October 31, 2006

Nobel laureate discusses science education

Dr. Carl Weiman, a 2001 Nobel laureate in physics, told a packed audience on Thursday that success in science does not necessarily depend on the most cutthroat undergraduate curriculum.

“I didn’t take that many normal physics courses myself. And I’ve done okay,” Weiman said during his speech for the Enrico Fermi Institute’s weekly physics colloquium.

Weiman discussed the intersection of physics and education, proposing that scientific methods and research be applied to the practice of teaching itself, resulting in the kind of unconventional methods Weiman experienced as an undergraduate.

“We can approach teaching as we do science,” Weiman said. “There are guiding principles. And we can build on them.”

The physicist shared the results of research in cognitive science about student learning. He began by characterizing the novice approach to learning, in which teachers dispense authoritative, factual information and then students regurgitate it.

The challenge, Weiman said, is to assist undergraduate students, who are often novice learners, in reaching a more expert level of learning and information processing.

“Students often become more like novice learners after physics courses,” Weiman said.

Weiman instead proposed a kind of teaching that emphasizes independent learning.

“People learn by creating their own understanding,” he said. “We must facilitate this creation of knowledge and monitor the experience.”

Applying research done on education and cognitive science to the methods of teaching greatly increased information retention and encouraged higher levels of learning, Weiman said.

Using images instead of words, engaging students with material outside of class, and using educational technology appropriately were some of the educational approaches he stressed.

Weiman also suggested “clickers,” small data devices distributed to each student to answer multiple-choice questions proposed in class. A computer networked to the clickers records student answers for teacher review. Weiman emphasized the system’s advantages, including “accountability, peer anonymity, and fast feedback.”

During the question session following Weiman’s speech, students asked about the effectiveness of typical aspects of physics teaching, including curriculum design and labs.

Weiman said that, instead of simply listing topics, curricula should lay out “what you want students to be able to do by the end of the course.”

He was critical of the conventional use of labs. “People have a mishmash of things they want labs to accomplish, and the result is that students don’t get any of these things,” he said.