Appendix 1. Case Studies of SEI-Like Initiatives
Duration of initiative: 2019-2027
Case study written: February 2023
The Centre for Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science was established in 2019 with ~£14.5M GBP in funding drawn from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC, UK), seven collaborating UK universities, and contributions from industry and public-sector partners. It will train ~100 doctoral researchers in aerosol science across five cohorts from 2019-27, and during 2023 will seek funding to train a further five cohorts from 2024-32.
Rather than an initiative designed primarily to transform teaching practices, the CDT was established as a centre for doctoral education. However, it presented an ideal environment in which to apply the model of the CWSEI to doctoral education. The Centre embedded a Discipline-Based Education Specialist (DBES) from the writing of the proposal in 2018 to support the creation of a research-informed educational environment from the outset, rather than to change an existing teaching culture and practices. It is worth noting, however, that the Centre’s faculty were established academics upon its inception, bringing with them existing practices and assumptions.
The Centre offers cohort-based, multidisciplinary doctoral training. This is appropriate for aerosol science, which is an inherently multi- and interdisciplinary field. The Centre’s postgraduate researchers (PGRs) join having studied a wide range of disciplines at undergraduate and masters levels, including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, earth and environmental sciences, health sciences, and pharmacy. They spend the first seven months of their programme as a cohort, engaging in a period of full-time training at the University of Bristol, UK. This covers core aerosol science (16 topic areas), research methods, and professionalism and research translation skills. The course in core aerosol science is delivered via Team-Based Learning (TBL) by around 30 faculty drawn from numerous disciplines across all seven participating universities.
The initial training period is followed by a three-month thematic broadening sabbatical intended to foster transdisciplinary competencies, with PGRs undertaking a project in an academic laboratory in an area of aerosol science complementary to their PhD research. A progression interview is held in month 11, after which the PGRs begin their PhD research.
A placement with an industrial or public-sector partner provides an opportunity for PGRs to contextualise their learning in either the second or third year. Cohort training events, CDT conferences, and virtual events continue in years two to four, equivalent to around 20 days each year. Throughout the four years, each PGR is supported by a mentoring team consisting of two academic supervisors and at least one industrial or public-sector partner.
Numerous facets of the SEI model have been adopted, as detailed below. A central assumption of the design of the training environment was that the Centre’s core delivery team would take a strong leadership role in embedding the use of evidence-based teaching practices, a role supported by such practices being committed to in the successful proposal to the EPSRC for funding. The Centre has been highly successful in many regards, including in its alignment in practice with its stated guiding training philosophy. Unexpected, positive impacts have also been observed, for example faculty spontaneously applying research-based instructional strategies (RBIS) that they have learned through their involvement with the CDT in their undergraduate teaching at their home institutions.
What is the context of the program?
A collaboration of seven UK universities, led by the University of Bristol
- Institution type: The CDT in Aerosol Science represents a collaboration of seven large, research-intensive public universities: The Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cambridge, Hertfordshire, Leeds and Manchester, and Imperial College London.
- Size of the CDT: ~100 PGRs (18% international) spread across five intakes over the years 2019 to 2023, ~60 faculty, one Course Manager, one Assistant Course Manager, and three administrative staff (equivalent to ~two full-time administrative positions).
- Collaborative teaching: Around 30 faculty are responsible for developing and teaching the course in core aerosol science which forms a major part of the first seven months of the program, comprising around 200 hours of class time. The Course Manager and (in later year) the Assistant Course Manager are responsible for coordinating this course and its 30 faculty.
Faculty involved in the Centre
- Eligible faculty: Around 60 academics are involved with the CDT in some way. Most supervise the PhD research project of one or more PGRs. All have expertise in aerosol science. They represent a wide range of academic disciplines, including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, earth and environmental sciences, health sciences, and pharmacy. All participating faculty are invited to CDT events concerning educational approaches, for example the Annual Forum on Education in Aerosol Science.
- Participating faculty: In general, it is the ~30 faculty who are responsible for developing and teaching the course in core aerosol science that have been most strongly immersed in the educational activities of the CDT. Again, these faculty represent a wide range of disciplinary expertise pertinent to aerosol science.
How is the program structured?
The CDT in Aerosol Science is a centre for doctoral training committed to research-informed education
The program is funded by the EPSRC (~£6.8M GBP), seven UK universities (~£3.5M GBP), and contributions from industry and public-sector partners (~£4.2M GBP), with a total of £14.5M GBP. A large portion of this funding is allocated to the funding of PhD studentships and other aspects of the delivery not directly related to innovations in teaching.
The funding allocated to the DBES is ~£107K GBP, but costing the CDT only ~£70K after a discount granted by the home institution of the DBES. This represents the most direct funding of activities relating to innovation in and evaluation of teaching. Educational development work is also funded indirectly through the funding of faculty time to develop and teach on the core aerosol science course, and though not explicitly costed, a portion of the time of the Centre Director, the Course Manager, and the Assistant Course Manager is inevitably devoted to implementation and evaluation of teaching developments. Administrative staff also contribute time, for example by administering surveys to the PGRs.
The faculty delivering the course in core aerosol science generally travel to the University of Bristol to facilitate training in their topic area during two days of TBL, having prepared pre-class materials, readiness assurance tests and application exercises for use during the two days, and a two-stage assessment for use on a third day.
The Centre was committed to using RBIS from the outset, a commitment captured as part of its guiding training philosophy: “… we will draw upon research on how learning works and RBIS in devising [the] practice, feedback and assessment.”
- Successes. The embedding of a DBES from an early stage of the project has been productive. Establishing central control of the core aerosol course, in particular its pedagogy, is thought to have shaped the teaching culture of the CDT. While all the CDT faculty were new to TBL and two-stage assessments, the initiative will have been long enough to allow faculty to teach their topics in this way up to five times. The Centre has experienced stable staffing in terms of both faculty and administrative staff.
- Challenges. During Covid-19 the training was significantly disrupted. During some periods all of the training was moved online, at other times some PGRs joined remotely while others attended in-person, and there were times when the PGRs attended training in-person but the faculty taught them remotely owing to travel restrictions.
The Centre embedded a DBES
The Centre created a DBES position (the “Science Education Specialist” (SES)) within its leadership and management structures from an early stage of the project, with the specialist contributing to the writing of the bid for funding. This role is somewhat similar to that of a Science Teaching and Learning Fellow (STLF), to use the UBC terminology. To our knowledge this position is not typical within CDTs.
The SES is a faculty member in the Department of Education at a UK university employed on an open (permanent) contract there and has a background (PhD and postdoctoral experience) in aerosol science. A portion of their working time is funded by the CDT for the duration of the project (between one and a quarter of a day per week – more in earlier years of the project and less later on), “buying them out” of a subset of their duties at their home university.
The SES is a CWSEI alumnus, having held the role of STLF at UBC from 2013-14, and so is experienced in the various aspects of the CWSEI model, having participated in an initial training program (meeting weekly for one semester) and engaged in an ongoing STLF community of practice (bi-weekly group meetings for STLF development, plus a bi-weekly Science Education Reading Group) at UBC, and having worked with the initiative for almost two years, aware of resources to be drawn upon such as this SEI Handbook and the CWSEI website, and networked into the CWSEI community through membership of its online space hosted by Basecamp and relationships with former STLFs who could act as a sounding board. Another CWSEI alumnus (Dr. Cynthia Heiner) was appointed to the Centre’s Independent Advisory Board to provide scrutiny and advice.
The SES works with the CDT in various ways. Firstly, they contributed to the writing of the bid for funding, which involved developing graduate competencies, establishing a guiding training philosophy committing the Centre to the use of RBIS, and proposing suitable pedagogies. Once the project was funded, they led on the induction and training of the Centre’s faculty into its teaching approaches, for example through (modelling during) an initial in-person workshop, and observing classroom training during the first semester of the Centre’s operation and offering feedback. With the Centre underway, they are a permanent member of the Centre’s management board, an occasional member of meetings of the Centre’s core delivery team, and meet regularly with the Centre’s Course Manager. Their main responsibilities include sharing educational literature, collecting data with which to evaluate the training environment and suggesting changes based on this, disseminating the approaches of the Centre through presentations and publications, and supporting the teaching culture of the Centre through an annual forum for faculty.
- Successes. As has been noted elsewhere (for example in the case of the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC), the engagement of a DBES with expertise in the discipline, and existing personal and professional relationships with others in the Centre probably supported the DBES to work effectively; combined with an open-minded leadership, this meant it was not necessary to invest a significant amount of time and effort in securing buy-in for research-based approaches. The position of DBES with a CDT has provided beneficial opportunities for that person, allowing them to demonstrate academic citizenship and leadership in teaching, and providing the opportunity to conduct educational research, activities that are recognized in faculty evaluation and promotion processes in the UK.
- Challenges. The funding and hence DBES time devoted to the project is limited and could reasonably have been much higher. The decision to taper the DBES time over the duration of the project was in hindsight not ideal; while initial set-up demands decreased over time, these have been balanced by increasing evaluation and dissemination activities, and in 2022/23 by work to write a bid to extend the CDT.
The Centre operates (somewhat) independently of university structures
The Centre operates somewhat independently of academic departments. While its PGRs are registered as students with both the University of Bristol and the institution hosting their PhD research, and the Centre’s programme of training is required to meet institutional quality standards and other regulations, day-to-day operation from recruitment through training and assessment are under the control of the Centre itself.
- Successes. The Centre does not need to have its approaches ratified by faculty committees, operating instead with a small core delivery team and moderately-sized management board. Faculty travel to the University of Bristol for two days once or twice a year to deliver their topics in core aerosol science. The groups being taught are small (between 13 and 20 PGRs) and consist of groups of students who have proactively applied for the programme and who are being paid a stipend to participate in the training. The faculty were well-supported during the preparation of their materials and its delivery by the core delivery team of the Centre. The Centre was granted a dedicated teaching space which was equipped for TBL, with team tables fitted with large screens.
- Challenges. Requirements during Covid-19 to reduce room occupancy meant that the dedicated teaching space could not be used as planned, with TBL teams spread across various rooms.
Graduate competencies and learning outcomes were established
The Centre established a set of nine programme-level graduate competencies during the process of writing the original bid for funding. These were developed to capture the training needs of the UK aerosol science community. They were developed via co-creation during a workshop and follow-up survey with the industrial and public-sector partners of the CDT, and were then refined using feedback from a focus group of current PGRs. Taken together they describe practitioners with mastery of fundamental aerosol science and its application across traditional disciplinary boundaries and in a range of contexts, as well as the ability to act independently, collaboratively, responsibly, and ethically, and to reflect upon and direct their continuing development as a member of a diverse and rapidly-changing field. Topic-level learning objectives were also required as part of the materials prepared by the faculty delivering the course in core aerosol science.
- Successes. The graduate competencies in particular have been referred to many times when seeking faculty and PGR buy-in, for example because they provide a justification for the use of team-based pedagogies. The graduate competencies have been used to support reflection by the PGRs on their professional development.
Research–based instructional strategies are used
The first principle of the guiding training philosophy commits the Centre to “… ensur[ing] that our PGRs engage in practice and receive feedback in each area of their training, and … assess[ing] their progress.”, while the second commits the Centre to drawing upon research on how learning works and RBIS in devising this practice, feedback and assessment.
The Centre makes use of established RBIS including TBL and two-stage exams. It also draws on research on cooperative learning groups, establishing cross-institution and cross-disciplinary groups for PGRs in years two to four of the programme and encouraging them to meet monthly. The guidance offered to the groups draws on the “MetaSTLF” process for STLFs with the CWSEI at UBC.
- Successes. The CDT was a new entity with no existing course materials which probably supported the use of RBIS from the outset, with no need to modify existing materials and approaches. Including a guiding training philosophy and commitment to RBIS in the original bid for funding also supported the use of RBIS from the outset.
- Challenges. Incorporating research on effective placements (for example research on work-integrated learning) remains less well-developed, perhaps because of resourcing limitations and investing most effort in classroom-based aspects of the training.
Evaluation of learning and student experiences is undertaken
As for many science education initiatives, the Centre collects data on various dimensions of the training environment, for example whether conditions conducive to learning are in place, PGR perspectives and experiences, and the experiences of groups within the cohorts who may face additional challenges in participating in the training. These data have been used to continually inform and evolve the practices of the CDT. Furthermore, the work is being disseminated to research audiences, educators, course managers, and funders of doctoral education in order to contribute to the literature and to share best practices beyond the Centre.
Attention is paid to the teaching culture
Drawing on the understanding developed by the SEI, it was noted in the guiding training philosophy that: “In practice, adherence to [the] principles will require significant coordination and consensus-building with academics and partners.” We were aware that faculty and PGR buy-in would be crucial to delivering the training environment that we set out to create, and that ideally we would create a culture that viewed teaching as valuable, ideally research-informed, and a collaborative effort.
A key workshop during the summer before induction of the first cohort introduced faculty to TBL by having them take part in a TBL exercise about TBL. Attention was paid to modelling appropriate facilitation using this pedagogy. After a break owing to Covid-19, a programme of annual workshops recommenced to provide faculty with the opportunity to celebrate and reflect upon their teaching and supervisory practices in aerosol science.
In terms of PGR buy-in, all PGRs are made aware of the structure of the programme during recruitment and selection, taking part in a team exercise as part of the process. Considerable effort is invested during the first week of each cohort’s training to secure their buy-in. PGRs learn TBL through a TBL workshop about TBL, so that they are familiar with the pedagogy before using it as part of their formal studies. Considerable time is devoted to team-building, with teams invited to develop contracts and team identities including names and coats-of-arms. We offer several opportunities to ask questions and share feedback about the team approach so that any concerns can be addressed. Approximately half-way through their course they are invited to participate in a carefully-designed peer-evaluation process.
Course materials have been archived in an online training portal
The developed teaching materials have been archived in an online training portal. The portal can be accessed by PGRs and academics at the Centre’s collaborating universities, and by employees of its industrial and public-sector partners.
- Successes. At the time of writing, beyond the Centre’s cohorts over 240 partner employees and 150 students and academics have access to the online training portal.
- Challenges. We do not currently have usable data on how people are using the online resources. The Centre has plans to make its resources available much more widely, including internationally. Ensuring that the portal is fit for these purposes is likely to be a significant area of future work.
What are the key outcomes of the program so far?
Indications of engagement
Around 30 faculty have taught on the course in core aerosol science via TBL. Our PGRs participate in around 200 hours of team-based interdisciplinary training during their first year with the Centre. They complete 16 two-stage assessments during this first year. During the following three years with the programme they take part in cooperative learning groups. We have held two annual forums for faculty with a third planned for 2023.
We have received positive feedback from our faculty, PGRs, Independent Advisory Board, and external examiner about the educational approaches of the Centre. A PGR noted: “Thank you for producing and delivering such a great programme, for helping me when I needed it and ultimately for helping me to develop my knowledge of aerosols. I have learnt a huge amount, in part to the team based learning approach that I think has been a huge success.” A faculty member noted: “I was introduced to TBL during our training for the Aerosol Centre for Doctoral Training in Bristol. The technique (as applied to us trainee instructors) clearly showed itself to be a very effective means of both effective peer-learning as well as a fun motivator. We adopted it for our in-class and remote lecture exercises. Although this required a significant change in the mode of thinking and working, and the generation of purpose-built exercises, compared to the usual lecture-homework modes, it was clear that this was the ideal means for instruction for the very heterogeneous cohort of the Aerosol CDT, because it immediately engaged students from very different backgrounds towards the task, and promoted peer-learning at an accelerated rate.”
Specialist initiatives may be well-placed to establish research-informed educational environments
The positioning of the Centre as somewhat independent of university processes, and with independent funding, combined with its relatively small cohort sizes, has seemed to have supported an efficient and successful adoption of research-informed approaches. It is interesting to consider the potential role of small, specialist initiatives in implementing RBIS and in catalysing instructional change beyond their immediate activities.
Changes to faculty teaching practices beyond the CDT
At least four of the Centre’s faculty spontaneously adopted TBL in their undergraduate teaching after being introduced to it through the Centre. Furthermore, one of these faculty members has trained a further colleague and graduate teaching assistants in the method. Finally, a further faculty member has attempted to introduce the method to a new programme at their home institution. Such “downward drift” of teaching practices from graduate to undergraduate education offers a potential alternative to initiatives focussed on directly reforming undergraduate instruction.
A focus on postgraduate researchers
A focus on reforming doctoral education may be an effective driver of change in the medium- to longer-term. PGRs are amongst the most highly trained individuals in their field, and qualified to take up leadership roles and academic positions in their future careers. Discussing with our graduating PGRs how they might approach teaching responsibilities if they move into careers in education or academia represents an interesting area for exploration.
Impact on other CDTs
At the time of writing we have been approached directly by two groups putting together proposals for new CDTs in the sciences and engineering disciplines who hope to adopt similar pedagogical approaches. Future work will involve seeking to support other CDTs and to influence doctoral education more broadly.
How do I get more information?
Our efforts to further aerosol science education: aerosol-cdt.ac.uk/furthering-education.
Publications and presentations: aerosol-cdt.ac.uk/educational-research/.
Contact: for more details please contact Kerry Knox (email@example.com).