-minded people, and the third was the hands-on nature of the activities. These students seem to be saying that they feel that testing their knowledge and skills in science and mathematics against other students of similar ability is fun! Maybe this is because they are beginning to form a deeper understanding of and respect for the quality of their work, as suggested by Ozturk and Debelak (2008). Academic competitions (such as the Science Bowl) may give students the opportunity to compete mentally the way athletic competitions allow them to compete physically (Parker 1998). Perhaps these students get the same kind of “high” that athletes get during competition, and the thrill of academic competition releases endorphins much the same way that athletic competition does.

The data indicate that a statistically significant portion of the students competing in the Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition report that the event has a positive impact on them and fosters learning in science and mathematics. These data support findings that have been reported for other forms of academic competitions that are involved with science and mathematics (e.g. Campbell and Walberg 2011). Self-reporting indicates that the students have a high level of perceived personal competence, a high level of engagement in mathematics and science activities, and a high level of motivation toward these academic subjects. In addition to increased involvement in the community, competence, engagement, and motivation are factors that have been linked to academic achievement, personal growth, and career choices. If the education community is seeking to increase student interest and participation in science and mathematics majors and in science and mathematics careers, and ultimately in complex science-related public policy discussions, then academic competitions like the National Science Bowl® may be an important part of the overall strategy bringing the nation closer to that goal.

A Proposal for Further Study

A key aspect of the Science Bowl competition is its role in building a social community of contestants, which leads one to wonder whether the competitions contribute to increased involvement in the larger community and whether they encourage participants to become more effective and engaged citizens. Participating schools are likely to return to the event, as are alumni who come back as volunteer officials. Further, with the release of recent studies, such as “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline” (Lowell et al., 2009), we (the authors of this paper) feel an ethical responsibility to continue the investigation of whether science competitions represent meaningful contributions to the experience of students and their disposition towards science.

To better understand the impact of the Science Bowls on both STEM learning and civic engagement, we recommend that surveys be administered for all the National Science Bowl® middle school and high school competitions. The surveys should be standardized, with optional regionally based questions, and should be part of a well-designed study that can inform future science bowl decisions. An existing instrument, the Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG,, has survey questions that are geared towards formal academic courses but are a no-cost, accessible means to obtain data on students’ attitudes about science. Social media also provides opportunities for assessment and self-reporting of students. Surveys can be followed up by focus group interviews that could provide greater depth to our understanding of the findings. Such longitudinal studies could serve to verify whether or not these informal and volunteer learning experiences correlate with continued interest and involvement in science and mathematics, including choice of college majors, careers, and enhanced awareness and involvement in our most pressing science-related civic challenges, including climate change, public health, and technology.

About the Authors

Robert Kuech

Robert Kuech (Bob) taught middle and high school physics, chemistry, physical science, biology, ecology, computer programming for 20 years before returning to Penn State to work on a Ph.D. in science education. In 1999, when he finished his studies at Penn State, he came directly to USM and has served as the science educator in the Teacher Education Department since that time.

Robert Sanford

Robert M. Sanford (Rob) is Professor of Environmental Science and Policy and Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, Maine. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. in environmental science from SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry. His research interests include environmental impact assessment and planning, and environmental education. He is a co-director of the SENCER New England Center for Innovation (SCI) and is a SENCER Leadership Fellow.


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