BMC students, faculty present their work to science educators and legislators in D.C.

Posted April 17th, 2008 at 2:26 pm.

Washington photoAn interdisciplinary contingent of three faculty members and three students who all have personal experience with new approaches to science education at Bryn Mawr visited Washington, D.C., early this week to compare notes with other innovative educators and present their work to legislators on Capitol Hill.

Professors of Biology Paul Grobstein and Peter Brodfuehrer, Senior Lecturer in English Anne Dalke, Bryn Mawr biology major Laura Cyckowski ’08, Bryn Mawr physics major Ashley Dawkins ’08, and Ian Morton, a Haverford senior majoring in biology at Bryn Mawr, presented their work at the annual Washington, D.C., Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Session sponsored by SENCER, or Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities. Biology Laboratory Coordinator Wilfred Franklin and Serendip Web master Ann Dixon also contributed material to the presentation.

SENCER is a faculty-development and science-education-reform program supported by the National Science Foundation. The signature program of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, a research center affiliated with the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, SENCER’s goal is to spark students’ interest in science and mathematics by focusing coursework on real-world problems.

The Bryn Mawr group gave its presentation at an afternoon session of the conference on Monday, April 14. Grobstein and the students stayed on through Tuesday morning to meet with U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, who represents PennsylGrobstein and students photovania’s Sixth District. After the morning meeting with Gerlach, the team presented its poster, titled “Science Education as Interactive Conversation,” in the Rayburn House Office Building.

The poster and presentation reviewed several Bryn Mawr courses, including a freshman seminar course co-taught by Dalke and Grobstein, two biology courses, a 200-level seminar, “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories,” that is cross-listed in English and Biology, a course on gender and science, a course on the philosophy of science, the senior seminar in neural and behavioral sciences, and summer institutes for K-12 science teachers in the Philadelphia area.

“These are interdisciplinary science courses, but what’s important is that they all reconceptualize science as an interactive conversation, rather than content that’s being delivered to students,” Dalke explained. Many of the courses use the Serendip Web site to publish student papers and host online discussions. “When students post their papers online, they see themselves as contributors to the fund of knowledge, not empty receptacles for information,” said Dalke.

According to Dalke, many of the courses described in the presentation emerged from conversations sponsored by Bryn Mawr’s Center for Science in Society, which has successfully engaged many nonscientists, including Dalke, in discussions of scientific issues and their implications for the world outside the academy.

“It wasn’t until we started preparing this presentation that we realized that we have now established courses at all levels that rely on this understanding of science as conversation,” Dalke says.

Grobstein notes that while SENCER focuses specifically on civic engagement, the courses the Bryn Mawr group discussed at the conference were not the product of a conscious or explicit effort to create a curriculum of civically engaged or socially responsible science.

“The common thread in these courses is a pedagogical model that rejects the notion that the faculty knows what students should learn and instead lets students’ own interests guide the curriculum. These courses begin and end with questions that students ask. So the civic-engagement aspect arises from the fact that civic engagement interests our students,” Grobstein says.

Representatives of 27 institutions, ranging from two-year community colleges to highly selective liberal-arts institutions, gave presentations at the conference.

“I was impressed by SENCER’s commitment to finding ways to effectively engage more students with science, not only as a professional activity but as an essential component of becoming effective and empowered participants in society regardless of one’s professional identity,” Grobstein observed in a Serendip post after the meeting. “SENCER’s impact on a wide array of institutions, including two-year colleges, is a valuable reminder that prestige institutions are not the only players in town and may in fact in important ways be behind in some significant innovations rather than leading them.”

Dalke responded: “What was most remarkable about these discussions was that they were cross-generational; the greatest delight for me—what really distinguished this conference from others I’ve attended—was the incorporation of student perspectives in all the presentations.”

Cyckowski agreed, citing in particular an informal discussion at which all the student participants in the symposium “commented on SENCER, good experiences with science courses, bad experiences with science courses, what makes up a good science curriculum, and so on, while the professors and other participants listened. I particularly enjoyed this and think it reflects one of SENCER’s ideals, which is to encourage educators to learn from their students just as much as students learn from them,” she wrote in an e-mail.

“I’ve taken a number of the courses that were presented on our poster,” she continued, “and this engagement between faculty and students is one of the things that made the courses so great.”

And, Brodfuehrer noted, such exchange is far from burdensome to create. “I learned that it does not take much to transform one of my courses (SENCERize) to incorporate civic engagement, make it relevant to students, and allow them opportunities for ‘conversation’—their thoughts and perspectives on a given topic. My guess is that any course could be SENCERized and in the end, both faculty and students will benefit.”

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