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Science education faculty don’t get no respectResearchBlogging.org

At least that’s a strong conclusion from a paper in the December 19th issue of Science (1). According to the article almost 40% of the 59 science education specialists, surveyed in the California University system, were “seriously considering leaving” their current jobs and some (20%) were considering leaving the field entirely.


Figure 1. Are science education specialists the Rodney Dangerfields of academics?

Before we continue, some more background information is in order. Who are these science education specialists and why do we have them?

The science educators fall into two groups: people who were hired as basic research faculty and got interested in teaching, and people who were hired to be science educators. Most of the designated science educators were hired between 2000 and 2007.

Why we do have science education specialists anyway?

In 1997, there was a survey published by Nancy Hewitt and Elaine Seymour (2) that was quoted in the Science article. Hewitt and Seymore found that:

At U.S. colleges and universities, more than half of entering science majors leave the sciences, most (90%) complaining of ineffective teaching . Of those who remain in science, 74% express the same complaint.

Pretty strong stuff.

In response, some universities responded by:

seeding university science departments with Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFES)

I suppose the idea was that these faculty would be resource people and would help other faculty learn how to teach.

The study described in the Science article reports on the outcome of that experiment. The authors obtained and analyzed responses from 59 science specialist faculty at 20 California state universities. Of this group, 31 were hired to be science education specialists and 28 transitioned from basic research.

So, what’s going wrong with the experiment? at least from the faculty perspective?

Some interesting findings about the science education specialists and their positions were:

1. Grant writing pressures –

Nearly all SFES (90%) perceived soliciting external grant funding and publishing peer-reviewed articles as being “essential for obtaining tenure and/or promotion.”

I’m not sure if they considered this a problem or not, but I wonder if the reality of the position matched their expectations. The faculty doing basic research expect grant writing to be part of the job. Everyone lives and dies by grant funding in the world of basic research. Science educators, on the other hand, might not expect this to be part of their position, on top of teaching.

2. Lack of infrastructure and less support for science education. Basic researchers have graduate students and post docs to share the load. The science educators, on the other hand, had a hard time getting graduate students.

3. Few colleagues. According to the Science report:

34% of SFES [science education specialists] reported being the only SFES in their department

4. So, why are the science education faculty thinking of leaving?

Hired-SFES most commonly reported that they were considering leaving because their science education efforts were not valued or understood. Transitioned-SFES, in contrast, reported being overworked and burned out.

I found the results of this study sad and unsuprising. It left me with a few questions about faculty retention and satisfaction and more questions about the students.

A really big difference, in my experience, between universities and community colleges is that community colleges prioritize teaching. This survey only covered universities. Are community college instructors more satisfied with their positions?

The second and biggest question pertains to whole intent of having science education specialists in the first place. I would really like to know if the science specialists are having an impact on the students’ perception of teaching quality. We know from the data that students were unhappy in 1997, but what about now? Is that still true? Are students more or less unhappy than they were before?

Also, all community college faculty (in science anyway) are science education specialists by definition, since community colleges don’t do basic research. It stands reason that if you’re rewarded for basic research, and all selection pressures are focused on basic research, something else will suffer. Small liberal arts colleges are also populated by science education specialists. How do their students rate the quality of science education?


  1. S. D. Bush, N. J. Pelaez, J. A. Rudd, M. T. Stevens, K. D. Tanner, K. S. Williams (2008). THE PIPELINE: Science Faculty with Education Specialties Science, 322 (5909), 1795-1796 DOI: 10.1126/science.1162072
  2. E. Seymour, N. Hewitt, Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1997).


  1. #1 Leaked from the pipeline
    January 6, 2009

    Burn out (teaching 18 credit hour per term) and low pay with NO benefits would have been my comment. I loved teaching but in all the schools I taught “education specialists” were part time temporary adjunct instructors. And mostly female, hired with no benefits and no clue if you had a job next term. Assumed: Your husband is a tenured tract and you are just looking to amuse yourself. This overeducated single woman wanted insurance and the ability to apply for a car or condo loan! Case closed — Do what you like – like what you do — but at the end of the day you gotta eat and pay the bills.

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    January 6, 2009

    Thanks Brian and Leaked.

    I forgot to mention it, but these survey results only cover tenure-track faculty. Lecturers or part time instructors were not included in the survey.

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    January 6, 2009

    At my regional university without biology PhD program, we hired in a biology educator, mostly to work on preparing students for teaching in high school. She came with both a highschool teaching certificate and a research interest and eventually, because of success at research, evolved into mostly a research person, but with a strong interest in teaching. We hired, on yearly contract, another one. We advertised for a tenure track person to replace the first hire and our yearly contract person was the only qualified applicant. Oh well! We also hired a regular faculty type who had done a two-year teaching postdoc.

    I taught highschool one year non-certified. Though research focused, I still liked to teach as well as I could, and have published a couple of small articles on teaching lab experiments. I’ve also been involved in a couple of local projects to improve teaching in our university.

    Back in the 90’s there was a general concern over retention, and the recognition that much of university level introductory teaching was ineffective. I’m 11 years past classroom teaching, but I visit the university from time to time. What I hear from my colleagues makes me glad I am no longer teaching. They say that when you enter a classroom you feel like you are facing an angry mob. I think there is much more an atmosphere of student entitlement now than there was 30 years ago. “I exist, gimme my A.”

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    January 6, 2009

    Perhaps this comes from mixed objectives. University faculty and graduate students are, after all, researchers. Forcing them to waste time on undergraduates distracts from their work and No Good Can Come Of It.

    Get rid of the undergraduates and the problem goes away.

  5. #5 Leaked from the pipeline
    January 6, 2009

    Precisely, and they should have been. They have looked at only the tip of the iceberg. It would be interesting to see how pushing professionals into marginal pay posts impacts retention and teaching quality. None of the places I worked would have hired tenure-track. Their position was “why spend the money.” It doesn’t take long for you to find something else to do.

  6. #6 Chris
    January 6, 2009

    I have been taking classes at the local community college in preparation of either returning to the workforce or going to graduate school. I am taking courses both to review, and to pick up stuff I missed out when I was at the big university thirty years ago.

    I am very impressed with the science classes (physics, biology). The classes are small, and the classes I took were both taught by PhDs. Plus the labs were part of the class, and run/supervised by the instructors. Very much unlike the physics lab I took as a freshman with an incompetent TA (okay, the oceanography lab TA was competent, but it still paled compared to my recent CC experience).

    I wish I could convince the son who graduates in a few months from high school to consider CC. But he being honor roll boy taking three AP classes thinks it is beneath him. Sigh. I really do think he would do better taking the first year of engineering physics, chemistry and math (diffy-Q, linear algebra and advanced calculus) there.

  7. #7 Becca
    January 6, 2009

    I see two basic systemic problems, I don’t know if they are truly the most important, but they concern me a good deal.

    1) The attitude that TT-positions are intrinsically desirable, nay, the most desirable for everyone, always. Combined with the fact that there are always a lot more applicants than positions. These two factors lead to a lot of people taking positions (after years of “delayed gratification” in the form of an extrodinarily long training period) that they aren’t really happy with. That’s a recipe for disaster.
    I’m not sure if we can really change the numbers where faculty positions are rare, but I think a better system would involve people focusing a lot more on getting a job they like, and minimze the up-or-out aspect of career paths.
    I think it might help to have post-docs positions automatically convert after a certain amount of time to research posts that pay well enough to give people the security to spend a few years on the faculty job market, if necessary, to find a fit at a place they really love (or stick with the post-doc type jobs). It seems to me, perhaps incorrectly, that there a lot of faculty out there who would thrive if they found the right environment, but they aren’t in anything like what they want.
    For any of that to really be changed though, a lot of what needs to happen is on the level of a bottom-up collective attitude adjustment about TT vs. all other jobs.
    2) The students, and the relationship of the student to the professors, need to change. Nobody likes to teach ungrateful wretches. And, although we often forget it, nobody likes to be forced into taking courses they don’t want (thus becoming an ungrateful wretch). We need a massive overhaul of the incentive system- the bribes of grades are a hugely flawed approach. Much as I can see where things like distribution requirements come from, I think the ‘liberal arts’ style education as it is implemented in the US has traded breadth over depth, and basically ignores the interests of the student.

  8. #8 Sandra Porter
    January 6, 2009

    I haven’t seen the “ungrateful wretch” attitude appear in my students and I don’t know if it’s common or if it’s more common at some institutions than others.

    In this study, it was the teaching faculty who were unhappy. They weren’t unhappy with their students, they were unhappy with their colleagues and their jobs.

    The heart of the matter is – do universities value quality science teaching enough to make it a priority?

    Maybe not.

    If we had hard data comparing teaching quality, and we really knew which kinds of schools were stronger, perhaps we could do a better job.

    If community colleges are better at teaching, we could advise students to take their undergraduate basic science classes at community colleges and then transfer to universities when the teaching quality is less of a concern.

    On the other hand, it’s possible that the comparison might make students more critical.

  9. #9 Peggy
    January 6, 2009

    It’s interesting that this was an initiative in the Cal State system, which doesn’t confer PhDs and is supposedly more focused on teaching undergrads than the University of California system. I believe that a big part of their mission is to train future K-12 teachers, so it seems extra unfortunate that the science education specialists are leaving.

  10. #10 Sandra Porter
    January 6, 2009

    Thanks Peggy, you’re right! I totally missed that and it’s in the second paragraph:

    The CSU’s primary missions are undergraduate, master’s-level graduate, and K-12 teacher education. CSU undergraduates are among the top one-third of their high-school graduating classes.

    Some of the schools must have graduate programs, though, because the article later says:

    Of those with departmental graduate programs, most SFES (79%) reported having less access to graduate student researchers than non-SFES science faculty had.

    To clarify though, being dissatisfied and thinking of leaving are not the same as actually doing it.

  11. #11 D. C. Sessions
    January 6, 2009

    Thanks Peggy, you’re right! I totally missed that and it’s in the second paragraph:

    The CSU’s primary missions are undergraduate, master’s-level graduate, and K-12 teacher education. CSU undergraduates are among the top one-third of their high-school graduating classes.

    Some of the schools must have graduate programs, though, because the article later says:

    Actually it already said, “missions are undergraduate, master’s-level graduate” so there’s no need to read between the lines. Without masters’ candidates, who would teach the undergraduate classes?

  12. #12 Sandra Porter
    January 6, 2009

    Good catch D.C.!

  13. #13 '08 Science Alum
    January 7, 2009

    I graduated in ’08 from a state university and concur from a student perspective that the science teaching is horrible. Even the most dedicated teachers were highly dissatisfied because they were most often lacking in research credentials (ie. their research was either non-existent or floundering w/o funding). Those that had a decent research program, grad students, and were in the top 10 percent in teaching skill were junior faculty that hadn’t yet learned that not focusing fully on research was a detriment to their careers.

    That’s the real problem and I see no improvement coming unless the system is cmpletely revamped. I saw many students leave science before graduation because the teaching was the worst I had ever seen.

  14. #14 becca
    January 7, 2009

    “I haven’t seen the “ungrateful wretch” attitude appear in my students”
    So you never say students have a sense of entitlement?
    Methinks this says more about you’re (laudable) ability to understand students as people with their own motivations than the sainthood of your never-complaining students.

    “In this study, it was the teaching faculty who were unhappy. They weren’t unhappy with their students, they were unhappy with their colleagues and their jobs.”
    Maybe I’m just looking at this all wrong, but I would have thought most of the warmfuzzies about teaching would come from interactions with students. The fact science faculty are rated as ineffective teachers is important. Generically, one of the main reasons people enjoy a pursuit is because they feel competent. Let’s assume the students are right, or at least that the teachers agree with them, and that science teaching is something most people aren’t very good at. Why might that be?
    Once I got to graduate school, I got the distinct impression most of the lousy teaching I saw was because teaching was completely unvalued and grant pressures were so high. But in undergrad, I really did see some ineffective teaching that more or less stemmed from a poor relationship between students and professors.
    Now granted, I did see remarkably good teaching from a couple of professors who were focused on science education. Maybe these professors focused on teaching, did a good job, and yet were frustrated because they didn’t get respect from department heads and deans because they aren’t bringing in the grant $.
    This, would obviously become an irritation… but I’m not sure it would make people consider leaving the job…
    No, I think it’s that even when they do a good job (relative to other professors who are obsessed with grant $), they still aren’t seen as doing a good job by the students. On the other hand, I have also heard some professors who were thrilled with their students, thrilled with their evals, and still miserable because they still weren’t appreciated by their superiors (this is very common in TAs/adjuncts).
    *sigh* Probably the only generalizable thing you can say is that both warm fuzzies from students (impaired with poor efficacy ratings) and appreciation from collegues/superiors is useful in motivating people.

  15. #15 Sandra Porter
    January 7, 2009

    I suspect the warm fuzzies that instructors get from their student interactions might not balance out the feeling of being a second class citizen in comparison to their basic research peers.

    Also, you can imagine that if you’re the only education specialist, you might encounter the same problems that people find anywhere when they are the token ____( fill in the blank).

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