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Relevant Learning on the Rise at Stony Brook

Sencer levinton

Relevant learning — a teaching method through which faculty reconfigure their curricula by linking academic content to real-world problems — has long been central to Stony Brook’s mission. Now a key national initiative in relevant learning is housed at the University thanks to a visionary program, Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER).

Using the SENCER approach, for example, a biology professor may choose to teach a course from the perspective of an HIV/AIDS patient, or an engineering professor may identify problems in Third World countries and encourage the class to come up with solutions.

Engaging students — especially undergraduates in the STEM disciplines — is one of the main objectives of relevance in the classroom.

SENCER, which receives funding from the National Science Foundation and other public and private sources, arrived at Stony Brook’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences in March 2016. This past August, the University hosted its first SENCER Summer Institute.

SENCER group
Distinguished Service Professor David Ferguson (front, center) is the University’s liaison for SENCER, pictured with NCSCE Executive Director Eliza Reilly (left) and Lauren Donavan (right), from SBU’s Department of Technology and Society, surrounded by SENCER staff members.

It was Distinguished Service Professor David Ferguson, chair of the Department of Technology and Society and University liaison for SENCER, who asked Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. about bringing the program to campus.

“As a co-principal investigator on the SENCER project, I will continue to work with faculty at Stony Brook and nationally to grow research and practice in the learning and teaching of STEM by engaging students and faculty in civic engagement projects,” says Ferguson.

Since 2001, when SENCER originated at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 50 model courses and programs have been developed, engaging more than 3,000 educators and more than 600 formal and informal educational institutions and other organizations — all with the goal of connecting science, technology, engineering and mathematical content to critical local, national and global challenges.

At Stony Brook, courses with a heavy emphasis on the civic challenges of immediate relevance are on the rise. Among them are EHI 350: Design and Implement a Research Project in Ecotoxicology (Fall 2017) and EHI 351: Conduct and Communicate a Research Project in Ecotoxicology (Spring 2017), taught by Professor Sharon Pochron, who runs the Sustainability Studies Earthworm Ecotoxicology Lab.

There students investigate the role of environmental toxins, such as Roundup, on earthworm biomass and survivorship. They will unveil their findings at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities presentation in Spring 2018.

Another much-heralded course is EST 205: Introduction to Technological Design, taught by Professor Komal Magsi of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Students in this class designed Aerogel-lined inflatable baby carriers for working mothers in Africa, an all-in-one sustainable crop planting kit for people facing malnutrition in Angola, and a water filter for people facing unsanitary conditions and water scarcity in Bolivia.

At Stony Brook, there also are many non-SENCER courses that are compatible with its approach, Ferguson said. He cited ESG 201: Learning from Disaster, an online course taught by Professor Gary Halada that examines disasters such as the Hindenburg, the Titanic and the Long Island Rail Road Pickleworks Wreck of 1926.

Halada, who teaches the course at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, had been attending SENCER meetings prior to the initiative’s arrival at Stony Brook. That experience helped him to develop undergraduate research programs in nanotechnology and explore new models for sustainable energy education. Halada originally taught the course in the classroom but decided it would have a wider reach if it went online, which happened this past year. Last semester, 200 students enrolled in the course.

“One of the biggest impacts of engineering in the world is when something goes wrong,” said Halada. “It’s important for the public to become informed citizens and understand the difference between real risk and perceived risk.”

Another Stony Brook professor is heeding the battle cry for relevance in the classroom by making the focus of his classroom Long Island’s water quality and the food it harbors. Jeffrey Levinton, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, teaches Bio 371: The Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems, which compares the survivability of oysters and oyster beds in the environment of Jamaica Bay with those in Stony Brook Harbor.

Levinton with student
Distinguished Professor Jeffrey Levinton and student Quemar Blake check on a basket of oysters in Stony Brook harbor.

Levinton seeks students such as Quemar Blake, who is on a pre-med track, to assist him with his fieldwork. On a gray and breezy late summer day, Blake seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the experience. As the two measured the oyster height with calipers, Levinton noted that the bivalves increased their size 25 percent from the time they were lowered into cages a month before.

I wish I could teach all of my courses with this collaborative kind of approach. I strongly believe that team-based active learning increases a student’s dedication.”

Levinton gave a presentation on the course at the SENCER Summer Institute, and it was very well received.

Eliza Reilly, the executive director of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement (NCSCE), who is responsible for implementing and cultivating SENCER curriculum reform, is encouraged by what Stony Brook is doing.

“Stony Brook has everything it needs to be a national leader in applying SENCER approaches,” she says. “It’s just a matter of understanding that the talent is all there right under your nose.”

— Glenn Jochum

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