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
By BURTON BOLLAG
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 irrelevant."
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 information.
"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