Changing how universities teach science: The SEI Model

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 21, 2017

We know a lot about how to improve STEM teaching and learning at the college level, and yet these improvements have yet to take hold in a widespread manner.  This is the perennial problem which many of us in STEM education are wrestling with.  The study of institutional change is expanding ever more, including lessons learned from business, cognitive science,

One early effort to incorporate lessons-learned from across these domains was the Science Education Initiative — a program at the University of Colorado Boulder and University of British Columbia, led by well-known nobel laureate Carl Wieman.   The SEI was a well-funded effort ($5-10M per university, $300-700K per department), and those funds were used to hire postdoctoral fellows to work directly within STEM departments as experts in the discipline, and in pedagogy.  Through partnering with faculty to enact course transformations, the postdocs were able to — in some cases, over time — generate significant cultural shifts within departments with respect to teaching and learning.  Below is a short video from the end-of-program celebration from the UBC program last Spring, which shows the program model and highlights some of its’ successes.

I have been involved in the SEI at CU Boulder for a decade, first as a postdoc, now as its’ Associate Director.  The SEI has been around long enough that we now have some concrete lessons learned from the program, with specific guidance on what worked and what didn’t. This is a really good thing, because there are many “copycat” programs arising from the SEI model.  While imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, I have also been concerned that we haven’t been able to give enough guidance to these programs, and others may be repeating our same mistakes — such as giving inadequate training and community-building for the postdoctoral fellows, and giving inadequate oversight to departments.

One of the big resources available now is this new book on the SEI from Carl Wieman (with contributions from myself and Sarah Gilbert): Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative.  This is a wonderful resource, and highly recommended for those wanting to find out more about the program.

Another resource that will be available this year is the SEI Handbook.  Warren Code (associate director of the UBC program) and myself are working hard to put together a more prescriptive guide on just how these elements were designed in the SEI, and lessons learned in working productively with departments and faculty.  We welcome suggestions — as well as testers for this guide later this summer!  Drop me an email if you would like more information, chasteen(at)colorado(dot)edu.

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Data visualization tips

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 14, 2017

Are you trying to tell a story with your data?  This is a big part of my job (as an external evaluator), and I recently attended an excellent webinar on data visualization.  Now, I hate webinars that are trying to sell me a book, but this one was so packed full of great ideas that I hadn’t thought about before, that I might just have to go purchase it!  For those of you who do a lot of data visualization, there are many such professional development opportunities advertised through the American Evaluation Association (I subscribe to their email list, and subscribe to their AEA-365 blog).

Stephanie Evergreen (author of Effective Data Visualization: The Right Chart for the Right Data and Presenting Data Effectively: Communicating Your Findings for Maximum Impact) shared several tips both for charting data, and for juxtaposing charts so that the essential story is clear.  Here are some take-home messages from the webinar.

Humans are good at comparing lengths. 

An early cognitive study (Cleveland and McGill, 1984) is the reason we know that pie charts just aren’t a good idea – humans are not able to make accurate visual judgements of area, volume, and curvature.  So we have a hard time with pie charts.  But we are good judges of differences in length.  Hence, researchers often use bar charts.  Those are fine, since we can easily compare the length of adjacent bars.  BUT, bar charts are not always good if (a) there is a lot of data to compare (bar charts get messy), or you need to compare bars that are not adjacent (we are not good at comparing bars that are far away from each other).

Below are some examples of using our skill at judging length and distance to improve data visualization, with images drawn from the webinar.

Try lollipop plots! 

Why have I never seen this before?  In the case that there is a lot of data to compare, Stephanie Evergreen suggests using lollipop plots.  Below is a slide showing the same data as a bar chart (lots of visual clutter) and a lollipop plot. The lollipop plot draws your eye to the most important aspect – the end point of the line – without the visual noise of the big heavy bars.  You can also use vertical lollipops (replacing vertical bar charts), and she gave an example where the percent represented by the lollipop’s length (e.g., “23%”) is placed in the round part of the lollipop – a very nice visual.  (And yes, she says you can do this in Excel, but if you want to learn how, you should buy her book.  😉

 Try dot plots! 

In the case where you are trying to get people to compare non-adjacent data (for example, clusters of bar charts, representing scores across different classes or years), consider dot plots.  Below is the slide she showed us.  You can see that it becomes very easy to compare the scores across the different lines, since the single location of the dot anchors the score for that group clearly.

She also had some great tips for presentations (animate your data graphs in PPT, use handouts for your main points and for detailed charts), and for reports (1 page handout, 3 page executive summary, 25 page report, with detail in appendices.  For reports, she strongly emphasized that people do not print out these reports anymore, and they should be easily skimmable in electronic form – obvious visual markers for separating sections (e.g., a single page with a large graphic), and clear headings for sections.  She also uses headings for graphs which explain the main point (e.g. “Over half of young adults with autism had any social interaction in the last year”) rather than our standard academic titles (“social interaction results”.)

If this sort of thing is of great interest to you, you might consider joining the American Evaluation Association or checking out their offerings. They have a lot of great stuff about the uses of data.  See for example their Coffee Break Webinar series and their eStudy packages.  Later this summer is one on “data dashboard design” focusing on laying out your data on the page in an informative way.


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You can now embed PhET into Powerpoint!

June 2, 2017

If you’re a PhET user, you’ll be interested in this one.  PhET has a new application that allows you to directly embed the simulations into your Powerpoint.  No more switching back and forth between Powerpoint and the simulation, or awkward pauses while you drag the simulation to your projection screen. Just install their free PhET […]

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A great new book! Teaching and Learning STEM by Felder and Brent

June 2, 2017

I was pleased to be invited to write a review for Physics Today on a new book, Teaching and Learning STEM by Felder and Brent.  I loved this book!  I found it utterly charming, useful, kind, and knowledgable.  I highly recommend it, and am going to be purchasing several copies to be able to give to […]

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Outdoor activities for kids: Big Book of Nature Activities

January 15, 2017

If you’re feeling a little stuck indoors with your kids, here is a resource to get your kids (or students) learning from the outdoors even through the colder months.  Last year I picked up a copy of The Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning.  I found it to be a great […]

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Writing a proposal on institutional change? Here are some great resources!

December 21, 2016

This is a repost of my blog post at the ASCN (Accelerating Systemic Change Network) blog.  Check out and subscribe to their blog for more posts like this! For many of us, it’s proposal writing season. If you are submitting an NSF-IUSE proposal, there are increasing expectations that the proposal will include a theory of […]

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Need to train postdocs or instructors to support teaching improvements?

November 15, 2016

This summer, Carl Wieman will host a workshop at Stanford to train STEM disciplinary experts to become educational specialists working in departments, in a short, intensive version of the postdoc training developed at CU Boulder’s Science Education Initiative and the sister CWSEI at University of British Columbia.  If you need to get someone up to […]

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Theories of Change

November 4, 2016

I have been wanting to blog more, but have been having trouble finding as many “transportable” ideas to share publicly, now that my work is more focused on broader, institutional change.  But one thing that I have been working a lot with, which is becoming more broadly recognized as useful in educational projects, are Theories of […]

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I am such a good physicist….

October 28, 2016

Check it out and you’ll see why I’m posting this video… You have to be patient for about 3 minutes, and you’ll see why I’m posting this.  And no, I had never heard of this guy before!  What a kick!

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“Teacher primers” on physics PhET sims published!

August 5, 2016

Over the past several years, I’ve been working with the PhET Interactive Simulations to determine how best to do video “walk-throughs” of their simulations for teachers, showing the main features and how they can be used in a teaching setting.  We call these short videos “teacher primers,” and I’ve got a set of them that […]

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Faculty perceptions around research based assessment (#AAPTsm16)

July 19, 2016

(liveblogging from the AAPT).  Adrian Madsen shared some work to identify faculty ideas and beliefs around research based assessments in physics, such as concept inventories (think FCI) or non-content instruments (e.g., CLASS).  This work is part of a project by to collect research-based assessments on a website, to provide a more coherent portal to […]

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eAlliances: Mentoring for women (#AAPTsm16)

July 19, 2016

Another interesting resource from the AAPT conference:  An online mentoring community for female physicists.  The eAlliances project ( provides peer mentoring networks so women can get advice, support, and connections to other women physics (and astronomy) faculty.  This sounds awesome, and a real opportunity for providing the kinds of mentoring that women need.  There is […]

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Teaching: The Ultimate State of Happiness (#AAPTsm16)

July 19, 2016

(Liveblogging from the AAPT)  I always find Eugenia Etkina to be inspirational, and today is no exception.  In the session, The Art and Science of Teaching, she got a chance to philosophize about her teaching.  She’s noticed that, no matter how experienced she is as a teacher, she always feels that she runs out of […]

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Make your own interactive video vignettes (#AAPTsm16)

July 18, 2016

(Liveblogging from the AAPT).  I just learned about a really helpful tool for creating short videos, which seems useful for flipped classrooms in multiple disciplines:  The Interactive Video Vignettes.  These vignettes are more than just a video, it includes a simple “wrapper” where students can make predictions about what will happen in the video (including […]

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Postdoctoral positions in STEM education

June 14, 2016

Just a reminder that I’ve been actively updating my ongoing list of postdoctoral positions in STEM education!  Feel free to add your own.

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How to help students engage in active learning?

May 27, 2016

So, about 4 years ago now, Andrew Boudreaux asked me a simple question:  “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat to gather materials to help instructors avoid student pushback to active learning strategies?”   What I thought would be a fun little one month project to archive some strategies has turned into a detailed research project.  Thanks […]

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Envisioning my business: Consulting for educational change

May 13, 2016

I’m in the process of re-visioning my business, and would love some help from my community.  My business, sciencegeekgirl enterprises, has been really successful and brought me great joy — and I’m wanting to thrust my energies for fully into it.  However, my vision has morphed and crystallized over the years, and it’s time to […]

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Postdoctoral positions in STEM education

April 26, 2016

There have been several postings for postdoctoral positions in educational change lately.  Please add to this post in the comments if you have others to share, and this can be a good repository. (Added 7/10) Physics Education Research in Sweden The Swedish National resource centre for physics education ( at Lund university has an opening […]

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Measuring teaching practice: Surveys

April 21, 2016

Last week I wrote about using COPUS observations to document what happens in a classroom.  This week, I wanted to talk about some of the survey measures we’re using to document change, and how. It’s tough to ask people about how they teach.  This was pointed out to me recently in my evaluation of the Workshop […]

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Measuring teaching practice: COPUS observations

April 14, 2016

I’ve said this before, but I *am* going to start posting in this blog again!  I miss the chance to share ideas and reflect on what I’m learning. So today I’m going to talk about something I’ve been involved with lately, which is the problem of how to measure teaching practice.  There are many of […]

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