Trading Research for Teaching

Carl Wieman changed physics, and now his sights are set on science pedagogy.
April 7, 2006

At flagship universities, where research is worth its citations in gold, and teaching is worth a few altruistic pennies, it’s not unusual for faculty members to sacrifice quality instruction for quality lab time.

So it’s more than a bit novel that Carl Wieman, a physics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a 2001 Nobel Prize winner, is leaving Colorado, and giving up his physics research for (gasp) a teaching initiative.

Not only is Wieman leaving his lab, but he’s leaving the United States, where his efforts to get funding for teaching projects have brought more frustration than dough. Next fall, Wieman will join the University of British Columbia, which has promised him $12 million over five years for a science education project. Wieman will retain a partial appointment at Boulder, and said he’ll visit once a month to work on Colorado’s science education project, for which the university has designated $5 million over five years.

Wieman first began charting a science instruction course after he won the Nobel Prize for his part in producing the first Bose-Einstein condensate, a form of extremely low temperature matter. Wieman figured science’s most revered award would give him a platform to “change the way institutions function.” Reams of research show that undergraduate science instruction is not living up to its potential. In most large lectures, students learn by rote from instructors who have no idea whether concepts are sinking in or not. “If the research tells us anything,” Wieman says, “it tells us that to be effective, instruction requires you to know what students are thinking.” Real-time feedback for teachers, Wieman says, should be standard. But the Nobel didn’t turn out to be the pedagogy boon Wieman had hoped for.

First, he contributed $250,000 of his Nobel Prize award to the Physics Education Technology Fund supporting classroom initiatives at CU-Boulder. He hoped it would prompt other donations, but the momentum never materialized.

Last year, during his sabbatical, Wieman wrote 35 proposals for funding for teaching projects. All he got was one small grant from the National Science Foundation to develop computer simulations. “That probably triples the unsuccessful proposals for physics research I’d written in my entire career,” Wieman says. “It seemed like I was somewhat naïve in thinking I could get more resources and attention to have a reasonably large impact in this area.”

Wieman has been a major force in pushing a form of science teaching at Colorado know as " peer instruction." In peer instruction classrooms, teachers regularly ask students multiple choice concept questions, and the students buzz in their answers with remote clickers. The instructor immediately sees the distribution of answers, and if there are enough incorrect responses, students are asked to try to convince their neighbor of their answer. The students buzz in again -- usually with many more correct answers -- and when the class mostly has it, the professor can move on. The technique has produced big gains on science concept tests virtually everywhere it has been used. Faculty members at Colorado estimated that perhaps over 10,000 students, thanks, in part, to Wieman, currently carry clickers around campus.

Wieman says that clickers aren’t the cure-all for sleep inducing science lectures, “but can really enhance this kind of interaction.” And with the tidal wave of cheap wireless technology, “it’s practical now,” says Wieman, who teaches a 200-student physics class. “That’s another big reason the time is right for this.” Grounding concepts in practical material also keeps students, if not on the edge of their seats, at least conscious. When Wieman teaches about electromagnetic waves, for example, he starts with “a very mysterious, strange device” called a “microwave.” Students, he says, “are interested in how you can actually understand it, and myths about whether its dangerous or not. They walk away not realizing they’re thinking like scientists.”

Wieman said the details of what he’ll be doing in British Columbia are still in the “formative” stage, but he definitely plans on developing simple systems for real-time feedback teaching.

Currently, most faculty members who give unique methods like peer-instruction a try are tenured, and willing to put in a lot of work, often with no funding, to get started. Wieman said that the fundamental vision, which will begin as a collaboration of education science projects between Colorado and UBC, is to “work with departments” to develop conceptual knowledge assessment tests for all scientific disciplines; “really good clicker questions,”; and a detailed archiving and dissemination system. Wieman plans to hire and train people to develop concept tests and implementation schemes.

Wieman thinks that, because he doesn’t have a pure education background, researchers will listen to him, and he’ll understand their constraints. Ultimately, he wants to make the better teaching techniques as “painless” as possible, and to push the academy toward rewarding good teaching. He hopes the assessment tests can help with that. “Right now, we don’t have [good teaching evaluations],” Wieman says. “The typical person gives students a final exam, and they grade it on a curve. It really doesn’t tell anything whatsoever about any objective way you can evaluate faculty in terms of what students have learned.” Science teachers, Wieman says, tend to be very unscientific about their teaching. Teachers shouldn’t “decide what’s right and wrong by tradition, or superstition, or anecdotes…that 2 out of 100 students told you they liked it. We know how to evaluate these things better.”

If better assessments exist, Wieman reasons, professors might have more incentive to teach well, and departments might take teaching evaluation more seriously.

Still, some of Wieman’s quest will involve good ole’ fashioned cajoling. He will look for “effective ways to convince lots of faculty who have lots of interests and demands to really change,” he says. “We know how to get students more engaged. It will appeal to faculty if they can find out they don’t have to go in and talk to a room with 50 percent attendance and those students are busy drifting off.”

Wieman’s current problem is quite the opposite. “My current problem is getting to all the things I planned on,” he says, “and not having the time totally spent with student comments and questions.”


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