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:
- There is now an unprecedented opportunity to improve undergraduate teaching methods
- Data are necessary to convince science faculty to teach differently
- The department is the necessary unit of change
- Reward structures need to align with change initiatives
- 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.