Discipline Based Education Research

I read the blog post by my friend and colleague Joe Krajcik with interest (read here).

My trajectory to science education is quite different but it is fascinating how given our different backgrounds and trajectories that we have come together at the CREATE institute with very similar philosophies and goals, working on similar kinds of projects, and looking forward with great optimism.

I earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and after postdoctoral work in a related area, I took a position teaching at a small college. Even at a place where undergraduate education is paramount, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the research efforts in the laboratory, and I was even able to attract funding to support my small organic chemistry research group of undergraduate students. Nevertheless, the faculty at this institution cared deeply about educating undergraduate students, and I will be eternally grateful to them for helping me understand the importance of supporting students.

However, I soon realized that I was more interested in helping students learn, and in developing more effective approaches to teaching and learning, than I was in organic chemistry research, and I eventually moved to a new position at another institution that was (as far as I know) the first tenure track position in a chemistry department to be focused on research on undergraduate education. Now there are many such positions in disciplinary departments across the nation, in biology, physics, chemistry, geosciences, and engineering, but back then there were very few faculty positions where the major area of scholarship was research on teaching and learning in the discipline. While many college faculty were interested and passionate about their teaching, most of their efforts were the result of good intentions and experience in the classroom. However, those who make it through an undergraduate STEM major, followed by the years of graduate and postdoctoral work required to earn a faculty position at any college or university, are not “typical” students. For many faculty, it was hard to envisage the problems that students have understanding complex ideas, or that students who are underprepared or are different in any way from the mainstream STEM faculty population may struggle both with the discipline and to be accepted. 

In those early days, the future of DBER was not at all certain. Back then there was a very small number of faculty whose research focused on teaching and learning in the discipline, and little federal funding for work in STEM education (or SMETE as it was known then) at the college level. It was not clear that many disciplinary departments would accept faculty whose scholarship lay not in discovering new for example chemistry or physics knowledge, but rather in how people learn chemistry or biology, what the barriers to success are, and how to design effective materials for teaching and learning.

In the early ’90s that began to change. NSF’s education budget was re-instated (after being cut during the Reagan years), and a growing cadre of STEM faculty whose focus was discipline-based education research (DBER) emerged over the next twenty-five years. There were significant milestones along the way, including the support of Nobel laureate Carl Weiman, and perhaps most importantly the publication of a consensus report from the National Academy of Sciences.1 The “DBER report” defined the newly emerging field, provided a synthesis of the available research at the time, extended that research by showing how it could be incorporated into practice and provided recommendations for ways in which DBER could move forward with a research agenda.

The progress we have made over the past 25 years makes me very optimistic about the future: DBER faculty (including many who studied here at MSU) are contributing to a robust research program and evidence base that can help faculty make informed decisions about how they design their instruction and how they can assess student learning. There is also an increasing realization of the importance of diversifying the STEM population, and how DBER research can support that diversification, and a real will to put these evidence-based changes into practice.

Here at MSU, we have one of the (if not the) most pre-eminent interdisciplinary groups of faculty devoted to DBER not only in the USA but also in the world. While each discipline has a group of faculty whose research (mainly) focuses on that discipline, we also have the unique opportunities offered by the CREATE Institute. Not only does CREATE offer us the a central organization that enhances collaboration across disciplines, but it also provides collaboration and communication between the science education groups in the College of Education, whose primary focus is K-12 teaching and learning, and the DBER faculty whose home is typically in a disciplinary department in the College of Natural Sciences. These collaborations have resulted in a wide range of projects, including a transformation project based on the vision for science education that was put forth in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (cite). This project, funded by both the American Association of Universities (AAU) and the NSF, along with other more targeted course transformation projects and research studies, has resulted in major ongoing transformations of gateway courses. For example, a transformation of the general chemistry courses (CEM 141 and 142) has resulted in over 700 more students per semester who are able to move forward to their next courses with a 2.0 or better grade. Gateway courses such as general chemistry are notorious as “gatekeepers” rather than gateways, and here at MSU, we are finding ways to open that gate for all students at all levels.

(1) National Research Council. Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering; 2012. https://doi.org/10.17226/13362.