Appendix 1. Case Studies of SEI-Like Initiatives
Duration of initiative: 2007-2017
Case study written: Spring 2018
The UBC CWSEI was a rather large-scale initiative over 10 years (2007-2017) that embedded Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBESs) directly within STEM departments to support and facilitate changes in teaching culture and practice. The main assumption of the program design was that the majority of faculty and courses needed to be involved in order to produce a lasting shift towards evidence-based teaching practices. The initiative has demonstrated a large impact, influencing the teaching of over 175 faculty representing about ⅔ of credit hours taught by the departments in the Faculty of Science.
What is the context of the initiative?
University of British Columbia Vancouver (UBC)
- Institution type: large, research-intensive public university.
- Size: ~54,000 students (24% international), and ~15,000 faculty and staff.
- Of note: there are two faculty tenure streams: research faculty (2-3 courses/year) and teaching-focused faculty (4-6 courses/year).
Departments involved in the initiative
- Eligible departments: all departments in the Faculty of Science, consisting of ~7,500 undergraduate students (~800 international), ~400 faculty, and ~500 staff. Applied Science (i.e., engineering) is a separate faculty which was not directly involved in the UBC CWSEI.
- Participating departments: all departments in the Faculty of Science: Computer Science; Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences; Physics & Astronomy; Mathematics; Zoology + Botany + Microbiology & Immunology (combined as ‘Life Sciences’ for the purposes of the UBC CWSEI); Statistics; and Chemistry (smaller-scale pilot).
How was the initiative structured?
The UBC CWSEI was a large, 10-year program
The program was funded primarily by UBC itself ($9.3M CAD) and partially via donations secured during the initiative ($2.24M CAD), for a total of $11.54M CAD (~$11M USD based on average exchange rates). Each department received concentrated funding of ~$1-2M CAD over 6-7 years, except Chemistry and Statistics which received smaller amounts. The program as a whole lasted a total of 10 years (primarily due to staggering of the work across time), though the initial intended duration was 5-7 years.
- Successes. There was large-scale change in most departments and varying levels of change in the others. A large STLF community made for better peer support and more expertise transfer within the group. This initiative was also long enough to move beyond ‘early adopter’ faculty and, in most departments, work with a majority of faculty to improve their teaching.
- Challenges. Changes in leadership at the central and department levels required some form of renewal every few years.
Participation in the UBC CWSEI 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.
- 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. Some departments started later when they were more prepared, which stretched the timeline of the overall initiative. Departments were not always engaged as a whole and sometimes lacked clear leadership.
Temporary STLFs within departments acted as agents of change
Funding in departments primarily supported the salaries of DBESs, which were called Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (STLFs) at UBC. STLFs were postdoctoral fellow or contract faculty who were hired into the department and who partnered with faculty to measure learning, change courses, evaluate curriculum, and a variety of other roles. An important but smaller amount of funding was allocated to ‘buy’ faculty time for these partnerships.
- Successes. The use of STLFs was a particular strength of the program. STLFs reduced faculty time needed for change and provided knowledge to support that change, including disciplinary expertise. STLFs had a very high rate of employment at the end of the position.
- Challenges. In many cases, faculty were not strongly convinced that change was necessary by seeing published data. Local evidence (even when technically weaker) was a more powerful influence than published studies from elsewhere.
STLFs received regular oversight and supervision
Typically, STLFs 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 was critical for keeping projects on track and for the efficient use of STLF 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 could languish and work could be very frustrating for the STLFs involved.
STLFs’ capacity for leading change was supported by substantial training and a professional community
STLFs 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), both of which emerged in the early years of the initiative.
- Successes. Training was a key element of success, giving knowledge for leading change. A thriving community of STLFs—with one to four in each department at any given time—made for a supportive learning environment, despite the novelty of these positions. This community was routinely identified as the biggest support/influence by STLFs moving on to other positions.
- Challenges. In the first year, training was very limited; the program had not been fully developed and the size of the community was small. Several of the first cohort of STLFs left early (after a year or so) due to frustrations in the work.
The central organization was strong and well-funded
Led by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and 2-3 staff during the height of the initiative, SEI Central operated independently of existing teaching centres and was responsible for: the proposal and funding process; training, advising, and organizing the STLFs; advising department leadership on project ideas and hiring/management of STLFs; coordinating cross-department and cross-institutional sharing of materials; and bringing external contacts and expertise to UBC to support the initiative’s work.
- Successes. Collecting and responding to regular feedback from the STLFs, department leaders, and the dean’s office were important in guiding the work in departments and providing a mechanism for learning to happen across departments.
- Challenges. Department-level leadership was still a stronger influence on a given department’s success. Some structures, like the training and clear setting of expectations for the STLFs, only emerged after a tumultuous first year in some departments. Pulling back of funding for lack of progress was necessary in some cases but appeared to be effective when applied; departments were able to resume later on when conditions were more favourable. Establishing guidelines for reasonable measurement practices took substantial time and effort with the institutional research ethics board.
Course materials were archived in a central repository
In order to create efficiency in education, the intention was to develop a central database to house developed materials, shared with the University of Colorado Boulder’s initiative. An SEI course materials archival system was developed at substantial expense to enable efficiency in course development and sustainability of approaches.
- Successes. This was not a success; only a small number of courses are archived here.
- Challenges. User interface issues and a lack of incentive to archive materials were the major barriers. Materials were built for teaching, however packaging for distribution requires another step, which was not really budgeted for in terms of time and expertise. 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. Lastly, the custom-built platform is no longer maintainable, requiring migration to a more stable solution. We recommend instead using a more established platform and partnership with a campus library.
What were the key outcomes of the initiative?
Departmentally-driven initiatives can result in widespread change, even with little change to institutional reward structures
Over 150 UBC courses were substantially transformed and over 40 were partially transformed by UBC CWSEI efforts—in all, about ⅔ of all credit hours taught in the Faculty of Science. About 175 Science faculty have been involved in a course improvement project and substantially changed the way they teach, with only a few abandoning research-based instructional practices after a year without support.
Attitude shifts among faculty and students
Perceived barriers to teaching have shifted from faculty member concerns about large class sizes and (perceived) lack of student preparedness/motivation to concerns about time shortages and a need for teaching development. Science students at UBC now perceive active, enriched classrooms as normal, even at the early undergraduate level, and are able to discern effective practices.
Impact on the broader STEM education community
A significant knowledge base of practical resources and published evidence of effectiveness has accrued; these are collected on the UBC CWSEI websites which has a significant following inside and outside UBC. Several other institutions have adopted the DBES model in some form, either on their own (e.g., Cornell University) or as part of the NSF-funded TRESTLE network (http://trestlenetwork.org/).
How do I get more information?
The UBC CWSEI website has examples of all aspects of the initiative, which are also archived in this Handbook.
Requests for Proposals: sample RFPs and funded proposals are at http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/about/funding.htm.
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 UBC CWSEI.
Contact: for more details please contact Warren Code (email@example.com).