Since 2007, the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) has influenced the teaching of over 150 faculty and the learning of tens of thousands of students by promoting the "expertise-based classroom", where the goal is to guide students on the path from novice thinking toward expertise in the discipline by applying - and extending - research about teaching and learning. Departments were identified as the unit of change and the key factor in this change has been the addition of "Science Teaching and Learning Fellows" (STLFs) to each department. An STLF has deep disciplinary expertise (often a PhD) and is trained in current learning science in order to partner with faculty members as a course consultant in creating or adapting evidence-based methods and measuring effectiveness toward learning.
The CWSEI has led to extensive success in transforming undergraduate science education at UBC, with a particular specialty in high-engagement methods in large classrooms where traditional lecture had long dominated. Most of the course transformations have employed online elements in helping to maximize the value of face-to-face time in class, while personal response systems ("clickers") have become a common method to support small group discussion in large classes. Classrooms with active participation, even at the early undergraduate level, are now perceived as relatively normal by students, and feedback has been positive overall from students and faculty involved these course projects.
While examples of smaller-scale change (one or a few courses involving one or a few faculty) are abundant and have been important research steps in establishing effective teaching methods supported by evidence, they have not resulted in widespread changes in teaching. The intention of this initiative has been to transform undergraduate teaching at the University of British Columbia (UBC)'s Faculty of Science: aiming for a majority of faculty to engage with research-based instructional practices, leading to sustained adoption of such practices and new cultural norms around teaching in departments.
Central to this is the notion of using evidence to support changes in teaching practices and curriculum. Thus a scientific approach to teaching is proposed:
- Establish what students should learn and articulate this in terms of clear goals that lend themselves to evaluation
- Determine what students are actually learning by systematically gathering data on students' problem-solving ability, conceptual understanding, attitudes, and skills in the areas where faculty members have identified learning goals.
- Deploy, adapt or design instructional methods and curriculum that support the intended learning, incorporating effective use of technology and pedagogical research.
- Disseminate and adopt what works.
The deliberate engagement with scholarship was intended so that the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative could serve as a model for institutional-level change elsewhere by offering lessons learned during this ambitious undertaking. Moreover, at the classroom scale, by extending existing research and resources in various disciplines with instructional examples and studies of student learning, the Initiative has aimed to support individuals in improving their own teaching in STEM fields. With a commitment to open licensing, these are available beyond UBC to faculty and educational developers at other institutions.
The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative is the result of a major institutional commitment of the University of British Columbia, involving a significant 1-time investment of resources (about $1-2M over 6 years per department) substantial enough to produce sustainable changes in teaching culture.
Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a leader in science education, was brought in to design and direct the initiative. Departments were identified as the unit of change and granted funding through a proposal process looking for commitment of key faculty members - including the department chairs/heads - and readiness for sustained effort to improve teaching. A central unit was also funded to review proposals, advise on projects and to coordinate and train the Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (below). Each department was also asked to identify a faculty member as its "Department Director" to liaise with the central unit as well as hire and supervise the department's fellows.
Funding was partly used for incentives (e.g. extra teaching assistant) or direct buy-outs of faculty teaching time, acknowledging that course development and learning about new methods of teaching each require time and effort.
The largest expense, however, was the addition of one to four "Science Teaching and Learning Fellow" (STLF) positions in each department. Hired as postdoctoral fellows or contract faculty, the fellows brought graduate-level education (usually a PhD) in the discipline and typically some post-secondary teaching experience as well. Given ongoing training and guidance on science education fundamentals by the central unit, the STLFs acted as "educational engineers": gaining familiarity with research on student misconceptions and other discipline-specific concerns, gathering data on student thinking, analyzing exams and homework, listening to student discussions during problem-solving activities, and developing and administering concept tests and attitudinal surveys. There was also an expectation for publication of results where possible.
After proposals were accepted and fellows had been hired, the central unit continued periodic meetings with department chairs, the Dean of Science, individual faculty and occasionally whole departments. There was also an attempt to foster community across departments with lecture series, workshops, and a yearly showcase event.
The central unit also led frequent meetings with the Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (STLFs) emphasizing how people learn, effective pedagogy and related evidence, engaging with the science education research base (eventually, how to conduct such research), and also exploring effective ways to work with faculty. STLFs could increasingly serve as departmental experts on pedagogy, ranging from casual discussions to conducting seminars and workshops, and work with faculty to develop learning goals, activities and other materials for teaching, while also measuring learning to inform choices in assessment and instruction.
Though online elements have a role in most of the transformed courses, they are in support of maximizing the face-to-face time in class. Personal response systems ("clickers") and worksheets have become popular methods to support student reasoning and group discussion, even in large classes. As students are asked to be more prepared and to do more thinking during class time, the expertise of instructors - in content and in teaching methods - is called upon more than in traditional lecture time, providing a richer learning experience for students (and often more fun for those teaching!).
In addition to the instructor resources on the main website, intended for instructors across a range of disciplines, a course materials archive system (sei.ubc.ca) was also developed, with room for instructor comments on use of materials and reflections on their courses, as well as common student difficulties and how to address them. In both kinds of resources there was a general policy of open licensing (Creative Commons) in order to benefit broader STEM education efforts.
With about 150 faculty supported directly by over 50 STLFs across the years (12-20 at any one time), the CWSEI has led to extensive success in transforming undergraduate science education at UBC, with a particular specialty in high-engagement methods in large classrooms where traditional lecture had long dominated.
As of 2015 (~5-7 years across departments), over 100 courses have seen a significant level of transformation, meaning a substantial shift to evidence-based teaching practices and course design, and over 50 more have some changes based on CWSEI contact. Combined, these represent about one third of all courses in the Faculty of Science, comprising two thirds of all course registrations (due to the bias towards large-enrollment courses) by over 15,000 students per year. Classrooms with active participation - even at the early undergraduate level - are now perceived as relatively normal by students, and feedback has been positive overall from students and faculty involved these course projects.
Within departments and across the Faculty of Science, STLFs and their partner faculty have created communities around teaching innovation -- a culture change essential to any lasting effect. Perceived barriers to teaching have also shifted, from concerns about large class sizes and (perceived) lack of student preparedness/motivation to concerns about time shortages and need for teaching expertise development.
Owing to the inclusion of scholarship as an essential aspect of the CWSEI, a significant knowledge base of practical resources and published evidence of effectiveness has accrued; the website has a significant following inside and outside UBC. Several other institutions have adopted the department-embedded teaching experts model in some form, either on their own (e.g. Cornell University) or as part of the Bay View Alliance network (bayviewalliance.org; including University Kansas, Queen's University, UC Davis and Indiana University).
While official activities have concluded in three departments, follow-up projects with smaller, institutional funding are ongoing and the other four departments will continue with 1-2 Science Teaching and Learning Fellows each until 2017.
To conclude the findings suggested by intermediate reports, a comprehensive writing-up of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative's activities, lessons learned, and results is underway. Some of this is a joint effort with the Science Education Initiative at University of Colorado at Boulder (http://www.colorado.edu/sei/), where a similar initiative was undertaken over part of the same time period. UBC and CU are currently mentor institutions to the Bay View Alliance (bayviewalliance.org) network of institutions, including a subset research cluster of universities led by the University of Kansas with National Science Foundation funding that are is embarking on an implementation and study of the department-based experts model. funded by the National Science Foundation.
Regarding the sustainability of course improvements and newly-adopted methods of teaching, the questions of effective transfer of materials (e.g. what format or detail are of value when passing a course along to another instructor?) and of effective work/time management associated with teaching with higher-engagement methods are still under consideration and will also become an important contribution of the initiative. The CWSEI central unit is now integrated with the existing Science Centre for Learning and Teaching (permanent teaching and learning support unit at UBC), and along with these "wrap-up" activities we are looking for opportunities to extend the work of Science Teaching and Learning Fellows in departments - at a smaller scale - longer term. "Co-teaching", pairing faculty experienced with course transformations and the associated research-based instructional strategies with faculty with little or no experience in these, is being explored as a model for further faculty development that takes advantage of the significant expertise that now exists among faculty in the departments.