22 Variations on Embedded Expert Models: Implementing Change Initiatives that Support Departments from within

Andrea Follmer Greenhoot, Carolyn Aslan, Stephanie Chasteen, Warren Code, and Sarah Bean Sherman

1 Introduction

Educational change efforts focused at the department level can be particularly powerful because the department is both the unit of academic organization and where faculty see themselves as having the greatest influence (Tagg, 2012). This chapter focuses on a successful model designed to engage and support work at the department level: the use of discipline-based educational specialists (DBESs) embedded within departments as catalysts of change. As leaders from four different university implementations of this “embedded expert” model, we provide a synthesis of similarities and differences among our instantiations to produce practical guidance, informed by theory and research on change, for change leaders who are organizing similar programs.

The embedded expert model involves short-term placement of DBESs in departments to partner with faculty to redesign courses with evidence-based practices. Departments develop proposals for course transformation in response to competitive calls, fostering shared vision and goals. Awarded funds are used primarily to hire DBESs, who are typically recent Ph.D.s in the field, and receive pedagogical training from a central organization. DBESs collaborate with faculty to identify course learning goals, design and implement new practices, and assess student learning; thus, they bring pedagogical knowledge and practical support to faculty and encourage them to reflect and think critically about their teaching. A central unit provides coordination, DBES training, department support, oversight, and outreach. Departments appoint project directors to serve as the DBESs’ supervisor and liaison with the central unit.

The theory of change underlying the DBES model proposes that department-level planning and DBES-faculty collaboration will produce departmentally-owned transformed courses and changes in faculty practice that will shift department norms and yield sustained change in department teaching culture and student learning (Wieman, 2017).

The DBES model shares elements with other change initiatives described in this section. Like the Teaching Support Program (Halasek et al., this volume), the DBES model enhances faculty knowledge of evidence-based practices, but accomplishes this through hands-on collaboration with an expert partner, rather than through a course on evidence-based teaching strategies. Several of other chapters in this volume present approaches that use collaboration with other faculty (like faculty learning communities, as in the chapters by Klein et al., Salomone et al., and Nelson & Hjalmarson) or with students (as in the chapters by Callahan et al. and Cook-Sather et al.) to foster reflection and teaching improvement; in contrast to these approaches, the DBES-based course reform model is a more intensive, project-based approach which provides both human capital and expertise in the form of the DBES.

The model is designed to address common barriers to change, including lack of faculty knowledge, time, and rewards for changing their teaching (Brownell & Tanner, 2012; Fairweather 2008; see also Halasek et al., this volume). Consistent with the institutional change literature, the DBES model combines multiple change strategies that address both individual and environmental/structural elements of the system, including support structures for evidence-based teaching, actively engaging faculty in the change process, promotion of reflective teaching practice, fostering community and common vision, and working towards shared, measurable goals for continuous improvement (Borrego & Henderson, 2014; Henderson et al., 2011; Tagg, 2012).

This chapter provides the first synthesis of strategies and lessons learned from the DBES programs implemented at our four universities. They include the two founding programs: the Science Education Initiatives (SEIs) at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) and the University of British Columbia (UBC), launched in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The other two institutions, Cornell University and the University of Kansas (KU), separately launched adaptations of the model in 2013. As demonstrated by the comparative data in Table 1, the programs are at varying stages of maturity and have diverse resource and infrastructure capacities, but all four have been successful in producing high levels of faculty engagement in course transformation (see also Chasteen et al., 2011; Wieman et al., 2013; Wieman, 2017), with demonstrated improvements to student learning and success (e.g., Ballen et al., 2017; Ballen & Zamudio, 2019; Jones, 2017; Jones, 2018; Moradi et al., 2018; Roberts et al., 2018). Long-term assessments of the original two programs have also shown changed norms and culture in departments, uptake of evidence-based teaching strategies into new courses and by faculty who were not directly involved, and supportive changes in departmental infrastructure and policy (see Wieman, 2017). More detail about each individual case can be found in in Chasteen and Code (2018, Appendix 1). Because our goal is to provide focused advice for potential leaders/directors of such initiatives, we organize our synthesis around three major challenges (cost/resources, department and faculty engagement, and sustainability) that initiative leaders will have to grapple with. These challenges relate to some of the most fundamental structural and cultural barriers to systemic change within higher education (Kezar, 2014), and they frame the most commonly asked questions that we get from potential program organizers.

In the sections that follow, we provide brief overviews of each institution’s initiative (as of the time of this publication, November 2020), highlighting key differences. Next, we explore the research-informed strategies and specific approaches used by the programs to address the three main challenges. We conclude with cross-cutting themes and recommendations for the design and implementation of programs that support department-level change. A chapter by Chasteen, Code, and Sherman in this volume details more about the DBES position, with relevant advice for DBESs.

Table 1: Comparative Data on the Four DBES Program Cases.
Feature University of Colorado Boulder University of British Columbia Cornell University University of Kansas
Undergraduate student enrollment 35,000 50,000 (Vancouver campus) 15,000 19,700
Total USD investment $5.3M $11M $10M committed to date (ongoing) $2.2M
Funding source University funded University and donor funded University and donor funded University funded + NSF grant
Duration 2006–2014

(8 years)


(10 years)


(7 years, ongoing)


(6 years)

Breadth across departments 7 departments, 25 DBESs 7 departments, 50 DBESs 16 departments, 30 DBESs so far 8 departments/units, 8 DBESs
Intensity per department 1–3 DBESs and avg. $650K/dept 1–4 DBESs and avg. $1.3M/dept 1–3 DBESs and avg. $500K/dept 1 DBES and avg. $215K/dept
Productivity (expectation per DBES) 2–3 year terms

1–2 courses per DBES/year

2 years per course

3–5 year terms

1–2 courses per DBES/year

2–3 years per course

2–3 year terms

1–3 courses /year

2 or more iterations per course

3-year terms

1–3 courses per DBES/year

2 or more iterations per course

Impact 71 courses

102 faculty

164 courses

180 faculty

57 courses (so far)

110 faculty
(so far)

69 courses*

75 faculty*

Central organization New central organization (SEI Central) New central organization (SEI Central) initially, then Science Centre for Learning and Teaching Center for Teaching Innovation coordinates program Center for Teaching Excellence coordinates program and related initiatives

*Note: Represents impact in DBES-supported departments only; KU program intentionally engaged non-DBES-supported departments, with total impact on 161 courses and 188 faculty from 43 departments.

2 The Four Program Cases

2.1 University of Colorado Boulder/University of British Columbia

The SEIs began at CU-Boulder as an experiment in creating large-scale change in STEM education; a partner program was implemented at UBC when the initiative founder moved to that institution. With no appropriate unit to coordinate the program, each campus established a new organizational unit, SEI Central, that developed extensive training, resources, and a community of practice for the DBESs. Although the UBC implementation was larger and informed by some of CU-Boulder’s early experiences, we group them together for the purposes of this chapter.

2.2 Cornell University

The Active Learning Initiative at Cornell started with funding for three departments to transform seven large undergraduate courses in biology and physics. The success of these projects convinced faculty and administrators of the efficacy of the model for improving undergraduate education beyond STEM. The initiative grew rapidly, and so far 16 departments (20% of all undergraduate departments) have participated. Grants are open to all undergraduate disciplines (i.e., broader than the SEIs), which has resulted in sharing and adaptation of teaching practices between STEM, social sciences, and humanities faculty. The initiative is situated within the Center for Teaching Innovation.

2.3 University of Kansas

KU’s Teaching Fellows Program was launched in 2013 as part of a broader undergraduate Course Transformation Initiative promoting student-centered, active learning pedagogy. KU’s program involved fewer experts and less funding than the other institutions, but amplified the DBESs’ impact by building communities around course transformation within and across departments and by connecting to related initiatives and programs. Seven departments in Liberal Arts and Sciences, plus the School of Engineering, received funding to hire DBESs. KU’s program was led by their Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE).

3 Navigating Three Key Challenges

Our four DBES programs were intentionally structured to address key challenges in scaling educational reform, guided by the literature on effective institutional change strategies, but specific approaches varied across the campuses. In this section, we draw on the cases to explore how initiative leaders can navigate three major challenges in their institutional contexts: How can new and existing resources support elements of their initiatives (Cost and Resources)? How do initiatives motivate the level of department and faculty buy-in and engagement that is needed for the model to be effective (Department and Faculty Engagement)? What can programs do to foster sustainable changes (Sustainability)? For each challenge, we describe the DBES program strategies designed to address it, and the specific approaches applied at each campus.

3.1 Costs and Resources

Most of the funds for the four DBES programs were distributed to departments to support DBES salaries and, to a lesser extent, direct faculty incentives, with additional funds for central program support. All four used strategic distribution of funds to departments, through waves of grant competitions, to promote department planning and foster the shared goals and vision needed for systemic change. The total investment, expected output, use of new versus existing resources, and duration, distribution and spacing of funding have varied among the four program cases.

3.1.1 University of Colorado Boulder/University of British Columbia

The UBC program represented a major financial investment, at about $11M ($1.3M per department), through a combination of donor and university funds. CU-Boulder was funded at about half that amount with university funds only; the impact of the lower investment was noticeable. While the bulk of SEI department grants went to DBES salaries, an important minority went to faculty incentives and travel. Supporting the SEI Central unit and its staff of two full-time employees (FTE) comprised 15–20% of the overall budget (more than anticipated).

Although department proposals were typically funded for five years, in reality most projects spanned six to seven years to allow for ramp-up (hiring DBESs and planning) and wrap-up (creating structures for sustainability). DBES turnover sometimes further stretched department timelines so that work was staggered across time due to gaps in staffing. The size and duration of grants also varied according to department readiness; sometimes this meant funding a pilot that might or might not lead to further funding.

3.1.2 Cornell University

Cornell’s funding levels have been similar to UBC, based on its higher productivity relative to CU-Boulder, with grants to departments capped at $1M and average grants of $500K. Initial funding by a donor was later supplemented by university funding, allowing the initiative to expand university-wide. In contrast to the SEIs, the Cornell initiative leverages the existing Center for Teaching Innovation for coordination and support provided by two FTE staff members and an associate director (.5 FTE).

Grant competitions have been intentionally spaced two to three years apart to allow time for word to spread between departments and for participants to learn from people further along in the process. Distributing the active projects over time also eases the workload for the central staff. The program started in 2013 and is currently ongoing with multiple departmental projects planned at least through 2024.

3.1.3 University of Kansas

KU implemented a much smaller and less costly program with university and external grant funds. About $1.8M in institutional funds went to departments as grants ($195K to $230K) to support DBES hires, travel, supplies, and events. The initiative leveraged CTE for coordination and support. With about $25K/year, CTE created a synergistic program, the C21 Course Redesign Consortium, to engage faculty and staff within and beyond the DBES-supported departments. C21 funds supported a university-wide community, regular workshops, faculty mini-grants, and graduate student fellows to support the work of faculty participants.

Once the program began, KU found that more central unit staffing was needed for the optimal level of coordination, professional development, and community for the DBESs. In 2015, a five-year, multi-institutional National Science Foundation grant enabled KU to enhance its initiative with a program coordinator (.5 FTE), faculty mini-grants ($1K to $3K each), and team travel grants ($5K each) for information-gathering visits to other campuses. The grant also expanded the community and support for the DBESs across a network of seven institutions (the “TRESTLE” network; TRESTLE, 2020). KU’s funding for DBESs and NSF funds for the intervention ended in 2019, but several program elements have been integrated into CTE’s ongoing work (see Sustainability section).

3.1.4 Costs and Resources: Recommendations for Future Directors

  • Allocate the bulk of the funds to departments for DBES salaries, but also set aside resources (funds and human) for central program support.
  • Allow funding to be carried over year-to-year, as projects may take longer than anticipated.
  • Consider staggered funding competitions and/or pilot funds to support the development of department interest and readiness, and build early successful examples that can become support structures and influence faculty communities.
  • Leverage existing programs and infrastructure and look for synergies with other programs to make less resource-intensive adaptations possible.

3.2 Department and Faculty Engagement

The funding attached to DBES programs is a critical lever for promoting buy-in and engagement from department faculty and leadership. The DBES hires address key impediments (lack of time and expertise), direct faculty incentives help counteract institutional disincentives (lack of rewards for change), and the significant funding levels signal the overall value of the endeavor. The four programs also incorporate multiple other strategies aligned with theory and research on change to promote department and faculty engagement, including engaging faculty as collaborators in the change, fostering community and common vision, and working towards measurable goals. Key elements include the use of the department proposal process as a catalyst to generate faculty enthusiasm, commitment, and input, and to create accountability for carrying out plans; encouraging strong support from department leadership to facilitate shared ownership; and rewarding the work and making it visible both within and outside the department to deepen and spread faculty engagement. Consistent with Klein et al.’s (this volume) recommendations, these elements combine support for bottom-up change leadership with visible top-down encouragement for change. All four programs host cross-department events to showcase the work to others at the institution, but their specific approaches to other elements have varied.

3.2.1 University of Colorado Boulder/University of British Columbia

The SEIs adopted an interactive process to help departments develop effective proposals while also ensuring broad faculty engagement. Typically, grants included funds for direct faculty incentives (e.g., reduced teaching responsibilities, teaching or research assistants, summer salary). Departments were encouraged to promote early successes, foster discussion, and communicate the importance of the work through time at faculty meetings, department colloquia, informal “lunch and learns,” newsletters, or teaching guides. Department chairs were encouraged to provide other incentives (e.g., desirable teaching assignments), and to visibly reward and celebrate teaching improvements through award nominations, using teaching excellence in merit evaluations, and reassuring faculty that they would not be penalized for low student ratings during initial implementations.

3.2.2 Cornell University

Like the SEIs, Cornell implemented an interactive proposal process and included faculty incentives in grant budgets. They also encouraged departments to involve senior faculty, to signal their support and reduce the burden on pre-tenure or non-tenure-track faculty.

Efforts at rewarding work and making it visible focus on three levels: Cornell’s college deans have played a strong role by sending announcements and organizing opportunities for faculty to talk to other faculty about their projects. Faculty stories about their course transformation projects and how much more they enjoy teaching with active learning methods are used to generate interest among other faculty. And collaboration with the university’s communications staff has highlighted initiative efforts through campus media.

3.2.3 University of Kansas

Unlike the other programs, KU’s department grant budgets did not allow for direct faculty incentives, but course transformation mini-grants and team travel grants from CTE provided additional incentives for faculty collaborating with DBESs, and a mechanism for broadening faculty engagement beyond that group. This was particularly important given that only eight departments received funds to hire a DBES and each worked on four to five courses.

KU emphasized community building at multiple levels to expand faculty engagement, give visibility to the work and shift social norms. This included department teaching working groups led by the DBES and department project director, the university-wide C21 community, and the NSF-funded TRESTLE network. Initiative leaders seeded these communities with existing faculty leaders in teaching improvement, and also leveraged external opportunities to build faculty leadership for change. The CTE, Provost, and deans’ offices pooled resources to send faculty from DBES departments to conferences and national network meetings on educational change, and to send teams of department chairs to workshops on the role of chairs in supporting educational change.

3.2.4 Department and Faculty Engagement: Recommendations for Future Directors

  • Use a competitive proposal process to foster department enthusiasm, commitment, planning, and accountability.
  • Use an interactive proposal process to help shape the plan and ensure broad buy-in and leadership support, so the proposal is not the product of a lone champion.
  • Fund direct incentives to recognize faculty efforts and create additional layers of accountability.
  • Emphasize and support the building of community to expand faculty engagement and foster leadership development.
  • Fund rewards for the work and help make it visible, to deepen and spread faculty engagement.

3.3 Sustainability

The four programs also have used multiple strategies to produce outcomes that will be sustained beyond the temporary influx of DBESs and faculty incentives. The strategies that promote broad faculty engagement within departments beginning at the proposal stage are also intended to lay the groundwork for long-lasting cultural change. Additional strategies to solidify those gains align with the change literature and focus on individual and structural supports that foster a sense of shared ownership of transformed courses, processes for continuous improvement, and departmental or institutional norms that prioritize evidence-based teaching. Specific strategies including supporting faculty learning communities and leadership development, or encouraging departments to revise departmental policies and procedures, charge a committee with curricular reform, incorporate course improvement activities in faculty reviews, or create teaching awards. All four programs advocated co-teaching arrangements that allow faculty new to evidence-based teaching to become accustomed to the methods alongside more experienced instructors. They also developed department repositories of course materials and lesson plans, but observed that these were most effective when combined with human support for implementation (e.g., co-teaching or mentorship). Each of our four programs have developed several additional solutions to sustain course improvements and the broader momentum for educational progress.

3.3.1 CU-Boulder/UBC

The SEIs found that support at the dean’s level was critical for creating institutional priority for the initiative, especially given the traditionally low prioritization of teaching improvements (Dolan et al., 2016). To secure the dean’s involvement, SEI Central provided regular reports to administrators. As a step toward synthesizing and documenting the outcomes of departmental projects, the SEIs created a central repository, though most course projects did not add materials; one challenge was that materials were typically not developed for re-use, and repackaging them was more effort than most projects could handle.

UBC also developed a “Teaching Start-Up Program” where the dean co-funds (with departments) paired teaching: full collaboration between an instructor experienced with the course and a new faculty member (Strubbe et al., 2019). Another structural support was the dean’s introduction of a requirement that any new course proposal include detailed learning goals.

3.3.2 Cornell

At Cornell, several departments have used a “turn-key” approach to develop repositories such that the materials (e.g., polling questions, worksheets, activity instructions) are intentionally packaged for subsequent instructors. Some instructors are pleased to have well-designed learning activities, which reduces their preparation time. However, others report that the transformed courses have become overly complex and time-intensive because there are so many “moving parts.” Departmental culture also varies in whether courses are “owned” by individual faculty or shared by the department; the latter cases have had more success in rotating repositories of course materials between instructors. A current goal is to find better systems to make the course materials and teaching methods easier to transfer from one instructor to another.

The Cornell program has also found that training TAs for active learning courses is essential, yet also challenging because TAs frequently change. Therefore, some departments have included the development of such training as part of their projects. Halasek et al. (this volume) also note the need to include graduate students in the change process, given their critical role in the undergraduate STEM curriculum.

3.3.3 KU

At KU, program leaders supported sustained change by prioritizing proposals from departments that indicated all instructors of targeted courses would teach them in the transformed way. In the best cases, all faculty responsible for teaching a course participated in the transformation, through course working groups that agreed on learning outcomes, major activities, and assignments. In some cases, department chairs reassigned instructors who were resistant to the changes.

To sustain momentum, KU focused on developing faculty leaders for educational improvement, similar to the REFLECT program described in the Salomone et al. chapter in this volume, and several of those are now in formal leadership positions at KU. The creation of a new promotable (but non-tenured) teaching faculty stream also contributes to continuous improvement efforts, as these individuals take up the role of supporting educational transformation and studying the process, often in partnership with tenure-track faculty. Administering the program through a university-wide teaching center has fostered productive synergies with other programs, including a learning analytics program that empowers faculty to track student success and downstream curricular effects of course transformation, a curriculum innovation program, and an initiative to better align teaching evaluation with evidence-based pedagogy (see Finkelstein et al., this volume).

3.3.4 Sustainability: Recommendations for Future Directors

  • Scaffold sustainability at the proposal stage by asking departments to outline sustainability plans and by ensuring broad faculty engagement in the work.
  • Promote shared course ownership so that changes do not depend on one individual; this requires structural support through policies and procedures and depends on department culture.
  • Create repositories of course materials to support sustainable use, though these are rarely sufficient on their own.
  • Fund/encourage co-teaching or mentorship of instructors who are new to the transformed course to “transfer” teaching methods and materials.
  • Build support among university leadership through regular data collection and reports, and by developing new leaders for educational improvement.
  • Foster synergies with other educational improvement programs, external funding, or national networks (e.g., TRESTLE) to sustain momentum.

4 Conclusions and Recommendations

The lessons learned in these four programs provide useful guidance for the design and implementation of programs that support departmental change from within. All four programs have found that funding DBESs to guide course transformation in departments is an effective lever for change when combined with central support, community, and accountability. There are few examples of interventions that have affected undergraduate STEM teaching practice at this scale. We have explored how initiative leaders navigated challenges around costs and resources, department and faculty engagement, and sustainability. Some key themes emerge: leveraging existing structures and networks to support management and training; scaffolding department planning of course transformation and implementation, teaching assignments, and transfer of materials; providing incentives to promote engagement, including direct incentives and rewards; supporting ownership through policies, co-teaching, and shared course materials; and making the work and its impact visible, to highlight successes to administrators, influence department norms, and build community. As demonstrated by the KU implementation, organizing the program through an existing center that can foster synergies with other programs can make less resource-intensive adaptations feasible, although it remains to be seen whether the impact is as sustained as that of the deeper investments in the other three programs. An ongoing NSF-supported study (TRESTLE, 2020) of less costly program adaptations on six campuses is gathering more evidence about the “minimum requirements” for this program to be effective. Additional information about the four programs and the DBES model can be found in the free online SEI Handbook (Chasteen & Code, 2018).

5 Acknowledgements

This material is based upon work supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, Award numbers: DUE1525775 (KU), DUE1525331 (CU) and DUE1525345 (UTSA). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

This article reports on research conducted under the auspices of the Bay View Alliance, an international network of research universities exploring strategies to support and sustain the widespread adoption of instructional methods that lead to better student learning. https://bayviewalliance.org

6 About the Authors

Andrea Follmer Greenhoot is Professor of Psychology, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, and Gautt Teaching Scholar at the University of Kansas.

Carolyn Aslan is the Associate Director of the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation.

Stephanie Chasteen is a research associate in the Center for STEM Learning at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Warren Code is the Associate Director of the Science Center for Learning and Teaching (Skylight) at the University of British Columbia.

Sarah Bean Sherman is the Science Education Specialist in the Earth Ocean & Atmospheric Science Department at the University of British Columbia

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