Urban STEM Collaboratory CN Use Case

by Alice Zhao - December, 2022

Abstract: This case documents how the NSF-funded Urban STEM Collaboratory program at three urban universities has been using CourseNetworking (CN), an academic social networking platform, to connect their students and help them develop their STEM identities. Four best practices generated from this program are 1. Give platform orientation to participants and share successful examples from previous members, 2. Provide posting guidelines and let students lead the social discussion, 3. Motivate students through gamification and competition, 4. Integrate ePortfolio to facilitate social networking and individual identity building. These best practices may give ideas to other educational programs that aim to engage students through online community building.

About The Author: Alice Zhao is the Associate Director of Research and Development at IUPUI CyberLab and CourseNetworking. She leads the development and implementation of the CN platform. Alice is also a doctoral candidate in Instructional Systems Technology. Her research focus is social networking-based learning and technology. She can be reached at zhaomeng@iu.edu.


This is the fourth year I have facilitated the Urban STEM Collaboratory’s use of CourseNetworking (or CN). Urban STEM Collaboratory is an NSF-founded program that provides scholarships to STEM students at three urban universities. The program also brings the student scholars together to communicate with each other and develop their STEM identities. The three urban universities are Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Colorado University Denver (CU-Denver), and the University of Memphis (UofM). So far, around 250 student scholars have been part of the program.

The program selected CN (thecn.com) as its platform to connect student scholars from the three universities and form an online community. CN is an academic social networking platform invented by IUPUI CyberLab (cyberlab.iupui.edu), an educational technology R&D lab under the School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI. The platform has been used by nearly two million students and educators from more than 160 countries since its launch in 2012.

Use of CN for the Program

A Network page was created for the Urban STEM Collaboratory program before its initial launch in 2018. Unique CN features, such as posts, polls, reflections, Anar Seeds, and Announcements (i.e., Task tool), are used to support communication and track student participation. Resources and discussion prompts are distributed through the Announcements tool; students create posts and polls to share their experiences and perspectives; they comment on each other’s posts to form conversations; while they participate in the various activities in the Network, they earn Anar (pomegranate) Seeds. Students are expected to earn 250 Anar Seeds each semester for participation. In addition to the Network, a series of digital badges were designed to recognize students’ involvement in STEM-related co-curricular and extracurricular activities, such as being a member or leader of a professional organization, industry internship, community service, participating in research, tutoring STEM subjects, etc. Most of these experiences need to be documented via a Showcase on the student’s CN ePortfolio. After the Showcase is reviewed by the campus leaders or me, the corresponding digital badge will be issued to the student’s CN ePortfolio. Students can view each other’s ePortfolio, leave recommendations, and give endorsements. Through this process, the ePortfolio becomes a STEM identity-building tool for each student scholar.

As of Nov 23, over 2,000 posts and 4,200 reflections have been created, and nearly 200,000 Anar Seeds and 630 badges have been awarded. Student scholars have actively participated in the CN activities and have recognized its value in keeping them connected, especially during the pandemic. One of the UofM students shared this insight through the program’s annual evaluation: “I’ve posted on the CN and gotten feedback from people at other universities and talked to different people in the comments. It’s been generally a good experience all the way around.”

Best Practices

The successful use of the CN platform by the Urban STEM Collaboratory program was not achieved in one day. Instead, it was the result of continuous adaptations over the years. The experiences accumulated through this program can give ideas to other educational programs that network participants online via CN or other social networking platforms.

Best Practice 1: Give platform orientation and share examples from previous members

Although CN has an easy-to-use interface that resembles other social media, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, it has its unique features. The Urban STEM Collaboratory program also has specific participation expectations and a badging system. As studies have shown, students’ ​​familiarity with social media does not guarantee the successful use of such media for academic purposes (Churcher et al., 2014). Therefore, training students on how to use the platform becomes critical to the success of the implementation. Since the student scholars are from different universities, it has been challenging to bring them together at one time. In addition, since each year new students join the program there are always new cohorts to train. Considering these factors, we prepared a series of short online tutorials in CN to systematically walk students through the key features of the platform and program expectations at their own pace. See Image 1 below. These tutorials ranged from CN site navigation, how to create posts and interact with others on posts, Anar Seeds, program badges, and ePortfolios. Four activities were given along the way to encourage students to try out the CN posting features, check their understanding of the program badges, and create a basic ePortfolio to lay a foundation for networking and continued ePortfolio building. All of the orientation materials were shared through the Tasks tool, which was renamed to “Announcements” for the Urban STEM Collaboratory Network. Each year, these materials were copied into a Task and updated for the new cohort.

Image 1: The orientation materials in CN Image 1: The orientation materials in CN

In addition to the self-paced online tutorials, we also deliver short live orientations during their Bridge Week (campus orientation program) upon cohorts’ requests. These live orientations were hosted via Zoom for about 30 minutes. During these live sessions, we motivated students to actively participate in CN activities.

Throughout the years, as previous students produced exemplary works (such as comprehensive ePortfolios) we included them in the orientation materials as examples. To students, it is very helpful to see relevant examples and hear experiences from peers in the same program. In order to address the frequently asked question “How to earn program badges?”, we invited a badge champion from UofM to share his experience. He produced this fun video for us to include in the orientation materials.

Best Practice 2: Provide posting guidelines and let student leads prompt discussion topics

When we first launched the Urban STEM Collaboratory Network in CN, the student scholars were brought into a three-campus live event. There, they were prompted to take polls and create posts. However, after a while, the momentum died down. Students expressed that they did not know what to post nor the formalities their posts should follow. To address these questions, we first came up with the following Urban STEM Collaboratory Network posting guidelines:

  • You are encouraged to share anything related to your academic life in any format--writing, images, videos, links to websites and articles, etc.
  • You don’t have to write extensively or sound very formal.
  • You may also post non-STEM content. You can share ANYTHING you think will be beneficial and interesting to the group.
  • Don’t post just to get Anar seeds.
  • Absolutely no personal/political/social attacks. Respect for one another is essential.
We tried to keep the guidelines as succinct as possible. As of today, we have not seen any violations of these guidelines.

Next, we made a very important structural change: we selected 1-2 student leads from each university to organize and moderate the discussions in CN. These student leaders took turns prompting weekly talking points. In order to ensure meaningful and engaging discussions, the following strategies were implemented: 1. Maintained a good balance between serious topics (e.g. STEM study tips) and casual topics (e.g. favorite fall outfits) and alternated the two. 2. All of the talking points were compiled on a Google Doc, so the student leads could avoid repetition of topics by scanning through previous ones. 3. Used the CN Poll tool to survey program members’ interests and preferences. For instance, a Fall 2021 poll found that student scholars were interested in mental health and career preparation topics. The student leads then incorporated these topics. 4. Student leads came up with talking points before each semester. The program leadership team then reviewed and provided feedback. Once the talking points were finalized, each will be announced at its scheduled time. 5. In order to recognize student leads’ efforts, the program awarded them a STEM Collaboratory Leader badge once they announced all of their planned talking points on time. This badge was issued to their CN ePortfolio and counted toward their program badge target.

Below is a most recent talking point and a couple of student responses to it.

Image 2: A talking point posted by a student lead Image 2: A talking point posted by a student lead

Image 3: Student post responding to talking point Image 3: Student post responding to talking point

Image 4: Student post responding to talking point Image 4: Student post responding to talking point

Best Practice 3: Motivate students through gamification and competition

In order to incentivize students to participate in CN discussions and other activities, the program leverages the gamification features of CN. They are primarily Anar Seeds (points), digital badges, and leaderboard. By posting, commenting, rating others’ posts, and a series of other activities, student scholars earn Anar Seeds in the CN Network. Once they accumulate 250 seeds in a semester, they receive a STEM Collaboratory Participant badge. If someone wins Post of the Week (i.e.influential post) three times or more in a year, they receive the STEM Collaboratory Influencer badge. After building a complete ePortfolio, student scholars are awarded the ePortfolio Master badge. Here, Anar Seeds and badges work together to spur student motivation and recognize their participation. In addition to Anar Seeds and digital badges, the Network roster serves as a leaderboard. It ranks users based on Anar Seeds, encouraging positive competition and inviting student scholars to look at each other’s ePortfolios and network with each other. See Image 4.

Image 5: The top part of the Network roster Image 5: The top part of the Network roster

Besides using gamification features to motivate individuals, the program also organizes campus competitions to drive student engagement even more. Responding to weekly talking points does not only earn Anar Seeds for individual students themselves but also earns campus competition points for their institution (IUPUI, UofM, CU-Denver). A post with only text earns 1 point and a post with text and multimedia attachments earns 2 points. There are four talking points in a month for September, October, November, February, March, and April. At the end of each academic year, a winning campus is selected based on the cumulative competition points. Over the years, we have tried different winner calculation methods. We have changed from calculating yearly total points to calculating monthly points and announcing live results along the way. The winning institution gets to choose a prize, such as program T-Shirts in their favorite color and design for all of the student scholars.

Best Practice 4: Integrate ePortfolio to facilitate social networking and individual identity building

ePortfolio has been used by institutions as a high-impact practice (Eynon & Gambino, 2017). The CN ePortfolio stands out from other personal website building tools and ePortfolio platforms as it is lifelong, social, and specifically designed for students. The Urban STEM Collaboratory program integrated CN ePortfolio to help student scholars develop their STEM identities and academic network.

CN ePortfolio was introduced to student scholars from the very beginning of the program. During the CN orientation, students were encouraged to create a basic version of their ePortfolio, including profile picture, cover image, tagline, self-introduction, resume, skills, and work samples. This basic ePortfolio facilitated student interactions as students were able to get to know each other by viewing each other’s ePortfolios.The basic ePortfolio also laid a foundation for students to document their STEM accomplishments and accumulate program badges. Below are public ePortfolios from two student scholars:


Since the CN ePortfolio is lifelong and students own their ePortfolio, they may continue to build their ePortfolio by adding artifacts and reflections and eventually use it for job applications.

For the Urban STEM program, student ePortfolios have collected various data about identities and growth. They provide sources for program evaluation and authentically present the outcomes of the program.


It has been a wonderful experience supporting the Urban STEM Collaboratory program and witnessing how it impacts students. Implementing online platforms or new technologies through educational programs can be both challenging and rewarding. It requires systematic planning, collaboration, and adaptation to achieve effectiveness. Not all of the best practices we shared in this case study were in place at the very beginning. We gradually discovered them through experiments and reflections. For instance, over time, we added more program badges. We added a Continuity badge that encouraged students to share online learning experiences during the pandemic. We added a STEM Tutor badge when students expressed that they would like such an experience to be recognized. Another example was that we did not track all of the talking points initially and when we realized that we needed to have a historical view of all of them, we backtracked the topics and asked the student leads to prepare future talking points on the same document.

Through this case study, we shared our best practices. On the one hand, we hope they give ideas and strategies to similar programs to help save their time figuring things out by themselves. On the other hand, we would encourage these programs to embrace new technologies and practices with a willingness to make continuous improvements. We are happy to be reached out for questions and information.


Churcher, K. M. A., Downs, E., & Tewksbury, D. (2014). “Friending” Vygotsky: A social constructivist pedagogy of knowledge building through classroom social media use. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 14(1), 33-50. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1060440

Eynon, B. & Gambino, L. (2017). High-impact ePortfolio practice: A catalyst for student, faculty and institutional learning. Stylus Publishing.