Stanford Nobel laureate in physics Carl Wieman is also an award-winning education scholar who sees better science education as an important step in solving today’s biggest challenges.
Better science education is not only an important goal of education researchers, it’s also critical to the future of humanity, said Carl Wieman, 2001 Nobel laureate in physics and winner of the world’s largest education research award, the Yidan Prize, for 2020. Having pivoted from atomic physics, where he produced the Bose-Einstein condensate which revealed a new state of matter, to becoming a leader in the field of science education, Wieman uniquely straddles both worlds.
As a professor in both the Department of Physics in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Graduate School of Education, Wieman understands how world-class physicists think and what works and doesn’t work in current pedagogy. “People think of research in atomic physics and education as completely different,” said Wieman, who joined the Stanford faculty in 2013. “I think of them a lot as the same. You design experiments, you collect data, you draw conclusions, and you develop basic principles from your work.”
For almost 20 years, while he was a professor at the University of Colorado, Wieman had two independent research groups—one working on atomic physics and the other studying the teaching of physics and, later, science in general. About 10 years ago, Wieman decided to pivot fully toward the study of effective strategies to teach science and achieve a wider use of best practices. He moved to the University of British Columbia to launch the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, which was a large-scale experiment in transforming undergraduate science teaching across the institution. Wieman also served as associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama. The Yidan prize was awarded to Wieman for his contributions in research and developing new techniques in STEM education.
Changing the way science is taught is not easy, Wieman said, even with research that shows how best to encourage students to become problem solvers. “We are trying to make a fundamental culture change, trying to change the way teaching has been done for thousands of years, from this idea of imparting knowledge to developing thinking capabilities,” he said.
For Wieman, doing so is hugely important not only in terms of creating the next generation of scientists but also in terms of solving some of society’s biggest challenges. “You look at the public policy debates we have going on right now in response to COVID-19 and how we deal with global warming,” he said. “These are enormous issues of great importance to all of humanity. You can’t really make good decisions about those as a citizen without having scientific literacy.”
Making sure that a broad cross-section of the public has an understanding of what data mean and how conclusions can be drawn from data is crucial for a functioning democracy, Wieman said.
“Without that understanding, the public will not have an understanding of how scientific conclusions are different from someone’s personal opinion.”
Pandemic heightened need
The pandemic and the migration of most teaching to online platforms has heightened some of the known problems in existing educational models, Wieman said. For instance, it’s even easier for students to get distracted in online settings, harder to create a connection between student and teacher, and harder for students to connect with each other. “Our research shows the importance and tremendous learning value of having students learn from each other,” Wieman said.
Since the pandemic began to spread, educators and students worldwide are using Wieman’s creation—the PhET Interactive Simulations Project—at a rate of millions of times per day. The free, privately funded platform makes interactive simulations for teaching science available online, creating an accessible resource for the type of learning Wieman has long advocated. He founded the project, originally known as the Physics Education Technology (PhET) Project, in 2002 at the University of Colorado.
Using simulations that teach important concepts in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and earth sciences, students can manipulate variables to test hypotheses and see concepts revealed. For instance, to understand balance and torque, a graphic seesaw can be loaded with different weights in different positions on both sides to see how the balance of the seesaw changes.
Traffic on the site has increased dramatically during COVID-19. Wieman, who now serves as an advisor to the PhET project said that most of his $4 million Yidan Prize will go to support it.
Education in action
Along with the PhET project, another place Wieman has been able to apply the results of his research is in Stanford classrooms, particularly in the physics department and more recently in classrooms at Stanford Medicine. In some courses, this means that not only does instruction look different, but also assessments do, too.
“We’re designing problems that they work through and discuss in groups, then the instructor gives feedback on their thinking and they get to act on that,” Wieman said. For example, medical students are given a description of a patient with certain symptoms, and they have to decide on a set of possible diagnoses and a list of tests they should order. His research has also impacted how homework and tests are designed. “Tests can be things students learn from by doing, discussing with other students, and then redoing. We’ve now got a number of faculty who’ve adopted these active learning, research-based methods.”
Education research that Wieman has shared with his Stanford colleagues has shown that performing a task like solving an actual physics research problem or diagnosing a complex patient disease requires certain cognitive skills that involve making a set of complex decisions—which are rarely assessed by the typical exam.
“There is little overlap between the specific cognitive skills required by the typical exam question (primarily rapidly recognizing and applying a specific procedure) and those needed for authentic professional tasks,” Wieman wrote on his Stanford research team’s website. “Authentic problem solving involves such skills as: recognizing and justifying appropriate simplifications or approximations, recognizing what information is needed and how to seek out that information, extensive planning and testing of the solution process, and when a possible solution is obtained, many specialized tests of its validity.”
Wieman has seen examples of this disconnect between what is learned in courses and doing authentic problem solving in his own teaching and mentoring. As a young professor running a physics lab, he found that some of the graduate students who had the highest grades and test scores were not equipped to be productive in a laboratory. They knew the answers to specific questions but had not been trained to think like physicists and, therefore, were not able to identify and solve actual scientific problems.
Wieman has said that spending much of his time in the real-world setting of a research laboratory, both as an undergraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as a graduate student at Stanford, was crucial to his own development, allowing him to hone the skills that would later lead to his ground-breaking physics work.
Wieman’s Stanford research group has also done work that has led to an important understanding of why some underrepresented and disadvantaged students are less successful in introductory science courses. For many students who enter college hoping for careers in the sciences or engineering, the introductory courses can determine their academic fates. And, for years, professors noticed a discrepancy in terms of who was succeeding.
What Wieman and his team found is that the preparation students had coming into the courses made a large difference. The research showed an incoming preparation gap, which greatly impacted underrepresented students, many of whom come from communities with school districts that are not well funded. “We’re now trying to get the message out that universities need to be paying a lot more attention to how their first-year courses are discriminating against students who come from less well-off school districts,” Wieman said. “Courses and curriculum need to be designed to allow those students to succeed.” Wieman and his team are working on writing articles for professional journals, and he will be speaking at conferences and universities on the subject. His opinion piece was recently published in the October newsletter of the American Physical Society.
Wieman received the Yidan Prize at a virtual ceremony in Hong Kong on December 7. At the ceremony, it was announced that Wieman has been named to the Yidan Prize Foundation’s new 16-member “Council of Luminaries.” The council includes an international group of researchers, educators, neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, statisticians and innovators at the forefront of education.