Communities of Transformation: Expansion Strategies: More on the Maturing Phase


Section 9: Expansion Strategies: More on the Maturing Phase

As noted in the last section, we identified a host of avenues that the communities of transformation (CoTs) used to expand during the maturing phase. Given that communities of practice (CoPs) often tend to be more localized and rarely have the stated goal of expanding widely, the literature on CoPs does not have much information about expansion strategies. Our study is the first to document these types of expansion strategies for communities of this nature. This section builds on section 5, which described outcomes of the CoTs and the broader impacts that they have had over time. The expansion strategies outlined in this section provide more detail about how CoTs can have an impact across many spheres—disciplinary, national, and even international.

The communities in our study adopted six foci to spread reforms and promote growth; we have used these foci to organize the results sections below. The six foci are disciplinary, institutional, sector-wide (e.g., liberal arts, research university, etc.), constituent-based, national, and international, and we present them in this order, expanding outward from the most local to the widest scope. This can be visualized like the layers of an onion (see Figure 9.1). All of these foci must inform efforts to deepen and spread STEM reform, and we hope that this section assists future STEM reform leaders to grapple with them. In Table 9.1, we present a summary of the findings for each focus; within each focus we include information related to growth, strategies, leverage points (arising from strengths, capabilities, or history), and related challenges. In this section, we describe and document the various approaches to STEM reform in each of these areas. The CoTs’ stories of the maturing phase demonstrate how communities decide on strategic approaches that build on their emergent strengths. These types of community efforts have not been captured in any other study. These collective approaches to learning can also be considered as an expansion of the traditional literature on CoPs, offering a new set of growth strategies not found in earlier studies.

Table 9.1: Summary of Focus Areas, Leverage Points, Strategies, and Related Challenges

Focus Area Purpose, Strategies, & Leverage Points Challenges
Disciplinary Focus

Used by the POGIL Project and BioQUEST
  • Purpose: Shape overall discipline and scale throughout profession
  • Strategies: 1. textbooks, curricular materials; 2. meetings at disciplinary societies; and, 3. obtaining grants focused on reaching new disciplines
  • Leverage point: Access to influential disciplinary leaders either within community or through community members
  • Lack of expertise to develop materials and texts
  • Strain to resources if discipline is a secondary strategy
  • Need to maintain disciplinary alliances already gained as community presses into new disciplines
  • Danger that a critical mass emerges within discipline too slowly, and too many resources are absorbed in effort
Institutional Focus

Used by PKAL and SENCER
  • Purpose: Shape institutional policy and rewards to work on institutionalizing changes within institutions
  • Strategies: 1. working with groups or teams from campuses; 2. institution based grant projects; 3. utilizing consultancies; 4. leadership development; and 5. focusing on institution-wide adoption of pedagogy
  • Leverage points:Partnerships with organizations connected to institutional leaders on campuses, or institutional leaders that are already part of the community
  • Need to support teams after they return home
  • Without an established leadership development program, faculty may fail to translate these skills onto campus
  • Short-term perspective of funders related to institutional change stategies
  • Faculty leadership of community may be inexperienced with working with administrators (especially challenging for consultancies)
Sector-wide Focus

Used by PKAL, the POGIL Project, SENCER, and BioQUEST
  • Purpose: Achieve scale by working within an entire institutional sector (e.g., liberal arts colleges), achievable by recognizing and addressing particular needs and drivers of influence for different sectors
  • Strategies: 1. partnerships with associations, consortia, or groups that represent the sector; 2. obtaining grants to work with the sector; and, 3. hosting gathering for individuals in that sector
  • Leverage points: Having and entrée through connection to leaders, influential campuses, or other role models in a sector
  • Community can become overly identified with a particular sector and have trouble gaining recognition as relevant for other sectors
  • Sector grants tend to be one time only, and sustaining relationships within a sector can become a strain
  • Sector leaders change priorities regularly, and it is hard to capture their interest
Constituent-based Front

Used by SENCER and the POGIL Project
  • Purpose: Scale impact by connecting to important constituent groups; 2. hosting meetings; and, 3. obtaining grants to support work with constituent groups
  • Strategies: 1. partnerships with constituent groups; 2. hosting meetings; and, 3. obtaining grants to support work with constituent groups
  • Leverage points: Location of community leaders in DC for access to policymakers, active leadership of students in community, and demand from a group -i.e, teachers-to incite passion in the work
  • Difficulty formulating a clear mission to work with these groups, often with no intangible benefits for community
  • Difficulty measuring or communicating value added to the constituent groups targeted
  • Challenge of maintaining connection and providing materials to support constituent group as not the primary audience or members within the community
National Focus

Used by PKAL, the POGIL Project, SENCER, and BioQUEST
  • Purpose: Scale by spreading the reform across the country and embedding it within state, regional, and federal or national groups
  • Strategies: 1. creating regional networks; 2. developing other networks or communities; 3. hosting broad stakeholder meetings, and, 4. participating in national reform efforts
  • Leverage points: Concentration of community members and leaders in a particular region and connection to other networks or national efforts.
  • Difficulty of replicating energy and culture of national community within local and regional areas
  • Lack of local leadership or weaker leadership as compared to that which exists at national level
  • Conflict between building natinoal partnership or broad stakeholder meetings while maintaining support for the core local work of the community

Used by BioQUEST and the POGIL Project
  • Purpose: Scale impact by reaching out to faculty and institutions in other countries
  • Strategies: 1. building international presence on advisory boards; 3. accepting and encouraging national and international invitations
  • Leverage point: No real evident of consistent leverage points in our research
  • Leadership interest must be continuous and not too centralized in order to maintain international connections
  • Time investment

Leaders of each CoT connected their interest in expanding their communities with their aspirations to meet the needs of STEM reform, but they reported that they were not aware of the multiple levels or foci from the outset. They described how knowing about these foci would have been helpful to their expansion, sustainability, and success, which is why we have decided to highlight them in this section. While this section outlines the strategies, leverage points, and challenges connected to each focus area, we direct the reader to our paper on the maturing phase (Kezar & Gehrke, 2015b) for more detailed analyses.

Disciplinary Focus

Two of the communities—the POGIL Project and BioQUEST—used disciplinary or professional societies in their approaches to achieving STEM reform. The assumption underlying this strategy is that disciplinary societies strongly shape the teaching norms within their respective fields, and that by working through them it is possible to effectively alter the approaches to teaching within different fields. There were four main strategies these CoTs used within the disciplinary focus: developing textbooks, developing other materials, conducting meetings at disciplinary societies, and obtaining grants that were focused on reaching new disciplines.

The POGIL Project created a partnership with a publisher in order to develop a series of textbooks that use the POGIL Project activities for different disciplines. By developing textbooks, they aimed to spread the POGIL Project by making the resources and materials readily available, noting the importance of working with publishers that provide marketing for textbooks. In addition to textbooks and publishing agreements, materials and resources related to an innovative teaching technique were also placed on websites (particularly in searchable databases) so that faculty from different disciplines could identify activities and resources to include in their classrooms. For example, BioQUEST has created an extensive collection of materials that are searchable on their website, including case studies, Microsoft Excel activities, and computer simulations, all targeted to specific disciplines and usable to meet the needs of various biology or chemistry courses.

In order to ensure that faculty in various disciplines use these rich resources, both of these communities put together presentations regularly at disciplinary conferences and guide people to their textbooks and free online activities and materials. Over the years, they have also had booths at disciplinary conferences that describe their materials. However, in order to continue to create materials to address the needs of various disciplines, grant funding both of these communities have relied on grant funding, and they have also sought out grants to develop activities and textbooks as they move into new disciplines. One POGIL Project leader described an experience with a subgrant that was pivotal to expanding into a new disciplinary area: “One area [in which] we weren’t doing much work was mathematics, and now we have a grant to develop the POGIL Project materials for Calculus, which is a huge area on every campus.” Individuals involved with these grants worked not only to spread the POGIL Project ideas through the new materials, but they also often became leaders within their disciplinary communities as a result of involvement in these grants. This helped them to spread the word amongst their colleagues. Thus, the grants served a role in terms of creating new leadership within new disciplines.

Leadership in these two communities described the challenge of expanding into new disciplinary societies and working to maintain a presence across various disciplines. Each community had initial success within a single discipline, but then struggled due to overextension of time, leadership, and resources, as they attempted to expand or even to maintain their presence within that discipline over time. Various leaders talked about the importance of moving in new directions only where there is clear leadership and energy: “We recognize that if there is not a critical mass of interested faculty, then going in a new direction, even when there is a desire, just won’t pay off. You also have to have materials that resonate with that discipline and that is hard before you develop leadership there. So we are more cautious now and really weigh not just is there a need, but are there leaders and people willing to put in lots of time and energy into a new area.”

Institutional Focus

Two of the communities decided to focus on creating STEM reform through institutions by encouraging the spread of practices across science departments within particular campuses. The assumption behind working with institutions is that they establish the reward structures and policies to which faculty must respond; therefore, without working with institutions, reform is unlikely. The vehicles or strategies for an institutional approach included having teams of faculty and administrators attend events, forming institution-based grant projects, utilizing consultancies, supporting general or broad curriculum-based projects, and emphasizing leadership development.

Both SENCER and PKAL have a practice of inviting teams of faculty and administrators to attend their annual conferences, events, and symposia. One leader described the way these campus teams were pivotal to their reform approach: “One of the things that PKAL pushed is traveling together as a team to events, and I think that that helps the local people stay together and develop relationships. You don’t hesitate to contact those people when you need advice later when back on campus.” Leaders described how changes were unlikely to occur if only individual faculty members attended events and were isolated change agents upon their return to their institutions. Administrators were included in these teams, to support changes in policies and practices on campus. The events were structured so that teams returning to campus could take action to institutionalize the changes.

Another approach to STEM reform at the institutional level was to obtain grant funding for projects that were aimed at change across particular institutions. PKAL obtained grants over several decades that were aimed at institutionalizing changes through interdisciplinary teaching, active learning, or using more culturally relevant teaching approaches; these grants funded groups of institutions (often 12 to 30) in projects aimed to serve as models for institutionalizing reform. These projects were designed to help spur change at other institutions. Consultancies are a third strategy for creating institutional change and spreading reform. PKAL obtained a grant from the Keck foundation to conduct close to 100 institutional consultancies with the goal of moving institutions further along in their reform efforts by providing expert advice from experienced practitioners. SENCER established what it called “house calls,” in which SENCER leaders would come out to campuses to help faculty and administrators think about ways to “SENCER-ize” their curriculum.

A fourth strategy for institutional reform is visible in SENCER’s overall institutional approach. SENCER focuses on an institution-wide adoption of a pedagogy and approach to science education; it does not aim at changing single courses, departments, or even individual faculty, but in altering the overall curriculum of science and general education courses. This automatically involves many faculty across the institution, and it is focused on creating broader discussion about teaching and learning across departments.

Both PKAL and SENCER recognize that institutional changes required leadership, particularly leadership built among faculty who often lack strategies for implementing change and the skills of persuasion, vision setting, and relationship building. As a result, both communities created leadership development activities and programs to help cultivate change agents that could institutionalize the changes they were promoting.

One challenge related to the institutional focus and approach is the task of helping teams to maintain momentum when they return to their campuses. This was not always a focus for the communities studied, and it could perhaps have increased their impact on the institutional level. An additional challenge related to grant funding is that funders generally do not provide enough long-term financial support to foster institutional change; this change takes more time than provided by most grant terms. A third, more general challenge observed is that strategies, such as consultancies, were sometimes abandoned when the communities lacked the expertise to maximize them as leverage points for institutional change.

Sector-wide Focus

Several of these communities began their work with small liberal arts colleges; this is likely the result of the fact that much of the STEM reform movement originated with experimentation within this sector. Several of the communities in our study used this history, and the relationships that it left behind, as a base to spread across the sector. CoTs can encourage uptake across a significant number of institutions within a sector by leveraging national associations that work with these sectors and becoming visible in their collective dialogues, communication avenues such as newsletters and publications, and events such as annual conferences. The assumptions underlying a sector-based strategy are that different institutional types require attention to different needs and that various drivers influence sectors in different ways. Among the CoTs in our study, PKAL emerged from a consortium of small liberal arts colleges; SENCER gained traction through affiliation with the Association of American Colleges and Universities; and BioQUEST and the POGIL Project both started at innovative liberal arts colleges. In general, the focus on sector was far less central to strategy, as compared to the disciplinary and institutional foci, which were the primary drivers of decision-making. Within this sector-based approach, albeit limited, there were three relatively common strategies deployed: partnering with associations, consortia, or groups that represent the sector, obtaining grants to work with the sector, and hosting gatherings for individuals from that sector.

The first strategy, partnering with associations, consortia, or groups representing the sector, is fairly self-explanatory. Because most sectors are represented by national and regional organizations, the communities partnered with these organizations to create joint publications, to present at their conferences or meetings, and to provide communications about the work of the reform communities and its potential impact within the sector.

The second strategy, obtaining grants to work in a new sector, proved effective for several of the communities studied. For example, BIOQUEST developed a grant, called “C3 Cyberlearning Project,” that worked directly with community colleges to create materials for biology courses that include active learning approaches, embedding the BioQUEST Three P’s of problem-posing, problem-solving, and peer persuasion.

Another approach to working with a sector is to host meetings that bring together key leaders from that particular sector. For example, PKAL gathered private liberal arts presidents and key leaders from time to time to discuss STEM reform priorities in the context of the liberal arts mission. Similarly, the POGIL Project drew on its foothold in the Mid-Atlantic region by gathering faculty from liberal arts colleges in the area to discuss STEM reform and to help spread those ideas.

There were several challenges related to the sector-based approach. Sector-based grants tended to be temporary, and it could become a strain on resources to sustain those funding relationships. One respondent noted, “We have tried for years to get more grants for working with our minority-serving colleges, but funders seem to feel: ‘well, we gave you that money so you should be all set now.’” Another source of difficulty arose from being solely identified with a specific sector when trying to expand the community’s reach. For example, PKAL has been misidentified as exclusively an organization for liberal arts colleges, limiting its impact across sectors. Another challenge for this sector-wide approach is the task of maintaining the interest of leaders (e.g., presidents) in the sector, as they are often drawn in many different directions and have competing priorities.

Constituent-based Focus

Two of the communities played active roles in attempting to connect important constituent groups (including students, policymakers or legislators, informal educators, and teachers) that they felt helped to enable STEM reform efforts and broaden the impact of their work. It is important to describe this area of focus, because the CoTs felt that engaging these constituent groups could contribute to reaching reform goals. SENCER, for example, works to include student groups in conferences, events, and communications. Their assumption is that reform will require outside pressures or resources to be successful, and students bring this perspective. Similar to the other focus areas, strategies to reach out to constituent groups draw upon partnerships, hosting meetings, and obtaining grants. Below, we describe the various ways the CoTs deployed these strategies with different groups. Each constituent group affected is italicized to help illustrate the connective aspect of this approach.

The POGIL Project leaders referenced students as partners in the process throughout their materials and trainings, while SENCER believed that STEM reform efforts should be student-centered and should include the student voice. One practitioner told us that, “philosophically, it is important that we included students in events because this is ultimately about making learning relevant for students.” Another important reform community is policymakers. SENCER created the Washington Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Session, an annual event that brings faculty, administrators, and student leaders to Washington, DC, to present on the individual reform efforts that were going on at particular campuses. At the event, poster sessions are presented to congressional staff to show how campuses are changing, particularly as they work to solve public policy issues related to sustainability, health care, poverty, etc. The goal of this strategy is to gain greater support in terms of grant funding for STEM reform efforts and to encourage more state and local support for STEM reform. SENCER also works with informal educators from museums, libraries, and science centers. These constituents have resources and materials that can be utilized to make learning more active, experiential, and relevant for students. As a result of this commitment, SENCER obtained a grant to partner more actively with informal educators and to host them at conferences. The POGIL Project leaders also actively work with high school teachers; they have obtained several grants to bring their teaching methods into different school districts and develop high-school-level the POGIL Project materials and activities.

Participants expressed several concerns with this constituent-based approach. Faculty involved with reaching out to these new groups worried about whether these efforts added value to the existing community as well as to the new groups. Reaching out to new constituents can diffuse the leadership, energy, and resources of the community. There are also concerns about whether the CoT has the expertise and materials needed to support the new community members, and if new members will be obtaining enough value to stay a part of the community in the long term. A faculty member captured these anxieties: “Given this is a new group, not faculty, it’s hard to know if we can provide a meaningful community for them. What value do we add? Will they come back? We just don’t know exactly given this is not a direction we have gone before.”

National Focus

All of the CoTs also worked at the national level to spread their reforms across the country and to embed it within state, regional, and federal or national groups with the power to alter the infrastructure of support for STEM reform. By operating at this wide, networked level, these communities can connect actors across disciplines, institutions, and sectors to enhance STEM reform efforts. In terms of strategies to spread their efforts nationally, STEM reform community leaders created regional networks, developed other networks or communities, hosted broad stakeholder meetings, and participated in national reform efforts.

A strategy used by all of the CoTs to expand nationally was to establish regional networks or communities. Typically, each community used grant funding to establish and set up a regional network or several networks and to build regional leadership. This was the initial approach used by PKAL, SENCER, and the POGIL Project. Another approach with a national focus is to host broad stakeholder meetings. PKAL attempted to create a national presence by hosting meetings in Washington, DC, with the major national higher education groups at the end of each of its grant periods.

These communities also participated or were otherwise included in national reform projects, and they used this visibility as a lever to create change. For example, BioQUEST leaders regularly were part of national biology reform discussions hosted by the National Academies and other important national groups. This participation resulted in major recommendations, such as BIO 2010 (National Research Council, 2003). PKAL was instrumental to the creation a variety of different national networks aimed at STEM reform, each more specialized in its mission, such as the National Numeracy Network. By creating new STEM reform communities, these CoTs furthered their influence and impact nationally in the arena of STEM reform.

One of the biggest challenges to working on the national level relates to a leadership gap inherent to the iterative process. CoTs found difficulty fostering the same level of enthusiasm and leadership in the regional communities, as compared to the central community. Another challenge is that communities often devote much time and energy to engaging in the national dialogues and connecting with national efforts for STEM reform, sometimes with little attention returned to them for their work. This can create a tension for the CoT, between giving time and energy to these national efforts and nurturing the core community and its immediate impact.

International Focus

A last focus for expanding the work of the CoTs was to explore the possibilities of international outreach. To build an international focus, the communities utilize advisory boards and encourage and accept international invitations. We did not find well-articulated assumptions underlying the global efforts of these communities at present, but some participants suggested that other countries may have ideas that can enrich our own practices, and that the enthusiasm around these reforms in some other countries may actually fuel efforts back in the U.S. At the time of our research, BioQUEST had the strongest international reach and exposure, and this was a result of including international individuals on their advisory boards and making international connections to teaching and learning centers and disciplinary leaders abroad. However, this still constituted a relatively minor emphasis in the community’s work. One BioQUEST leader described how this international work developed: “John [the original leader of BioQUEST] had a lot of interest in more international issues, and we began to include international leaders on our advisory board and also started to get lots of invitations to travel and present our materials. So I think it really started as a result of his interest.” But, when that original leader stepped down, there was less interest in international efforts, and the existing efforts began to dissipate over time. The POGIL Project also has accepted invitations for international visits to Australia and New Zealand, but these international connections have not yielded a systemic focus as yet.

In terms of challenges for international approaches, some participants noted that it can be problematic if this work is purely driven by a single leader. As shown in the BioQUEST example, once their leader stepped down there was limited interest to continue this work. Therefore, leaders need to have succession plans for international efforts they start—especially when the leaders are near retirement. Those trying to reach out internationally also mentioned as obstacles the time it takes to travel and the need for in-person connections to make viable CoT connections internationally. There was discussion about whether there is a way to create branches of the POGIL Project, SENCER, and other groups internationally, or if it was better for the home community to simply expand its membership outward from the U.S. For all of these groups, these international efforts were still experimental, both in terms of developing strategies and in terms of being able to demonstrate impact. This was clearly an area of growth in the future.


In this section, we described the ways in which the communities of transformation in our study expanded their work through six different foci—disciplinary, institutional, sector-wide, constituent-based, national, and international—as they sought to grow and spread their reforms. Each of these foci contained important strategies for communities to expand to reach more faculty and to scale their reforms. There is also much to learn from the challenges that arose for work in each of these areas. This work coincided with the maturing phase of the CoTs; in section 10, we turn to the stewardship phase and to a model for sustainability of communities, informed by our data.