Back to the Basics on Science Education

Carl Wieman, Nobel laureate, sees the scientific method as key to improving science education.
November 20, 2006

The best approach to teaching science is to understand not education, but the scientific method, according to Carl Wieman. In a speech on this idea Friday night, he began with a hypothesis: “We should approach teaching like a scientist,” he said. The outcome will rely on data, not anecdote. “Teaching can be rigorous just like doing physics research.

Wieman gave these remarks at a lecture and dinner at the Library of Congress. The talk was to highlight the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s centennial celebration.

The foundation was chartered by an act of Congress in 1906, and chose Wieman to give its centennial talk for two reasons: He is a Nobel Prize laureate and garnered the highest teaching award at the University of Colorado at Boulder . In fact, Wieman is so dedicated to teaching that he recently left  Colorado to start a teaching initiative at the University of British Columbia. The Canadian  university promised him $12 million over the next five years to improve the teaching of science.

During the talk on Friday, Wieman said that traditional science instruction involves lectures, textbooks, homework and exams. Wieman said that this process simply doesn’t work. He cited a number of studies to make his point. At the University of Maryland , an instructor found that students interviewed immediately after a science lecture had only a vague understanding of what the lecture had been about. Other researchers found that students only retained a small amount of the information after watching a video on science.

Another problem with the current structure of science education is that teachers try to get students to learn “key concepts” from physics. “We think that physics has a few ideas that can be widely applied,” he said. “So people test for those few ideas.” Wieman says that students really only retain about 30 percent of those key concepts, so this approach simply does not work.

Wieman also contrasted the “beliefs about science” that are held by novices and experts. Novices look at science for pieces of information, look for concepts to be handed down by experts, and match a pattern with a recipe. Experts, on the other hand, try to find a coherent structure in science, try to describe nature, and focus on problem solving strategies.

“Really all introductory physics courses create novices,” he claimed. “We’ve started looking at chemistry and you’re even worse,” he said, causing the audience to titter.

While Wieman said that he does not have all the answers for restructuring how science is taught, and added that he is still trying to figure out the best way to teach, he did offer suggestions. First, reduce cognitive load in learning by slowing down the amount of information being offered, by providing visuals, and by organizing the information for the student as it is being presented. Second, address students’ beliefs about science by explaining how a lecture is worth learning and by helping the students to understand how the information connects to the world around them.

Finally, actively engage with students, so that you can connect with them personally and help them process ideas. “We have good data that the traditional does not work, but the scientific approach does work,” he said. He added that is important that members of a technologically advanced nation that is dealing with difficult topics such as global warming and genetic modification, begin to think like scientists.

“We really need a scientifically literate audience to make good decisions,” he said.


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