Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative

UBC CWSEI supports departments in their efforts to provide an unrivalled education for science undergraduate students. It works collaboratively with UBC Science departments to improve student education without placing additional burdens on faculty members. Embedded Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (STLFs) at the unit level bring deep disciplinary expertise and training in learning science in order to partner with faculty members to create or adapt evidence-based teaching methods and measuring their effectiveness.

A significant knowledge base of practical resources and research has accrued, and the department-level fellows model is being adopted elsewhere. The initiative has achieved highly effective, evidence-based science education by applying the latest advances in pedagogical and organizational excellence, based on establishing what students should learn, determining what students are learning, and then improving student learning.


The Initiative draws on recent literature in how people learn, implications for effective instruction, and organizational change, to influence the teaching of dozens of faculty and the learning of tens of thousands of students by promoting the "expertise-based classroom", where the goal is to guide students on the path from novice thinking toward expertise in the discipline.

Departments are the unit of change and the key factor in this change has been the addition of Science Teaching and Learning Fellows (STLFs) to each department. STLFs combine deep discipline-specific expertise (often a PhD) with expertise in science education. This unique skillset enables them to partner with faculty members as a consultant in creating or adapting evidence-based methods and measuring effectiveness toward learning. The approach focuses on both individuals and institutional structures, each having both prescribed (e.g., adoption of specific teaching practices) and emergent (e.g., building community) outcomes, with an overall goal of shifting the teaching and learning culture to be more student-centred and evidence-based.

More than 180 faculty from departments in the Faculty of Science, along with a central coordinating unit (migrated to Skylight in 2014), have been involved in the Initiative. More than 50 STLFs have supported departments, with one to four in a department at a time.


The Initiative supports departments in their efforts to provide an unrivalled education for all undergraduate students, and to do so with a commitment to evidence both in choosing teaching methods and measuring the results of implementations. The ultimate intended goal has been a culture change around teaching and learning to establish space for evidence and research-based instruction. Enabled by a strong commitment to scholarship, the long-term/legacy goals of the Initiative are to inspire and inform this type of transformation at other institutions as well.

Outcomes and impact

System-wide changes in classroom practices

With dozens of faculty supported by over 50 STLFs across the years (12 to 20 at any one time) the Initiative has successfully transformed undergraduate science education at UBC, with a particular specialty in high-engagement methods in large classrooms where traditional lecture have long dominated. Most course transformations have employed online elements to maximize the value of face-to-face time in class, while personal response systems (clickers) have become a common method to support small group discussion in large classes.

As of 2017, over 180 UBC courses have been at least partially transformed by the initiative (over 100 of these with substantial changes). Over 15,000 (different) students per year take transformed courses—about three-quarters of student FTEs.

Student-centred community

The Initiative has brought about a more student-centred orientation in UBC Science courses. Science students at UBC have begun to perceive active, enriched classrooms as normal. Even at the early undergraduate level, students see interactive classroom activities as typical, and are able to discern effective practices.

Ongoing Faculty Engagement

While a recent study of physics faculty at a US university found about one-third of faculty abandon research-based instructional practices after a year without instructional support, very few faculty involved at UBC have done so. Several have gone on to continue to transform courses with little or no STLF support. Over 180 Science faculty have substantially changed the way they teach as a result of involvement with the Initiative, with only a few reporting that they abandoned research-based instructional practices after a year without STLF support. This is a very small rate compared to findings at other institutions. A substantial research base (see below) and data from evaluation has also accrued, and this model has inspired similar work at other institutions.

Perceived barriers to teaching have also shifted, from faculty member concerns about large class sizes and (perceived) lack of student preparedness/motivation to concerns about time shortages and need for teaching development.

Broad Social Benefits

The purpose of science education is no longer simply to train the small fraction of the population who will become the next generation of scientists. A more scientifically literate populace is needed to address global challenges that humanity now faces and that only science can explain, and possibility mitigate, such as global warming. Additionally, we need a citizenry able to make wise decisions, informed by scientific understanding, about other complex issues such as genetic modification, choice of energy sources, resource extraction, and ecological diversity.

Moreover, the modern economy is largely based on science and technology, and for that economy to thrive and for individuals within it to be successful, we need most citizens to be technically literate and have complex problem-solving skills. By establishing an educational system that produces far more students with these and other abilities such as communication and teamwork, the Initiative will benefit local and national industry.

Skylight’s contribution

With the original leadership team shifting to advisory roles, Skylight became the central unit for the Initiative in 2014, responsible for advising on hiring and providing training for Science Teaching and Learning Fellows, as well as ongoing support for the fellows and the faculty leadership in departments.

Websites and resources