Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Book review of Improving How Universities Teach Science, Part 1: Content.

Unlike many other books and literature on the subject, Carl Wieman’s Improving How Universities Teach Science - Lessons from the Science Education Initiative spent most of its pages talking about the administrative issues involving the improvement of university teaching. If you're familiar with recent pedagogical literature this book doesn't come with many surprises. What set it apart to me is the scale of the work that Wieman undertook, and his emphasis on educational improvement being an integrative process across an entire department rather than a set of independent advances.

The Science Education Initiative, or the SEI, model is about changing entire departments in large multi-year, multi-million dollar projects. The initiative focuses on transforming classes by getting faculty to buy into the idea of transforming them, rather than transforming the classes themselves directly.

The content is based on Wieman’s experience developing a science education initiative at both University of British Columbia (UBC) and at Colorado University (CU). It starts with a vision of what an ideal education system would look like any university mostly as an inspiring goal rather than any practical milestone. It continues with the description of how change was enacted in both of these universities. The primary workforce behind these changes was a new staff position called the science education specialist or SES. SES positions typically went to recent science PhD graduates of that had a particular interest in education. These specialists were hired and then trained in modern pedagogy and techniques to foster active learning. These specialists were assigned as consultants or partners to faculty that had requested help in course transformation.

The faculty themselves were induced to help through formal incentives like money for research, or through teaching buy-outs that allowed them more time to work on research, and through informal incentives like considering in teaching assignments and opportunities for co-authorship on scholarly research. Overcoming the already established incentive systems (e.g. publish or perish) that prioritized research over teaching was a common motif throughout this book.

The middle third of the book is reflective, and it’s also the meatiest part; if you’re short on time, read only Chapters 5, 6, and the coda.  Here, Wieman talks about which parts of the initiative worked immediately, which worked after changes, and which never worked and why. He talks about his change from a focus on changing courses to a focus on changing the attitudes of faculty. He talks about the differences in support he had at the different universities and how that affected the success of his program. For example, UBC got twice the financial support and direct leadership support from the dean. He also compares the success rate of different departments within the science faculty. Of particular interest to me are the UBC statistics and the UBC mathematics departments, which obtained radically different results. The statistics department almost unanimously transformed their courses, while the mathematics department almost unanimously didn’t.

Wieman also talks at length about ‘ownership’ of courses, and how faculty feeling that they own certain courses is a roadblock. Calling it a roadblock is partly because of the habit of faculty to keep their lecture notes to themselves on the assumption that they are the only one teaching a particular course. Furthermore, the culture of ownership was perceived to contribute to resistance from faculty to changes to their courses.

Under Wieman's model, course material is to be shared with the whole department so that anyone teaching a particular course has access to all the relevant material that has been made for it by department. Although UBC managed to create a repository for course material, the onus on populating that repository the faculty and there were few people that actually contributed. However where this matters most in the introductory courses even partial sharing was enough because many people tend to teach those courses.

The final third of the book is a set of appendices which include examples of learning activities and strategies in transformed courses, guiding principles for instruction, and several short essays on educational habits and references to much of the other work that Wieman has done. It also includes a hiring guide with sample interview questions for possible Science Education specialists.

The book also includes coda, which is an 8 page executive summary of the first two parts of the book. The coda served as a good review also a nicely packaged chapter that could be shared with decision makers such as deans and faculty chairs. Decision makers are exactly who I would recommend this book to; it has an excellent amount of information for the time and effort it takes to digest.

I had a few other thoughts about this book that were set aside for the sake of flow. You can find them in the second part of this book review.