How Collaborating Across Boundaries Fosters Community-Engaged Partnerships

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Kim Pearson M.A.
Professor, Department of Journalism and Professional Writing
The College of New Jersey
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Monisha Pulimood, Ph.D.
Professor in the Department of Computer Science
The College of New Jersey
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Diane Bates Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology and Coordinator for Environmental Studies
The College of New Jersey
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Professional photo of Sibrina Collins
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Sibrina Collins, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Marburger STEM Center, Lawrence Technological University

Caption: Girls Scouts and students of TCNJ professors Marla Jaksch (pictured, wearing scarf) and Diane Bates celebrate after successfully assembling a solar suitcase March 4, 2020. Shortly after this photo was taken, face-to-face meetings ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: Diane Bates)


Leaders and change agents in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and policy have championed the need for a scientifically literate populace since the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.1 In the 65 years since the Sputnik launch, the need for collaboration among people with diverse perspectives has only become more apparent and is essential to the development of solutions that make optimal use of  STEM expertise and tools. The development and application of science-based solutions to our complex problems must engage the full spectrum of all stakeholder communities from problem specification to impact assessment. As Yvette Pearson, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Texas at Dallas puts it:

“We cannot effectively solve problems for a heterogeneous society with homogeneous groups of problem-solvers.”2

At The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), we have been evaluating and refining a curricular model for preparing undergraduates to participate in community-driven, STEM-focused collaborations for over a decade. Under the Collaborating Across Boundaries Model (CAB), two classes from different disciplines partner with a community organization to devise a STEM-focused solution to a community-identified problem (Figure 1). These NSF disciplines include biological sciences, computer and information sciences and engineering, engineering, environmental sciences, geosciences, mathematical and physical sciences, and social, behavioral and economic sciences.3

A diagram showing a model where a course in one discipline can be linked to another course discipline through a community partner. At the intersection of this triangle is a star with the works collaborative project in the middle. There is a arrows leading from the star to text that reads: Deeper engagement in learning solving problems in the community. This is the CAB Model.

Figure 1. The CAB Model

To create the CAB model, Pearson and Pulimood drew upon previous research in interdisciplinary computing pedagogy, most notably the 2008-2013 Distributed Expertise project (NSF Award #0829616). Specifically, the CAB collaborators iterated upon the Distributed Expertise project’s model for interdisciplinary classroom-based computing projects known as the Cooperative Expertise Model (CEM).4  Under that model a computer science class worked with one or more additional classes on projects specific to each class. The instructors of the courses are separate, as are the deliverables.

Course Collaboration Example

The goal of the collaboration was to enable students in game design, interactive storytelling, and software engineering to contribute their disciplinary knowledge to the development of a set of game production and interactive storytelling projects. In the Spring of 2010, a games production class gave an interactive storytelling class its “story bible” – a document outlining the narrative arc of the game – along with an interactive storytelling engine in the Scratch and Processing programming languages. The interactive storytelling class performed a literary analysis of the story bible to ensure that there were no plot holes that would end up being translated into code. They used the storytelling engines to create their midterm projects, which they were encouraged to share with a software engineering class for code review.5

A teacher stands on the sidewalk addressing a group of students. Behind them is a street adjacent to an empty lot with row houses in the distance.

Figure 2. Thomas Caruso, then Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity in Trenton, New Jersey showing a Trenton, New Jersey brownfields site to computer science and journalism students involved in the CABECT project. (ca. 2013-14). (Image credit: Thomas Caruso)

Pulimood and Pearson added a community-engaged component to the CEM to create the model for the 2012-2017 project titled CABECT: Collaborating Across Boundaries to Engage Undergraduates in Computational Thinking (DUE Award #1141170). Having been informed by TCNJ’s Center for Community Engagement that the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity was looking for better information tools for identifying possible pollutants in abandoned properties, Pulimood’s computer science classes and Pearson’s journalism and interactive multimedia classes created a database with information culled from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), interactive maps, risk assessment apps, research on factories that had been closed or torn down before the EPA and DEP were created, and other potentially useful information. Encouraging student outcomes showed evidence of growth in both computational thinking skills and civic awareness.6

A student in a striped hoody turns to speak with two fellow students in class. They are surrounded by desks with computers.

Figure 3. Computer Science, Interactive Multimedia and Journalism students brainstorm ideas for the CABECT project, 2013. (Image credit: S. Monisha Pulimood)

Currently, Pulimood, Pearson and Bates are co-PIs for Collaborating Across Boundaries to Engage Undergraduates in STEM Learning (NSF Award #1914869),  a campus-wide endeavor involving 18 faculty members, more than 700 students and about a dozen local, regional and international community partners. We began offering CAB classes in the Spring 2020 semester. The project will conclude in Spring 2023.

One of the research questions we wanted to address was whether the student learning outcomes would vary according to the types of disciplines involved. Thus, we were intentional about developing collaborations that paired STEM classes from different disciplines, STEM and non-STEM or Social, Behavioral and Economic sciences directorate of the National Science Foundation (SBE) classes and non-SBE classes. CAB courses for the 2020-22 academic years were very diverse including accounting, women & gender studies, nursing, sociology, English, engineering, and computer science. We also employed a “train the trainer” model that paired each new CAB collaborator with an experienced partner.

Faculty were represented from six of our seven schools. The resulting collaborative projects have ranged from creating a database of transcriptions of oral history recordings for the Trenton Public Library to helping high school students in India create STEM education activities for younger students. For example, we have sociology students working with nursing research students and a local health clinic on ways of improving care for immigrant patients. A computer science class and a statistics class partnered with a local anti-violence coalition to create tools for assessing policy options. An anthropology class and a class in journalism and African American studies working with an organization dedicated to improving journalism conducted ethnographic research on the information needs of food industry workers in New Jersey. This interactive storymap provides capsule summaries of each of the collaborations, including links to some of the individual project prototypes and websites.

While our findings are preliminary, qualitative data from surveys, reflections and focus group interviews indicate that students developed a deeper appreciation for the value of community engagement as a result of participating in these projects. Students also reported a greater sense of self-efficacy with regard to their understanding of scientific thinking and methods.

In addition, they demonstrated the ability to apply disciplinary knowledge to addressing real world problems. They also demonstrated the ability to articulate the value of  the complementary expertise contributed by students in the collaborating discipline. These results have been consistent across the various collaboration types (STEM-STEM, STEM-other, SBE-other).

How Can You Build an Infrastructure to Support Interdisciplinary, Community-Engaged, STEM Partnerships?

Along the way, we’ve learned ways of working with administrative offices across our institution to facilitate the initiation and conduct of these collaborations. As one might imagine, this model requires substantial coordination and cooperation between departments, Deans, the Registrar’s office, and our campus Center for Community Engagement. Here are some best practices that we’ve developed:

  • Create lots of opportunities for faculty to get to know each other’s teaching and research interests, so that ideas for collaboration can develop organically. Create similar opportunities with the campus Center for Community Engagement. Under our current grant, we’ve hosted regular community meetings to help faculty find potential partners. These events complement offerings from our Academic Affairs office, such as our annual interdisciplinary research forums. We continue to be in conversation with Academic Affairs, our campus Center for Community Engagement, and our campus Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning about ways of improving these opportunities.
  • When possible, schedule classes at the same time. If the classrooms can be scheduled near each other, that’s a bonus. At TCNJ, we typically schedule classes more than six months in advance, so this underscores the importance of faculty having time to brainstorm ideas and develop relationships with each other and with potential community partners. Scheduling classes at the same time makes it easier to schedule meetings with community partners and to provide time for students to meet their teammates across classes. (We typically allot 4-5 joint class meetings for community partner visits and in-class team meetings. Student teams are also expected to meet outside of class.) Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, meetings with our community partners have generally been virtual, and students often schedule team meetings virtually as well. So in-person meetings may be less important.
  • Create a “lab” section for each collaborating course in your registration software and your course management system. This lab is a no-credit course that exists merely as a mechanism for facilitating communication between the project teams. It also keeps us in compliance with the Federal Education Records Privacy Act, which would otherwise prohibit us from sharing student information across classes. It doesn’t have a scheduled time, and that will need to be made clear to students. Our college Records and Registration office creates these labs with Dean-level approval. This is the note of explanation that we ask the Registrar to provide:

“This course is part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation (Award # 1914869) to study how to better engage undergraduates from all disciplines in STEM learning. Students enrolled in this course will collaborate with students in (course title). To ensure that students in both classes receive the same information, and to facilitate interactions, project-related submissions, feedback, and grading, a separate Canvas course will be set up to combine both classes for the collaborative project.”

The Canvas course contains all the instructions for the project, wiki spaces for the project groups, a project schedule, and grading information specific to the project.

How can you develop collaborative courses at your institution?

We have also found the following course design and classroom management strategies helpful:

Find a community partner

Community partners can be local small businesses or nonprofits, government agencies, professional organizations, or campus organizations addressing issues such as environmental sustainability that are relevant beyond the campus. Our campus has a Center for Community Engagement that can help faculty find partners who might need the expertise our students can offer. However, some of our strongest partnerships have come from relationships that faculty already have.

Develop the project specifications and meeting schedule with the community partner at least one semester in

Leaders of nonprofit organizations and government agencies have always been overtaxed, but that burden has been exacerbated by the pandemic and related crises of the past few years. It’s essential that the partner has a clear picture of what’s being asked of them and what their agency can expect to receive in return. Faculty should expect to have the community partner visit joint class meetings at the beginning of the semester, and then at least two or more times to hear about how the project work is progressing and to offer suggestions and feedback.

Develop the grading criteria for the project together and assign the project the same weight within the two classes

Schedule regular check-in sessions between the faculty partners.

Create a mechanism for informal “check-ins” with students

One practice that works well is to have students fill out a short survey at the beginning and end of each week. The “check-in” survey asks whether students have met with their teams, and what they intend to accomplish, individually and collectively, in the coming week. The “check-out” survey asks what students accomplished, and what their goals are for the next week. Both surveys include an opportunity to ask questions or share concerns. These surveys alert us to problems within groups that we can sometimes troubleshoot and find solutions.

Provide an opportunity for student reflection

Our faculty typically require reflective essays in which students share their views on their learning experiences.

Debrief with the community partner

In addition to providing invaluable feedback, we’ve seen faculty and community partners deciding to repeat their collaborations in subsequent semesters, outside of our research model. We’ve also been able to connect community partners to others within the College with whom they might collaborate on other projects.

Conclusion

Undergraduate students can deepen STEM literacy while solving community problems. This blog post presents strategies and best practices that we have found helpful in implementing the Collaborating Across Boundaries model for interdisciplinary, community-engaged, STEM-focused collaborations. Our preliminary outcomes data indicate that students participating in CAB class collaborations express a greater sense of civic responsibility and science literacy self-efficacy as a result of their experience. Although the CAB project is ongoing and we do not yet have formal data from community partners participating in the project, we have several examples of community partners implementing the projects that the students created.

We have learned that fostering community-engaged interdisciplinary learning experiences requires a robust administrative infrastructure that supports faculty communication and collaboration with stakeholders across and beyond the academic institution.

This infrastructure requires support from chairs, deans and the registrar in scheduling classes, incorporating information about the collaboration into course descriptions in the registration system, and the creation of no-credit lab sections that are used for managing the project. It also requires  the creation of a campus culture that provides regular opportunities for formal and informal interaction with colleagues and potential community partners. Campus Centers for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Centers for Community Engagement can be very helpful in facilitating these conversations.

A well-developed infrastructure for supporting these kinds of collaborative learning experiences provides clarity for students and facilitates project management, communication and assessment between faculty and students within and across the classes. In addition to these administrative supports, we’ve identified helpful practices for setting up and managing these projects. These include having faculty meet with each other and the community partner at least the semester before to map out the scope of the project and the roles and expectations of the classes and community partners before finalizing their syllabi. It’s also helpful for faculty to set aside time each week to discuss how the collaboration is going, to discuss project grades, and to troubleshoot problems. In addition, students should have an opportunity to hear from and present work to  the community partner at the beginning, middle and end of the semester.

What can you achieve by adapting the CAB Model on your campuses?

Your students will develop a deeper appreciation for community engagement, which is aligned with motivation and interest. Many undergraduate institutions extol the value of problem-based learning, community-engaged learning, and interdisciplinary collaboration. By providing an infrastructure combining these three pedagogical approaches, the CAB model provides students with learning experiences that deepen their understanding of how both disciplinary knowledge and interdisciplinary collaboration can help solve real, complex problems. It provides community partners with an opportunity to address issues that they might not have the capacity to attend to otherwise. If the data that emerges over the next year remains consistent with our early findings, the CAB model may be a novel solution to developing STEM-focused community-based partnerships that boost students’ scientific literacy and civic engagement while providing tangible benefits to the communities we serve.


Acknowledgements

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF. Additional support was provided by TCNJ’s Barbara Meyers Pelson Chair in Faculty-Student Engagement award.


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