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A greater commitment by science faculty to focus on science education could drive education reform at universities and K-12 schools, according to a new report by researchers with the California State University system and Purdue University.

Appearing in the Dec. 18 issue of Science, the report evaluates the role that professors who specialize in science education play in improving how the sciences are taught.

Science education findings

According to the report, an earlier study indicated that 90 percent of college students who abandon science as a major, do so because of perceived poor teaching; and, of those who remain, 74 percent identify poor teaching quality.

"This study investigates science faculty who focus their research and activities specifically on addressing the challenges of preparing science teachers, recruiting and training scientists and engineers for the 21st century, and cultivating a scientifically literate public," said Kathy S. Williams, San Diego State University biology professor and study co-author.

Study co-authors

In addition to Williams, the study's co-authors include:

  • James Rudd, CSU, Los Angeles professor of chemistry and biochemistry
  • Seth Bush, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor of chemistry and biochemistry 
  • Nancy Pelaez, professor of biological sciences at Purdue University and formerly with CSU, Fullerton
  • Michael Stevens, CSU, Stanislaus biological sciences professor 
  • Kimberly Tanner, San Francisco State University biology professor

The CSU research team studied science faculty who take on specialized roles in their disciplines to reform undergraduate science education, improve K-12 teacher education and preparation, and conduct science education research. These "science faculty with education specialties," or SFES, come from various backgrounds.

SFES in the CSU

In a comprehensive survey of the CSU campuses, 59 faculty members were identified as serving in the SFES role. Of those, 47 percent transitioned into the role from a more traditional science-faculty position, with many continuing basic science research efforts. The remaining 53 percent were hired specifically for the SFES position, and tended to focus more on science education efforts.

Roughly 40 percent of both types of SFES surveyed noted serious consideration toward leaving their position due to a perceived lack of institutional understanding and to job burnout.

"Science education in the U.S. continues to rank low in international science assessments," Williams said. "We're struggling to recruit and retain qualified K-12 science teachers, and many fear that we're not recruiting and preparing scientists and engineers for the 21st century. So, there's a real need to both prepare more science teachers and investigate how students learn."

The authors will next expand the CSU study to a national sample.

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