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Communities of Practice

Reweaving the World Through “Extended Knowledge Systems”


The key to the Astronomy Research Seminar’s success is the immersion of student research teams within an existing extensive astronomical pro-am research community of practice and the development and maintenance of that community. Social learning theorist Etienne Wenger’s pioneering 1998 book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, (CoP) conveys the basic idea as it applies to education:

Learning [within a community of practice] transforms our identities: it transforms our ability to participate in the world by changing all at once who we are, our practices, and our communities.


Learning is a matter of engagement: it depends on opportunities to contribute actively to the practices of communities that we value and that value us, to integrate their enterprises into our understanding of the world, and to make creative use of their respective repertoires.

In addition to incorporating the principles of Communities of Practice into all aspects of the Astronomy Research Seminar, the Seminars also provide students with an understanding of the global value of these principles. This provides them with not only the value of the research experience and co-authorship of a team research paper, but also a critical tool for knowledge building that they can take out into the world to apply in whatever field of endeavor they enter.


… [translating] the power of communities into successful knowledge organizations will be the [architecture] of tomorrow … they will serve as a learning laboratory for exploring how to design the world as a learning system.



“If learning is a matter of identity, then identity is itself an educational resource. It can be brought to bear through relations of mutuality to address a paradox of learning: if one needs an identity of participation in order to learn, yet needs to learn in order to acquire an identity of participation, then there seems to be no way to start. Addressing this most fundamental paradox is what, in the last analysis, education is about.” 


“In the life-giving power of mutuality lies the miracle of parenthood, the essence of apprenticeship, the secret to the generational encounter, the key to the creation of connections across boundaries of practice: a frail bridge across the abyss, a light breach of the law, a small gift of underserved trust—it is almost a theorem of love that we can open our practices and communities to others (newcomers, outsiders), to invite them in our own identities of participation, let them be what they are not, and thus start what cannot be started.” (CoP p. 277)


Leeward Community College Team

Honolulu, Hawaii

 “A community of practice is a unique combination of three fundamental elements: 
DOMAIN of knowledge, which defines a set of issues; a COMMUNITY of people who care about this domain; and the shared PRACTICE that they are developing to be
effective in their domain.”
(CCoP p. 27).

What are Communities of Practice and how do they form the pedagogy and foundation of the Astronomy Research Seminars? 

(Adaptations from Cultivating Communities of Practice (CCoP)



“The domain creates common ground and a sense of common identity.” 


The common ground of the ARS or its over-arching goal, is to facilitate student team research and produce high-quality peer-reviewed published scientific papers. (CCoP pp. 29-32).


  • This well-defined domain of student research and published papers affirms the purpose and value of the community.

  • It inspires members to participate and contribute their available time and unique skills mentioned above, knowing they are contributing in narrow but real and significant ways to the advance of scientific knowledge.

  • It designates what knowledge of astronomy individual students must acquire to contribute to the team effort and what activities they must pursue.

  • To accomplish the above, the research must be useful, even if narrowly focused science, and papers must be of high quality. The reputation of the entire community is at stake.



“The community creates the social fabric of learning.”


In the ARS, it fosters interaction and relationships based on “mutual respect and trust.”  (CCoP pp 33-37)


  • Students work together with instructors, research supervisors, subject-matter experts and others, all working towards the goal of useful published research. In the process they becomerespected and trusted researchers.

  • Instructors work together with each other—novice and experienced—subject-matter experts, amateurs and professionals, observatory staff, leadership students, and publishers, funders, and the Institute for Student Astronomical Research (InStAR) staff and advisors, all encouraged to “share ideas, expose [their] ignorance, ask difficult questions, and listen carefully.”  “…learning is a matter of belonging as well as an intellectual process, involving the heart as well as the head.” 

  • Amateur and professional astronomers are an integral part of the ARS community of practice and contribute their expertise because they are inspired by the shared domain—undergraduate student team research and published peer-reviewed high quality scientific papers—which is truly unique. They become part of the teams and often their name is included in the author list. They assume that student research members are properly prepared and that “community members who ask for help are competent enough not to waste their time.” 



“The practice is a set of frameworks, ideas, tools, information, styles, language, stories, and documents that community members share.”  


Domain denotes the topic focus, practice is the “specific knowledge the community develops, shares, and maintains.” In the ARS, the students in each seminar must “practice” rather quickly to reach the goal of a published paper, while the instructors, leadership students, and other support members can gain mastery across seminars and over time.  (CCoP pp. 37-40)​

  • Students must gain working knowledge of minimal but requisite astronomy terms and a general sense of the nature of their research projects, develop teamwork, share time and skills (often unevenly as happens in real-world science), gain some understanding of data collection and analysis, and work with experts.  Someone on the team must research historical data, and some must actually write and edit their paper, send it out for review, polish it, submit it, and some must prepare a public presentation. They need to find or be guided to, and utilize, available assistance for all of this from the larger community of practice.

  • Instructors must master facilitating students in all of the above with the goal of successfully doing team research and producing a useful, high-quality, peer-reviewed, published scientific paper. Failure to publish is not an option. They therefore benefit from practice in the larger community of this domain (purpose & goal), sharing knowledge, experiences, and resources such as course material within and outside of Course Management Systems, learning materials, data collection and analysis tools, videos, techniques for supervising student staff meetings and work sessions, building their students sense of working within a community of practice, sharing stories of success and failure, doing surveys and action research to assess and improve outcomes, making contributions to the InStAR website, and mutually developing  a supporting pro-am group providing advice and expertise.


Cuesta Community College meeting at the home of Instructor, Russ Genet


Paso Robles High School Seminar at the

100-inch Hooker Telescope on Mt. Wilson

Pine Mountain Observatory in Oregon. 
Five day intensive seminar

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