From the issue dated February 9, 2007

A Top Physicist Turns to Teaching

U. of British Columbia recruits a Nobel Prize winner to remake its  
undergraduate science curriculum


Vancouver, British Columbia

On an upper shelf in Carl E. Wieman's campus office here are a dozen  
framed awards representing the highest honors in his field, crowned  
by the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics. Yet despite his prominence, Mr.  
Wieman is not guiding the research of admiring young scientists. In  
fact, he has not done a physics experiment himself for months.

Having reached the pinnacle of his field, he has given up his  
research career to devote himself to improving the way college  
science is taught. On January 1, Mr. Wieman moved away from the  
University of Colorado at Boulder, which he felt had not sufficiently  
committed to that cause, and joined the University of British  
Columbia, where he has been given the job of transforming the way it  
teaches science.

The project at this major Canadian research institution is one of the  
most ambitious since isolated science-faculty members at various  
institutions began speaking about a failure of traditional teaching  
methods more than two decades ago. The university has committed $10.2- 
million (U.S.) over the next five years, which it intends to raise  
from donors.

And just to make sure potential donors and skeptical faculty members  
do not forget about the project's prestigious leader, the university  
has named it the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.

Jeanne L. Narum, director of Project Kaleidoscope, an independent  
alliance promoting improvements in undergraduate science education,  
says many institutions, even as far afield as India, have made  
efforts in this area. But she says British Columbia's well-financed  
project will get an extra amount of attention: "Carl Wieman is a  
visionary. He has the clout to make this happen."

She says the project "will set benchmarks as to what can be done on  
the institutional level. It's something we'll all be watching."

Mr. Wieman will lead the university's science departments in testing  
alternative teaching methods, especially in introductory courses.  
They will try such measures as varying class size, introducing new  
types of group work, adding interactive computer simulations, and  
refining the use of "clickers"  wireless devices that allow students  
to answer professors' questions during a lecture.

As at other institutions trying to reform science teaching, the  
guiding principle is to move away from the traditional lecture in  
which students listen passively. Reformers say lectures still  
predominate at the majority of institutions. "Most students," Mr.  
Wieman told a packed auditorium of British Columbia faculty members  
shortly before he decided to move here, "are learning rote  
memorization of facts and problem-solving recipes ... only useful to  
passing the class.

"They're also learning," he added, "that science is uninteresting and  

A Change of Place

Mr. Wieman says the enthusiastic reception to his November 2005 talk  
 the crowd of faculty members overflowed a 350-seat auditorium, and  
senior administrators were seated in the front  helped persuade him  
to move here. Now he and his wife, Sarah Gilbert, also a physicist,  
walk to work each morning from their new apartment just outside the  
campus. She is associate director of the new project.

Mr. Wieman had been happy at Colorado, where he had taught since  
1984. It was there in 1995 that he used a table full of lasers and  
electromagnets to create a new super-cooled state of matter, called a  
Bose-Einstein condensate, for which he and two other men won the  
Nobel Prize.

After receiving the prize, however, and the clout that came with it,  
Mr. Wieman pressed Colorado to find more money to improve its science  
education. He met with Elizabeth Hoffman, the president of Colorado  
at the time, and gave her a deadline. "If there's no change," he  
recalls telling her, "I'll look elsewhere."

But at the time, about three years ago, the university was caught up  
in a scandal over alleged sexual assaults involving its football  
team. A year later, it was knee-deep in the national furor over  
incendiary comments by one of its professors, Ward Churchill.

The university did not make a commitment of the size Mr. Wieman was  
seeking, and he began looking for a new professional home. Just  
before he announced his departure, Colorado established a project  
similar to British Columbia's, with about half the budget. Mr. Wieman  
directs that project as well, under an agreement to devote 20 percent  
of his time to it. The two projects will share resources and ideas,  
he says.

Philip P. DiStefano, Colorado's provost, says keeping 20 percent of  
Carl Wieman, along with the new collaboration with British Columbia,  
is not a bad deal at all. "It's a win-win situation for all of us,"  
he says.

As for Mr. Wieman, 55, he says he misses his scientific research.  
But, he says, a number of the biggest challenges the world faces,  
like global warming, genetic modification, and pollution, "are  
basically technical." Without a better understanding of the  
scientific issues, he adds, society is less likely to come up with  
good responses.

He would love to just go off and tinker in his lab, Mr. Wieman says.  
But "along with the Nobel Prize comes a lot of responsibility that I  
feel I can't ignore."

Mr. Wieman's mission is to move both universities' science education  
toward an approach often called "active and cooperative learning." In  
it, students are repeatedly called on to think about fundamental  
concepts and guided to figure out the workings of the phenomena they  
are studying, often working closely with a few classmates.

"This doesn't apply to the top 10 percent of students" who are  
already doing well under the current system, says Jeff F. Young, head  
of British Columbia's department of physics and astronomy. "But  
there's a large portion of students who we think we can have a very  
large impact on."

Officials expect most of the project's money to be spent on hiring  
science-education specialists  typically scholars with science  
Ph.D.'s who will be trained in education  to help departments  
develop and test new methods. British Columbia already has a handful  
of such educators, but Mr. Wieman expects to hire perhaps 30 more. He  
is also eager to exploit computer technology and develop interactive  
homework and diagnostic programs that, he says, could handle simple  
tasks as well as people do and could flag students' shortcomings. The  
goal is to free up professors and teaching assistants to use their  
time more effectively to devise lessons and work with students.

There are few details on how the project will run. But spending will  
be based on competitive proposals by departments. Officials stress  
that the project will use an "evidence-based approach." Innovations  
will be based on published research, and will be tested by comparing  
what students learn using traditional and new methods.

Central to the efforts, say officials, will be the development of new  
tests to gauge students' understanding of scientific concepts.  
Officials say some will be geared to individual courses and others to  
a year's worth of courses. The tests will be used to determine the  
progress of individual students or whole classes, and will typically  
not count in grading.

Officials hope the tests, sometimes referred to as "concept  
inventories," will play another important role  convincing undecided  
faculty members that there are indeed better ways to teach their  
subject. "There needs to be a collective buy-in to a common means of  
assessing student learning," says Simon M. Peacock, the university's  
science dean. "My hope is that skeptics will be persuaded by the data."

Some British Columbia faculty members will clearly need persuading.  
"Throughout the 20th century there's been lots of claims that we now  
understand how people learn and have come up with better teaching  
techniques," says William G. Unruh, a professor of theoretical  
physics who has been teaching for more than 30 years. "These things  
have generally fizzled out after a few years."

Click to Answer

The university was already looking for ways to improve science  
teaching before Mr. Wieman's arrival. For example, many introductory  
lectures use clickers, known more formally as "personal response  
systems." In a course on natural disasters one recent morning, Roland  
B. Stull, a professor of atmospheric sciences, walks slowly up and  
down the steps of a lecture theater talking to several hundred  
undergraduates about the tremendous power of hurricanes and earthquakes.

Then he stops and poses a question: "What kind of energy is  
associated with gravity: (a) work, (b) kinetic, (c) potential, (d)  
heat, or (e) latent heat?" Students take out their clickers, gray  
rectangular devices roughly the size of television remote controls,  
and punch in an answer.

"If you're not sure," he tells the class, "work it out with a neighbor."

A minute later, time is up. Instantaneously a giant graph projected  
onto a screen at the front of the hall shows the distribution of  
students' answers. A tall green bar above Answer C indicates that  
80.9 percent of the students correctly chose it. Mr. Stull then takes  
a minute or two to explain why it is right.

Mya R. Warren, a Ph.D. student in physics, started her undergraduate  
degree at British Columbia 10 years ago, before clickers were used.  
"I sat in on a recent introductory class that used clickers," she  
says. She was impressed by the way the professor used the devices to  
get students to respond to questions, sometimes after discussing the  
problems with their neighbors. "There was much more participation  
than when I studied," she says.

There have been other recent changes at British Columbia. The physics  
department has redesigned its first- and second-year laboratory work  
to allow students more chances to

explore basic concepts instead of doing "recipe experiments" where  
every step is given. And first-year courses have been overhauled to  
include more student discussion.

Focus on Teaching

British Columbia may be the only university with a Nobel Prize winner  
leading its reform efforts, but other universities are also trying  
new methods. Undergraduate research and case studies, for example,  
have been growing in popularity.

Underlying these developments has been a growing attention to  
teaching within the scientific community. Journals are publishing  
more articles on the subject, and in recent years science departments  
at scores of institutions have hired faculty members whose research  
specialty is science education.

A draft report prepared for Congress recently called for an expansion  
of federal programs to encourage college students to pursue science  
careers and for other measures to strengthen science teaching at  
schools and colleges. It was written by a commission at the National  
Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation.

Concerns that science education is failing many students go back at  
least two decades. A 1989 study published by the American Association  
for the Advancement of Science, "Science for All Americans," warned  
that Americans suffered from a "science illiteracy" compared with  
citizens of other industrialized countries. A string of later reports  
have repeated the claim, often blaming science courses for failing to  
engage nonmajors.

Such concerns are even stronger today, says Jo Handelsman, a  
professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin at  
Madison, as more questions of a scientific nature, involving issues  
like cloning, stem-cell research, and evolution, are at the center of  
public-policy debates.

A growing body of studies show that active learning, where students  
are guided in building up a body of knowledge themselves, is more  
effective than passively taking in lectures. "There's a huge amount  
of evidence," says Miles G. Boylan, acting director of graduate  
education at the National Science Foundation, "that you can't just  
pour vast amounts of material into students' brains and expect it to  
be very useful."

More-recent studies have compared the results of traditional and  
alternative methods. In an influential early study, published in  
1998, Richard R. Hake, of Indiana University at Bloomington, compared  
what students learned in traditionally taught physics classes to what  
others learned in a class taught in a more interactive way. Students  
in the interactive sections consistently scored better.

Reformers say such studies have been made possible by a standardized  
test of the concepts taught in introductory physics courses. Known as  
the Force Concept Inventory, it was published in 1992 by David  
Hestenes, of the department of physics of Arizona State University,  
and two colleagues. Mr. Hestenes, now retired, surveyed hundreds of  
students to learn common misconceptions about physics, which are  
included among the multiple-choice answers on the test.

About a half-dozen such "concept inventories" exist today  one in  
chemistry, one in geology, and the rest for first-year physics. A key  
goal of the project at British Columbia, say officials here, is to  
develop such tests for other disciplines and levels. Supporters say  
that unlike course exams, which typically test the use of equations,  
the new tests measure students' understanding of underlying  
scientific ideas. For the first time, reformers add, these tests  
provide a way to judge how well students learn from alternative methods.

"For a long time there were lots of opinions about teaching," says  
Mr. Wieman. "Whoever talked faster and louder carried the day, until  
the next idea came along." For example, in 1957 when the Soviet Union  
launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, it set off a space  
race with the United States. "There was a huge push to get scientists  
into schools to share their wisdom with students," says Mr. Wieman.  
But there was no evidence that students would learn more by listening  
to scientists. In fact, he says, the attempts "mostly failed. That's  
just not how people learn."

For the last two decades, by contrast, it has been possible to base  
reforms "on rigorous research," says Mr. Wieman.

The research has pointed to some surprising conclusions. Mr. Wieman  
walks over to the computer at his desk and opens a Web page with  
physics simulations developed by him and colleagues at the University  
of Colorado. He calls up a simulation of a simple electrical circuit  
that represents electrons as little balls flowing through two light  
bulbs. Then he drags a simulated wire across the circuit, giving the  
current a shortcut that bypasses one of the bulbs. It goes off, and  
the other one glows brighter.

A 2005 paper published by Mr. Wieman's former colleague, Noah D.  
Finkelstein, and others found that students who are taught with  
interactive simulations like that one understood the concepts better  
than students who got to work in a lab with real light bulbs, wires,  
and meters. The reason, say researchers, is that when novice students  
use real equipment they often have trouble filtering out nonessential  

"A simulation can focus students' attention on what is most  
important," says Mr. Wieman.

His focus is firmly on a task he says is every bit as intellectually  
challenging as the physics work that won him the Nobel Prize: finding  
how to make more young students finish their courses with a real  
understanding of what science is about.
Section: The Faculty
Volume 53, Issue 23, Page A8
Copyright  2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

s. e. anderson (author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners" -  
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