Dr. Carl Wieman Speaks!

Posted by: | April 15, 2007 | 6 Comments

On Friday I sat down with Nobel-laureate in physics, Dr. Carl Wieman to ask about the 12 million dollar science education initiative he’s heading up at UBC to improve undergraduate courses for the science masses. I wrote a post about the basics of the initiative earlier, so I won’t repeat them now. You can find that post, and some relevant links here (click!).

Listen to the interview here (click!)

The main thing to notice is this: The funding and implementation is through the departments. This means that departments have the key power to organize and prioritize the money as they wish, with guidance from Dr. Weiman and education experts they may decide to hire, which he would train and reference with. Neither Wieman, nor individual instructors are the heroes of this initiative, but the departments themselves (or whatever their consensus or leadership decides) will be determining the direction of the spending.

I had some thoughts about Dr. Wieman and the initiative after our interview, which I’d like to put out there:

The man is assiduously, zealously, diplomatic. You may notice in the interview that Dr. Wieman doesn’t give a straight answer to whether there’s an education quality problem at UBC. He often defers to the Departments, instead of asserting his experiences or ideas. He answered several of my questions with vague observations like, “we must first ask what we want and then…”. These responses are quite practical, when you get down to it: he shouldn’t tax the sensetivities of the VP academic, he cannot force the hand of departments, and yes, setting goals and research questions is crucial. Indeed, Dr. Wieman knows that he must work within the department structure of the University, and he’s embracing that. Fashioning himself as a revolutionary with all the answers will not help his vision come about, and he knows it. But don’t be fooled. For all the hedging, Dr. Wieman has a vision – it’s just tempered by familiarity of university realpolitik. This vision stems from the realization that the democratization of higher education, and the reality of larger classes and reduced teacher-student interaction implicit in it, create unique challenges. Dr. Wieman’s thesis is that with this reality, the only realistic way to cultivate the meaningful interactions and problem-solving challenges which are tied to “expert-like” learning results is through the adoption of researched, proven information technology.

I simply hope, that when the department implementation process gets to the nitty-gritty, that Dr. Weiman will be there. His austere replies in the interview may almost have convinced you that he actually doesn’t have specific ideas, or any over-arching vision. He does. I’m confident that he has the political gumption to bust these out when it matters the most, in each departmental decision-making conversation.

All that said, personally, I’m not sold on the technology fetish. Yes, Dr. Wieman is highly conservative, and very careful about his uses of these technologies. He stresses that they should only be used if they’ve been tested to work, in the correct context in the courses. Still, I keep going back to the OWL example: OWL is an interactive program used in Chem 233 that has animation-based organic chemistry teaching modules, problem sets, and quizzes that allow you to manipulate chemical compounds using shockwave software. OWL is meant to be a significant part of this course, and is even worth a toothsome morsel of the course grade. Nonetheless, the division is clear: some people loved OWL (either because it’s easy marks, or because they actually got something out of it) and some people (me) hated it, and preferred loosing marks than wasting their time doing detestable tasks that didn’t help them learn at all. The thing is, there will always be that issue. There will always be students that don’t get along with staring at a screen to learn, preferring to hit the books, and there will be those that will. That’s why I’m just not sure that out-of-classroom software is the be-all end-all of making students learn better.

I’d like more of of a focus on improving the quality of lectures themselves. Lectures are still important, and they CAN be done well. The lecture has taken a lot of flak as an inherently awful format, but this really needn’t be the case. A well-structured lecture can be very effective in ordering, prioritizing, and explaining material, even if it’s not the best at imparting problem-solving ability or deep conceptual understanding.

For an interesting read, check out Dr. Wieman’s report on “The Optimized University” that he prepared for the BC government’s Campus 2020 post-secondary education review here (click!).

This is the picture I took on my walk home the moment after I realized that I’d forgotten to take a picture of my handsome interviewee. Vancouver city-hall for you, therefore.


6 Comments so far

  1. Anonymous on April 20, 2007 5:51 am

    Since nobody posts anything on this article, I am going to give my “blah”.

    First of all, Dr. Wieman has the students’ problems right on!
    The labs really serve no purpose at the current state. For example, in intro-physics labs,students have a sense that they only have to fill up some “expected” results and get the “expected” graph or trends to make the grade. the labs are sort of serving as an alternative problem question in another 3-hour long tutorial. There’s NO real sense of relevance to the real world and the theories along with the equations have all been given out in details so there’s no sense of mystery or rigorous thinking involved. After all, it’s a drill.

    Secondly, I love Dr. Wieman’s idea of connecting facts and equations together. So I think more interdiscplinary studies can help in that holistic approach.

  2. maayan on April 21, 2007 10:02 pm

    but, taking the physics lab example, how can it be less like a drill? after all, that graph, which demonstrates the correct relationships in a theoretical equation, has been shown before. Some other result would be wrong.

    Scrap the labs? at least they give experience in writing up a formal report…(my first year physics lab in science one did anyway, not sure about the normal ones)

  3. Anonymous on April 25, 2007 8:37 am

    normal ones did not do such a decent job,maayan and i don’t mean to scrap the first year lab

  4. Anonymous on April 25, 2007 8:42 am

    another thing, Maayan. Many students feel biol 140 (the first-year lab) as a bad course because the course itself has an over emphasis on “FORMAT”. so even putting the title of the graph “FIGURE 1” on top of a graph, instead of below the graph as said in the instruction, can cause you a whole 5% on a student’s test. It does not really stimulate students to think science or consider science in any sense.

  5. Maayan Kreitzman on April 25, 2007 4:38 pm

    Totally agree about Bio 140. It was a sinful waste of time. A whole class on how to do an average. crikey, it was insulting. And of course, with all courses that are ridiculously easy and unecessary, marks are uber-low because they mark you on picky technicalities really harshly. And that sucks.
    But that’s the difficulty wth both a) easy courses and b) really good teaching. If goals are set out, and then rigoroulsy met by most students, should testing reflect the goals (giving everyone A’s), or should testing reflect other criteria (for example picky stuff, or just harder stuff that wasn’t in the goals) in order to hit a distribution?
    Wieman basically said learning matters, and marks don’t, and that’s true in the long run, but if good teaching allows most people to increase their level of learning significantly, shouldn’t marks reflect that too? Is that at odds with our competative career and education model?

  6. Anonymous on April 26, 2007 12:41 am

    Maayan, all the comments published above were all written by me. And i think the marks are a double-edged sword. On one hand, marks provide the initiative or force the students unpleasantly to learn some concepts. (e.g. the PRS really helps the attendence problems in some science classes and it does what Wieman wants. On the other hand, it sometimes become the whole purpose of a course. Students learn NOT for the learning sake, but for the marks’ sake. Striking a balance isn’t easy and i think there are plenty of educators struggling for the same dilemma.

    Alfie Lee

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