Why teaching science matters


Undergraduate science education has been undergoing a significant pedagogical shift in the last few decades. At its core, the shift has been from teaching students scientific facts to teaching students how to apply core scientific concepts and think critically about scientific data and conclusions.   

It can be difficult for those of us who love to teach science to think about teaching undergraduates for any other reason than to inspire and train new generations of scientists, but teaching undergraduates to think scientifically—particularly those who do not choose a career in science—is critical.

These students also have a voice in shaping public policy, so providing them with the tools to analyze the scientific evidence (or lack thereof) behind news stories, policy decisions and legislative actions is crucial for the future of science. By using critical thinking, they can make informed decisions, form opinions based on evidence, and discern scientific discourse and political narrative. In addition, before casting a vote, the students we teach might share their opinions within their community, hopefully accurately conveying the concepts we have taught them.  

What is happening in science education

In the past decades, scientists around the country have been moving science teaching from a traditional “transmissionist” model (the sage on the stage) to a “constructivist” model. In the latter, the instructor focuses on facilitating the learning process to help students construct a new conceptual understanding of scientific concepts.

In 2011, the American Association for the Advancement of Science sponsored a new report on undergraduate biology education called “Vision and Change,” which provides a framework for biology faculty. This framework encourages the development of conceptual thinking and scientific competencies that go beyond the traditional memorizing-understanding-recalling model of learning science.

Why this matters 

Institutions around the country are now training current and future faculty using an evidence-based approach to teaching, or scientific teaching. In scientific teaching, assessment of learning outcomes plays a critical role in determining whether students have learned what the instructor claims to have taught them.

This trend means that, when applying to assistant professor or lecturer positions, postdoctoral scholars are increasingly being expected to provide evidence of teaching effectiveness, and to be able to demonstrate the ability to take a scientific approach to teaching. For example, at some institutions, instructors may be required to collect data on student learning and implement changes to their curriculum to improve their effectiveness. 

It has also led to the burgeoning of Discipline-Based Education Research positions in science departments at institutions around the country. DBER positions are typically faculty positions (tenure-track or not), and are developed for science Ph.D.s who have postdoctoral training in science education research as well as extensive teaching experience. 

Nowadays, familiarity with the “Vision and Change” guidelines and the science education literature (including from science education journals like CBE-Life Sciences Education or the Journal for Microbiology and Biology Education) is also becoming a must for principal investigators on National Science Foundation science education grants.

Developing your teaching skills

As a UCSF graduate student and postdoctoral researcher, the opportunities to interact with basic science education faculty and undergraduate students may seem limited.

This is why, several years ago, the UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development developed partnerships with Bay Area institutions that serve a large and diverse undergraduate population, such as the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco. Within UCSF, the Postdoctoral Training Fellowship Program has been providing training and teaching experience in small-group discussions for postdoctoral scholars.

Through these successful partnerships, more than 20 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the life sciences have been able to gain essential teaching and mentoring experience each semester, and OCPD has begun expanding these collaborations to other scientific fields, including social sciences and nursing. 

In addition, the UCSF STRIDE program, in partnership with San Francisco State University, has been training postdoctoral fellows in scientific research and education for several years, demonstrating UCSF’s efforts to train scientists who have expertise in novel pedagogical practices (application deadline for the four-year postdoctoral program is April 8).

Starting in January, OCPD will start offering a new evidence-based science education course called STEP-UP (for Science Teaching Effectiveness Program for Upcoming Professors) for UCSF graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, twice each year. This four-day course will include training around the scientific teaching principles as well as opportunities to develop and practice teaching skills before going into a classroom.

For students and scholars who are interested in a shorter-term teaching experience, the award-winning Science & Health Education Partnership at UCSF has a long history of successfully training UCSF students, scholars and trainees in research-based teaching methods. UCSF volunteers work closely with San Francisco public K-12 teachers co-planning and co-teaching several classroom lessons—gaining experience integrating active, research-based pedagogical methods into their teaching, while also serving as scientist role models to young students. In addition, each fall SEP leads a crash-course in science teaching called the Scientist Teaching Workshops.

In addition, the UCSF Office of Research and Development in Medical Education (RadME) department has been offering well-designed workshops around the evidence-based teaching principles as they relate to medical training.

Online Resources for Busy Scientists

For graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who may not be able to take advantage of any of these opportunities, there is a growing number of online resources available to gain training in scientific teaching.

Scientific societies and consortia are now offering online courses—from the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, to Coursera’s Massive Open Online Courses, to the American Society for Microbiology’s Science Teaching Fellow Program (open to all life science postdoctoral scholars).

And, for graduate students and scholars who may not be able to commit to a full online course, the iBiology Scientific Teaching Series is an online, self-paced, video series that can easily be accessed by all. It introduces the basic principles of active learning and student-centered teaching, and includes videos of classroom demonstrations and provides evidence of effectiveness for some basic active learning strategies.

If you are a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar considering a career in academia, sign-up to OCPD’s Preparing Future Faculty listserv (http://bitly.com/UCSFPFF) to receive updates about future programs in and out of OCPD.