The Teaching Science Professor

New research suggests that faculty members focused on pedagogy as well as their disciplines may improve student learning.
December 19, 2008

Could science professors who focus more formally on teaching be the key to turning around the poor performance of many American students? That's the suggestion of a new survey of science professors at the California State University System.

The survey -- published in Science by five Cal State professors and one Purdue University professor -- gathered information from 59 faculty members within the science departments of the 23-campus Cal State system who identified themselves as “science faculty with education specialties.” These individuals are defined as faculty whose published research and departmental roles focus them on the improvement of science education within their discipline. Though this survey shows the number of these faculty members is on the rise, its authors argue they need more support in order to improve student performance.

James A. Rudd, II, one of the survey’s authors and a chemistry professor at Cal State Los Angeles, said that most science education research and development is traditionally conducted by faculty from education schools. Though these individuals understand the pedagogy of instruction, he said they sometimes do not understand the content of the sciences well enough to make their work beneficial. He said it is imperative for science faculty to bridge the gap between the study of education and that of science.

“There are scientists and then there are education faculty members within science departments,” Rudd said, identifying a shortage of the latter at American universities. “There’s a dire need for more attention to be paid to efforts for more science education. A lot of research shows that traditional lecture classes and cookbook labs are not the most effective way to learn science.”

The survey identified two groups of specialized science education faculty within the Cal State system: the 53 percent who had been hired as such and the 47 percent who transitioned from other roles to take on an education role within their departments. As evidence of the recent growth such roles have experienced, more than half of those hired specifically for science education positions were hired after 2000.

Though the study notes that science education faculty generally have “extensive formal training in basic science,” it found that a significant portion lack formal training in science education -- defined by the survey as “post-baccalaureate training, including degrees, teaching credentials, graduate level research, and/or postdoctoral research.”

Rudd said this is a criticism often levied upon science education faculty by their education school counterparts. He said he hopes this study will help promote the need for formal training opportunities in science education.

“A large majority of those in science education don’t have the formal training to engage in this activity,” Rudd said, noting that there are few institutions in the United States that award science education Ph.D.'s. “In fact, most graduate students don’t believe that this is a career pathway for them. It’s important that we have more formal training pathways out there and make them more accessible.”

Seventy-one percent of the science education faculty surveyed reported that they spend “about the same amount of time on teaching” as their non-education science colleagues. When considering research, however, 90 percent of these faculty members said “soliciting external grant funding and publishing peer-reviewed articles” was most important in being granted tenure. Fewer than 10 percent surveyed said there was an equivalent emphasis on “supporting scholarship in science education as compared with supporting scholarship in basic science.”

Rudd said science education faculty feel the pressure to do the same amount of research as their non-education science colleagues but with less support. He noted that they receive less grant funding and often do not have access to as many graduate students to assist their research.

As a result of this, the study notes that almost 40 percent of science education faculty members surveyed in the Cal State system were “seriously considering leaving their current jobs.” Among the reasons supplied included that some thought “their science education efforts were not valued or understood” and that they were “being overworked and burned out.”

Kimberly D. Tanner, another author of the survey and biology professor at San Francisco State University, said it was important to distinguish what exactly faculty members in science education roles are supposed to do. This, she said, would contribute to the longevity of individuals in these positions and alleviate some of these professional pressures.

“What I find most heartening is that these people exist,” Tanner said of science education faculty. “It’s nice to see that there are people who are filling these roles in departments. Still we need to sponsor more formal training pathways to help expand and build their knowledge base.”


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