Carl Wieman on science education

4 minute read

Carl Wieman is a scientist at the University of British Columbia. He shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work creating the first Bose-Einstein condensate (a state of matter that can be induced at extremely low temperatures). In recent years, he has spent much of his professional effort researching ways to improve science education.

I’m teaching “Biology of Mind” this fall, as I have in alternate years for several years. I even started the blog during an iteration of the class, and I also taught it in the fall of 2006. This class is very challenging, very large and very interdisciplinary, involving seniors and graduate students from philosophy, neuroscience, computer science, anthropology, zoology, and psychology. I take on the class because I enjoy the continued challenge of teaching this material to such a diverse group of students.

I use the course as an experiment ground for new methods. This year I have a few more new things to try – watch this space in September if you’re interested. In the meantime, I am keeping notes on some other peoples’ opinions about science education.

When I teach, I emulate excellent teachers I’ve had in anthropology and in the humanities. A few exceptional science courses I took as an undergraduate and graduate student fit this discursive model, most were relatively dry lectures. I have many failings as a teacher, but standing and lecturing on material is really not my style.

So in an article about Wieman’s current research, I was interested to see this:

Wiemans initiative at UBC is now looking at how to implement discipline-based education research. He says that science teaching is already beginning to change as the university community learns that becoming an expert is not only about the factual knowledge of a subject.
He pointed to the humanities as a model. The humanities wouldnt think of a lecturer coming into class and simply reading Shakespeare to students, he said. The students read the content and then come to class and discuss.
Were still learning that in physics.

Of course we’ve all had those professors who teach a class on a work of literature, and only accept their own interpretation of the work as a legitimate answer. In science, the Socratic style has the potential to be even worse, degenerating into the Ferris-Bueller-like, “anyone…anyone…” kind of questioning. It takes work to get students to follow a chain of reasoning and take the steps on their own.

Wieman’s work assesses methods that try to train people think scientifically, and he finds that traditional models often make things worse:

Wieman developed a survey to learn more about whether taking intro science classes helped students think about science more like scientists. For example, he asked whether they think about the physics they encounter in everyday life and whether it is possible to explain physics ideas without mathematical formulas. The results showed that students are in fact emerging from intro classes thinking more like a novices -- and less like real scientists -- than they did before they took the course.

I suppose much in this demonstration depends on how one defines thinking like a “real scientist.” Maybe Wieman’s priorities are not the same as many other scientists. But should be no surprise that merely explaining some topics, without making students engage with observations may actually reduce their comprehension. I find that students who’ve had the “modern human origins” problem explained to them in a science class almost invariably have closed their minds to many logical possibilities, only because those weren’t presented as alternatives in lectures. When the lectures are incomplete (as all lectures are), promising students may learn the incorrect idea that all promising research avenues have been taken.

Wieman himself has written a sort of manifesto, now published at LiveScience.

While there is still much to be learned, there is enormously more known now than existed when the teaching methods in use in most college classrooms today were introduced and standardized. Briefly summarizing a large field, research has established that people do not develop true understanding of a complex subject like science by listening passively to explanations.
True understanding only comes through the student actively constructing their own understanding through a process of mentally building on their prior thinking and knowledge through "effortful study". This construction of learning is dependent on the epistemologies and beliefs they bring to the subject and these are readily affected (positively or negatively) by instructional practices. Furthermore, we know that expert competence is made up of several features.
In addition to factual knowledge, experts have unique mental organizational structures and problem solving skills that facilitate the effective retrieval and useful application of that factual knowledge. These also facilitate further learning of related material. Experts also have important metacognitive abilities; they can evaluate and correct their own understanding and thinking processes. The development of these expert "beyond factual" competencies are some of the new ways of thinking that students must construct on their path to "expertness."

OK, that decayed toward the end into some edu-mumbo-jumbo. But as an instructor, what I take from this is the importance of conveying not just stories and explanations, but the habits of mind that lead to scientific reasoning. With my more difficult courses, I call this developing a “common sense” version of science. For example, on several occasions I worked my genetics course through the reasons why an apparently deleterious allele might nevertheless be at an appreciable frequency in a population – something that common sense suggests shouldn’t happen. This is an example where one observation should immediately bring several hypotheses to mind, along with the ways that they might be tested. Each of these tests is science.

I guess that would be “beyond factual” competency.