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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