Nobel laureate Carl Wieman: The right question primes students for learning

Carl Wieman has a colorful analogy he likes to deploy when talking about the most common current-day approaches to education — especially science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. “University STEM teaching is a lot like medicine was in the mid- to late-1800s,” he said. At that time, an emerging field of science was laying the groundwork for much more effective medical treatments and would soon resign scores of injurious self-styled “doctors” to the sidelines, he said.

Nobel laureate Carl Wieman delivered a March 22 lecture on improving undergraduate STEM education.

Nobel laureate Carl Wieman delivered a March 22 lecture on improving undergraduate STEM education.

“It showed that, to be a good doctor, you really had to learn that kind of expertise,” Wieman said, with a final punchline that leaves the crowd laughing: “So for any students in the room, I just want to say you’re basically at the tail end of getting the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting.”

Wieman, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2001, delivered a presentation on his pioneering work in education research on March 22 in Duncan Hall’s fully packed McMurtry Auditorium. The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) hosted Wieman for a lecture titled “Taking a Scientific Approach to Science and Engineering Education,” in which the physicist discussed his decades of work toward improving undergraduate science education and his recommendations for taking a scientific — and ultimately more successful — approach to teaching.

Provost Marie Lynn Miranda introduced Wieman to the audience as an authority whose own interdisciplinary pursuits mirror the work done at Rice. “To me this seems like the consummate Rice event: that we would have a Nobel Prize winner talking to us about excellence in teaching, which very much brings together these core values of our university in a wonderful way,” Miranda said. “To my knowledge, he’s the only person who has both won a Nobel Prize and won the Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year award, so we are very much privileged to have him here with us.”

Wieman started his lecture by cautioning against two things: conflating curricula with pedagogy (the methods instructors use to teach critical thinking skills) and putting too much stock in the “expert” opinions of those who’ve never researched pedagogy itself. “There’s an unfortunate tendency for Nobel Prize winners to decide they’re experts on education, no matter how little actually they know about the subject,” he said. “In my case, I spent a lot of years becoming an expert in education; it’s just that nobody paid attention to me.”

But people certainly started paying attention when Wieman was named the 2004 Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year. And with the publication of his well-received first book, “Improving How Universities Teach Science,” last May, his efforts to reform STEM education have gained even more steam. Yet the man who once helped to achieve a new state of matter  — Bose-Einstein condensate, for which his team won the Nobel Prize in 2001 — never intended to become an expert in any field other than physics. Becoming an education expert was the unintended byproduct of being an exceptionally observant scientist.

Wieman said he “came to see a very consistent and puzzling pattern” during years spent working closely with graduate students and their development into physicists. “Students came to work at my lab only after they’d had many years of great success and high grades in math and science courses, but then,” he paused, “they were pretty clueless about actually doing physics.”

After a few years in the lab with him, they became excellent physicists, Wieman said. “But there was a pretty clear anti-correlation,” he discovered. “The students who were really good in their coursework and exams never turned out to be the better physicists. And after a while I said, ‘Okay, there’s something fundamental going on here,’ and I treated it as a science problem. I looked into the research about how people learned.”

What he learned was “that this really wasn’t a puzzle at all — it was quite predictable,” Wieman said. “But it also gave me a completely different way to think about teaching and learning and it got me started doing research on science education.” This eventually led him to create the now well-regarded Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at the University of British Columbia in 2007. He later spent two years in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he made attempts to reshape the $3-billion-a-year federal investment in STEM education.

“For a couple of decades, I actually had two parallel research programs,” Wieman said. “One doing atomic physics — blasting atoms with lasers — and one actually doing physics education research.”

Carl Wieman is renowned for his pioneering work in education, winning the Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year award in 2004 and publishing his first book, “Improving How Universities Teach Science,” last May.

Carl Wieman is renowned for his pioneering work in education, winning the Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year award in 2004 and publishing his first book, “Improving How Universities Teach Science,” last May.

Along the way, Wieman set out to answer questions about what it really means to think like a scientist, what comprises “expert” or complex thinking and how we can take what we know about how thinking is learned and apply that to a classroom. He dug into the cognitive sciences, into brain research, into existing work on learning in science and engineering classrooms, and he came up with what he calls three “very generic components” that make up expert thinking across a multitude of disciplines — not just STEM fields, but others too.

The first component is that experts in a field have a lot of factual knowledge about their particular subject. The second is that experts have a very specific organizational framework by which they organize their knowledge. “And that specific framework allows them to be much more efficient and effective at retrieving and applying the necessary knowledge when going in and confronting or solving some kind of problem,” Wieman said. “They also have criteria for when and how to apply those models.” The third component is often the last critical thinking skill learned: the ability to monitor one’s own thinking.

“No one is innately born with these capabilities,” Wieman said. “Everyone requires many hours of intense practice to actually govern these thinking capabilities. What has become clear is that reaching a high level, like a Rice faculty member level of expertise, actually requires many thousands of hours of intense practice.” But this also means that these capabilities can be taught, especially over the thousands of hours undergraduates spend in school.

Wieman has demonstrated through years of research that just delivering information to students isn’t enough. An effective teacher also provides guidance on when and how to use that information. An effective teacher designs proper practice activities inside the classroom. An effective teacher gives appropriate feedback and motivates students to work harder. Wieman provided a few concrete examples of how to do so, such as a large, introductory course packed with new students.

He recommends that teachers make more-efficient use of lecture time by giving students a pre-class reading assignment followed with a short in-class quiz; basic terminology and information can be learned from a book. “Save the classroom time for much more useful things,” Wieman said. Then start with a question related to the assignment and make use of technology such as clickers; students answer and the instructor’s computer records their responses.

“I’ve seen a lot of really bad use of clickers,” Wieman said. “But the right question primes them for learning.” From there, he encourages students to form groups to discuss what they think is the right answer — but don’t just tune out. “Go up and down the aisles, listening in on conversations and getting little snapshots of what’s going on in their brains. What aspects of their thinking are like a physicist and what aren’t?” Finally, provide the right answer along with a demonstration or summary of why it’s correct and why other models or reasoning may have led to the incorrect answer.

“That’s really where the learning takes place: When a person understands why they need to use their thinking,” Wieman said. “It generates many more, deeper student questions than a typical lecture does.”

A generous Q&A session after the lecture allowed Wieman to elaborate on even more in-class examples of how to teach critical thinking skills. He also outlines these in great detail in his book, along with an in-depth analysis of STEM education from the most granular levels — the designs of individual classes and departmental curricula — to the broader questions of how universities approach pedagogy as whole.

“As you read his book, you are already immediately realizing how each and every one of us could be improving our own teaching,” Miranda said. “And that’s a wonderful contribution to all of us here, to the larger scientific community and to the world, because the more effectively we teach science, the better off we are. There is a need for a deeper understanding of science across the board.”

Improving science education and the understanding of science fits in with several goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2): providing a transformative undergraduate education, building renowned graduate programs, investing in faculty to achieve pre-eminence and elevating research achievement.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.