Friday, March 07, 2008

Carl Wieman - MacVicar Day Lecture

Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science
A lecture by Carl Wieman

(March 7, 2008, Cambridge, MA). The MacVicar Day lecture, a celebration of
he life and contributions of Margaret MacVicar, Professor of Physical Science and Dean for Undergraduate Education at the time of her death in 1991, was given today by the Nobel laureate Prof. Carl Wieman (UBC, and UC Boulder). His talk was, entitled, "Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to teach science."represents the latest chapter in a new direction to address the failures of traditional educational practices, even as used by “very good” teachers, and the successes of some new practices and technology that characterize a more effective approach.

Winner of the Nobel Prize in 2001 "for the achievement of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute gases of alkali atoms, and for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates", Prof. Wieman was part of an all MIT affiliated Nobel Prize group (the others were Eric A. Cornell ( JILA and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Boulder, Colorado, USA,), and Wolfgang Ketterle (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) ) that confirmed the existence of the Bose-Condensate.

During his undergraduate years Prof. Wieman became the very first UROP (University Research Opportunity Program) student at the Institute (well, maybe not, but it's a plausible assertion). This was a program much emulated since and co-founded by Margaret MacVicar and Paul Gray in 1969, that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to join faculty as research partners, providing them with an educational experience that extends far beyond the classroom. Ironically Prof. Wieman did well in school but not through attending many classes. Since then he has come full circle.

What follows are notes from his talk.
Why Believe Him? Don't listen to him because he's a Nobel Prize winner. Rather you should look at the data he presents because that's the justification that matters.

Why is it Important?
Today's challenges require a more knowledgeable citizenry capable of a scientific understanding about science. Further, today's economy is intrinsically tied to science more than ever before in history.

Proposed Approach to Teaching Science
Four key criteria:
  • practice based on good data and standards of evidence
  • guided by fundamental research
  • disseminating results in a scholarly manner (unabashed about copying what works)
  • utilizing modern technology
What does research tell us about effective science teaching?
How did Carl come to this perspective? It goes back to when he first taught physics himself. What did he do to prepare?
  • think very had about the subject to figure it out very clearly
  • explain it to students so they will understand it with the same clarity
But that didn't work. He measured student learning and it wasn't happening.

Lessons from Graduate Student Mentoring
He spent a lot of time working about and mentoring his graduate students. From this experience he draws much of his initial ideas. When the students came to his lab they had had 17 yrs of success in classes. But in the lab they were clueless. Yet 2-4 years later they were in fact transformed into physicists. Is this pattern of transition just a necessary stage of learning?

What are the major areas of work that convinced Carl that this process was in fact general and had some valuable data about the learning process?

Classroom Studies, Brain Research, and Research on Teaching

What is the research on 'traditional" science teaching? - here we're talking about lecture, problem sets, and exams.

Carl looked at:
  1. transfer/retention of information from lecture
  2. conceptual understanding
  3. beliefs about physics and chemistry
Joe Redish, Univ. of Maryland Physics Prof, interviewed students as they came out of lectures. He asked the students as they were leaving "What was the lecture about?" They answered with only vaguest of generalities.

Weiman and Perkins - tested students 15 mi. after being told a non-obvious fact in lecture. They found that only 10% of the students remembered the data.

Is this generally true? Yes!

Cognitive Psychologists will tell you that this is just what one should expect. Research on "cognitive load" shows that human working memory is very limited - 7 +- 2 items along with the ability to process four ideas. This is much less than the capacity that is expected in a typical science lecture. Hence, it would be astonishing to see anything but the results he and others routinely see.

Conceptual Understanding in Traditional Courses
- Physics is blessed with a set of reasonably well understood and normed assessment tools as represented by the Force Concept Inventory (now getting a little out of date). The FCI probes basic concepts in force and motion. It is administered by asking the questions at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester.

Richard Hake's data, AJP 66:64-74, 1998, shows that students learn <30% of the concepts presented to them in lecture, with even the most optimistic analyses of data from gifted lecturers.

Characteristics of Novice Learners
  • content isolated pieces of info to be memorized
  • handed down by an authority - unrelated to the world
  • problem sovleing is pattern matching to be memorized recipes.

Characteristics of Experts
  • content is coherent structure of concepts,
  • describes nature,
  • established by experiment, with lots of student problems solving
  • systematic concept-based strategies and that are widely applicable
Conclusion: Just about every intro physics course makes students more novice-like than when they started the class!

Research on Teaching and Learning

What makes expert competent? Experts are effective at retrieval and use of facts. They can monitor their own thinking and check it. This is a new way of thinking. It requires extended focused mental effort to 'construct' this new knowledge and to build on prior thinking. It requires changing the brain.

Students aren't just uninformed adults. You have to change their cerebral wiring. We know what it takes in neurophyisology to make memories and make them stick.

Recent Research on Brain Development
Brains are much more similar to muscle than we previously thought. It requires strenuous and extended use to develop.

Classes are a poor mechanism to develop expert thinking. People learn by developing their own understanding. Effective teaching is facililtating this development by engaging & then monitoring and guiding the thinking. It's not the magic of the research lab. It's just strenuous and continuous activity that was absent in their prior course experiences.

Putting this Into Practice

What does research say is the most effective pedagogical approach? It's an EXPERT Tutor. It has a large impact on all students. Expert individual tutors don't make a significant difference.
(Bloom et. all Educational Researcher, Vol 13).

Characteristics of expert tutors
Motivation is a major focus - content that piques curiosity.
Expert tutors rarely praise the person, they praise the process.

  • Understand what students do and do not know
  • Almost never tell students anything - pose questions
  • Ask the 'right questions' so students challenged but can figure it out. Focus on systematic progress
  • Let student make mistakes, then discover and fix them
  • Require reflection: ask students how was it solved, or, to explain the solution, and generalize to larger contexts.
Motivation - you must tell the students why what they are studying is interesting, useful, and worth learning
  • Probe students to find out where they are starting from and guide them from there
  • Develop students to actively process ideas
  • Pose challenging questions that students answer
  • Explain the feedback
  • Ask them to reflect on their learning.

Role of Technology -
Extending the capability of the good teacher to teach many students at once is extremely challenging. This can be approached by engaging, monitoring and guiding thinking.

Using concept questions and clickers - but this is not automatically useful. How you implement it is critical. If used as attendance taking devices and testing devices, there is little benefit and lots of student resentment.

If you use them to enhance engagement, communication, and learning - the results can be transformative. What's important? Make sure the questions are challenging. Use the peer instruction approach (having students discuss answers with one another). Follow up instructor discussion giving timely and specific feedback.
The presentation was not remarkable for its content. People engaged in and studying active learning have over a decade of solid data that backs the claim that teaching the process of learning is both effective and of longer lasting value for learning science and engineering. What was remarkable was the venue and the audience. This took place at MIT. It was given by a Noble Laureate who after discovering the Bose-Condensate is now discovering how the process of learning is influenced. It was attended by a cross-section of the MIT faculty, staff and student community. It appeared to be reasonably well received. Pinch me. There may in fact be progress occurring in rethinking instruction at a research university.

(demo using PhET)

This all great - but it's not good enough.

You must build further with extended "effortful practice" focusing on developing expert-thinking and skills. To develop long term memory you have to use challenging and hard homework problems. Buildling the brain proteins needed for long-term memory and learning requires extended effort on hard problems.

Magnitude of Improvements in Teaching
  • Retention from lecture - Findings from the literature reveal at best there is 10% after 15 min. to >90% after 2 days
  • Conceptual understanding from 25% to 50-60%
  • Beliefs about physics and problem solving have had a 5-10% drop in but ...
Changes at the departmental level are largely internally driven - for eample, a scientific approach to teaching, all undergrad courses . Consider selecting departments competitively. Place greater focus and guidance on the winners. UBC supports a visitors program.

Need - We New More Effective Approaches to Teaching Science and We Need to Use It.

Selected References
Weiman chanage Mangazine Oct. 07
phet simulations


Bio for Carl Weiman: Carl Wieman received his B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973 and his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1977. He was at the University of Colorado from 1984 to 2006 as a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Presidential Teaching Scholar. In January 2007, he joined the University of British Columbia as the Director of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (; he retains a 20% appointment at the University of Colorado, Boulder to head the science education initiative he founded. His research has been recognized with numerous awards including the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. He is a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Distinguished Teaching Scholar Award in 2001, the Carnegie Foundation’s U.S. University Professor of the Year Award in 2004, and the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Oersted Medal in 2007. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and chairs the Academy Board on Science Education.


  1. Is there a recording of this presentation? Sounds inspiring and eminently shareable.

    Also, of course there's an irony here that the presentation was a lecture--though perhaps that's not right. Not every presentation or talk is a "lecture," if by "lecture" we mean "explaining concepts to novice learners." Some extended single-voice presentations aren't "lectures" in this sense at all. (Just thinking aloud here.)

    Thanks for blogging this, Phil.

  2. Gardner,and others who might be interested: The MacVicar Day lecture by Prof. Wieman was video captured and will be published through MIT World ( It takes a few weeks for them to turn these things around. You can also download many of the videos through iTunes U. (

  3. There is no doubt that technology is the fastest evolving industry there is – period. If you realize for a moment that the world wide web itself has really only been in existence since the mid 1990’s, it is simply incredible where we are at today. I have even heard one person state that they are no longer an atheist because of the Internet. Why, you ask? Because if he could be THAT wrong about something like the Internet popping up so quickly, perhaps be could be wrong about the existence of God.