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New Free Resource for Leading Change: The Science Education Initiative Handbook

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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This program (the Science Education Initiative)met with many successes – and challenges. The overall approach of the SEI is also adaptable to a wide range of initiatives aiming at helping faculty transform their teaching.


The posting below reviews and describes a new, online, free resource that can provide direct, expert help to faculty in transforming their courses. It is by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder) and Warren Code (University of British Columbia).


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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New free resource for leading change: The Science Education Initiative Handbook


Many departments and universities are trying to spread the effective use of research-based instructional practices among their faculty, such as active learning and effective course assessments. One strategy that was used at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of British Columbia was to provide direct, targeted help to faculty in the form of an educational expert who was also well-versed in the relevant subject matter. This Discipline-Based Education Specialist (DBES) partnered with faculty members to transform their courses, resulting in on-the-job learning and direct feedback to faculty members. This program (the Science Education Initiative)met with many successes – and challenges. The overall approach of the SEI is also adaptable to a wide range of initiatives aiming at helping faculty transform their teaching.

To help others learn from our efforts providing direct expert help to faculty in transforming their courses, we have recently produced a new, open, free guide called the Science Education Initiative Handbook( 

Below is an excerpt of content from the guide.

What was the Science Education Initiative?

The Science Education Initiative centered on department-based Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBESs), disciplinary experts with training in the science of teaching and learning who served as catalysts of change within departments. Faculty are often interested in trying educational innovations, but lack the time and expertise to carry them out, and DBESs were an answer to this challenge. Many institutions are using DBESs, though not with this title, at different scales. The two SEIs have influenced the teaching of hundreds of faculty and the learning of tens of thousands of students per year by promoting the use of evidence-based teaching practices in STEM courses. The design and outcomes of the SEI are described in detail in Carl Wieman’s detailed book, Improving How Universities Teach Science (Wieman, 2017).

ThisHandbookshares the SEI’s accumulated wisdom of practice in how to implement a department-based initiative, focusing on faculty learning and course transformation facilitated by DBESs. Readers will learn about structuring such an approach, hiring DBESs, organizing the work within the department, transforming courses, and partnering with faculty. This Handbookis authored by two former DBESs with a collective 20 years of experience in SEI and SEI-like initiatives across multiple disciplines.

What is a discipline-based education specialist?

A DBES is a generic description of a person who provides expertise both in a discipline (e.g., chemistry, mathematics, etc.) and in effective education techniques. 

What is the nature of the DBES position?

A DBES might be a faculty member with educational expertise (such as a DBES faculty hire), an instructor or lecturer in the department, or a postdoc hired expressly for this purpose. DBESs provide an essential link between departmental faculty and the broader education research community. They are not just people who are enthusiastic about teaching; they bring unique expertise to help facilitate the implementation of more effective, research-based methods of instruction in a department. 

Key features of a DBES:

-       The DBES is hired directly into the department. 

-       The DBES has a high-level background in their discipline. 

-       The DBES receives training in teaching and learning. 

A primary DBES responsibility ought to be acting as a catalyst of change, with a focus on developing faculty expertise in teaching. This focus will effect a deep and lasting change in departments, with course transformation as a means to this end.


What does a DBES do, and what is not their job?

It is important to explicitly and clearly define the DBES role; otherwise, there is ample room for misinterpretation among faculty and the DBESs themselves. The DBES should support faculty efforts and guide change in the department, rather than serving as instructional staff. 

The overarching goal of creating such a role is to foster expertise in teaching and learning among faculty. Without a clear definition of the role, faculty may see the DBES as a teaching assistant and not fully leverage their expertise. The DBES is NOT primarily a teaching assistant, teacher, or educational researcher, though those roles usually form part of their duties. 

A DBES’s day-to-day job varies widely based on local needs but may include:

-       Support of course transformation activities (such as facilitating learning goal development)

-       Analyze data on student learning

-       Facilitating discussions around teaching

-       Serve as a departmental resource in teaching and education research

-       Conduct research and disseminate results

What makes a DBES successful?

Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBESs) represent a relatively novel career path, and thus require specific training and on-the-job support in order to be successful. DBESs must hone their interpersonal skills (including the ability to persuade and negotiate with faculty), have excellent project management skills, and develop the education research expertise required for course transformation work. DBESs do not arrive at the institution ready to take on all such activities; they require time and development in order to reach their maximum capability. Without support, DBESs may become discouraged and frustrated to the point of abandoning the position. 

Thus it is important to:

-       Provide DBES professional development

-       Establish a DBES professional community (or tap into one)

-       Establish clear departmental expectations and oversight

In the original SEIs, DBESs participated in an initial training in teaching and learning, engaged in regular meetings with other DBESs, participated in a reading group, and contributed to an annual end of year event.

How do you oversee the initiative?

While the structure will vary by institution, some sort of central organization or management is critically important in creating a vision and oversight for the initiative, building community for and training DBESs, communicating with stakeholders, and coordinating daily project operations. 

What does the central organization do?

The central organization in the SEI acted as a highly involved funding agency, soliciting and funding proposals from departments, continually clarifying the DBES role, and providing ongoing oversight of projects through monthly DBES progress reports and regular meetings with DBESs and departmental directors. 

How do you solicit departmental engagement?

The central organization circulates a Request for Proposals (RFP) to eligible departments, typically addressed to the heads of the departments. Departments initiate their engagement in the initiative by submitting a proposal. The central organization then reviews proposals and makes funding decisions, acting as a highly involved funding agency. Be aware that departments simply may not know how to submit a reasonable proposal for educational work and that proposals may not always reflect consensus and/or the vision in the department as a whole. This can make it difficult to evaluate proposals on their potential to enact change in the department. 

How do you supervise the work?

It was important to set clear, shared expectations between departments, DBESs, and the central organization. In the SEI, lack of shared expectations often resulted in poor follow-through on course transformations, unclear supervision of the DBES, and, ultimately, low faculty and DBES morale.  Over time, several structures were used to address these challenges proactively, such as a clear Memorandum of Understanding with each department, ongoing oversight and meetings, regular reports from DBESs, and identification of a departmental director to act as a liaison with the central organization.

How can the department engage faculty in transforming their courses?

It can be challenging to engage faculty in course transformation work productively, especially given the typically low institutional prioritization of teaching.

Host external visitors

“No man is a prophet in their own land,” as the saying goes. External visitors can have an outsize influence compared to department faculty. You might invite a research visitor to discuss something about their[E4] teaching, invite a scholar of teaching and learning, or invite a faculty member from another department to present a course reform project. 

Provide time-saving resources or perks

Learning how to teach differently takes time, so offering incentives can help encourage faculty participation. In the SEI, such incentives were most effective when they were tailored to the needs of faculty members[E5] , often in a way that could benefit their research or free up their time. Offer faculty teaching buy-outs/releases, extra teaching assistants or research assistants, opportunities for paired teaching, or other perks in exchange for engaging in a classroom transformation project. 

Value development work in formal evaluations

A faculty member’s involvement in the course transformation project should count positively in their teaching portfolio for tenure and promotion. Give faculty (particularly pre-tenure faculty) reassurance that any dip in formal evaluations—if they happen—will not count against them or that alternative measures of teaching effectiveness will be used.

Validate teaching improvements publicly

Faculty working with the DBES ought to be featured publicly in the department (e.g., through a newsletter, or in faculty meetings) and be encouraged to present at local and national events. These activities serve to further affirm faculty’s often new identity regarding teaching excellence. UBC’s EOAS[E6] department developed a very successful newsletter which served to make the work visible across the department.

Assign faculty to teach coveted courses

For major course projects it can be very useful to explicitly assign the instructor developing the course to teach for several terms, because teaching the course multiple times can be a time-saver for faculty, especially in departments where the culture is high rotation among courses. This can also be a valuable incentive if the teaching assignment is for a particularly coveted course.

Focus on long-term departmental faculty

In the SEI, the principle focus of the DBESs’ energy was on long-term faculty, which include tenure-track research or teaching faculty and long-term instructors, but not contract lecturers. This focus reflected the SEI’s goal of affecting the culture of teaching and learning in the department, necessitating engagement of personnel who would have influence on departmental teaching practices for the foreseeable future. 

Include teaching-focused faculty and other long-term instructors

Across departments, the status and roles of those assigned primarily to teaching can be quite varied, whether they are tenure-track teaching faculty, instructors on long-term contracts, or instructors hired to teach course-by-course. Anyone with a (relatively or formally permanent) long-term teaching position in a department can contribute significantly to an initiative; in the SEI this contribution was usually most effective when the teaching faculty were fully integrated into the department and treated as respected members who rotated among courses.

How can you lay the groundwork for sustainability?

It is important to plan your initiative with an eye to sustainability and future engagement. It is not sufficient to create change and expect individual faculty to maintain the work. In addition to such cultural changes, you can create a favorable climate for continued engagement by making successes visible, establishing structures to sustain course changes, engaging administrators, collecting persuasive data on initiative success, and seeking to build on the work in the future.

Make the work of the initiative visible within the department

Ensure the department as a whole knows about the work, especially by publicizing early successes. Give the DBES and director some time during faculty meetings to report on the work. You might consider building a website you can send interested faculty to for more information or creating two-page guides to teaching strategies. Some DBESs hosted teaching and learning discussions within the department. Department talks also offer a valuable way of promoting discussion and generating interest for future teaching development work. 

Create departmental structures to sustain the work

Unfortunately, attitude change in the department will probably not be sufficient to maintain changes made as a result of the initiative without some accompanying structures. For example, how will learning goals and pedagogy for courses be revisited periodically? Will there be departmental expectations that future course instructors will use the course materials as a condition of accepting the teaching assignment? How will new course instructors be introduced to the course materials? Who will teach the course in the long term, and how can those course instructors be chosen to maximize sustainability? How will engaged faculty have opportunities to continue to grow their skills? Structures may include creating or revising departmental policies, including course renovation information in faculty review, creating or charging a committee with addressing curricular reform, supporting faculty learning communities, using paired teaching, or creating teaching awards for faculty. More details about how to support the sustainability of the transformation of specific courses are in the SEI Handbook.

Visibly celebrate success through cross-departmental events

Use public events to showcase the work in departments to others at the institution. The SEI featured an End of Year Event, which was a valuable opportunity for DBESs and departments to engage professionally around teaching and learning. 

Collect data on the initiative

If there are multiple departments involved in the initiative, you will need to work with each set of department leaders to collect this data. You will also want to collect data at several points to see how the initiative progresses over time.

In the SEI, we assessed the following:

-       Changes and outcomes from course transformations

-       Changes in faculty teaching practices

-       Changes in departmental attitudes and structures

-       Outcomes from the initiative as a whole

Engage with higher administration

It will be important to highlight success to higher administration at the institution; in many cases this will be the funding body for the initiative. Having regularly updated reports and summaries can be very helpful in bringing new administrators up to speed on the current state and success of your initiative.

Ideally, your dean can be a champion for the work. Support at the dean’s level is critical for creating institutional priority for a multi-departmental initiative, especially given the traditionally low prioritization of teaching improvements. Such engagement by the dean will require regular updates from the central organization.

Also in the SEI Handbookare specific recommendations for DBESs on partnering with faculty on course development, a