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May 16, 2013

Purdue professor part of national study of science-education specialists

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A new type of science faculty, those who specialize in science education, is on the rise, but less than half have formal training in education, according to a recent study.

Nancy Pelaez, a Purdue University associate professor of biological sciences, was part of a team that performed the first large-scale study of U.S. science faculty with education specialties. This new type of position exists within science departments and focuses on improving undergraduate and kindergarten through 12th-grade science education.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that 94 percent of the respondents had originally been trained in basic research and 43 percent had formal training in science education, such as a master's, doctoral degree or graduate fellowship in science education or a K-12 teaching credential.

"Education training provides important skills and tools that someone trained in basic research may not possess, for instance techniques to evaluate students and reach those who are struggling with material," said Pelaez, who founded the Purdue International Biology Education Research Group. "Those without that training may only look at test results as an assessment measure. A poor test result identifies a student who is having problems with the material, but it doesn't tell the nature or reason for those problems. It also typically comes at a point where it will be difficult to intervene and re-engage the student. Those who have studied or had training in education in addition to their science background better know how to look at the whole process and ways to improve it."

The study also found that faculty in these positions at master's degree-granting institutions were more likely to have formal training in science education, at 60.9 percent, than those at doctoral degree-granting institutions, at 39.3 percent. Despite having a smaller percentage of faculty trained in science education, the study found that faculty at doctoral degree-granting institutions had higher success rates in obtaining funding for science education research and projects.

"This is an emerging field, and these discrepancies may be due to a lack of a critical mass of people with this training and expertise," Pelaez said. "It may be that panels making funding decisions don't understand the value of science education training. That will likely shift as more and more individuals obtain this expertise and sit on such panels."

The National Science Foundation-funded study included 289 science faculty with education specialties from 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

"Science faculty with education specialties is a widespread and growing group," Pelaez said. "It is clear science departments recognize the value in these positions in improving teaching and learning because such positions were found across the nation and within different types of institutions."

Although this type of faculty is on the rise, there are only a handful of programs training them, Pelaez said.

"Some of the science faculty with education specialties may be seeking to educate themselves, but aren't finding many opportunities to do so," she said. "We need to increase the opportunities available. It doesn't have to happen in a set, prescribed way, but it is important for them to obtain these skills. Knowing science is only one part of being a great teacher of science or researcher of science-education methods."

Purdue offers doctoral degree programs to train graduate students in biology, chemistry and physics to do education work. In addition, Purdue's International Biology Education Research Group collaborates with science faculty across the United States and internationally to provide opportunities for formal training in science education and holds weekly open meetings where any faculty member or student can come to learn more about science education, she said.

Pelaez is a member of a collaborative team of six co-authors who contributed equally to this research. In addition to Pelaez, the research team includes Seth Bush of California Polytechnic State University, James Rudd II of California State University, Michael Stevens of Utah Valley University, Kimberly Tanner of San Francisco State University and Kathy Williams of San Diego State University.

Pelaez also was part of a research team that performed a 2008 study of the characteristics and training of science faculty with education specialties in the California State University system. A paper detailing that study was published in the journal Science

Media contact: Elizabeth Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu 

Source: Nancy Pelaez, 765-496-3261, npelaez@purdue.edu 

Related news release: 
Turnover in science education faculty compounds K-12 efforts


ABSTRACT

Widespread Distribution and Unexpected Variation Among Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFES) Across the United States

Seth D. Bush, Nancy J. Pelaez, James A. Rudd II, Michael T. Stevens, Kimberly D. Tanner, and Kathy S. Williams

College and university science departments are increasingly taking an active role in improving science education. Perhaps as a result, a new type of specialized science faculty position within science departments is emerging - referred to here as science faculty with education specialties - where individual scientists focus their professional efforts on strengthening undergraduate science education, improving kindergarten- through 12th-grade science education, and conducting discipline-based education research. Numerous assertions, assumptions, and questions about SFES exist, yet no national studies have been published. Here, we present findings from a large-scale study of U.S. SFES, who are widespread and increasing in numbers. Contrary to many assumptions, SFES were indeed found across the nation, across science disciplines and, most notably, across primarily undergraduate, master of science-granting and Ph.D.-granting institutions. Data also reveal unexpected variations among SFES by institution type. Among respondent, SFES at master of science-granting institutions were almost twice as likely to have formal training in science education compared with other SFES. In addition, SFES at Ph.D.-granting institutions were much more likely to have obtained science education funding. Surprisingly, formal training in science education provided no advantage in obtaining science education funding. Our findings show that the SFES phenomenon is likely more complex and diverse than anticipated, with differences being more evident across institution types than across science disciplines. These findings raise questions about the origins of differences among SFES and are useful to science departments interested in hiring SFES, scientific trainees preparing for SFES careers, and agencies awarding science education funding.