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By David Zax
Carl Wieman

Nobel physicist Carl Wieman wants to reform science teaching. The White House is listening.


In 1995, Carl Wieman was one of a handful of physicists who finally created a strange form of matter, predicted by Einstein decades before, called a Bose-Einstein condensate. By reducing the temperature of a collection of atoms toward absolute zero, the researchers were able to make the atoms undergo what one physicist called an "identity crisis." In a state of being so extreme as to be neither solid, liquid, nor gas, the atoms began to merge with and overlap one another and to demonstrate on a larger scale the bizarre properties typically associated only with the quantum level. For this work, Wieman shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics.

Subsequently, Wieman underwent an identity shift nearly as strange as the atoms': This researcher at the top of his field decided to devote himself exclusively to, of all things, teaching. He donated $250,000 of prize money toward improving physics education at the University of Colorado, where he worked, hoping other donations would follow. (They didn't.) Then, in 2004, he took a sabbatical to write 29 grant proposals "to change the way entire science departments teach," he told the New York Times. Twenty-eight were turned down. In 2007, while keeping his affiliation with Colorado, he joined the faculty of the University of British Columbia to pursue science education initiatives there, as well.

Now, he stands on the threshold of a third career, one in which his expertise in both physics and education could help shape the national agenda. In late March, President Obama nominated him as associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Wieman was just in his 40s when he made the Bose-Einstein condensate. To some, his transition to undergraduate science pedagogy seemed a bit like Hank Aaron quitting at the peak of his career to coach little league. But Wieman didn't see things that way. He had come to conclude that science education was critically important, for two reasons: First, the international economy depends on science and technology. Second, some of the most pressing issues confronting humanity - climate change, for instance, or population growth - required a better and more widespread scientific literacy. "It sounds a little extreme," says Wieman, whose modest and measured voice does not sound at all inclined to melodrama, "but fundamentally, I think the future of mankind is at stake here on some level."

If the quality of science teaching were commensurate with its importance, Wieman might have continued with research. But over the years, he had concluded that science education in this country, even at the highest levels, was woefully inadequate. In his own advising, he saw it again and again. Even for students who had performed well on exams, once it was time to actually do physics, their performance was "very poor." Often those who had scored best on paper failed worst in practice. There was, he says, a "complete disconnect between how well students can do in physics courses and how well they do in physics."

As a scientist, Wieman naturally craved data, so he began to dip into the literature on the pedagogy of science, which he discovered had increasingly incorporated the latest findings in cognitive science and brain research. The literature was eye opening. Some studies concluded that the lecture, a form of pedagogy pre-dating even textbooks, was by and large an outmoded form of instruction that permits too much student passivity. Other studies indicated that learning is really a process of, as Wieman says, "changing the brain in both form and function," changes that, if a student is to acquire "expert-like thinking," required many hours of practice.

One of the most troubling studies Wieman consulted came from a fellow physicist, Eric Mazur at Harvard. In the early '90s, Mazur conducted an experiment on his students: First, he presented what he calls a "standard textbook problem" about a short circuit; the students were presented with certain numbers, which, if they had studied their equations, they were able to manipulate to predict what would occur in the circuit. Then Mazur provided a similar problem. But rather than being given any numbers, the students were simply asked, on a conceptual level, to predict what would happen in a circuit of light bulbs when one switch was closed. Suddenly, the students were at a loss for an answer. "They were able to manipulate symbols algebraically without understanding the meaning of these symbols, which is, of course, not what science is about," says Mazur, who counts himself among Wieman's allies. In sum, Mazur and others demonstrated conclusively something that many teachers lament but few do much about: All too often, students are tested on their ability to regurgitate information, rather than on their ability to think like a scientist.

Wieman wanted to change that. He began Science Education Initiatives (SEIs) at British Columbia and Colorado to test how, science departments might be overhauled using the findings of pedagogical research. He raised funds and imitated the work of a grant agency, soliciting proposals from science departments at those two universities for revising their teaching. The departments' efforts are still a work in progress, although Wieman counts several success stories.

How to Measure Learning

Not even Wieman has a clear idea of how, precisely, the concepts he advocates should be applied on the sweeping canvas of nationwide education. "I am reluctant to offer simple solutions for such a complex problem," he wrote in 2007. But he has some general advice for other universities wanting to try his approach: They should begin by discussing what they truly want their students to learn. Presuming they reach the conclusion that thinking like a scientist is more important than cramming facts and memorizing algorithms, then they will need to rethink how they measure learning. For inspiration, they might consult Wieman's website to download the case study that details the revamping of his own class at the University of Colorado, which led to the creation of a new test emphasizing concepts in quantum mechanics that others have used with success.

In addition to subtler test questions, Wieman advocates participatory group projects - but not traditional labs, which he says are all too often mere exercises in recipe following. He advocates something called "invention activities," derived from the research of Stanford University School of Education's Daniel Schwartz. An invention activity for a biology course, for instance, would present student groups with imagined problems "that do not appear to be related to biology but analogous to problems that living cells must overcome," according to one SEI lecture. Students work creatively in groups to solve the fictitious problem. Then, the students' interest and creativity having been primed, they hear a lecture on how cells actually solve these problems. Wieman adds that engineers are one step ahead of the sciences in inspiring inventiveness; the creativity and group work inherent in engineering design project labs are just the sort of thing he seeks to promote.

Reactions to Wieman's activism range from enthusiastic support to overt opposition. "He has wonderful allies," says Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science and former head of the National Academy of Sciences. Alberts adds that he hopes science education reform may be nearing a tipping point. "I think there's great opportunity to change, but I just hope my colleagues will get religion on this, so to speak," says Alberts. "I see the issue Carl is pushing as a critical one for the future of the U.S."

Wieman says his opponents are a "funny group" in that they actually tend to be the most popular teachers. Often these are older professors known to give entertaining lectures. The students "sit there entertained and happy," says Wieman - which would be nice, if only the purpose of science education were to entertain. "It doesn't matter how good a lecture is if the students are not thinking on their own and not learning."

“Anti-effective"

Although Wieman told the New York Times in 2005 that he feared he was "whistling in the dark," his research and views have since won prominent attention. Last October, he appeared on a panel before the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The council is co-chaired by John Holdren, who is also director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and, pending Senate confirmation, Wieman's new boss.

Appearing at the end of a long day of panel discussions, Wieman told the distinguished body that "one of the troubles with studying learning is I know precisely how much you're going to absorb from the 20th speaker at 6 o'clock on a warm afternoon." He elicited gallows laughter when he remarked on how introductory physics is often taught. "From a scientific literacy point of view, these courses aren't ineffective they're anti-effective," he told the council. One slide on his PowerPoint was particularly compelling. Drawn from Schwartz's work as applied at UBC, it compared knowledge students gained in three scenarios: a semester's standard lecture course; the same course with eight hours of small-group problem solving added; and the same course with, instead of problem solving, eight hours of "invention activities." In preliminary results, students learned twice as much with problem solving as with lectures. But what they gained from invention activities was off the chart completely.

Speaking before announcement of his White House appointment, Wieman reflected, "Two or three times in my career - previously, in physics - I'd think for a long time, and then I thought I could see potential to make advances where others were not thinking the same way." The excitement of looming discovery awaits those who would innovate in teaching as well as those who conduct research, says Wieman. "It felt to me the same way as when I saw, 'OK, here's the way to make a Bose-Einstein condensation'. Personally it's that same feeling, of recognizing a potential here to make something big happen - except, probably in some big sense, it's more important." How big that "something" is may soon become clearer.


David Zax is a freelance writer based in New York.

 

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