Communities of Transformation: Background and Overview of Project


Section 1: Background and Overview of Project

For the past 20 years, countless reports have been issued calling for reform of undergraduate STEM education to improve student learning and success for both majors and non-majors. Recent reports describe the need to focus on creating more student-centered learning environments that use the most effective research-based teaching, learning, and assessment strategies (American Association for Advancement of Science, 2011; Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 2009; National Academies, 2010; National Science Foundation, 2010). All of these reports call attention to a set of problems in undergraduate STEM education: 1. Few students choose to be STEM majors; 2. Traditionally underrepresented groups have extremely low participation in STEM fields; 3. STEM majors face low graduation rates; and, 4. There are broad skills that graduates lack as they complete STEM majors (e.g., teamwork, writing) and non-STEM majors (e.g., quantitative reasoning, analytical thinking), making it difficult for them to meet workplace needs in our technology-based knowledge economy. While experts across the country generally agree on the nature of the problems and on some of the interventions needed, there is less agreement about how to create widespread change. Some emerging evidence suggests that current approaches are ineffective (Fairweather, 2009).

Systemic change in higher education has proven difficult. Isolated efforts, such as funding short, one-time faculty innovations, have not been effective at yielding the kind of widespread change articulated in national reports. This is due to the fact that colleges and universities are complex systems in which multiple factors influence educators’ actions, values, and behaviors. Given the size and scale of higher education, changing individual faculty members or even isolated departments will have minimal impact. Fairweather (2009) notes, in his report to the National Academies Research Council Board of Science Education, that the presumption that funding individual innovations will lead to widespread changes is spurious, and it is not born out by the evidence. Instead, he advocates for engaging institutional leaders on campus to overcome a set of existing hurdles, such as reward structures, and he notes the importance of professional networks as avenues to scale up change. He observes that networks systematically engage large numbers of faculty on an ongoing and sustained basis, which is more likely to lead to change.

In a review article commissioned by the National Academies, Ann Austin outlines the factors that need to be addressed in order to promulgate more evidence-based teaching practices. Among the top factors is professional development that involves communities of practice (CoPs) that “provide opportunities for faculty members to interact with others as they explore new assumptions and try out new approaches to teaching…in an environment that simultaneously provides challenge and support.” Over the years, National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded networks and CoPs (see the important distinction between these below) as means for disseminating innovations and creating change; in more recent years, this has become an even more prominent strategy.

Institutional, regional, and national CoPs and networks that are focused on providing knowledge, support, and exemplary models for STEM education have been identified in reports as important vehicles for creating change, yet there is little systematic research on how to best structure them, nor are there any data about their outcomes or impact. The use of networks in such projects is motivated by solid social science research. Over the last fifty years researchers such as Everett Rogers have identified how social networks are the primary vehicles for the dissemination of innovations. Yet, this research on social networks has focused on changes quite different from those required by educational reform, and it has focused on other types of contexts, such as farming or medical practice2. More recent research on communities of practice identifies how social networks that foster conversation and learning within educational contexts are effective vehicles for peer professional development and adaptation of innovative strategies that result in change (Daly, 2010). However, while we know many such CoPs lead to change, we do not know how they can be best designed to achieve their goals. In particular, we have little information about STEM faculty networks, and about whether they require any unique design features to help stimulate reform.

In summary, while networking efforts have emerged as critical strategies for creating innovation in higher education, we know very little about such networks beyond the fact that they are positively linked to facilitating change. From the existing research, we know that CoPs and social networks offer certain advantages within change processes—for example, communication systems, knowledge transfer, and access to expertise (Tsai, 2002; Valente, 1995). Yet, having worked with several networks in STEM undergraduate education, we sense that there are other less well documented benefits, such as leadership development, that need to be identified and cultivated. Further, we also need to seek more specific explanations for how STEM CoPs and networks can be designed to create change and how their dynamics differ from those of the more organic networks that have been the focus of most social science research over the past fifty years. This report begins to answer the question of how STEM CoPs and networks can be best designed to maximize innovation. We explore what leadership and management is needed to support them, and how they can become sustainable. By understanding more about these features of communities of practice, we can design programs that better harness the power of such communities to bring about change.

The project examined and compared four undergraduate STEM reform CoPs/networks that each have different designs, but share the common purpose of undergraduate STEM reform. The research sought to understand how such communities can be most effectively designed to spread innovations among network members, as well as on the campuses where those members are employed.

A quick note about terminology. Social networks are defined in the literature as people loosely connected through some form of interdependencies, such as values, preferences, goals, or ideas (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it as they interact regularly (Allee, 2000; Lave, 1988; Wenger, 1998 and 2007). A CoP has a greater sense of shared mission and purpose than a network, and it is often structured in a more intentional manner.

While we entered the study considering that the four groups examined could operate either as networks, as communities of practice, or as some hybrid of the two, by the end our research suggested that they are best understood as a particular variant of communities of practice, which we called “communities of transformation.” We will use this term to refer to the groups studied in this research, and in section 4 we will describe the important distinctions that define these communities.

This project addressed three main questions:

  1. How do members and leaders of communities of practice (CoPs) perceive CoP design (membership, structure, communication, activities, and organization to support new knowledge development and action) shapes the ability to achieve goals (around undergraduate STEM pedagogical change and diffusion)?
    Sample sub-questions addressed:

    1. How can active engagement be obtained among members?
    2. What knowledge is best transmitted through networks, and through which media vehicles (on-line, in person workshops, etc.)?
  2. What are the perceived benefits of participation in a STEM reform community of practice or network for the individual participants and for their campuses?*
  3. How do communities of practice and networks form, and how are they sustained in ways that help them to achieve their goals?
    Sample sub-questions addressed:

    1. What leadership and management is needed to form and sustain these communities?
    2. What barriers are there to formation and sustainability?
    3. What strategies work best for overcoming barriers?

* We conceptualized benefits throughout the research process in many ways, including benefits for individuals and institutions, outcomes of participation, and impact of these communities on individuals and institutions. As a result, we use the terms benefits, outcomes, and impacts interchangeably throughout this report.

The Four Communities of Transformation

What follows is a brief overview of the communities of transformation (CoTs) studied, and why they were chosen. A chart comparing these four communities is provided in the supplementary materials, and further details can be found on websites noted in the text. The four CoTs chosen for this project were Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning Project (the POGIL Project), Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER), and the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium. The study selected these particular groups rather than others in order to focus on communities with the following key features:

  1. Focus on reform of undergraduate STEM education;
  2. Large-scale membership and wide dissemination of best practices;
  3. Higher education community and focus on reform within the context of postsecondary education;
  4. Long enough history to allow study not just of formation but also of outcomes and sustainability;
  5. Ability to survey members3

These four communities met these criteria and also were different enough in key dimensions around design, organization, and activities to enable us to explore meaningful differences and to identify key patterns that can help future STEM networks as they form (or reform) to aid in STEM efforts.


Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) is an umbrella network of STEM faculty across the country that focuses on creating innovation among faculty to enable changes in their practices. The national PKAL community has nearly 7,000 members at over 1,000 colleges, universities, and organizations. Formed in 1989, PKAL was one of the earliest undergraduate science reform networks, and it continues to operate as one of the few networks to be sustained over time. More information about PKAL is available at PKAL was chosen because it has several long-standing networks within it, and research that is limited to new or emergent networks is difficult and often does not yield as much data about long-term benefits or strategies for sustainability. Furthermore, PKAL includes several different types of networks, which lends itself well to comparative studies and to examining design differences and their effects on goals. This study focused on two ongoing networks within PKAL. The first is the Faculty for the 21st century (F21) network, which has been in existence for fifteen years. This is a loose network of nearly 1,500 STEM colleagues, of which nearly 200 have participated in PKAL summer leadership institutes. The second sub-community at the center of this study is the more recently formed family of regional networks that engage over 650 STEM faculty at 100 institutions. The regional networks develop and share effective models for transferring STEM education best practices and innovations among peers in order to increase the number of faculty members in each region who are using proven, research-based pedagogies. These regional networks are tighter and denser than the national network, and they have more regular interaction built into their structure. PKAL was chosen based on its long history, broad reach, advocating of several different pedagogical practices, and involvement of several different disciplines.


The Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning Project (the POGIL Project) is a national professional development and curriculum reform effort whose mission is to connect and support educators from all disciplines interested in implementing, improving, and studying student-centered pedagogies and learning environments. It involves approximately 6,500 faculty across a range of disciplines. The POGIL Project began in 2003 with support from the National Science Foundation. It works to disseminate specially designed activities that express its instructional philosophy, and it provides professional development to faculty who are interested in implementing group-learning approaches and developing new instructional activities. It originated in the discipline of chemistry, but its approach has been disseminated into other STEM fields. While the network has long been based out of Franklin and Marshall College, the POGIL Project continues to grow each year. The POGIL Project has recently become an independent 501(c)(3) as a strategy to sustain activity in the future. It has many subgroups and projects that have developed within the overarching framework, and it boasts a strong set of regional networks. More information about the POGIL Project is available at The POGIL Project was chosen for this research because of its stature as a long-standing network working toward a plan of sustainability in STEM reform. As an example of a community of practice, it offers unique resources and varying forms of communication among its members. It was also selected because of its targeted focus on a particular pedagogy and a particular community of participant faculty, a strategy that differs from the broader-reaching approach exemplified by PKAL.


Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) is a faculty development and STEM education reform initiative launched in 2001 under the National Science Foundation’s CCLI national dissemination track. SENCER is an approach to STEM education that teaches rough complex, capacious, contemporary, and contested civic challenges to basic canonical STEM knowledge and methods. It strives to use context to engage interest, to make science real and relevant, and to stimulate memorable learning. The project has expanded from focusing on single courses to smaller course modules, course intersections, learning communities, major curricular reforms, pre-medical and graduate education, new certificates, and degree granting programs. The SENCER community includes thousands of faculty members, academic leaders, and students from more than 400 two- and four-year colleges and universities in 46 states and nine countries. The organization’s goals are to:

  1. Get more students interested and engaged in learning in STEM courses;
  2. Help students connect STEM learning to their other studies;
  3. Strengthen students’ understanding of science and their capacity for responsible work and citizenship

SENCER was selected because it involves several different science disciplines like PKAL, has a broader range of pedagogical practices it advocates, and uses unique approaches to engage members such as team participation.


The BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium has a 25-year history of supporting undergraduate biology education reform. It supports international and interdisciplinary collaborations among faculty, with the overarching goal of creating learning experiences that more accurately reflect biological science practices. The BioQUEST approach emphasizes student engagement in problem-posing, problem-solving, and peer persuasion. BioQUEST uses modern information and communications technologies as a means to increase student access to scientific data, tools, literature, and communities. Many BioQUEST projects involve partnerships with scientific and educational organizations to provide professional development and innovative curriculum resources. The BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium includes a large network of faculty who have contributed materials and collaborated in the exploration of innovative biology education. BioQUEST was chosen because of its long history, reach to many members, advocating for a more targeted set of pedagogical strategies, and focus in a particular discipline.

We now turn in section 2 to the literature related to networks and communities of practice that framed and informed our study of these communities.

2. A few exceptions exist with the work of Mort at Columbia University in the 1950s.

3. We also want to note why we did not choose other types of networks or communities. There are many networks that focus on the link between K-12 and higher education (e.g. ISTEM) to improve teaching of STEM in high school and to ease transition into college. These partnerships, while important, involve a different sort of network that crosses different communities. These types of partnerships are not comparable to the networks in this study. Additionally, they are the one type of STEM reform community that has received some study and attention—less so as networks but as partnerships. There are also networks represented in disciplinary societies, but these focus mostly on scholarship, rather than teaching. Lastly, there are smaller communities of only a few dozen educators, such as the National Numeracy Network, but these groups are intimate and have limited reach.