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Study Reveals Trends in Science Education

Kathy Williams, SDSU biology professor, and a team of researchers find university science departments are taking a more active role in improving science education.
Williams and researchers found science faculty with education specialties at institutions with Ph.D. programs are more likely to get science education grants.
Williams and researchers found science faculty with education specialties at institutions with Ph.D. programs are more likely to get science education grants.

In the first large-scale study of science faculty with education specialties in the United States, San Diego State University biology professor, Kathy Williams, and a team of investigators concluded that researchers at institutions offering master’s degrees are almost twice as likely to have formal training in science education as their colleagues at institutions that offer doctoral degrees.

In the study, published in the April issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers also found that science faculty with education specialties at institutions offering Ph.D. programs are much more likely to have received grant money for science education projects than faculty at institutions that do not have Ph.D. programs.

The results of this study suggest that science faculty with education specialties at institutions with Ph.D. programs are more likely to get science education grants on their personal or institutional reputation in the basic sciences rather on the basis of their formal training in science education.

Specialized science faculty

University science departments are taking an increasingly active role in improving science education. As a result, a new type of specialized faculty position within science departments is emerging – referred to as Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFES).

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An infographic depicting Williams’ results.

These individuals are often initially trained as scientists. However, the researchers have found that these scientists are increasingly focusing their professional efforts on strengthening undergraduate science education, improving K-12 science education, and conducting discipline-based education research.

The number of science faculty with education specialties has increased as university science departments recognize the need for scientists to contribute more efforts toward improving science education.

Building on research

The recent paper is a follow-up to a study by Williams and colleagues that was published in the journal Science in 2008, which explored the characteristics and training of science faculty with education specialties in the California State University system.

The new study included 289 science faculty members with education specialties from 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

The vast majority of faculty – 94 percent – were trained as basic science researchers. However, only 43 percent had formal training in science education such as a master’s or a Ph.D., a graduate fellowship in science education or a K-12 teaching credential.

Although there is a longer history of science faculty with education specialties in physics and chemistry departments, compared with biology departments, the researchers found few pronounced differences among science faculty with education specialties across disciplines.

The most dramatic differences among faculty related to where they worked rather than their basic science disciplines. For example, universities with Ph.D. programs had the lowest proportion of tenure-track science faculty with education specialties, compared to master’s-granting institutions and primarily undergraduate institutions

The disconnect between funding and training is not fully understood and raises questions about different training pathways for science faculty with education specialties and about the current allocation of science education funding.

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