Another reason why science education sucks

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Sandra Porter
Science education faculty don't get no respect At least that's a strong conclusion from a paper in the December 19th issue of Science (1). According to the article almost 40% of the 59 science education specialists, surveyed in the California University system, were "seriously considering leaving" their current jobs and some (20%) were considering leaving the field entirely. Why?
Figure 1. Are science education specialists the Rodney Dangerfields of academics?
Before we continue, some more background information is in order. Who are these science education specialists and why do we have them? The science educators fall into two groups: people who were hired as basic research faculty and got interested in teaching, and people who were hired to be science educators. Most of the designated science educators were hired between 2000 and 2007. Why we do have science education specialists anyway? In 1997, there was a survey published by Nancy Hewitt and Elaine Seymour (2) that was quoted in the Science article. Hewitt and Seymore found that:
At U.S. colleges and universities, more than half of entering science majors leave the sciences, most (90%) complaining of ineffective teaching . Of those who remain in science, 74% express the same complaint.
Pretty strong stuff. In response, some universities responded by:
seeding university science departments with Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFES)
I suppose the idea was that these faculty would be resource people and would help other faculty learn how to teach. The study described in the Science article reports on the outcome of that experiment. The authors obtained and analyzed responses from 59 science specialist faculty at 20 California state universities. Of this group, 31 were hired to be science education specialists and 28 transitioned from basic research. So, what's going wrong with the experiment? at least from the faculty perspective? Some interesting findings about the science education specialists and their positions were: 1. Grant writing pressures -
Nearly all SFES (90%) perceived soliciting external grant funding and publishing peer-reviewed articles as being "essential for obtaining tenure and/or promotion."
I'm not sure if they considered this a problem or not, but I wonder if the reality of the position matched their expectations. The faculty doing basic research expect grant writing to be part of the job. Everyone lives and dies by grant funding in the world of basic research. Science educators, on the other hand, might not expect this to be part of their position, on top of teaching. 2. Lack of infrastructure and less support for science education. Basic researchers have graduate students and post docs to share the load. The science educators, on the other hand, had a hard time getting graduate students. 3. Few colleagues. According to the Science report:
34% of SFES [science education specialists] reported being the only SFES in their department
4. So, why are the science education faculty thinking of leaving?
Hired-SFES most commonly reported that they were considering leaving because their science education efforts were not valued or understood. Transitioned-SFES, in contrast, reported being overworked and burned out.
I found the results of this study sad and unsuprising. It left me with a few questions about faculty retention and satisfaction and more questions about the students. A really big difference, in my experience, between universities and community colleges is that community colleges prioritize teaching. This survey only covered universities. Are community college instructors more satisfied with their positions? The second and biggest question pertains to whole intent of having science education specialists in the first place. I would really like to know if the science specialists are having an impact on the students' perception of teaching quality. We know from the data that students were unhappy in 1997, but what about now? Is that still true? Are students more or less unhappy than they were before? Also, all community college faculty (in science anyway) are science education specialists by definition, since community colleges don't do basic research. It stands reason that if you're rewarded for basic research, and all selection pressures are focused on basic research, something else will suffer. Small liberal arts colleges are also populated by science education specialists. How do their students rate the quality of science education? Reference:
  1. S. D. Bush, N. J. Pelaez, J. A. Rudd, M. T. Stevens, K. D. Tanner, K. S. Williams (2008). THE PIPELINE: Science Faculty with Education Specialties Science, 322 (5909), 1795-1796 DOI: 10.1126/science.1162072
  2. E. Seymour, N. Hewitt, Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1997).

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