SF State News {University Communications}

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Scientists take on science education

January 29, 2009 -- A greater commitment by science faculty to focus on science education could drive education reform at universities and K-12 schools, according to a new report co-authored by five researchers from the California State University (CSU) system and one from Purdue University.

Image SEPAL, science education partnership and assessment lab, logo.

"What are the best ways to teach science? Someone who teaches K-12, for example, must be certified to teach," said co-author Kimberly D. Tanner, assistant professor of biology and director of the Science Education Partnership and Assessment Lab at SF State. "That’s just not so. Unfortunately, it’s often assumed that scientists can teach their discipline by virtue of just knowing it."

Published by the journal Science, the research evaluates the role that science professors, who specialize in science education, play in improving how the sciences are taught.

To illustrate the pressure universities face to cultivate an effective learning environment, the report cites an earlier study indicating that when college students abandon science as a major, 90 percent of them do so because of what they perceive as poor teaching; and, among those who remain in the sciences, 74 percent lament the poor quality of teaching.

In addition to Tanner, the study's co-authors are James Rudd, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at California State University, Los Angeles; Seth D. Bush, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Nancy J. Pelaez, associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University and formerly with CSU, Fullerton; Michael T. Stevens, assistant professor of biological sciences at CSU, Stanislaus; and Kathy S. Williams, associate professor of biology at San Diego State University.

The CSU research team studied science faculty who take on specialized roles in their disciplines to reform undergraduate science education, improve K-12 teacher education and preparation and conduct science education research. These "science faculty with education specialties," or SFES, come from various backgrounds.

In a comprehensive survey of the CSU campuses, 59 science faculty were identified as serving in the SFES role. Of those, 47 percent transitioned into the role from a more traditional science faculty position, with many of them continuing their efforts in basic science research. The remaining 53 percent were hired specifically for the SFES position, and tended to focus on science education efforts.

About 40 percent of both types of SFES surveyed noted serious consideration toward leaving the specialized science-education position because of a perceived lack of institutional understanding of the field and to job burnout.

The authors will next expand the CSU study to a national sample.

The success of SFES positions, the research team believes, can be measured by increased numbers and quality of K-12 science teachers and of science majors graduating from colleges and universities. Such increases will need greater collaboration between universities and K-12 education districts, within universities between colleges of science and colleges of education, and internally within science departments.

-- Nan Broadbent


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