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Wieman's Reform Ideas Are On Target

Prism Obama Cover

To the Editor,

I recently read the article entitled "Laureate & Rebel" (Prism, April 2010) about Carl Wieman's ideas on scientific education reform.

Like Dr. Wieman, I am very interested in technical education. I completely believe, as he so eloquently put it, "fundamentally, I think the future of mankind is at stake here on some level." I believe Dr. Wieman hit the nail on the head. The article stated, "Even for students who had performed well on exams, once it was time to actually do physics, their performance was 'very poor.'"

I frequently observe this as a student, as a teaching assistant, and as a researcher (I am now a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). Students will do fine on homework problems and exam problems, but when it comes time for an independent project, it is very clear that they have not actually achieved a useful level of understanding of the material, which was presented in the course.

"...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."

This is exactly what is required to get an A in a course. In fact, students are so busy memorizing these equations that they miss the big ideas and concepts that they will look to draw on in the future as employees or researchers. In almost all cases, learning concepts has taken a back seat to doing well in a course - two concepts which should come hand in hand.

The anti-effectiveness of lectures is another excellent observation.

Talking at students will surely bore them. Challenging them to think for themselves is certainly a better way to mold the minds of the future.

Measuring learning is a very critical piece of the puzzle. I have always been a fan of a simple oral conversation (read exam). It is very difficult to judge how well students understand a topic by having them solve a concrete problem. By simply asking them, "Tell me about capacitance," within 60 seconds the instructor should have a good sense of whether or not the student learned the concepts. While this is an oversimplification, the trick is going to be how to implement such a personalized learning measurement when students outnumber instructors hundreds to one.

Dr. Wieman noted, for the first time I've seen publicly, the severity of this problem. I have found it very rare that an excellent practitioner takes such an interest in the education process. Hopefully he will lead the push to convince the people in a position to take action (faculty, department/school heads, etc.) of these concepts, since I've found they are typically not willing to admit a problem exists.

While, understandably, enormous systems (here, education) take significant amounts of time to change, I hope this type of work is continued and will become the seed of widespread scientific education reform.

—David Doria


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