Saint Mary's Hosts Conference on Science and Civic Engagement

STEM faculty from a dozen California institutions gather for a SMC hosted science and civic engagement conference sponsored by SENCER. How do you increase students' interest in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and at the same time create a civic engagement course that benefits communities surrounding your college? That question was the focus of math and science professors from a dozen California colleges and universities who gathered at Saint Mary's for a regional conference sponsored by SENCER (Science Engagement for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities). 

The signature program of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, SENCER is a national education initiative dedicated to making science more accessible to young people and the public.  Established in 2001, SENCER promotes the adoption of what it calls "civic-ally" useful STEM courses, with classroom assignments that connect science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to critical local, national, and global challenges such as climate change and environmental injustice.

Saint Mary's chemistry professor Steve Bachofer, along with Santa Clara University chemistry professor and senior associate provost Amy Shachter, the co-directors of SENCER's Center of Innovation for the West Coast (SCI –West), hosted the conference in the Soda Center and Brousseau Hall.

Chemistry professor Steve Bachofer at a poster session. "The SCIs are regional centers that support faculty involved in SENCER projects and these regional meetings give faculty pursuing SENCER coursework an opportunity, and a venue, to present their findings and project research," said Bachofer. "The gatherings also serve as a way to recruit new faculty into the SENCER family, so to speak, by showing them how these sorts of class assignments can be successful with students and with community partners."

Bachofer's course "Urban Environmental Issues," a civic engagement class that examines how a contaminated formal U.S. Naval Base in Alameda is being reclaimed for use by the City of Alameda was selected as a model course by SENCER. The Saint Mary's chemistry professor developed the popular course 10 years ago with SMC sociology professor Phyllis Martinelli. The course is now an example SENCER uses to help professors across the nation develop science civic engagement courses. 

LMU biology professor Carolyn Viviano discusses science and civic engagement with Saint Mary's biology professor Vidya Chandrasekaran.More than 30 professors, including 10 STEM faculty members from Saint Mary's, attended the mid-November SENCER conference. Biology professor Vidya Chandrasekaran, who partnered with Bachofer in organizing the event, said the event provided faculty with opportunities to compare notes and discuss ideas for new approaches in the classroom.

"It allowed me connect with biology faculty at SF State and LMU (Loyola Marymount University) who are incorporating civic engagement in their courses," said Chandrasekaran.  She added that since some of the attendees were new to SENCER, a poster session displaying successful SENCER courses was very useful. "They were able to see what other professors have done and were able to talk to them about the issues involved with implementing a civic engagement course on their overall curriculum and, importantly, what institutional resources are needed for success."

Both Chandrasekaran and Bachofer noted that Saint Mary's hosting of the SENCER conference was timely. The College's new core curriculum requires participation in campus-wide courses that engage the world in substantial and meaningful ways,including math and science courses that promote the common good and provide opportunities for community engagement.

The conference included workshops on designing a SENCER course, incorporating civic engagement in math courses and examples of successful science and civic engagement initiatives. It also featured a KQED educational media session on using multimedia to teach science and reach out to the public. KQED presenter Andrea Swensrud said more science professors are exploring how multimedia tools can assist in the classroom and in making science accessible to the public. "They are creating their own media now, blogging, using digital storytelling, slideshows, creating short little videos, using different ways to get their work out into the community, instead of just publishing papers" said Swensrud. With so many channels of communication available through social media she added "it's really important for scientists to know how to communicate information about their work in a variety of ways."

Mathematics professor Ellen Veomett, one of the Saint Mary's professors in attendance, said she found the conference to be very informative. She was especially interested in how LMU structured a civic engagement mathematics course around outcomes at a health facility. Veomett is currently working with mathematics professor Chris Jones on the upcoming Jan Term class "Math In the City: California Prison Realignment," which aligns with the goals of SENCER. Using statistical data from the state, her class will analyze the effects of the realignment of the California correctional system, which has transferred thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails.

The outcomes of Veomett's Jan Term class could possibly wind up as an example at a future SENCER conference. There is precedent for it. Steve Bachofer's model SENCER course on urban environmental issues started out as a Jan Term course examining the impact of closures of Bay Area naval bases. The rest is science and civic engagement history.