Another Kind of Postdoc: Education Research

Michelle Smith had just defended her Ph.D. in biology and was walking out of the building when a faculty member stopped her with a warning: if you continue with the postdoc you’ve chosen, you’re throwing away your career.

Smith ignored the advice and, five years later, is happy to report that her career is going strong—just not as a lab scientist.

Smith is a science education researcher, with a new tenure track faculty position in the University of Maine’s biology department. She loves the work. And it all started with an education research postdoc at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU), the position the faculty member advised her against.

Smith is one of a growing cohort of science education researchers, who often learn the discipline as postdocs after earning a doctoral degree in the sciences. These positions differ from a traditional research postdoc and even a teaching postdoc; they teach trainees to design curricula and lead classes while also working in the lab. Students who choose education research postdocs are shifting gears, from studying the natural world to studying the best ways to teach it to students.

Education researchers study how learning happens in the classroom and the lab, using the same data-driven techniques that scientists do. They often teach classes and help other faculty understand the best teaching techniques, but education research is their main focus. “I certainly want to be a great teacher, but that isn’t what makes me a complete person,” Smith says. “I want to use science to understand the best way to teach biology.”

It isn’t clear how many science education researchers exist today—a survey by a newly formed society of biology educators is under way to figure that out—but many colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the value of these positions and are adding them to their science departments. Colorado, Michigan State (which also offers a postdoc program), Harvard, and North Dakota State are just a few of the universities that have professional science educator positions, though not all are tenure track.

“The field of education research is really growing,” says Jenny Knight, a senior instructor in CU’s molecular, cellular, and developmental biology department, who is an education researcher herself and oversees the department’s education research postdocs. “There are more people who are funded to do education research and are looking for people to help them.”

Smith loved science, but after earning her doctoral degree at the University of Washington, she knew she didn’t want to work in the lab. “I went out on a few regular postdoc interviews, but my heart wasn’t in it,” she says. She heard about the University of Colorado postdoc, part of the university-funded Science Education Initiative, and thought it was a perfect fit; she had worked on several National Science Foundation and HHMI education grants and kept daydreaming about what techniques to use to help students understand genetics.

“It wasn’t an obvious path to a job, and I was a little bit scared about what it meant for my future,” Smith remembers. “But I loved it from day one.”

At Boulder, Smith worked with a different faculty member each semester to help redesign their classes to include more active learning techniques, such as small group projects or real-time measurement of student learning during class. The postdoc–faculty team also tackled one major education research question each semester.

Smith’s favorite project resulted from a skeptical faculty member’s question: Did students actually learn when they discussed questions in small groups, or was the smartest person just telling the others the answer. She and the faculty member, Tin Tin Su, designed an experiment to find out.

They gave students in a genetics class a question and asked them to answer it individually using clickers, electronic devices that register answers to multiple-choice questions. Then they asked the students to discuss the question in small groups before answering again. Their scores improved.

But the real test of learning came when they asked the students a different, but related, question. The content the students learned in their small group carried forward to other questions, which wouldn’t have been the case if the smartest person was just sharing the answer, Smith explains. The team published their findings in Science in 2009.

When it came time to look for jobs this year, Smith was surprised to find several places with faculty openings for science education researchers, and she received multiple offers. At the University of Maine, she will be one of four new faculty focused on science education research. When she starts this fall, Smith will continue her research into how to best teach genetics while also working with biology students who want to be K–12 teachers.

“My advice would be that if you’re excited about it, go for it,” she says. “It was the best career decision I ever made.”

-- Andrea Widener
HHMI Bulletin, August 2011

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