Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science

author: Carl Wieman, Science Education Initiative, University of British Columbia
published: Aug. 26, 2011,   recorded: March 2008,   views: 3700

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Spurred by such real-world challenges as global warming, Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, has transformed his curiosity about improving science education into a vocation. Wieman is convinced that science education must be improved, not simply to inspire and train the next generation of scientists, but to educate a citizenry “to make wise decisions on tough questions.”

Unhappy with the apparent lack of impact his undergraduate physics courses had on students, Wieman began a personal odyssey to discover why traditional methods of teaching science -- the massive lecture hall, the fact-filled lectures -- seemed to fail in the task of conveying key concepts, much less exciting listeners. He delved into cognitive psychology research, and learned that when students are passive, they retain a mere 10% of the facts conveyed to them, and that indeed, the human brain has a limited amount of RAM. Our working memory can hold around seven items. In addition, students simply “do not develop a good understanding of concepts by hearing them explained in lectures.” The brain is like a muscle that must be built up, especially the structures involving long-term memory, Wieman learned, and “to develop the brain requires a strenuous effort over a long time.”

Wieman then pursued notions of effective teaching practices, those that would allow students to develop their own understanding, by “thinking hard about a subject and then monitoring and guiding that thinking.” The pedagogical principles he ultimately distilled include: employing an expert individual tutor to motivate, pose questions to and interact with students; and probing “where students are starting from and connect with them,” finding ways to have students challenge, explain and critique each other, with feedback from the tutor.

Wieman acknowledges the difficulty of deploying these methods in a large class, but suggests utilizing technology to assist. He finds particularly helpful interactive lectures with hand-held clickers to help gauge student understanding. Wieman also advocates highly interactive simulations, enabling students to “build a circuit on computers,” for instance. He also backs homework problems “that go toward building expert thinking,” part of the effortful practice the brain needs to generate more proteins for long term memory. Ultimately, we “must approach teaching like we do science,” says Wieman, testing the effectiveness of different methods and putting the results of such research to use in the classroom.

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