Teaching Science: Educating the educators

Author(s): Chris Adam
Photographs by: Mark Simons

Nancy Pelaez

For Nancy Pelaez, associate professor of biological sciences, a new type of faculty — those who specialize in science education — represents a new challenge for science departments across the country. That’s because fewer than half have formal training in education.

Pelaez was part of a team that performed the first large-scale study of U.S. science faculty with education specialties — a new type of position within science departments that focuses on improving undergraduate and K-12 science education. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that 94 percent of the respondents had been educated originally in basic research and 43 percent had formal learning in science education, such as a master’s degree, doctoral degree or graduate fellowship in science education or a K-12 teaching credential.

Pelaez, who founded the Purdue International Biology Education Research Group, says the findings are important because a focus on educating provides important skills and tools that someone trained in basic research may not possess, including techniques to evaluate students and help those who are struggling with the material.

“Those without that training may look only 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,” she says. “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 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 says. “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 preparing them. Pelaez says some of the science faculty with education specialties may be looking for additional formal learning but are not finding many opportunities.

“We need to increase the opportunities available,” Pelaez says. “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’s College of Science 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 work in science education and holds weekly open meetings where any faculty member or student can come to learn more about science education.