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UVU Biology Professor’s Paper Could Lead To Improved Undergraduate, K-12 Science Education

22 April 2013 No Comment

April 22, 2013

For Immediate Release

University Marketing & Communications: Mike Rigert

Written by: Mike Rigert

A paper by Michael T. Stevens, a Utah Valley University associate professor of biology, and colleagues was published this week in a prestigious academic science journal. The paper charts the national rise of a new type of science professor called “science faculty with education specialties.” Such an emergence may result in future improvements in undergraduate and K-12 science instruction in Utah and nationwide, Stevens’ study suggests.  

Stevens’ paper, “Widespread Distribution and Unexpected Variation Among Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFES) Across the United States,” was published April 19 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS. The research provides data to explain the nationwide phenomenon of an emergence, particularly in the last decade, of university and college science departments hiring individual scientists, or SFES, who focus their professional efforts on strengthening undergraduate science education, improving K-12 science education, and conducting discipline-based education research.

“Historically, colleges of science focused on content, and colleges of education concentrated on how to teach science. But on some issues, you need a scientist’s perspective, such as how to teach mitosis more effectively,” said Stevens, who is also director of UVU’s Capitol Reef Field Station. “That often takes a strong background in biology.”

The fact that UVU’s mission as a regional teaching university dovetails with the role and concept of SFES in looking at science education pedagogy and best practices from new vantage points is something that Stevens (himself an SFES with dual research foci in plant ecology and science education) is excited about.

In Utah, UVU and other postsecondary and K-12 institutions are increasingly embracing efforts to elevate student preparation and interest in so-called STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We’re very interested in science education and to have these data is very valuable,” Stevens said. “We hope it will spark conversation and that we can have the discussion, ‘What is the impact and value added of having this type of a faculty position?’”

More specifically, the paper by Stevens and his colleagues produced three particular findings about SFES from respondents:

• SFES at master of science-granting institutions were almost twice as likely to have formal training in science education compared to SFES at other types of institutions.

• SFES at doctorate-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.

The impetus for the research began several years ago when Stevens was among the biology faculty at California State University, Stanislaus. Colleagues in the 23-branch Cal State system began taking note of education specialists being hired in various scientific disciplines. A group of scholars (including Stevens) formed and published initial research on SFES in the California higher-education system, but the group was interested in studying the phenomenon coast-to-coast.

“Now, when I go to meetings, science faculty I meet say ‘I’m an SFES,’” Stevens said.

It is Stevens’ hope that SFES can interact with colleagues in colleges of education to develop pedagogy that will lead to greater interest in scientific fields among K-12 and undergraduate students.

According to Sam Rushforth, dean of the College of Science & Health at UVU, “The more we can focus on teaching well in the early grades and demonstrate the importance of the sciences, the more likely we will draw students into science and health professions where we have current large needs in our country and even greater needs projected.”

“Lots of people are choosing not to go into science disciplines despite the need,” Stevens said. “We can blame ourselves in part. If they’re not getting excited about science, they’re getting excited about other fields.”

Michael T. Stevens, UVU associate professor of biology


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