Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Last week, the first ever Western Conference on Science Education was held here at the university. I was on the organizing committee from the very early stages, so it was amazing to see our ideas and hopes finally come to life.

This was the first conference of its kind in Canada - we brought together staff, faculty, graduate students, librarians, and others from across all science disciplines who do research on science education at the post-secondary level. The initial goals of the conference were to just get all these people together in one room, to learn what everyone else is doing, and to figure out if we can (should) work together to create a cohesive group.

The answer to the last part is an overwhelming "yes".

As we heard from many speakers, including Adam Bly (the founder of Seed Media Group), the science world, and the world in general, is moving from departmentalized issues to complex issues. For example, climate change is not just an atmospheric or meteorological problem, but traverses many disciplines from biology and chemistry to urban planning and sociology. We live in a time where there is such an immense amount of data that scientists need the help of designers and architects to visualize it in new and innovative ways in order to understand it. Everything is moving toward a more collaborative environment, and science (and science education) is no exception.

The major problem facing science education research at the post-secondary level in Canada is that we are miles behind that of the United States, Europe, and Asia. Why? Well, as with most things, it all comes down to money.

Representatives from both NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) and SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) spoke at the conference, but neither gave answers we were looking for. NSERC kept re-iterating their mandate is to fund research, but NOT education research, as education is under provincial jurisdiction. SSHRC does fund education research, but mostly for primary and secondary school. They also have a much smaller pot of money, but a much larger pool of applicants. Science education research at the post-secondary level falls through the cracks.

Many suggestions floated around on how NSERC could change their mandate, or even just their interpretation of their mandate. After all, education research IS research, so it really shouldn't be that difficult. But, as with many government institutions, they have to stick by their guns and dig in their heels to change.

So, what can we do? Well, we can try to conform to the rules of NSERC and/or SSHRC but try to bend the rules within their boundaries. Maybe we can find collaborators in the United States and other areas and tap into their funding resources. Or, maybe we could just say "screw the government" and find some billionaire to give us an extremely large private donation (any takers?).

The last session of the conference was a brain-storming session on where we should go from here. Since these conferences will only happen every three years, how can we keep the energy and excitement moving until 2014? There were many great ideas, from keeping a blog and having online meetings to hosting smaller, regional workshops and creating an official society. It will be interesting to see if ~100 multidisciplinary science education researchers from across the country can pull together, and what will happen if we do.