1 – Introduction: What Is This Handbook and Who Is It For?

What is the Science Education Initiative (SEI)?

This Handbook is based on the Science Education Initiative (SEI), a transformative initiative aimed at changing STEM teaching practices in university settings. The SEI was successfully implemented in two institutions (University of Colorado Boulder and The University of British Columbia) over a period of 10 years. The model for change at the two institutions was the same, and we will treat them as the same, referring to the SEI throughout this Handbook.

The Handbook shares the accumulated wisdom of practice in how to effectively implement a model of change based on the SEI. The SEI centered on department-based Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBESs), disciplinary experts with training in the science of teaching and learning who serve as catalysts of change within departments. 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. These teaching practices are informed by research on teaching and learning, and often include some element of active learning. The SEI also focused on changes which support creation of the ‘expertise-based classroom’, where the goal is to guide students from novice thinking toward expertise in the discipline. The design and outcomes of the SEI are described in detail in Carl Wieman’s detailed book, Improving How Universities Teach Science (Wieman, 2017).

What is in this Handbook?

This Handbook shares 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 how they might structure such an initiative, hiring DBESs, organizing the work within the department, transforming courses, and partnering with faculty. This Handbook is authored by two former DBESs with a collective 20 years of experience in SEI and SEI-like initiatives across multiple disciplines (see About the Authors). It is intended to be a practical companion guide to Wieman (2017).

Who is this Handbook for?

This Handbook is aimed at institutional leaders, faculty, and education specialists wishing to create or implement a department-level change initiative for broadening faculty use of effective teaching practices. While the SEI focused mostly on the teaching and learning of science, the SEI’s approaches are also appropriate for mathematics and engineering disciplines, and likely for arts and humanities as well.

The Handbook is organized around the three main stakeholders in an initiative: initiative leaders, departmental leaders, and DBESs. While every stakeholder will benefit from the content throughout this Handbook, the main audiences for each part of this book and their roles in the initiatives are indicated below.


What does each stakeholder need to do?
What can they learn in this book?

Initiative Leaders

  • Solicit and review departmental proposals
  • Run the initiative
  • Train and support DBESs

Part I: The Initiative Leader’s Handbook

The overall rationale, structure, and oversight of an initiative.

Departmental leaders

  • Hire and supervise DBESs
  • Plan the work in the department
  • Engage faculty and manage expectations
  • Partner with DBESs on course transformation

Part II: The Departmental Leader’s Handbook

How to structure course transformations, faculty engagement, and DBES work.

Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBESs)

  • Understand their roles
  • Develop skills
  • Facilitate course transformations
  • Partner with faculty

Part III: The DBES’ Handbook

The nuts and bolts of working with courses, faculty, and developing your skills.

More about the Science Education Initiative (SEI)


Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a leader in science education, designed and directed STEM education initiatives at two large, research-intensive universities: University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder; 2006-2014) and The University of British Columbia (UBC; 2007-2017). The goal of the SEI was to change departmental teaching practices and culture, aiming for a majority of faculty in departments to use and sustain research-based instructional practices. The SEI model hinged upon providing competitive grants to departments, which were used to hire DBESs. The DBESs had disciplinary expertise and training in education, and partnered with faculty members as course consultants.

Computer Science DBES with faculty member at a laptop.
Computer science DBES Ed Knorr works with a faculty member (Credit: Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology / University of British Columbia. All rights reserved.)

The key assumptions or principles guiding the SEI approach were:

  • The logical unit of change is the department.
  • Additional resources of time and human capital are needed to support change.
  • Faculty expertise is best developed by applying ideas, hence focusing on transformation of specific courses.
  • Evidence of impact is an important tool in persuasion and guiding improvements.

The core SEI structure was developed from these assumptions:

  • A central unit (SEI Central) ran the initiative.
  • Competitive grants were awarded to departments.
  • Departments identified departmental directors to liaise with SEI Central.
  • Funding was primarily used to hire DBESs (one-to-four per department).
  • DBESs were trained and supported by departments and SEI Central.

The DBESs were central to this model. Hired as postdoctoral fellows or contract faculty, the DBESs brought graduate-level education (usually a PhD) in their disciplines and, typically, some post-secondary teaching experience. Given ongoing training and guidance in science education fundamentals by SEI Central, they acted as ‘educational engineers’ and faculty coaches, gaining familiarity with research on student misconceptions and other discipline-specific concerns, gathering data on student thinking, analyzing exams and homework, listening to student discussions during problem-solving activities, developing and administering concept tests and attitudinal surveys, and publishing results where possible.

Related resource: Transforming Science Education at UBC: The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (Published June 2017, The University of British Columbia).

Available at

The SEI at two campuses

Below are key facts and the scale of the initiatives at University of Colorado Boulder and The University of British Columbia.

CU Boulder UBC
Title of the initiative University of Colorado at Boulder Science Education Initiative (CU SEI) Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (UBC CWSEI)
Years of operation 2006-2014 2007-2017
Total funding amount (USD) $5.3M ~$11M[1]
Funding per department (USD) Range: $150K-$860K
Average: $650K (main departments)
Range: $270k-$1.7M
Average: ~$1.3M (main departments)
Number of departments 6 + 1 smaller pilot 6 + 1 smaller pilot
DBES position title Science Teaching Fellow (STF) Science Teaching and Learning Fellow (STLF)
Total number of DBESs
(including part-time employees)
24 50

Outcomes from the SEI

The SEI had many positive impacts and outcomes, however, a lack of explicitly allocated funding and time for project assessment was a challenge in systematically investigating impacts at the university level. This is an important message for future initiatives: evaluation beyond the assessment of individual course transformations requires dedicated funding and attention.

Major outcomes of the SEI include:

  • Extensive changes in teaching practices (120 courses at UBC and 50 courses at CU Boulder with significant levels of transformation), with faculty self-reports and classroom observations demonstrating changed practices.
  • Changes in teaching and learning culture, with students considering active learning relatively normal in departments with substantial SEI involvement. Departmental impact metrics (including cross-departmental impacts, case studies, and faculty surveys) demonstrated effects on departmental culture, though these impacts varied by department.
  • Improved student learning, based on learning assessments, student self-assessments, and student feedback.
  • Successful careers for DBESs, with most finding teaching-focused faculty positions, work in teaching centers, or positions in discipline-based education research.
  • Contributions to scholarly work on teaching and learning, with a collection of over 120 peer-reviewed journal articles, posters, implementation guides, video examples, and recommended reading. See SEI Papers and Presentations.
  • Inspiration of other educational change initiatives, with the SEI model being sufficiently transportable that it has sparked similar initiatives elsewhere. You can read about how some of these initiatives have adapted the model and their lessons learned in Appendix 1: Case Studies.

More detail on the SEI’s outcomes is available in the list of resources at the end of this chapter. For more discussion on individual department success and associated outcomes in particular, see Wieman (2017).

Faculty member teaching geology class
Faculty member Alexis Templeton of CU Boulder teaches a geology class using SEI-developed materials (Credit: Leilani Arthurs / CU Boulder. All rights reserved)

Lessons learned in the SEI

We will not delve into the analysis that led to the conclusions in this section [see Wieman (2017) for this analysis], but we summarize here the major lessons learned from our experience with the SEI. These lessons are what give rise to our detailed recommendations in this Handbook.

Lessons about working with departments

The most clearly effective elements of the SEI were those that provided resources to departments, but these resources required ongoing oversight from SEI Central.

Provide funding to departments through competitive grants

Initiative funding levels need to be sufficient to convince departmental leadership to invest the time and political capital required to secure faculty consensus and motivate action for meaningful change. See Chapter 4: Central Organization for a discussion of sufficient funding levels.

Provide embedded expertise to departments through DBESs

The SEI model depends on capable DBESs who require time, guidance, and support both to develop the skills and background needed for success in their roles and to become valued members of their departments.

Provide ongoing oversight and support of departmental progress

Work in such an initiative needs to be carefully planned, both in terms of faculty commitments and the timing of their involvement: long-term teaching assignments need to align with the SEI work being proposed and with DBES availability. Ongoing oversight and support of department progress is also needed, with potential consequences for failing to follow through on commitments. For example, at UBC, the dean’s leadership was important in selecting department heads who supported the SEI, and in working with heads whose departments were not fulfilling their commitments.

The primary determinant of success is departmental structure and culture

Of particular importance is the overall quality of organization and management in the department. The structure and culture of departments includes the interest and commitment of its faculty, the head/chair, and the SEI departmental director.

Lessons about achieving change in university teaching

Below are general lessons we learned about the feasibility of operating a large, multi-year education initiative. For further discussion of barriers and unsolved issues, see Wieman (2017).

  • It is possible to achieve widespread change within departments.
  • Persistence and flexibility are needed to achieve good results.
  • Virtually all faculty want to teach well, and a priori predictions about who might be interested in such techniques are not always accurate.
  • Faculty encounter a significant initial learning curve. It can take two-to-three years for a faculty member to fully embrace these teaching methods and use them competently.
  • The largest barrier to faculty change is the formal incentive system.
  • Course transformation is an iterative and complex process, as is learning and practicing associated teaching methods. Starting with smaller, concrete changes or single section courses is often more motivating to faculty than sweeping changes to instruction, especially if these smaller changes address an existing concern about their course.
  • Systematic measures of what students know and think (using local data) are essential, though development of validated tools takes significant time, which needs to be built in the project plan.

For further reading

To learn more about the SEI model

  • Video summary on the UBC CWSEI: Transforming Science Education at UBC
  • Authoritative history and analysis of the SEIs at UBC and CU Boulder: Wieman (2017), Improving How Universities Teach Science.
  • A summary of the SEI model for both institutions that relates to theories of change in higher education: “The Science Education Initiative: An Experiment in Scaling Up Educational Improvements in a Research University” within the book Transforming Institutions: Undergraduate STEM Education for the 21st Century by Weaver, G.C., Burgess, W.D., Childress, A.L., & Slakey, L. (2015).
  • Case study summary of SEIs: The collection of case studies from the American Association of Universities includes a summary of the SEIs, and one case study is devoted to the perspective of UBC Dean of Science Simon Peacock on the UBC CWSEI. See Dolan, E. L., Lepage, G. P., Peacock, S. M., Simmons, E. H., Sweeder, R., & Wieman, C. (2016). Improving Undergraduate STEM Education at Research Universities: A Collection of Case Studies Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Retrieved from

Annotated bibliography

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Outlines major principles for how students learn.

Handelsman, J., Miller, S., & Pfund, C. (2006). Scientific teaching. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.

Describes the scientific approach to teaching, which underlies the SEI model.

Huber, M., Hutchings P., (2014). Bay View Alliance case study #2, research action cluster 1: The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative in Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

Case study on one of the most successful SEI departments.

Kober, N. (2015). Reaching students: what research says about effective instruction in undergraduate science and engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

This resource identifies the department as the unit of change (albeit using the SEIs as an example) and provides general methods about instructional effectiveness. Chapter 7: “Creating Broader Contexts That Support Research-Based Teaching and Learning” is particularly relevant to SEI-like initiatives.

Wieman, C. (2017). Improving how universities teach science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Authoritative resource on the SEI model and its impacts, including a detailed description of the rationale for the SEI, lessons learned, and data on departmental outcomes.

Wieman, C., Perkins, K., & Gilbert, S. (2010). Transforming science education at large research universities: A case study in progress. Change, 42(2), 7-14.

An early discussion of the SEI model and progress.

  1. Total funding at UBC was $11.54M CAD, and departmental funding ranged from $300K - $1.86M CAD with an average of $1.45M CAD in the main departments. Exchange rates have fluctuated during the course of the SEI, averaging around 0.94 USD: 1 CAD.


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The Science Education Initiative Handbook Copyright © 2018 by Stephanie V. Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder) and Warren J. Code (University of British Columbia) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.