Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate

Nawal Benmouna, Montgomery College, Vedham Karpakakunjaram, Montgomery College, Milton Nash, Montgomery College, K. Rebecca Thomas, Montgomery College


Many contemporary problems that impact our daily lives – from the spread of infectious diseases to climate change – demand expertise from one or more STEM domains. Effective solutions require an understanding that moves beyond STEM, integrating the culture, values, and interests of impacted communities. This Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate prepares students to solve complex, interdisciplinary problems in the real-world context of their own communities.

The five-course certificate uses an experiential, project-based framework to engage students in authentic STEM research motivated by questions, concerns, and problems within their local communities. It develops skills associated with scientific inquiry, quantitative literacy, STEM communication, project planning, collaboration, and community engagement. As students explore the unique challenges, history, and values of their local communities, they gain experience balancing the scientific, socio-cultural, and ethical aspects of complex problem solving.

Goals of the Program

I. Reimagining the STEM Introductory Curriculum

This Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate reimagines the STEM introductory curriculum as follows:

  • Breaks down traditional academic barriers among STEM disciplines and other academic fields so that students, as future STEM professionals or as fellow citizens, have the experience to think about our world’s complex problems in multifaceted, inclusive, and humane ways.
  • Centers transformational teaching and learning practices in early undergraduate STEM experiences, including contextualized, place-based learning, and authentic scientific research to increase interest and improve retention in STEM.
  • Strengthens community partnerships to support students’ real-world projects that connect with their lives and contribute back to the values, concerns, and goals of the local community.
  • Builds a non-credit pathway (through co-listed credit/non-credit courses) for community members to explore STEM interests and consider further STEM training.

II. Supporting STEM Interested Students

The Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate supports students who are starting college with a general interest in STEM and/or a desire to explore STEM fields broadly using an integrative, problem-based approach. Students in the following categories may consider this certificate program:

  • For students undecided on a specific major, the certificate facilitates STEM exploration and provides a bridge into an associate’s degree program in a specific STEM field.
  • Students who are already in a STEM degree program can complete the certificate concurrently as a project-based supplement to their STEM degree.
  • Community members and non-STEM professionals may complete the certificate to enhance their STEM knowledge and training.

Program Learning Outcomes

Students who complete the Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate will be able to:

  1. apply the fundamentals of scientific inquiry and the necessary interdisciplinary knowledge to complete community-based STEM projects. (Foundational Knowledge)
  2. employ evidence-based and data-centered approaches to critically analyze options when solving complex problems. (Foundational & Meta Knowledge)
  3. analyze the local context for a community-based STEM project by explaining its connection with two or more society-based themes, e.g., local history or geography, competing social values, conflict resolution, ethical perspectives. (Foundational, Humanistic, & Meta Knowledge)
  4. access and utilize digital platforms and technology tools commonly used for data collection, analysis and reporting. (Foundational & Meta Knowledge)
  5. communicate STEM effectively to a diverse society and in different formats for different audiences. (Humanistic & Meta Knowledge)
  6. collaborate in a way that encourages and values the diversity of ideas generated by others during problem-solving. (Humanistic & Meta Knowledge)
  7. engage and lead within their local communities to promote scientific curiosity, evidence-based problem-solving, and positive change. (Humanistic Knowledge)

Program Assessment

Assessment of Program Learning Outcomes

Program learning outcomes will be assessed via rubrics designed for the specific assignments and activities that students complete as they advance through the certificate program.

  • Formative assessment will include assignments and activities embedded within the certificate’s courses. These assignments will scaffold students’ foundational, humanistic, and meta skill development as they move through the course sequence. Additionally, many of the assignments will build and/or refine components of the students’ two capstone products for the certificate.
  • Summative assessment will occur via evaluation of the two capstone products associated with the certificate:
    • the scientific (or technical) poster and presentation
    • the synthesis portfolio

These two capstone products are described more on the program details page.

Other Program Level Assessments

In addition to achievement of program learning outcomes, the following measures can assess the program’s success:

  • semester to semester retention within the certificate program
  • successful completion of the certificate program
  • enrollment in another STEM course or STEM degree program while completing or within one year of completing the certificate
  • number of community partnerships (e.g., with government agencies, non-profits, or businesses) that support students’ successful completion of community-based STEM projects
  • dissemination of students’ community-based STEM project work (e.g., data, materials, results) beyond the certificate program’s requirements
  • students’ perceptions of the program’s impacts on their STEM interest, STEM identity, and/or ethical awareness (e.g. through student pre and post surveys).
  • students’ participation in community-based events or organizations as part of or in addition to the certificate program

Program Courses & Capstone Products

Explore further details of the Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate on our program including:

  • a program catalog description,
  • the design philosophy,
  • the course sequence including course descriptions, &
  • the capstone products.

Description of the Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate

Nawal Benmouna, Montgomery College, Vedham Karpakakunjaram, Montgomery College, Milton Nash, Montgomery College, K. Rebecca Thomas, Montgomery College

Program Catalog Description

There are exciting opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – fields that are collectively known as the STEM disciplines. Many contemporary problems that impact our daily lives – from the spread of infectious diseases to climate change – demand expertise from one or more STEM domains. The Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate supports students who are starting college with a general interest in STEM and who want to explore STEM fields broadly using an integrative, problem-based approach.

This five-course certificate program introduces fundamental STEM concepts through an interdisciplinary, community-based framework. As students complete the course sequence, they engage in an authentic STEM research project using a local problem space to address questions motivated by the interests and concerns of their communities. While learning the basics of STEM research, students build valuable skills in scientific communication, collaboration, and project planning. Additionally, they explore and evaluate their project’s relationship to the unique history, culture, and values of their local communities.

This certificate program is intended primarily for: 1) students interested in exploring STEM but who are undecided about a specific major, 2) students already in a STEM degree program who are interested in a supplemental, project-based experience, 3) community members or non-STEM professionals who want to enhance their STEM knowledge and training.

Design Philosophy

Two key themes inform our design philosophy:

  • Interdisciplinary STEM Education following the 3 x 3 Model of 21st-Century Learning (Kereluik et al., 2013)
  • Embedded Community-Based Projects following place-based education models (e.g. Sobel, 2005).

I. Interdisciplinary STEM Education

Traditionally, academic disciplines operate in silos with the expectation that students easily make connections among courses as they navigate through their academic programs. Yet many students struggle to connect knowledge or apply basic skills across different disciplines. Additionally, many contemporary problems (e.g. climate change) require understanding that spans multiple STEM domains, and effective solutions demand knowledge and skills that extend well beyond the traditional boundaries of STEM.

The Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate is designed to deconstruct academic silos and change the philosophy of discipline-specific instruction. The certificate creates four new courses that all employ the 3 x 3 Model of 21st-Century Learning (Kereluik et al., 2013) to provide a holistic learning experience. Students acquire: 1) foundational knowledge as they learn multiple concepts and skills from different STEM disciplines to complete their community-based STEM research projects; 2) meta knowledge through opportunities to analyze, innovate, collaborate, and communicate; and 3) humanistic knowledge as they explore their projects’ community contexts by intentionally considering local history and values and weaving-in socio-cultural and ethical perspectives.

II. Embedded Community-Based Projects

Place-based education (PBE) is a powerful pedagogical approach that engages diverse students in studying local environments, cultures, or history and/or problem-solving within their local communities. Because a learner’s surroundings are a primary curriculum resource, their learning is infused with personally familiar, meaningful, and value-laden experiences. As such, PBE provides a framework for integrating humanistic knowledge into STEM education.

The foundation of the Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate is a PBE research project that uses a local problem space, allowing students to address complex questions that are drawn from the interests and concerns of their local communities. Students learn about local problem spaces during the first course, STEM in My Community I,and then they choose a problem space and identify a specific project. Their project work is embedded throughout subsequent courses and centers their learning at all steps, allowing them to build foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge and skills as they navigate through the program and complete the capstone products (see “Other Key Features”).

An Example Problem Space: The effect of waste on the environment in densely populated Montgomery County, MD is a problem that concerns community members. To reduce waste, Montgomery County has adopted a goal of recycling 70% of waste generated by the end of calendar year 2020. Goals for the future will inevitably be even more ambitious. This local problem space offers opportunities for student projects related to engineering, biology, chemistry, and other STEM areas.

Foundational Knowledge — Students learn fundamental concepts related to STEM research in general (e.g., graphing and data analysis), the local problem space (e.g., environmental science and waste management), and their specific research project (e.g., biological and chemical principles of bioremediation).

Meta Knowledge — Students build relationships and collaborate with local agencies or businesses (e.g. County Department of Environmental Protection), and they communicate with community stakeholders (e.g. county residents). Their projects may contribute innovative solutions to the local problem space (e.g. designs for more efficient waste sorting).

Humanistic Knowledge — Students develop important life and job skills as they learn to manage the different types of work associated with their research project. Additionally, they gain cultural competence and ethical awareness as they engage with diverse community stakeholders to understand how the community problem space influences their values, perceptions, or quality of life (e.g. worries about any health risks of living near solid waste incinerators).


Kereluik, K., Mishra, P., Fahnoe, C., & Terry, L. (2013). What knowledge is of most worth: Teacher knowledge for 21st century learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 29(4), 127-140

Sobel, D. (2005). Place-based education: connecting classrooms & communities. 2nd ed. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society.

Courses & Sequencing

  1. STEM in My Community I (4 credits; new course) — First course in a two-semester sequence. This course introduces students to various problem spaces in the local community along with associated STEM concepts. It provides opportunities to develop, apply, and synthesize quantitative and communication skills. Students investigate the geographic, historical, and socio-cultural contexts for a problem space. By the end of the course, students start to identify a potential research project associated with a problem space of interest. Students register for this course concurrently with Quantitative Science.
  2. Quantitative Science (3 credits; new course) — Introduces mathematical concepts that are essential for the sciences as well as basic tools for the organization, analysis, and visualization of data. Topics include functions and graphs, modeling, rates of change, systems of equations, and elements of probability and statistics. Students register for this course concurrently with STEM in My Community I.
  3. STEM in My Community II (4 credits; new course) — Second course in a two-semester sequence. In this course, students define their research project questions and develop a project plan. They continue learning any foundational knowledge necessary to complete their projects. Additionally, they collaborate with local agencies or partners as they begin data collection for the project. They also begin networking with the local community through activities that will contribute to the synthesis portfolio.
  4. Choose STEM course elective(s) to total 4 credits; majors/non-majors
    • List of STEM course electives
    • Students will continue working on their research project as an embedded component of their elective STEM course(s).
  5. Community Project Capstone (2 credits; new course) — This course is designed for students to finalize their research project work and complete their capstone products (See “Other Key Features”). Students build on their collaborative network of community stakeholders, government agencies and/or private partners. They also communicate their project findings in multiple formats that address diverse target audiences, and they reflect on the socio-cultural impact of their projects in their communities.

Other Key Features

Capstone Products

The Community-Based Interdisciplinary STEM Certificate culminates in two products, which students develop throughout the program courses and finalize during the Community Project Capstone course:

  • Scientific (or Technical) Poster & Presentation: Students prepare a traditional scientific (or technical) poster on their community-based project in a format suitable for presentation at a STEM conference. The poster should demonstrate the fundamentals of scientific inquiry, should include presentation of data and analysis, and should be presented at a STEM Student Research Conference (or similar venue).
  • Synthesis Portfolio: Students build a portfolio of work that synthesizes foundational, humanistic, and meta knowledge in the context of their community-based STEM project. The portfolio includes synthesis assignments completed as part of the program courses. Example assignments for the portfolio include:
    • Community Outreach Assignment: a product that communicates about and engages the general public with the community-based project and its importance; mode of communication allows for student creativity (e.g., blog post, presentation at a community meeting, visual art project)
    • Potential Donor Elevator Pitch: a concise presentation designed to communicate the significance and value of the research project to a potential community donor
    • Virtual Interview Assignment: organize a virtual interview with a scientist / sociologist / policy maker / activist / local official on an issue related to the research project and invite students
    • Dialogue Project: structured discussions with family, friends, or community members about their experiences, opinions, and values related to the local problem space
    • Ethical Analysis: a written paper that analyzes the humanistic dimensions of the problem space and research project
    • Other assignments to be determined through cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Supporting Materials

Matrix that maps out program learning outcomes (LOs) into different courses

Courses LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5 LO6 LO7
STEM in my Community I I I I I I I I
Quantitative Science I I, D I, D I, D I, D I
STEM in my Community II D D D D D D D
STEM Course Elective D D D
Community Project Capstone M, A M, A D, A D, A M, A M, A M, A

I – Introduce; D – Demonstrate; M – Mastery; A – Assessment as evidence of mastery

Link to the Matrix

National Science Foundation logo

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #1935479: Workshop on the Substance of STEM Education. 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.