Communities of Transformation: Common Challenges in Evolution


Section 8: Common Challenges in Evolution

Over the course of their lifecycles, not only did these communities of transformation (CoTs) follow certain common strategies and activities, but they also experienced some common challenges. These challenges could not be charted to fit neatly into particular stages of the lifecycle. For example, funding was a problem for some in the potential phase, but it also influenced communities when they were maturing, and again played a role in the transformation stage. Similarly, the challenge posed by a shift in content focus can occur as a result of the expansion of membership that takes place in the maturing phase, but it might also occur later, during stewardship as well. We identified from our research 10 key challenges experienced by these communities that are strongly related to the sustainability model we will describe in section 10. These challenges are: funding, shifting focus, leadership becoming too identified with an individual leader, the tension between focusing on the community and focusing on projects, staleness, seeking legitimacy, counteracting the dominant culture of science education, maintaining personal and community integrity, the tension between focusing on general faculty development and focusing on a specific technique, and increasing demands on faculty. Where we observed that the communities developed solutions to these challenges, we highlight those strategies in italics to guide future communities.


In general, funding obstacles required strategic trade-offs and created challenges related to having enough staff, being able to create needed materials, and being able to support community members in meaningful ways, such as by hosting quality events to help them to accomplish their goals. All four CoTs encountered funding challenges at various times in their lifecycles. In response, some networks altered or expanded their domains of knowledge to pursue funding opportunities. For instance, one SENCER participant stated that the community was only able to survive because of its ability to branch out to different areas of instruction—general education areas, graduate courses, new chemistry courses, etc. SENCER branched out in this way “because all of these different areas provide new initiatives for funding.”

Funding challenges often affected the community indirectly, through impact on network events and meetings that needed to be cancelled, downsized, or held in inconvenient locations. Some community members were directly affected through the elimination of travel grants and reductions in salary, and a few project leaders continued to work without receiving salaries. According to one participant, PKAL’s principal investigator never received a salary, but would actively seek out funds for the staff. One CoT leader explained that, when “you care so much about one another’s lives,” the struggle to keep things going when salaries have been cut is particularly difficult.

Funding struggles tended to impact CoTs the most by limiting their ability to hire and retain administrative staff, to recruit new members, to develop new leadership, and to train community members to develop materials. Despite their grassroots beginnings, all four CoTs engaged in recruitment efforts to disseminate their STEM reform missions to larger audiences (described in section 9). These expansion efforts were much easier to sustain in the early days, when the pool of participants was small, but when the communities began to grow, grant money became insufficient—not enough to support experience that would foster strong ties or develop and disseminate best practices. The CoTs took a variety of approaches to solving funding challenges, but the common theme that came through in interviews was that it is important to maintain flexibility in goal setting, and openness to new ideas and funding opportunities. Uncertain financial futures sometimes prevented the CoTs from becoming over-committed to their reform goals. Though each CoT began with a particular articulation of the need for STEM reform and a mission to contribute to that task, they have each had to evolve and adapt over time in order to secure funding and persist. Adaptability is one feature that has contributed to the success of these CoTs, and the ability to adapt without losing touch with that original mission has been crucial to their sustained impact.

It is important to note that many of the other challenges described below stem from issues related to funding. In pursuit of funding, communities can shift purpose, become too project- rather than community-oriented, and try to expand to new groups/institutions/disciplines for which they do not have adequate support. It is important for organizations that support these communities to understand these dilemmas that arise from funding shortages. Funders and other support organizations can alleviate many of these challenges by offering strategies for navigating funding obstacles, such as bridge funding, on-going support through a sustained financial model (see sustainability section of this report for examples), or partnerships with other funding organizations to continue support for CoTs that demonstrate promise. Our study uncovered “piecemeal” strategies that CoTs utilized for navigating funding challenges, but we recommend that CoTs in partnership with funders develop more systematic solutions for how their communities can be continuously supported and maintained.

Shifting Focus

Related to the need for flexibility, some of the CoTs encountered obstacles when attempting to shift the focus of their work. Shifting focus refers to the intentional adaptations that these communities undertake in response to changes in the larger environment surrounding STEM reform. These environmental inputs included financial constraints or interests of potential funders, needs of the community, and needs of students. For example, the POGIL Project decided to commercialize their materials as a solution to unpredictable funding mechanisms. To do this, the community shifted its focus from college chemistry to high school science classes, and community leaders developed a curriculum that they could market to school districts, thereby generating sufficient revenue to sustain themselves. Problems arose for the POGIL Project because high school curricula did not conform to the principles endorsed in the original mission, and this area of work “wasn’t specifically written into the original grant funding [the community].” One leader explained that “there was this desire to be faithful to not only the grant and the funding, but to the original idea” The tension arose between this sense of loyalty and the need to continue to grow. For the communities that attempted to shift focus and expand to new membership and new domains, a primary challenge arose as they tried to find the leadership and expertise necessary to steer them into these new territories, to draft materials for these subjects, and to attract diverse, new community members. This challenge highlighted the tension between pursuing viable, secure avenues for the community and being opportunistic about new possibilities. At times a CoT made the mistake of following a new area or expanding to a new group simply because the opportunity existed. The pursuit of such a new direction without consideration of the community’s overarching mission led to turmoil and challenge.

Communities that encountered these challenges overcame them by reflecting on their purpose, and by deciding how best they could serve their community with limited options. The decisions were often difficult, requiring the CoTs to decide between the immediate needs of community members and the needs of the community or mission itself. It will become apparent in the review of the sustainability model in section 10 that these challenges could only be navigated successfully through obtaining on-going feedback and assessing work. These were ways for community leaders to reflect on their practice and to ensure that they shifted when needed, but also maintained the essential focus. Another strategy for a successful shift in focus was to communicate clearly with the community about the rationale behind a possible change in direction. For example, BioQUEST let faculty know that its shift from curricular development to faculty development was in response to a need to disseminate ideas more broadly.

Community Leadership Too Much Identified with an Individual Leader

Each of these communities was started by a charismatic individual, who became strongly identified with the community as its driving force. Over time, though, each community realized that it needed to distribute leadership, a step that became critical to sustaining the community in the maturing and stewardship phases. However, each community experienced a challenge associated with shifting authority, decisions, and identification to a broader set of individuals. The role of voice or spokesperson for the community was often narrowly embedded in a single leader or two. Various faculty members commented: “When you think about PKAL, you think of Jeanne Narum”; or “SENCER would not be SENCER without David Burns”; or “John Jungck was a really influential leader and father of BioQUEST”; or “Rick Moog—he lives POGIL; he is what people identify with.”

The leadership challenge was to maintain the strong, charismatic leadership that inspired people to join and engaged current members, but also to distribute the leadership so that in a time of leadership transition, or health leave, or another situation in which the main leaders could not meet the needs of the community, there were others who could effectively do the work. For the POGIL Project, the annual steering committee became a venue for training leaders and distributing leadership to a broader group. When we observed this meeting, we noticed how core the POGIL Project leadership was spread over seven or eight faculty members, with each one equipped to make key decisions and also to speak as the voice of the POGIL Project. These individuals led strategic planning efforts, gave regular presentations, and headed major grant projects. Another example of distribution of leadership was BioQUEST’s effort to create a leadership team as John Jungck stepped down, rather than to just replace him with a single individual as leader. Similar to the POGIL Project, a subset of individuals began planning events, giving presentations, and defining strategic directions for BioQUEST. Thus, the key strategy for overcoming the challenge of distributing leadership is to create a structure that locates leadership within a team, steering committee, or planning group, thereby expanding leadership and creating infrastructure for further leadership development. It is worth noting that advisory boards did not appear to offer enough of a structure to achieve this purpose, as they still often relied on an individual leader who remained the seat of decision-making.

Project-Focused versus Community-Focused Decisions

The urge to pursue particular opportunities—often because of funding—can result in a community becoming project- rather than community-focused. Often a grant-funded project focuses on a particular idea—interdisciplinary teaching, involving informal educators, integrating more math into teaching a science discipline, a geographically-oriented service project, etc. The reason for the narrow project focus is that funders desire new areas to be explored and are reluctant to continue funding a good idea to be disseminated and continued. However, even when such funding streams were directed at tangential projects, they usually allowed the community some infrastructure money to help it to continue its core work. While these types of projects generally became incorporated into the broader community ideas for improved practice sooner or later, the faculty described them as projects that they either “did not see as central to the community” or “were waiting to see the purpose.” This led the leaders of the CoTs to spend a significant amount of their time and energy on the task of shepherding such project through the community, as opposed to working on fostering the overall community. Accordingly, there was a concern expressed often among faculty that the community received less attention when various projects mounted. Faculty were typically interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the community and its space for improving practice, not in its particular projects or initiatives. Yet, the communities needed to secure funding in order to support the infrastructure to hold their annual events; grant-funded projects provided the way to make these community events happen. One CoT leader described this challenge: “You can’t get funding for helping faculty improve their practice in general. So we have to write these very specific project proposals. We know that this has us focus then on these projects, but there is no other way to stay afloat. We tried writing more general grants, but they never get funded.” Compare this perspective to the way a faculty member describes the feeling as leaders pursue their grant projects: “I worry about the community; they don’t see themselves in some of these new projects. I see less and less people continuing their involvement. This will become more of an organization that people cycle through rather than an on-going community.” The communities in this study addressed this challenge by ensuring that some project funding went to more general support for the community. They also worked to translate grant ideas into more general lessons or ideas that would have resonance with the larger community.


All of the communities dealt, to some extent, with the sense of staleness that arose after the first wave of enthusiasm in the work faded. Across its ideas, leadership, and written materials, as a community widens its boundaries it risks diluting its intensity, as “changing markets, organizational structures, and technology can render the community’s domain irrelevant” (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 109). For instance, one SENCER participant complained of attending the same lecture at multiple events: “I feel like they have evolved, but in some ways maybe not as much as I’d like to see, because it seems like we’re still relying on the same [ideas]…what was great in 1990 [is] not the best thing since sliced bread in 1998.” One BioQUEST participant stated that “new people are not as powerful a force as you might think because the collective group that is committed to volunteerism has to also be committed to being self-critical” and to reflecting on “what’s not working or what’s working well, what’s changed as an external dynamic that you need to adjust to.” Staleness can prevent communities from evolving. Interview participants suggested that successful communities must remind themselves that they “don’t know everything,” and these communities should “never get to the point where we think that [they] know exactly how things should be and how people should do things.”

Solutions to staleness depended on the particular cause of the problem. For some communities, stale leadership was a barrier to growth, so new leaders and new voices were essential to community survival. One leader stated, “the biggest challenge is to make sure that new leadership comes in,” but it is important that leadership does not stray too far from the original vision of the community, because this could turn away long-standing community members. For some, the primary concern was in fact keeping their mission and philosophy intact. As a result, these communities dealt with staleness by using technology and new ideas to develop new tools, thus changing their approach while retaining their philosophy and identity as a community. Note, however, that solutions to staleness can also lead to other challenges in the future, such as balancing grants in new project directions with the ongoing needs of the existing community, as discussed above.


Legitimacy is best described as recognition by dominant institutional structures. The dominant structures that define legitimacy for these CoTs are the norms and values that govern the mainstream academic community. Due to a multitude of factors, all four CoTs to some degree lack legitimacy in this sense. One of the primary reasons for this is their focus on teaching and pedagogy in the higher education community. As most CoT members at the time of this research were faculty members employed at post-secondary institutions, participants often felt pressures from their colleagues and administrations to focus on different aspects of faculty life, such as research and grant funding. Faculty members who concern themselves primarily with teaching tend to exist on the periphery of dominant structures in academia. For instance, one SENCER member described the community as comprised of “fringe faculty.” SENCER members were “the ones who were not avoiding the complex issues, like climate change, or acid deposition, or habitat fragmentation, or equity issues. You know, so we started out as a fringe faculty, but we believed in what we were doing.” One POGIL Project leader stated that “beginning chemistry instructors have told me that, if they were to try to do any of this POGIL stuff, they would not be given tenure.” The legitimacy challenge was closely intertwined with recruitment and engagement, as a lack of community legitimacy tended to deter potential members who sought acceptance through dominant institutional structures, like research and publishing.

The communities tried to address this deficiency of legitimacy for their members by creating awards, providing fellowships, awarding seed funding and grants, and offering other ways to recognize members of their community. They also gained legitimacy by working with national organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, and by recruiting influential faculty leaders. The communities additionally bolstered legitimacy for their approach to STEM reform by engaging in research to gather evidence of the efficacy of their work.

The Dominant Culture of Science Education

Members of each CoT identified a shared cultural challenge common across efforts to reform STEM pedagogy. Participants reported that the science community values content knowledge as the most important principle of education, so efforts to improve teaching were resisted if they threatened ideas about what material would be covered in class. This cultural aspect of the art of science pedagogy was noted as an issue that each community had to navigate in order for their community to engage faculty, to obtain buy-in, and to help faculty engaged in innovations to be successful on their home campuses. The communities addressed this challenge by questioning this assumption (and providing a rationale for why it was not valid) and equipping faculty with counter-narratives to help them argue in support of their approaches to teaching.

Maintaining Community Integrity

A common theme across the data was the struggle the communities faced between staying true to their original missions and evolving or adapting to changes in their environments in order to survive and sustain themselves. The challenge of maintaining integrity refers to the tension that arises when the orientation of the larger STEM community is not aligned with the needs of the particular CoT and its members.

For some of the CoTs, these challenges manifested as matters of loyalty—some had difficulty sustaining the same kind of personal commitment from their members that they had inspired in the early stages. For instance, PKAL’s grassroots beginnings attracted a community of deeply devoted followers, but after PKAL’s merger with AAC&U, there were concerns among the community members that the people and traditions at the heart of PKAL would be absorbed by the larger organization. One participant stated, “Because it’s such an old [community], and there are such deep loyalties, to move so quickly with changes and new initiatives would have been a mistake, I think, without really having a deep appreciation for those traditions and what they mean to the people who hold them so dear.” A similar struggle emerged for the CoTs that had developed regional groups as a strategy to counteract the challenges of geographic distance. For example, SENCER’s regional centers were successful in some regions and not others, mainly because participants struggled to feel connected to the larger purpose within their separate centers. Community leaders described the difficulty of developing a cohesive identity that could translate from the national to regional groups; effective leadership of the regional centers largely depended on this identity. One SENCER participant reported, “The faces of the regional projects are not necessarily people who connect and foster community in quite the same way. And so I never felt a connection to the southern center, I never felt compelled to participate in stuff down there.”

Other challenges of integrity tended to accompany the management of knowledge and materials in the face of growth of the CoTs. As all of the communities expanded from their grassroots origins, they had to evolve in order to remain relevant to the communities that they served; with continued growth, this became a more difficult task. According to Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002), “established communities regularly experience a tension between developing their own tools, methods, and approaches and being open to new ideas and members” (p. 104). New members were essential to ensure growth, and growth was necessary for survival. However, new members brought new ideas, and in order to benefit from these ideas, the community needed to display a certain degree of flexibility in both its structure and its knowledge domains.

The most effective solution to the challenge of maintaining integrity appeared to be flexibility—the ability to adapt to uncertain environments. This often required self-reflection on the community’s mission and philosophy, and conscious decision-making about which aspects of the community, if any, can be compromised in the interest of survival. For example, in order to maintain its unique identity and approach, the POGIL Project began to brand its materials. The community leaders determined what distinguished the POGIL Project activities from the non-POGIL Project activities, and they began to certify materials based on standardized requirements. Another example is PKAL, which was able to grow while maintaining existing ties by respecting long-standing traditions, and by asking that members acknowledge their new role “to explore new things for PKAL, new directions, expanded directions, but to do that while also honoring what PKAL has historically meant to those who have been involved.”

Focus on General Faculty Improvement versus a Specific Pedagogical

Each of the communities, with the exception of the POGIL Project, focuses broadly on using evidence-based teaching practices and on improving teaching, but not on single, specific techniques. Even the POGIL Project, which had a more particular approach, reported movement away from a “pure” POGIL Project approach toward the broader inclusion of evidence-based, active-learning strategies. The other three communities advocate for a broader philosophical re-orientation in STEM education: to think about teaching as a scholarly activity, to consider and reflect on teaching, and to review and inform one’s practice after considering a variety of approaches that may fit different styles, disciplines, or purposes. One faculty member commented on this challenge: “When I first was introduced to PKAL, I was confused: What were they advocating for? I was looking for a specific idea, and they offered many different ideas. And, over time, new ideas kept being introduced. Not until I fully understood what was being asked of me—to consider and reflect on my teaching, not just to adopt a practice—did I appreciate or understand. I know that it is hard for other faculty to understand as well.”

In order to address this challenge, the CoTs developed partnerships with members of the teaching and learning improvement community who provided a language and framework for their work. For example, the POGIL Project invited many faculty who conduct research on teaching, identified as discipline-based education researchers (DBER), to join and inform the community. These faculty attended the POGIL Project’s leadership events, including their national steering committee meetings, and helped the community by communicating this broader approach to improving teaching practice. PKAL also involved DBER faculty and invited them as speakers at events. Similarly, BioQUEST partnered with individuals from the faculty-development community to help introduce a shared language and a network of people who could provide advice from the scholarship of teaching. Beyond these individual community efforts, the STEM community as a whole is becoming increasingly familiar with the scholarship of teaching, informed by recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences (2012) on the history of DBER, as well as by key findings shared by other high-profile organizations. This sector-wide shift provides a stronger foundation for the work of these first CoTs focused on general teaching improvement. Leaders in the CoTs were careful to note, however, that communities need to bring in “mainline science” faculty to remain legitimate, not just gather together a subset of faculty viewed by the disciplines as ‘science educators.’

Increasing and Changing Demands on Faculty

A growing challenge for these CoTs relates to the changes in faculty workforce. First, each community noted that faculty are increasingly employed in contingent positions (70% of faculty nationally) and that this trend is prevalent across all institutional types and most disciplines, particularly math, chemistry, and biology (for more details about these trends see Contingent or non-tenure-track faculty are typically given no funds to support professional development, which makes their involvement in these communities problematic. Leaders within the CoTs noted their concerns about the future of STEM reform: “How will we continue this work when the majority of faculty do not have positions that allow them to participate as professionals and improve their practice?” Unless there are shifts in institutional policies and pressures from outside, faculty will not be able to benefit from these communities.

Second, tenure-track faculty are pulled in many directions, are increasingly overloaded with institutional service and leadership, and are required to obtain more grants than they were in the past, making involvement in these communities challenging. As a leader in one of the CoTs commented: “It is harder and harder to get the attention of the up-and-coming generation; they have less time and I fear for the future of communities like ours, given the current trends in faculty hiring and the demands on young tenure-track faculty.”

Third, in certain sectors, such as community colleges, faculty are stretched and overcommitted to the point that it is hard for them to find the time to improve their teaching. Heavy teaching loads and year-round teaching can make professional development a luxury that is out of reach. BioQUEST has been working with community colleges for nearly a decade, and it understands the struggle of faculty in this sector to become and remain involved. In general, however, while this is an important and evolving challenge, the CoTs have not intentionally addressed the changing needs and demands placed on the faculty today.


The communities of transformation in our study encountered many of the same challenges as they evolved and grew as communities. Understanding and acknowledging the challenges these communities face, and the strategies they use to respond, can help future communities as they encounter similar challenges. While many of these challenges can stem from funding issues, they each pose unique problems to be solved by growing communities; we have tried to highlight some of the most effective strategies above. In the following section, we describe the ways in which the CoTs in our study expanded their scope in the maturing stage by focusing on new areas, such as disciplines and educational sectors, for pursuing STEM reform.