Evidence-based undergraduate science education: About the Science Education Initiative.

by Stephanie Chasteen on April 20, 2010

How do we transform undergraduate education?  That, of course, is the question of the century. We know there are problems with how undergraduate institutions are churning out students (and not cheaply, I might add) who can’t explain why we have seasons, or how to light a lightbulb. Or, perhaps worse, think that science is a confusing mess of information that they’d rather leave to the eggheads in their ivory tower.

When Carl Wieman won the Nobel for making Bose-Einstein condensates (back in 2001) he poured all that money (and his not inconsiderable clout) into making a program (or two) to reform science education for undergraduates.  The result was the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado and University of British Columbia.  That’s where I’ve been employed for the past 3 years, doing research on education.  Carl’s vision (and that of co-director Kathy Perkins) is to support the teaching of science as a science — that is, to take what we know about how people learn and create effective education programs based on that research, and to then evaluate the effectiveness of the change.  In other words, a scholarly approach to teaching.

Their approach has been to hire postdocs with a PhD in the discipline (like me) and support their collaboration with faculty to this end.  They’ve just published a major article in Change magazine discussing this model, and its effects.  The results, overall, are positive:

We see an emerging culture in which faculty are adopting effective evidence-based teaching methods, collecting data on the results, and coming to see teaching as a rewarding scholarly activity (the SEIs have produced over a dozen research papers on science education). Discussions of teaching in these departments have both increased in frequency and shifted their focus from topical coverage to student learning, pedagogy, and evidence.

The assumptions of the SEI model, they say, are:

  1. There is now an unprecedented opportunity to improve undergraduate teaching methods
  2. Data are necessary to convince science faculty to teach differently
  3. The department is the necessary unit of change
  4. Reward structures need to align with change initiatives
  5. More effective teaching need not take additional time or money, although the process of change requires additional resources

Read the whole article here, which includes thoughts on what has been effective, and an outline of the institutional structures required for the program.

See also Carl’s earlier article in Change, “Why not try a scientific approach to education?”

The more the department as a whole has been involved and seen this as a general departmental priority, the more successful and dramatic have been the improvements in teaching.


Captain Skellett April 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I saw a video about graduates who couldn’t explain why the seasons happened. Then I realised I couldn’t explain it right either. Then I asked all my friends and they didn’t know.

It’s a pretty stunning misconception, isn’t it. There’s a lot of them out there.

sciencegeekgirl April 21, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Yup, that’s a very famous video called “A Private Universe” – http://www.learner.org/resources/series28.html.

The thing that’s stunning about that misconception is that we all KNOW that it’s summer in Australia when it’s winter here, so the idea that “the seasons happen because the earth is closer to the sun” just doesn’t make sense with what we know, but we somehow conveniently forget that. It’s made worse by textbooks that show the orbit of the earth as an exaggerated ellipse, so we get the idea in our heads that it’s a lot closer at perigee than apogee (but it’s really nearly circular).

AmoebaMike April 22, 2010 at 9:08 pm

There are a few key issues that I’m afraid will take me years to comment, as a I tend to ramble. But since I don’t have years, I’ll try to keep this short. 😉

1) Just because someone is a good scientist does not make that person a good teacher. The idea that because a person has a PhD makes them qualified to teach is ridiculous. Could it be that one of the reasons people don’t like science is because they’ve never had someone who could actually *teach* science? In elementary school, teachers aren’t usually versed in science. Maybe in secondary school you’ll actually have a science teacher with a science background. And in college, you’ll certainly have someone with sci experience. But does that Prof–or TA–know how to explain PhD level ideas to freshman nonmajor brains? Sure as a teacher I hear things like “those you can do; those you can’t teach” etc. But honestly, actually TEACHING is a skill unto itself.

2) College isn’t for everyone. College should be tough. College should be well-balanced. And while it should be AVAILABLE to everyone with regards to cost, etc it shouldn’t be where everyone expects to go after high school.

3) I learned why there are seasons in elementary school. I happen to remember. (Along with things I don’t remember like the capital cities of every state.) What use is that (or the way a light bulb works) to me in my daily life? We need to get away from these ideas of science. To me, teaching science isn’t a live version of “how stuff works”. Teaching science is training students to view the world a different way. Learning how to measure, use control groups, think for oneself and use logic are very valuable tools. Much moreso than whether or not I can explain transcription and translation.

4) Changing higher education is something of a massive undertaking. Education is one of those societal issues that has so much inertia–possibly to keep itself rooted indefinitely.

sciencegeekgirl April 23, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Hi Amoeba Mike,

Thanks for your “rant”. I agree with all you said, so I’m a bit confused why this comment is attached to this post, as what you describe is not at all at odds with what this post is trying to convey.

1. The Science Education Initiative is NOT training scientists to become K12 teachers. It aims to help faculty become more effective teachers and to take a critical look at how courses are being taught at the undergraduate level. I agree that being a scientist doesn’t qualify you to be a teacher. In fact, the low level of training that scientists get to become effective teachers, despite being required to teach undergraduates as a major part of their job, is exactly why we have programs like the SEI — to help provide that experience and training since it is currently mostly lacking in the system.

2. College isn’t for everyone, but those who DO choose to attend college should not be subjected to poor teaching based on outdated ideas of what constitutes effective education. That, I think, is why many people leave the sciences when they hit college. It should be tough, but not an elite club, where you only pass by managing to learn *despite* the system.

3. I agree that knowing “facts” like the reasons for the seasons isn’t the only, or even the most important, thing that students should be learning. Perhaps that was a poor choice of an example — I was only trying to give a quick illustration that there are problems with the system. That’s an example that many teachers latch on to, since they assume that students will have learned ideas like that. But I disagree that learning “how the world works” is unimportant. I think that the scientific method and approach is key, but so is understanding some aspects of the picture that science has given us. In a writing class, we don’t just teach students how to write, but also want them to learn grammar, vocabulary, etc. Those are the tools of a writer. Conceptual understanding is part of the toolkit of a scientific thinker.

4. Indeed, changing higher education is a massive undertaking. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to swing the pendulum, just one more time?

Again, I appreciate your thoughts, but am not sure that most of them were directly related to the content of this post. I welcome a guest-rant from you in the future if you’d like to write a post!

AmoebaMike April 23, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Clearly I missed the mark in explaining my post:

I think it’s a good thing you’re using science to improve education!

My points are that the system is broken and it’s a huge change that needs to be tackled the way you would any large problem: methodically.

One of the problems is that people think because you understand something you can teach it. I’m saying that’s inaccurate to the point of being harmful! We NEED to teach scientists how to be educators if we expect them to teach courses.


And I’d be more than happy to write something for you at some point. 🙂 Maybe you’d even like to write for me. That’s a separate offer, not a condition. 😉

sciencegeekgirl April 24, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Hi AmoebaMike,

Excellent, I’m glad we’re in agreement and not at odds. It sounds like you were posting a rant of agreement rather than a rant of disagreement.

Drop me a note at stephanie@sciencegeekgirl.com to discuss cross/guest posting — I might have something that would work…

Here’s to excellent teaching!


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