The science of teaching
How do you know which teaching techniques are most effective in the classroom? Elementary, says this Nobel Prize-winning researcher: you use the scientific method to provide evidence of what works best and why. He's about to test his theories on undergraduate science students at UBC
|Carl Wieman was lured north to Vancouver from the University of Colorado, where he worked for 22 years. Photo: University of Colorado at Boulder
Carl Wieman's office comes as a surprise. Modest in size and furnished more for function than comfort or style, the north-facing room on the third floor of a rather tired-looking 1961 edifice seems unlikely headquarters for a Nobel laureate leading a multi-million-dollar educational initiative. On the other hand, this is a man who, as an undergraduate at MIT, slept in his laboratory and showered at the campus athletic centre since he was working late every night anyway, blasting atoms with his dye laser, and saw no merit in paying for a dorm room. When you're driven by intellectual fervour, physical surroundings just aren't that important.
These days, the passion that fuels Dr. Wieman is an ambition to transform science education. In his view, the traditional way of teaching undergraduate science is badly outdated. "That method was developed in the absence of the printing press," he declares. "There's a complete mismatch between the standard lecture format and everything we know about how to change thinking in the human brain."
In 2001, Dr. Wieman was co-recipient of a Nobel Prize in physics for creating the world's first Bose-Einstein condensate, a form of matter that allows scientists to study problems of quantum physics as if they were looking through a giant magnifying glass. But he himself no longer peers through this unique lens. Over the past decade, his focus has shifted from the research lab to the classroom and from the esoteric realm of atomic physics to the fundamentals of teaching. Along the way he has gathered numerous other honours. These include being named U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2004 and winning the prestigious Oersted Medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers in 2007.
This past January, Dr. Wieman left the University of Colorado, where he carried out his Nobel Prize-winning research, and moved to the University of British Columbia to direct the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. It aims to propel science instruction into the 21st century by taking a "scientifically based approach" to improving teaching.
Dr. Wieman was lured north from Boulder, his home of 22 years, by UBC's commitment of $12 million over five years, more than double the amount put up by the University of Colorado for a similar endeavour he initiated there (he'll continue to devote 20 percent of his time to the Colorado project).
Another incentive to move was the close fit between his vision and UBC's. According to UBC vice-president academic and provost Lorne Whitehead, the Wieman initiative, with its "very clear deliverables and very focused approach," bolsters the drive to improve teaching and learning that has been underway at the university for some time.
Jim Gentile, president of Research Corporation, an American foundation for the advancement of science, worked with Dr. Wieman on a committee on undergraduate science education at the U.S. National Research Council. He calls Dr. Wieman "a leader" on this front, both in the U.S. and internationally. His appointment to UBC is critically important in two ways, says Dr. Gentile.
"One is that it gives Carl the opportunity to accomplish his goals. I also think it says a lot about the university, that they were willing to bring in Carl and invest in him the way they're doing. That sends a remarkable message to other universities across North America."
One of Dr. Wieman's first tasks at UBC will be to convince faculty members that a 21st-century approach to teaching science is superior to the old way. "It's not just my opinions on the shortcomings," he emphasizes. "There's now plenty of data."
For example, an extensive body of research, including studies by his physics education research group at the University of Colorado, shows that students typically see science as less interesting and less connected to the world around them at the end of a conventional introductory science course than they did at the beginning. Instead of learning key concepts and investigative skills, they simply memorize facts and problem-solving recipes that have little usefulness beyond passing exams - a sobering conclusion that's supported by the 1999 National Academy of Sciences report, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.
Other studies, including an overview compiled by physics education specialist Richard Hake of Indiana University at Bloomington, show that students receiving traditional instruction are able to master, on average, less than 30 percent of the concepts that they didn't already know at the start of the course. When interactive-engagement techniques are used, conceptual learning gains rise to 50 to 70 percent.
But compelling statistics aren't the only reason to embrace the new approach to teaching.
"It's just so much more fun," says Dr. Wieman. Instead of rows of seats filled with undergrads who are "drooping and nodding off, you've got this class full of students who are hanging on your every word and busy asking questions about the subject, and you're responding to questions instead of just droning on, reciting. Ultimately I hope that's going to win over more faculty than anything else."
The updated approach Dr. Wieman advocates begins with setting clearly articulated learning goals. The next step is rigorously and objectively determining what students are actually learning. This requires the use of meaningful assessment tools and varied research methods, such as taking surveys, doing in-depth interviews with students and carefully observing how they complete tasks. "It's not something a faculty member can do the night before the final exam," he notes wryly.
Finally, teachers need to make sure students are learning what they want them to learn. Often the best way to do that, Dr. Wieman believes, is with modern technology. "For effective learning you really have to understand student thinking and then you've got to provide timely, targeted feedback to help guide that thinking. Technology enables you to do things you couldn't possibly have imagined in the past."
Among the new teaching tools that Dr. Wieman endorses are clickers (also known as classroom response systems) and interactive computer simulations. Both, he says, "can be tremendously powerful when used properly." He finds clickers particularly well suited to a teaching method developed by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, where students answer multiple-choice questions before and after discussing the question with their neighbours. As for simulations, Dr. Wieman's former research group has shown that students learn physics concepts better this way than from experimenting with real hardware.
"Science is about understanding the real world," he says, "but the real world is not really the best way, pedagogically, to explain many of these ideas."
Hiring education specialists
The UBC initiative will introduce faculty members to these kinds of innovations and help them become accustomed to using them, in part by hiring science education specialists to work directly with instructors. Dr. Wieman hopes to help establish a culture that recognizes the value of keeping current with the latest developments and that supports information-sharing within departments, curriculum committees or other channels. Instructors will also be encouraged to make more use of existing resources, such as the university's Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth.
At first, just a few science faculty departments will get funding through the Wieman initiative, and it's up to each department to make a case for why it should participate. So far, earth and ocean sciences and a three-department team of zoology, botany, and microbiology and immunology have been accepted for inclusion.
Paul Smith, head of earth and ocean sciences, says the initiative could be a "huge catalyst for curriculum reform" within his department, which has lacked a coordinated curriculum ever since it was formed by merging three departments in 1996. During his seven years at the helm, he's discovered that "getting curriculum change is like trying to push water uphill with a garden rake" because faculty members are too busy.
The head of the botany department, Fred Sack, says that while the initiative is "a testimonial to UBC's dedication" to improve learning through interactive education, it isn't a substitute for more federal and provincial funding. That, he says, would allow for more hands- on labs and more places in first- and second-year courses.
Dr. Sack also wonders whether computer simulations will be as useful in biology as in some other disciplines like physics. Biology students need to come in contact with living organisms, he says, whether it's studying them under a microscope or on a field trip. "Direct experience with organisms is irreplaceable, because it touches students on so many different levels."
Expanding at UBC
While the initiative is now restricted to one faculty, Dr. Whitehead hopes that changes fostered in the departments taking part will be intense and sustained enough that it will take hold and ripple out from there.
"The beauty of the idea," he says, "is that it does take a bit of additional resources to make improvements happen. But once you've made them, it doesn't cost more to provide the education."
Dr. Wieman shares the provost's desire to get other disciplines thinking about a scientifically based approach to improving teaching. He's also look- ing to make science courses relevant to non-science majors, especially those training to be primary and secondary school teachers.
"We can't really expect K-12 science teaching to improve until those teachers are taught science much better at universities," he says, repeating a message he delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives science committee last spring.
Perhaps it's not so unusual for a Nobel laureate to concern himself with how children in kindergarten learn about science, but Dr. Wieman's move at the age of 55 from ground-breaking physics research to a position focused on teaching strikes some people as odd. He says they don't appreciate how much the research-and-development process in education is similar to research and development in the sciences.
Having used his talents and intellect to transform quantum physics, Dr. Wieman has turned to bigger problems. "Every responsible person should be doing what they can to improve the world for everyone else," he told the Vancouver Sun. "I think improving science education is a small way [of] doing that."