Appendix 1. Case Studies of SEI-Like Initiatives
The University of Colorado Boulder’s Science Education Initiative (CU SEI)
Duration of initiative: 2006-2014
Case study written: Spring 2018
The CU SEI was a large-scale initiative that served as a proof-of-concept for the ‘embedded expert’ model of educational transformation, using Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBESs) within departments to support change. Lasting 9 years, the CU SEI focused on embedding postdoctoral fellows directly into science departments to support and facilitate changes in teaching culture and practice. The main assumption of the program design was that the department—and its faculty, courses, and culture—served as the natural ecosystem needed to produce a lasting shift towards evidence-based teaching practices. The CU SEI began in 2006, and many of its lessons-learned served to inform The University of British Columbia’s initiative, which began a year later and was funded at a much higher level (approximately double that at CU Boulder). The program demonstrated an impact, influencing the teaching of 102 faculty and 71 courses in 7 science departments.
What is the context of the initiative?
University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder)
- Institution type: large, research-intensive public university.
- Size: ~33,000 students, ~3,500 tenure-track faculty, and ~1,900 instructors.
- Of note: the institution has a long-standing history of commitment to STEM educational improvements across faculty and some higher administrators. Instructor rank is non-tenure-track.
Departments involved in the initiative
- Eligible departments: all science and mathematics departments in the College of Arts and Sciences (approximately 10 departments).
- Participating departments: 7 departments, including Chemistry; Geological Sciences; Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology; Integrative Physiology; Physics; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; plus a small pilot in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences.
How was the initiative structured?
The CU SEI was a large program (but not as large as CWSEI)
The program was initiated by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate and a faculty member in physics at the time. It was funded entirely by CU Boulder ($5.3M), which is half the funding level of its sister program (UBC CWSEI). Each department received concentrated funding of $150K-860K USD with an average of $650K per department, over a period of 4-5 years. Though the initial intended duration was 5 years, the program lasted 9 years, primarily due to staggering of the work over time.
- Successes. There was large-scale change in a few departments and partial change in others.
- Challenges. The lower funding level (compared to UBC CWSEI) resulted in a diminished concentration of Science Teaching Fellows (STFs) and did not seem to be sufficient to generate a sense of urgency within departments. The early start (relative to UBC CWSEI) resulted in a rocky start as the program identified structures to best support its goals.
Participation in the CU SEI occurred at the department level
The program operated within the department, and the department was considered the unit of change. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) were advertised and departments were encouraged to apply, usually through a visit by Wieman at a faculty meeting.
- Successes. The initiative helped departments focus their attention on teaching, which is necessary given that the department is the cultural unit at universities and that faculty are the experts in their field. When the initiative involved a majority of the faculty in a department, the result was widespread changes in instructional practices.
- Challenges. Departments were not always engaged as a whole and sometimes lacked clear leadership. Departments were not always prepared to write high quality educational proposals. Strong and conspicuous support of the program from higher administration was lacking at CU Boulder, resulting in more variable prioritization of the program from chairs.
Temporary Science Teaching Fellows (STFs) within departments acted as agents of change
Funding in departments primarily supported salaries of embedded experts called STFs (termed DBESs in the SEI Handbook), the postdoctoral fellows hired into the department and who partnered with faculty to measure learning, change courses, evaluate curriculum, and a variety of other roles.
- Successes. The use of STFs was a particular strength of the program. STFs reduced faculty time needed for change and provided knowledge to support that change, including disciplinary expertise. STFs had a very high rate of employment at the end of the positions, with some being hired by the local department.
- Challenges. The lower funding level at CU Boulder (relative to UBC CWSEI) resulted in some STFs working solo within departments, which is a more challenging situation in which to achieve change.
STFs received regular oversight and supervision
Typically, experts met to discuss project progress weekly or biweekly in department groups run by a departmental director, and twice a term with SEI Central. SEI Central was also available for one-on-one advising on an individual basis.
- Successes. This oversight was critical for keeping projects on track and for the efficient use of STF time.
- Challenges. Helpful supervision was highly dependent on the choice/availability of suitable faculty in the departments. When this was lacking (including early in the initiative while supervision was still being established), projects suffered from a lack of feedback and direction, support with challenging faculty was insufficient, and work could be very frustrating for the STFs involved.
STFs’ capacity for leading change was supported by training and a professional community
STFs participated in a training program and in ongoing meetings (once per week), and were encouraged to attend other relevant meetings (such as the Discipline-Based Education Research group).
- Successes. STF trainings and meetings were important for giving STFs a common base of understanding in the education literature, and to share progress with one another.
- Challenges. In the first year, SEI Central was still figuring out what STFs needed and the best approaches for training them. Due to the lower level of funding (relative to UBC CWSEI), there were fewer new cohorts of STFs and thus less opportunity for STFs that were not hired in the first year of the program to engage in the training for new STFs. There was also a smaller community of STFs and less funding for the central organization, resulting in a less cohesive professional community.
There was a central organization
Led by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and 1-2 staff during the height of the initiative, SEI Central operated independently and was responsible for: the proposal and funding process; training, advising, and organizing the STFs; advising department leadership on project ideas and the hiring/management of STFs; and coordinating the cross-department and cross-institutional sharing of materials.
- Successes. The existence of a central organization was critical for overseeing the work.
- Challenges. The lower level of funding at CU Boulder (relative to UBC CWSEI) resulted in the central organization being funded at only about half the level of funding at UBC. The CU SEI director was funded at a 20% FTE appointment, the associate director at 50%, and a 50% administrative assistant was dedicated to the project. This level was insufficient (see Chapter 4 of the SEI Handbook). There were also no funds provided for systematic evaluation of the project, and thus the sustainability of the initiative is not well-studied.
Course materials were archived in a central repository
A central database was developed to house course materials, developed at UBC CWSEI and shared with CU SEI.
- Successes. While the central database was not a success (see UBC Case Study), at CU Boulder a well-organized approach to posting zip files with common structures on the CU Boulder SEI website was developed. All SEI-supported courses have some materials posted.
- Challenges. There was a lack of incentive to archive materials, and it was not clear who would use them in the future. Materials were not systematically archived until a motivated staff member with sufficient time took the initiative to request and organize materials. Copyright was also an issue; it was not possible to openly publish materials suitable for on-campus use. There were also concerns from faculty about making course assessments public. In the future, we would recommend allowing departments to generate their own solutions which fit within existing departmental culture and workflow.
What were the key outcomes of the initiative?
Departmentally-driven initiatives resulted in change, even with little change to institutional reward structures
The teaching of 71 courses has been substantially changed and over half of the credit hours provided by the SEI departments are taught differently, with the exception of 1 department, which focused on upper-division courses. Between 15-75% of faculty in the engaged departments experienced a large change in their teaching, with an average of almost 50% of faculty experiencing such a change; see Wieman (2017). The initiative has led to other educational improvement efforts at CU Boulder, within the 7 funded departments and beyond, which continue to build on the work of the SEI.
Impact on the broader STEM education community
Publications resulting from the CU SEI work has impacted many areas of discipline-based education research. Several other institutions have adopted the department-embedded teaching experts model in some form, either on their own (e.g., Cornell University) or as part of the NSF-funded TRESTLE network (http://trestlenetwork.org/); NSF DUE# 1726087 and #1525331.
How do I get more information?
The SEI website has examples of all aspects of the initiative, which are also archived in this Handbook.
Requests for proposals: RFPs and successful proposals are online at https://www.colorado.edu/sei/about-us/funding.htm. The RFP from the subsequent TRESTLE project, and successful proposals, are online at https://www.colorado.edu/csl/trestle/trestle-awards.
Book: Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative by Carl Wieman (2017).
This summary book has much more detail on the CU SEI, including comparisons between the programs at CU Boulder and UBC.
Contact: for more details please contact Stephanie Chasteen (email@example.com) or Kathy Perkins (firstname.lastname@example.org).