Education experts are changing science from the inside out

A classroom full of students in a lecture hall

Study shows a decade’s increase in education faculty in CSU science departments

Science professors go through years of training to learn about their field, yet they often don’t receive any formal education in how to teach students about it. A new study takes a decade-long look at one way that science departments in the California State University system are trying to amend that by bringing faculty with educational expertise into the fold.

The story starts in 2005, when San Francisco State University Professor of Biology Kimberly Tanner and five of her colleagues across the CSU noticed a little-reported phenomenon: education specialists in science departments. “The practice of embedding people who have scientific backgrounds but who also bring expertise in education was an emerging idea,” she said. There’s a long history of science departments working with education departments, but this was something different. To learn more about the shift, the team surveyed faculty members across the 23 CSU campuses and published their results in 2008.

After a decade of national studies on the topic, they saw an opportunity to check back in at home to see how things had changed. Tanner, along with Cal Poly Pomona Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Seth Bush, Utah Valley University Professor of Biology Michael Stevens and San Diego State University Professor of Biology Kathy Williams, found and surveyed 89 education specialists in science departments across the CSU system. The team published the results today in the journal Science Advances, in the prestigious Science family of journals.

The researchers found that the number of education specialists in CSU science departments had increased by more than 50% since 2008, and the percentage who were formally trained in science education more than doubled. They were better-funded, too: The fraction of surveyed faculty who won more than a million dollars in grant funding also doubled over the decade to more than half. Some specialized in education research in their scientific discipline while others focused on improving science courses at their university or supporting K-12 science education.

The findings are contrary to the assumptions of many researchers who, at the time of the original study, expected that the phenomenon of education specialists in science departments would be short-lived. “That’s why this research is so key,” Tanner said. “Not only are they still around, but it looks like there’s an increase in the number of people in these positions.”

A number of factors could be responsible for the shift. Tanner points to an increase in national grant funding for science education and a broader recognition that lackluster teaching discourages some students from pursuing science degrees. Many university science departments “disproportionately lose students of color, transfer students and LGBTQ students,” she explained. “There is increasing focus within science departments to be better educators and to retain more students — and more diverse populations of students.”

While the study was focused on the CSU system, the researchers write that the results are useful for understanding national trends, since the system is the largest four-year public university system in the U.S. and includes a variety of university types. They next hope to survey administrators and other researchers among science faculty to see how the phenomenon is affecting teaching in science departments more broadly.

“It could have turned out very differently than it has,” Tanner said. “But these hybrid professionals have really flourished.”

Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the CSU Chancellor’s Office.