Volume 39, Issue 6 p. 405-411
Free Access

Sustaining the development and implementation of student-centered teaching nationally: The importance of a community of practice

Tracey Arnold Murray

Tracey Arnold Murray

Department of Chemistry, Capital University, Columbus, Ohio 43209

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Pamela Higgins

Pamela Higgins

Department of Chemistry, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 17325

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Vicky Minderhout

Vicky Minderhout

Department of Chemistry, Seattle University, Seattle, Washington 98122

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Jennifer Loertscher

Corresponding Author

Jennifer Loertscher

Department of Chemistry, Seattle University, Seattle, Washington 98122

Department of Chemistry, Seattle University, Seattle, Washington 98122Search for more papers by this author
First published: 11 November 2011
Citations: 14

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF-DUE-0717392).


Although the idea of using a workshop to educate potential users about a set of materials or techniques is not new, the workshops described here go beyond simple dissemination and create ongoing communities of practice that support widespread and sustained improvement in the biochemistry classroom. The degree to which pedagogical innovations improve student learning on a national level depends on how broadly they are disseminated and how they are implemented and sustained. Workshops can be effective in disseminating ideas and techniques, but they often fail to sustain implementation. This paper describes Core Collaborators Workshops (CCWs) that were specifically designed for biochemistry faculty to improve the quality of active learning materials, support faculty in transforming their classrooms, and disseminate these efforts nationally. This CCW model proved very effective to date as shown by the fact that, 8 months after the last CCW, all workshop participants reported using at least some of the instructional materials discussed during the workshop. In addition, participants remarked that the superior community building and direct mentoring available through the CCWs greatly increased their confidence in implementing this new curricular approach and has made them more likely to act as leaders themselves. BIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY EDUCATION Vol. 39, No. 6, pp. 405–411, 2011

Over the past several decades a significant body of research has indicated that students learn best in settings that are interactive, inquiry-driven, collaborative, and engaging [1-3]. Yet the process of changing how science is taught at the undergraduate level has been slow and often limited to isolated classrooms.

Efforts to support the reform of teaching in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)1 fields have resulted in numerous projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and other agencies. Projects aimed at pedagogical reform often have multiple objectives including the development of materials and/or teaching methods and the dissemination of the materials and/or teaching methods to potential adopters. Faculty workshops are commonly used to disseminate new ideas and materials to potential implementers. Such workshops, ranging in duration from hours to multiday, are commonly reported in BAMBED and other science education journals [4, 5].

Although workshops are generally viewed as an effective way to disseminate information, the fraction of workshop attendees who subsequently use new materials or approaches in their classrooms following these workshops has rarely been published. Since these implementation rates are poorly reported, it is difficult for the public and future project leaders to know if a given workshop model is an effective dissemination and implementation tool. A study of a workshop used to inform instructors at all levels about inquiry-based environmental education showed an implementation rate of 59% [6]. Similarly, the implementation rate of the use of geographic information systems (GIS) in K-12 education following workshop-style professional development was 63% [7]. At the university level, the ChemConnections project, which was disseminated using workshops, reported a 43% implementation rate [8].

While implementation rates are important, only sustained implementation will result in national education reform. Moreover, early cohorts of implementers represent future leaders for expansion projects. If dissemination efforts are to impact educational practices nationally, a sufficient number of first round implementers must eventually participate in dissemination efforts that broaden the scope of the project. In fact, the influential “Vision and Change” report, a self-described “call to action,” identifies “engaging the biology community” as one of its four strategies for implementing change in biology education [1]. Therefore, because of the need to develop leaders, efforts to understand the underlying factors that result in sustained and expanded faculty engagement are essential.

One way to support changes in educational practices is through creation of communities of practice. Communities of practice, described by Wenger [9], are based on the idea that people, learn, grow, and develop through social practice. Three key features that define a community of practice are engaging in activities of mutual interest, building of relationships through shared activity, and creating common resources [9]. Previous reports describe creation of communities in order to support wide-spread and sustained implementation of innovative teaching approaches at colleges and universities [10, 11]. For example, a community of practice was created within a large, research-intensive department at a university in Sweden with the goal of enhancing the focus on teaching and changing teaching practice [12]. In another example, a community of practice aimed at promoting inquiry-based learning was created from an interdisciplinary group of faculty members from eight different universities in a region in England [13]. Another report describes the creation of a science faculty learning community at a large institution as a way to sustain innovative teaching ideas learned at a workshop [14]. In all these cases, authors attributed the success of these communities to the sense of shared ownership and engaged dialogue that community members experienced.

The purpose of this report is to describe specially designed faculty workshops, termed Core Collaborators Workshops (CCWs), and to provide a case study for how this model can create a national community of practice to improve learning in the undergraduate biochemistry classroom. CCWs meet all of the criteria that define a community of practice but stand out from other published accounts of communities of practice in several ways. First, the aim of CCWs was to create a community of practice that could connect otherwise-isolated biochemistry faculty on a national level. Second, faculty were invited to participate based on known prior interest (from broad general dissemination workshops) and/or expertise in using innovative teaching approaches in the biochemistry classroom. Finally, CCWs were intended not only to support those in the immediate community of practice but also to create a core of future leaders and relevant resources that would allow for wider dissemination of innovations. As described by Vision and Change, a concerted community effort will be needed to truly transform undergraduate education in the molecular life sciences [1]. Feedback from CCW participants as well as demonstrated leadership by many participants after attending workshops, described in detail herein, indicates that CCWs did shape a community of practice, which continues to provide the support its members need to act as change agents in biochemistry education. Therefore, it is our hope that several key elements from workshops described herein will be transferable to other educational efforts resulting in widespread and sustained implementation of research-based, learner-centered teaching approaches.


Two CCWs were conducted as part of the National Science Foundation-funded POGIL Biochem project to test and disseminate POGIL materials for the undergraduate biochemistry classroom (NSF-DUE 0717392). Major goals of the project were as follows: 1) to provide active learning activities that meet the needs of diverse faculty teaching upper division biochemistry courses, 2) to provide a model for documentation of specific student learning outcomes in biochemistry, and 3) to disseminate tested activities and instructor guides to diverse constituencies of biochemistry faculty. However, beyond these major goals, CCWs were designed to 1) change the implementation practices of the participants, 2) generate classroom materials and assessment instruments for use by many instructors nationwide, and 3) provide experiences for participants that would allow them to gain the confidence and expertise to become national leaders in undergraduate biochemistry education. Collectively, all the workshop goals represented an attempt to extend the impact of the workshops beyond the participants in order to extend the reach of the educational innovations.

Because they were conducted as a part of the POGIL Biochem project, the CCWs focused on use and assessment of process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) materials in majors-level biochemistry courses [15, 16]. POGIL is a student-centered teaching strategy developed by chemists in the 1990s [17-19] that has been used in all fields of chemistry, from general chemistry [20-22] to analytical [23], physical [24, 25], and biochemistry [15, 16]. POGIL is a student-centered strategy in which students work in structured small groups on specially designed materials provided by the instructor that guide students to discover and construct their own knowledge and understanding. The professor seldom lectures during class and serves as a facilitator of learning rather than a source of examples and facts to be relayed to students. Numerous studies have shown the POGIL technique to be effective in increasing student learning and retention [16, 18, 19].

CCWs were designed by the co-principal investigators of the POGIL Biochem project (Minderhout and Loertscher). Workshops were intended to take advantage of existing interest and expertise related to POGIL in the biochemistry community to create and improve classroom materials and to develop assessment instruments while simultaneously supporting classroom implementation. A relatively small group of specifically selected faculty was invited to each CCW. Many of the collaborators were teaching an upper division biochemistry course(s) and were either using or poised to begin using active, student-centered learning techniques. A few collaborators at the first workshop were not currently teaching biochemistry using POGIL, but were invited for their expertise in either POGIL or biochemistry. Unlike most distribution-style workshops where participants have a wide variety of backgrounds and come from a number of disciplines or sub-disciplines, this single-discipline model allowed the CCWs to be very focused on content and the skills needed to construct meaning in that context. The CCWs also exhibited unique objectives compared to the standard dissemination workshop model. Attendees were introduced to new materials and classroom techniques and participated in the development of active learning and assessment materials. The limited size and unique objectives resulted in two very productive meetings of this collaborative community.

The first CCW was held on the campus of Seattle University (Seattle, WA) with 14 invited collaborators and two facilitators. The workshop included an orientation to POGIL, with a discussion of the unique challenges of implementing POGIL in an upper division course such as biochemistry. Two collaborators who had implemented some of the activities written by the facilitators during the previous academic year shared their experiences with the participants. The first-hand accounts stimulated conversation and provided valuable insights that allowed instant, supportive feedback from other collaborators with active learning experience. There was also significant time allotted for brainstorming and activity writing in small groups and discussion of those activities with the whole group. For example, one group produced a new activity on nucleic acid structure. Subsequently, the activity was reviewed by the entire group, later implemented in several classrooms, revised, and finally incorporated into the published POGIL Biochemistry workbook, Foundations of Biochemistry [15]. Other new activities on photosynthesis and metabolism were initiated but are not developed as fully.

The second CCW was held in the more geographically central location of the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) with the original group expanded to 20 collaborators with the same two facilitators. Of the original group of 14, 10 returned for a second year and were joined by 10 new collaborators. The decision to invite new participants to join veteran participants was made intentionally in order to continue building the community. Since most participants were now familiar with POGIL Biochemistry materials, this workshop focused on improving classroom facilitation, the development of assessment tools, and approaches to help students develop visualization skills. Collaborators practiced the construction of a facilitation plan with guided references on learning theory, processes, and methodologies. Working on these projects in small groups made them less daunting and more informative for those not familiar with these tools. Once again, first-hand accounts from those using the activities in both large and small classes led to fruitful discussion about how to tailor activities to different classroom and student situations.

In order to more formally assess the effectiveness of the biochemistry activities, the workshop facilitators were interested in improving the quality of questions for an instrument designed to assess gains in student understanding of foundational concepts from general chemistry and general biology. At the second CCW, the collaborators were given a presentation on designing a proper assessment instrument for educational research and then divided into small working groups. Each group was given specific instructions for writing structured multiple choice questions on a given concept from general chemistry and biology. The concepts focused on incorrect ideas that the POGIL activities are designed to address in the context of biochemical material. The questions were reviewed by other collaborators for clarity and appropriate focus. This effort resulted in a useful conceptual gains question bank of over 80 questions, which was subsequently used to prepare an effective assessment tool for project participants and others [26, 27].

To foster a strong sense of community, the majority of the collaborators resided in a dormitory, ate meals together, and socialized in the evenings at both workshops. Fruitful conversations about additional POGIL ideas including activities designed to strengthen students' literature, writing, and visualization skills were helpful to many. This sharing resulted in the creation of a common resource of useful materials, including exam questions, activities, and case studies. Each of these activities aided in the development of the community of practice.


Benefits for Participants

CCW participants were given a formative assessment survey to complete on the final day of the workshops. The response rate for this survey was 100%. Participants described at least one strength, one area of improvement, and one insight into teaching or learning gained by participating in the workshop. The results of the survey are summarized in Table I. After the first workshop, which had a greater emphasis on activity writing, 69% of collaborators listed community or community building as a strength of the workshop, 62% commented on various aspects of the organization of the workshops, and 54% commented that time to write, evaluate, and/or receive feedback on activities was a strength of the workshop. At the end of the second workshop, which focused on facilitation, assessment, and visualization, 55% of participants listed community or community building as a strength of the workshop, 60% felt that various aspects of the organization of the workshops were strengths, and 35% commented that learning more about assessment and visualization were strengths. Areas of improvement are related to organization of the workshop and did not suggest any changes related to major workshop outcome goals. Also included in the survey was a list of ways the participants could become more active in the dissemination of POGIL Biochem materials. All respondents indicated that they would participate in future dissemination efforts in some way. As seen in Table I, the greatest interest was in grading common assessment questions, evaluating new materials and assignments that others would write and post to the group website, and making a presentation about POGIL Biochem.

Table I. Summary of responses to formative assessment surveys distributed at the end of each CCW
Number of responses CCW1 CCW2
 Community/community-building 9 11
 Organization of CCW 8 12
 Time to write, evaluate, and get feedback on activities 7
 Learning about assessment/visualization 7
 Miscellaneous 3
Areas for improvement
 Organizational suggestions 5 13
 None 4 1
 Topical suggestions 2 5
 Comments about location/venue 2 1
In which of the following would you participate in the future (mark all that apply)
 Make a presentation about POGIL Biochem 10 9
 Act as an e-mail/telephone coach for a new POGIL Biochem practitioner 8 11
 Co-facilitate a POGIL Biochem dissemination workshop 6 9
 Grade common assessment questions 11 13
 Evaluate uploaded draft homework assignments 11
 Assess or edit new materials as available 16
 Edit keys of instructor guides 12
  • Data were collected from formative assessment surveys distributed at the end of each CCW. Respondents were asked to describe at least one strength, area of improvement, and insight into teaching/learning as a result of their participation in the CCW. For CCW1, there were 13 respondents. For CCW2, there were 20 respondents.

The responses to an additional survey sent to the collaborators 8 months after the second workshop provided more information about the long-term benefits of the CCWs. For this survey, the response rate was 90% (18 respondents). The two collaborators who did not return the survey are not currently teaching biochemistry. As demonstrated in Fig. 1, the number of activities implemented by collaborators rose substantially after attending at least one CCW including five cases in which instructors moved to completely lecture-free course formats. Before attending, only 22% of collaborators were implementing seven or more POGIL activities. After participation in the CCWs, 94% of the collaborators reported implementing seven or more POGIL activities and 100% were implementing at least three POGIL activities. Sixteen of the 18 collaborators (89%) reported an increase in the number of activities implemented. The two collaborators who did not report an increase in implementation both reported an increase in confidence. All 18 respondents reported a favorable response to the continued use of the POGIL activities, with 83% responding it was “highly likely” and 17% responding “likely.” In addition to use of POGIL activities, informal conversations indicate that approximately half of workshop participants replaced some lectures with activities that they had developed.

Details are in the caption following the image

Number of activities implemented by workshop participants before and after attending at least one CCW. Some participants attended two CCWs. Survey was completed 8 months after final CCW. Eighteen surveys were returned.

Figure 2 summarizes the effect of CCW attendance on participants' confidence in implementation. The percentage of collaborators responding in the “confident” to “very confident” categories for implementing POGIL activities soared from 28% before attending a workshop to 78% after attending at least one CCW, even though specific sessions on facilitation were not part of the first CCW. Fifteen of the 18 collaborators (83%) reported an increase in confidence as a result of participation in a CCW; two of the three who did not report an increase in confidence had already reported “very confident” prior to attending the CCWs and thus could not have increased as a result of the CCW.

Details are in the caption following the image

Confidence in implementation reported by workshop participants before and after attending at least one CCW. Some participants attended two CCWs. Survey was completed 8 months after final CCW. Eighteen surveys were returned.

Responses also indicated that the CCWs have established a community focused on discussing student-centered pedagogies in biochemistry. Among the collaborators with colleagues in their home institutions who also employ POGIL techniques, 40% reported occasional or frequent communication with other CCW participants. Of those without institutional POGIL colleagues, 50% reported occasional or frequent communication with other CCW participants. Not surprisingly, these results suggest that being part of a wider community of practice is more important for those who do not have close colleagues with common interests at their home institutions. However, the most revealing result from this section of the survey was that 100% of CCW participants would be comfortable in contacting another collaborator if the occasion arose.

Informal conversations with participants and facilitators yielded additional insights about the overwhelmingly positive responses and success rates for the CCWs. For the participants, attending the workshops provided valuable, focused conversations and ideas, directly applicable techniques, a focus on implementation in upper division courses, better mentoring and networking, and more confidence in distributing ideas and materials to others. The workshop facilitators were able to use the ideas and materials generated at the workshops to create activities and useful assessment tools and to build a community of biochemists who are taking a leadership role in transforming biochemistry education.

Benefits for the Undergraduate Biochemistry Education Community

Because CCW participants were very interested in or actively engaged with innovative teaching approaches prior to attending a workshop, expectations for workshop outcomes were much higher than for a typical dissemination workshop. In addition to the professional development outcomes described previously for participants, these workshops were also intended to generate or refine teaching and assessment tools that could be used by workshop participants and others in the undergraduate biochemistry classroom.

A major goal of the first CCW was to write or refine POGIL classroom materials. Participants worked in small groups to refine existing POGIL classroom materials and generate new activities. Further refinement of activities was accomplished through a process of classroom beta-testing and feedback to authors by core collaborators. Refined activities as well as one new activity written at a CCW were published in a workbook, which has been used at nearly 40 institutions nationwide [15]. Initial adoption of the workbook was likely accelerated because the core collaborator community, who had helped shape activities, was very likely to adopt them for use in their own classrooms.

A major goal of the second CCW was to develop questions for an assessment instrument to measure student learning gains in biochemistry courses. A substantial part of the second CCW was devoted to collaborative development of a bank of multiple choice questions, a subset of which was used to create a 21-question multiple choice assessment tool, currently being used to measure changes in student understanding of concepts from general chemistry and biology before and after completing biochemistry [26, 27]. Prior to the CCW, a group of experts identified important concepts from general chemistry and biology which were likely to be important for learning biochemistry and common incorrect ideas that students have about these concepts. CCW participants reviewed the chosen incorrect ideas as part of the content validity process, suggesting changes based on their own teaching experiences. The final set of incorrect ideas was used by participants working in teams to create a number of specially structured multiple choice questions for each concept area. The resulting pool of multiple choice questions contained 85 items, which were used to develop the final assessment instrument. This instrument is only the second published diagnostic assessment instrument to be designed specifically for use in the biochemistry classroom. To date it has been used at approximately 20 institutions, and interest in using it continues to grow. Due to collaborative design by a community of engaged experts, we are confident that the quality of the assessment instrument was greatly enhanced. Therefore, the work of participants at the CCW represents a major contribution to the field of biochemistry education research.

Evidence that a Community of Practice Was Formed and Has Value

In addition to the benefits described above, a growing body of evidence suggests that a community of practice related to biochemistry education has been formed and continues to grow. This evidence, described in greater detail below, includes examples of scholarly leadership by CCW participants and proliferation of the number of faculty actively involved in the POGIL Biochem Project.

Since the CCWs, many workshop participants have taken on new national leadership roles in biochemistry teaching and learning. For example, three CCW participants presented talks about implementing POGIL in their biochemistry classrooms at national meetings of the American Chemical Society or the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education. Three additional CCW participants have made national or regional presentations about projects that they started or refined as a result of experiences they had at CCWs. Two participants have been co-principal investigators on NSF proposals related to biochemistry or biology education. Finally, one CCW participant is now viewed as national expert on using POGIL in large classes and has been invited to give multiple talks on the subject. Although it is impossible to discern to what degree these successes are due to participation in CCWs and how much is due to the scholarly priorities of each individual, numerous personal conversations with these faculty reveal that entry into the community of practice provided by CCWs gave them the resources, confidence, and connections they needed to move beyond their own classrooms into the public community of teaching and learning scholars.

Nearly 2 years after the second CCW, the network of core collaborators taking an active, leadership role in continuing to improve active learning and assessment approaches in the biochemistry classroom has grown from the original 23 participants to 32. Furthermore, over 400 faculty members nationally and internationally have engaged with the POGIL Biochem project in some way, including using materials or assessment instruments or attending dissemination workshops or presentations related to the project. Therefore, the community of practice that was founded at the initial CCWs has resulted in the creation of a large network of faculty interested in improving biochemistry teaching and learning.


Summary of Unique Features and Benefits of CCWs

CCWs were designed with the intention of creating a community of practice around biochemistry active learning strategies in order to promote and sustain changes in undergraduate biochemistry education. The CCWs were different from other workshop-based dissemination strategies in their small size (14–20 participants), focus on a single pedagogical approach (POGIL) within a specific discipline (biochemistry) and very engaged participants. Many CCW participants agree that the high level of productivity was due to structure of the workshops, which treated them as valuable collaborators instead of as novices. CCWs therefore could act as a model for using faculty development hand in hand with development and dissemination of innovative teaching resources. By inviting many participants with developed expertise or intense interest in active learning and by asking the collaborators to participate in materials development and evaluation during the workshops, this workshop model also broke down the novice/expert barrier. CCWs were mutually beneficial for workshop participants, who sought greater access to classroom materials and help in the implementation of active learning, and workshop facilitators, who sought help developing additional classroom and assessment materials.

Value of Producing Materials in Real Time

As described by Wenger [9, page 73], coherence of a community of practice derives from mutual engagement of participants that develops during the forming of the community. There is no one way to accomplish this mutual engagement, but in order for a community of practice to result several criteria must be met. In this case the focused efforts to develop shared resources provided engagement in activities of mutual interest and allowed for relationships to be built quickly. Therefore the rapid generation of materials useful to the community as a whole and developed through collaboration of participants proved valuable in establishing the community of practice.

Efficient development of new classroom and assessment materials was possible due to the highly cooperative atmosphere of the workshops. Participants could brainstorm ideas, develop an activity, and get feedback from experienced biochemists all in the space of a few days. Classroom materials developed during the workshops have been published [15] and multiple choice questions written during workshops formed the foundation of a new assessment instrument for biochemistry that has been used nationally and internationally [26, 27]. Since participants also spent ample time-sharing ideas during unstructured free time, additional materials, including answer keys, facilitation plans, and test banks, were also produced and have been widely distributed. The structure of these workshops directly contributed to the generation of classroom materials and an assessment instrument, which are currently being widely used in undergraduate biochemistry classrooms. Additionally, the collaborative creation of these materials provided the joint enterprise essential to develop a community of practice.

Comparison to Other Communities of Practice

Many studies have shown that communities of practice, also termed learning communities, can greatly affect the success rates of implementation, especially the implementation of pedagogical change [10-14]. One excellent example of this is the successful implementation of change at Bowling Green State University after the creation of Scientific Teaching Learning Communities (STLCs). Fifty-three faculty participated in STLCs. Of the 41 faculty that completed an assessment after participation, 33 reported implementing new activities, which is an 80% implementation rate [14]. The CCW implementation rate of 100% would support the hypothesis that having a community of practice increases the likelihood of sustained implementation. A major difference between the STLCs and the CCWs is the location of the communities. The STLCs were comprised of faculty from a single, large, institution. Many of the participants in the CCWs are from smaller schools and in some cases the only biochemist at their institution. About half of the collaborators have other faculty at their home institutions that use POGIL (10 of the 18 respondents) and most of those CCW participants report frequent communication with institutional colleagues about teaching, though most of the fellow faculty are not biochemists. However, eight of the 18 respondents do not have fellow faculty using POGIL. Especially for these eight collaborators, the CCWs provided a community and network of support for the pedagogical shift that might not exist at their home institutions.

Challenges for the Future: Sustaining Communities of Practice

Sustaining this community of practice over the long term remains an ongoing challenge. Most of the CCW participants have a strong interest in continuing this collaborative community; however, the original grant had funding for only two core collaborators workshops. It may be possible to sustain this community through continued funding from future grants, a central website where collaborators can share their ideas, provide feedback to each other, and post questions or concerns about implementation, or by organizing focused symposia at regional and national academic meetings (ASBMB, ACS, etc.). Because of the value of continuing community, funding that allows for the continuation and expansion of the community should be encouraged. Not everyone will have the departmental size or commitment to create a learning community at their home institution. The need to continue to support the community will help to sustain implementation and also create new “experts” to recruit others to effective pedagogy. This community of practice is likely to persist, at least in part, even if funding for continued formal meetings is not provided in the future. Therefore, we believe that CCWs could act as a model for others on how to establish a productive and sustained community of practice in STEM education.


The authors thank Cheryl Bailey, Theresa Beaty, Adam Cassano, Colleen Conway, Cheryl Coolidge, Kathleen Cornely, Shari Dunham, Matthew Fisher, Pamela Hay, Timothy Hayes, Bruce Heyen, Angela Hoffman, Julie Lively, Ashley Mahoney, Sunil Malapati, Larry Martin, David Parkin, Charlotte Pratt, Christine Rener, Jeffrey Sigman, and Susan White for their participation as core collaborators. 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 the National Science Foundation.

  1. 1 The abbreviations used are: STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; CCWs, Core Collaborators Workshops; NSF, National Science Foundation; GIS, geographic information systems; POGIL, process-oriented guided inquiry learning.