The Role of Discipline-Based Education Specialists

By David Bressoud @dbressoud

The Education Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is currently preparing for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In anticipation of the committee hearings, they have asked for input from interested parties. A group of us put together a joint statement that is being submitted on behalf of MAA and CBMS. It is available here. The “ask” in this statement focuses on what is increasingly seen as an important catalyst for facilitating educational change at the department level, the presence of discipline-based education specialists (DBESs). As we state in our request to the committee:

 The colleges and universities that have been at the forefront of these improvements have usually had discipline-based education specialists within the departments who led, studied, and adapted local interventions. Training and embedding specialists responsible for: i) implementing, studying, and adapting local innovations; ii) adapting assessments and curriculum to be more conceptually focused, and iii) supporting faculty to implement more engaging instruction constitute one of the most significant steps that could be undertaken with additional resources.

 We have a very small number of education specialists who are trained both in the mathematical sciences and in the research in undergraduate mathematics education. Expanding this corps and encouraging all departments to embrace their expertise would greatly facilitate the improvement of the mathematical experience for all students.

 To me, one of the most striking observations from multiple studies of change that has led to effective undergraduate programs is the presence within the mathematics department of faculty with training in undergraduate mathematics research. It is not a necessary presence, Macalester’s small department is innovative and progressive without need for a faculty member with formal preparation in mathematics education. But large departments usually need someone who is familiar with the literature that supports a variety of interventions and is accepted by members of the department as someone who can help guide the process of change.

 The physics education literature has demonstrated that the greatest obstacle to sustained change is neither awareness of what can be done nor willingness to try something different (Henderson et al, 2012). The greatest problems arise when faculty try something new and discover that it is both harder to pull off than anticipated and not as successful as experienced at its pilot sites. This is where assistance from someone embedded in the department can be of critical importance: to assess what is really happening, to provide support that makes it easier for those attempting change, and to help tweak these efforts to improve the outcome.

Warren Code and Stephanie Chasteen and the cover of  The Science Education Initiative Handbook .

Warren Code and Stephanie Chasteen and the cover of The Science Education Initiative Handbook.

 This past fall, the Science Education Initiative, the product of Carl Wieman’s work at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of British Columbia, produced a handbook written by Stephanie Chasteen and Warren Code that serves as “A practical guide to fostering change in university courses and faculty by embedding discipline-based education specialists within departments” (Chasteen & Code, 2018), available free here.

 Their guide is structured in three parts

1.     For those seeking to bring about change: What is the role of a DBES? What should be the nature of the position? What does it take to make this person successful? What is the organizational structure that is required?

2.     For department leaders: How do you set up an organizational structure that will support a DBES? How do you set the stage for successful course transformation?

3.     For those who would be a DBES: How do you get started on transforming a course? What are the keys to partnering with the faculty? How do you handle your multiple roles within the department and build your skills?

The guide concludes with an appendix of case studies of different institutions using DBESs, illustrating the variety of approaches for this model.

 The emphasis in this handbook is on the use of postdocs or instructors for these positions. It is not enough to simply hire a postdoc, contract instructor, or permanent lecturer who will focus on issues of teaching. I know universities where highly capable, informed, and motivated instructors find themselves frustrated by their lack of influence. This represents a tremendous waste of potential and underscores the importance of the organizational structures that must be built by the departmental leadership.

Another line of attack in supporting change is to embed Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFESs). Analysis of this approach can be found in Kimberly Tanner’s work. Admittedly, re-envisioning faculty in mathematics to include those engaged in research in undergraduate mathematics education (RUME) requires a broadening of the view of who belongs in a math department. It also requires an expansion of the vision of RUME from its traditional focus on student understanding of specific concepts to a broader study of departmental change

 This can be done. Arizona State, Oklahoma State, San Diego State, and Colorado State Universities are prime examples of what is possible. Moreover, because of the nature of their work—which requires funding for team efforts—bringing researchers in undergraduate mathematics education into the department inevitably creates funding for graduate students and postdocs who can carry much of the load of monitoring and assessing ongoing efforts.

 Most department chairs and their deans recognize the need to improve student outcomes. The SEI Handbook provides direct and practical advice for facilitating and supporting the requisite changes.


 Chasteen, S.V. and Code, W.J. (2018). The Science Education Initiative Handbook. Accessed at

Henderson, C, Dancy, M. and Niewiadomska-Bugaj, M. (2012). Use of research-based instructional strategies in introductory physics: Where do faculty leave the innovation-decision process? Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 8, 020104, available at