It sounds like a dream – a high profile and hugely funded project (about 200 k per year, currently) entirely dedicated to improving the academic fortunes of the masses of undergrad science students. Students that currently seem to leave their lower-level physics and chemistry courses more detached, zombie-like, and unready for what real scientific enquiry is all about than when they came in (chem 205 with Dr. Chen, anyone?). But what exactly is the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) proposing, what are its methods, what has it accomplished in it’s three months of official existence, and what do concerned parties think of the whole shebang?

Carl Wieman, the Nobel laureate in physics from U of Colorado was recruited to UBC in 2007 with pomp and circumstance. But instead of setting up a state-of-the-art lab for experimental physics, he instead asked for a whack of money to stay in the office and spearhead a crusade for better teaching – in fact, that’s why he came here in the first place. Dr. Wieman has become more interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning over the past several years. The project’s goal is to

Provide substantial support to science departments to evaluate all of their undergraduate courses and pursue opportunities to improve educational outcomes. The focus will be on achieving sustained departmental-wide change, and will rely on the use of relevant science education research results and technology to achieve these goals.

Admittedly, the project is in its nascent stages. It has only vague notions of working together with teaching projects that already exist at UBC (like TAG and Skylight) in order to create comprehensive plans for improving the curricula of 5 or so chosen departments per year. Future fundraising is supposed to supplement this budget in order to be able to expand the project to all science departments. The basic idea is to train us science students such that we have the intellectual tools to solve the world’s big problems, and fuel its highly technical skill-reliant economy.

The way this is going to be done will be worked out on the departmental level, over the next months or year. For example, George Spiegelman is the CWSEI head for biology. Basically experts in science education will work with departments, professors, and instructors to gather data about student learning, and then develop methods, including technology (like course-specific software) to improve teaching and curricula on a per-project basis. This sounds good.

I sent an email to a few of my former professors to ask them what they thought of the initiative. Here are the two responses I got (so far):

Dr. Lacey Samuels (botany)

There are many profs and instructors in the Faculty of Science who have been attempting to use a “how-people-learn” philosophy guide our teaching strategies. We’ve been struggling to test the effectiveness of our methods, train graduate students in learning and teaching theory and practices, and working with the excellent SCLT researchers (Science Centre for Learning and Teaching). The CWSEI represents a huge boost of resources in this effort. The timing of the Initiative with respect to revisions in the Biology curriculum means that we will have the resources to evaluate the changes in the curriculum. It is pretty exciting. The timing of implementation with the budget troubles that UBC is suffering is tough.

Shona Ellis (botany)

I don’t really have much to say at this point. I think the CWSEI is very exciting. It gives us an opportunity to step back and take a look at how we are educating undergraduates (including uses of technology). In biology there was already a movement for evaluation and change, but without the funding of the CWSEI it would have been almost impossible to implement. For myself, it will be interesting to learn more about how people learn and I look forward to the opportunity to work with experts in education research. I am very optimistic about this project and I am very happy that science undergraduate education is a top priority at UBC.

Sounds like someone’s paying these ladies (/jk). I can attest to the fact that both Dr. Samuels and Shona have payed attention to how students learn. They run one of the most effective courses I’ve ever taken, Biology 210, which integrates about three (plus or minus two) phases in each lecture: a lecture, some sort of interactive question/answer, and some sort of visual picture component. Also, the combination of written overhead notes, and powerpoint pictures/visuals that the lecturers used is by far the best presentation mehtod. The marked attention this course pays to cross-referencing, sequencing and integrating the different types of course materials available (notes, pictures, text-book, lab book) in a way that makes sense was very successful, and reflects the investment of the people that build and teach the course. If this is the type of thing we’re aiming for, having the resources to make all professors more like Lacey and Shona, I’m all for it.

My critiques and comments are the following:

  • The CWSEI’s focus on technology may be misguided. There are many courses where the huge and confusing web components (be they compulsory, or merely an enormous network of resources) are pure horror. Biology 200’s massive and cyclic labyrinth of links comes to mind. Yes, it is a matter of preference, but I would rather read a sequential, story-like textbook than spend my life on webCT looking at superfluous animation links. He’s also big on clickers. Never used them, but his explanation in the podcast is fairly compelling. Also, some course-specific software (like, say, OWL) is a nightmare. These tools need to be implemented deliberately, not because of the gadget! shiny! cool! if I don’t use my budge it’ll be taken away! types of ticks scientists get.
  • The visibility of the project to students, and their participation should be emphasized. What with the budget cuts due to the deficit, and growing classes, and breaking labs, science students would like to know that this project is investing a lot of resources for their benefit.
  • Web presence: it is essential with a project such as this that people (students, other professors than the ones immediately concerned, etc) be able to stay up to date with the planning and implementation stages. With such a large budget, it would be a pity to pass up the opportunity to communicate both the process and the results of the project. It is also easy for people to become cynical about a large publicly-funded project if it has no in-depth, timely, accessible, public face.

Some links:

Carl Wieman’s not-very-grammatical powerpoint presentation
about CWSEI
Carl Wieman talking on podcast about education in 2005 (skip the first 4 minutes)
Skylight project grants – check out past successful projects to get a sense of a) the things that have improved, and b) the teachers who care about teaching


9 Comments so far

  1. Tim Louman-Gardiner on April 9, 2007 6:17 pm

    1) The price is out by a factor of 10. It’s $2M per year. Or $10M over 5 years.

    2) My issues with it can be found here (scroll down to the bottom). In short, they’re that it’s only specific to Science, and even then to a few departments, that they don’t get at the root problem, and, of course, that our University is broke.

    3) Another thought has occurred to me. Which is that there is no over-arching strategic way in which the money is being distributed. The departments apply to Weiman for funding for specific projects. I don’t know if there’s a research component involved with any disbursement; that seems to me to be the only way to actually create value from this investment.

    Basically, the disbursement scheme looks to me like the University had the money and needed to spend it, and didn’t spend too long thinking of a way to do so.

  2. Maayan Kreitzman on April 9, 2007 7:00 pm

    tim, I got that number from the FAQ I linked.

    ” 10% of the total CWSEI budget (approximately $200,000 per year) is reserved to support activities outside these departments. There will also be a variety of CWSEI sponsored activities such as workshops, seminars, etc. and pedagogical materials and software that are available to all members of the faculty. “

    I agree with the critique that indeed, this only applies to some departments in the faculty of science, and not at all to other faculties. But that’s consistent with the philosophy behind the project, (which you can agree or disagree with) which is basically, that our economy and world need scientists and people with technical problem-solving skills now.

    I don’t ahve a problem with the individual-project method of distribution. It makes more sense than allocating a uniform amount per course or whatever, and it allows individual instructors to be leaders.

    The core issues that you point out, of prioritizing teaching in hiring and tenure evaluation, and integrating undergrads into learning environments outside the classroom and course lab are still there. But I think this project has a high enough profile that it will re-emphasize the value of teaching in general.

  3. Tim Louman-Gardiner on April 9, 2007 7:07 pm

    1) Point taken on the $$. I got my allocations confused.

    2) I also get the rationale that we need people who can think “as scientists” but surely we need pharmacologists as much as biologists. Yet one of those wasn’t lucky enough to get any cash, so the logic kinda doesn’t hold.

    3) My problem with the individual project-based is that, while it does allow for innovation and specificity and that’s a good thing, it appears to lack a coherent over-arching plan.

    4) I agree – the end result might be a general prioritization of teaching. That’s definitely a good thing.

  4. Reka on April 9, 2007 9:56 pm

    The CWSEI has a nice little loophole, where they can say they fund all the departments in Science but that doesn’t cover all the STUDENTS in Science. A lot of undergrad programs are in departments in other faculties (biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, geography, psychology…) and are therefore totally untouched by this. To be fair though, the big Science departments are responisble for providing most of the 1st and 2nd year material for the non-Science programs I listed.

    What concerns me most is that there don’t see to be any plans for faculty-wide initiatives, that could address the overall student experience, rather than focusing on one department or another. Departments work very independently of each other, wheras students (especially in first year) take courses across several different departments… they know more about what’s happening in other departments than their profs do. It would be nice if there were some overarching projects that could make this a little more cohesive, especially from the student perspective.

  5. Maayan Kreitzman on April 9, 2007 11:13 pm

    Reka, what do you have in mind when you say overarching project? I just can’t think of anything.

    Also, CWSEI doen’t even claim to fund all the departments. 90% of the funding goes to the five departments selected. (as per the quote I copied).

  6. Reka on April 9, 2007 11:42 pm

    Here are a few more links I like, from Colorado:

    The first is the Colorado public affairs site, and the second is his physics education site, with lots of resources and publications.

    By overarching projects, I’m thinking of things (granted, they’re only loosely connected to Science education, but part of the Science “experience” instead) that every Science student could encounter and benefit from… like improved Advising, general academic events, or more in-depth orientation/transition programs for new students. An example would be something like the SUS First-Year Committee group study sessions, that target a specific group of students, rather than a specific course or department.

    I’ve heard recently that the Faculty wants to try to stretch the CWSEI money out to accomodate all 7(?) Science departments, instead of only 5 as originally planned. The counting gets wonky sometimes, because the undergrad programs and departments don’t always line up (eg. biology is made up of botany/zoology/microbi). Anyways, the most recent rumours are that they want to do all Faculty of Science departments.

  7. maayan k on April 10, 2007 5:06 am

    Not to be contrary, but better advising and study groups don’t need thousands of dollars of investment for specialized research, development and implementation. They just need to be done, and they’d probably cost very little. I think the specific focus of the project is what makes it exciting: teaching and learning in the classroom are things that can be vastly improved, and aren’t very intuitive to untrained instructors. Having large deparments undergo per-course scrutiny and stradegizing is very cool.

    ps – reka if you know who I can bug about details, email me?

  8. Fire Hydrant on April 10, 2007 8:14 am

    Taking a tangent off Reka’s point: about 7 years ago, I was on a committee looking at how to combine the first year labs into one coherent lab course, such that every experiment would tie in with all disciplines and things would seem more relevant, less recipe-ish, and less compartmentalized.

    The committee had been set up on the recommendation of another committee, itself created by a third committee. After 1-2 meetings, I concluded that the committee was Dean Klawe’s way of figuring out how to deal with cuts. In the end, PHYS 102 was no longer mandatory, EOSC was offered as an alternative to BIOL for some programs, and the third-year BIOL lab was split off into a separate (optional) course that only about 75% of the students could fit into.

    Then I think they set up another committee to go through the undergrad curriculum and “rationalize” the credits (so that 3 hours/wk = 3 credits still, but 3 hours/wk + 3h lab + 1h tutorial no longer = 3 credits). This meant charging students more for the same instruction, subverting a tuition freeze.

    Not so proud of that particular experience.

  9. Reka on April 10, 2007 5:28 pm

    Hey Maayan – I agree with you completely that those projects I mentioned DON’T take thousands of dollars to revamp, which is why I’m disappointed that no one seems to be interested in redirecting a teeny tiny bit of CWSEI money towards improving the “educational experience” outside specific courses. It would be pretty easy and cost-effective.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m very excited about the CWSEI and think it has the potential to do a lot of good, but I’m still a bit skeptical. It’s the very same “untrained professors” (with a few exceptions, I’m sure) who are responsible for implementing changes with the CWSEI money, and from what I understand the departments won’t be reviewing every undergraduate course. I’m just afraid we’ll see a bunch of piecemeal changes, as departments and courses are reviewed independently, or that it will become like some of the TAG initiatives, where the only professors interested in changing their course materials or teaching styles are the ones who are good already.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

Spam prevention powered by Akismet