Carl E. Wieman

University of Colorado-Boulder
2001 DTS Award

Dr. Carl E. Wieman
Distinguished Professor of Physics
University of Colorado-Boulder

Wieman Research Group

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Carl Wieman.

Dr. Wieman, If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

I am not sure what impression they would leave with, but I can say what impression I hope they would get. I would hope they would see a bunch of students interested in what they are learning and taking a lot of responsibility for figuring out physics and how it applies to the world around them. I do know that, compared to many other physics classes I have observed, a far larger fraction of the students in my "lectures" are awake, paying attention, and asking questions, so I may not be hoping entirely in vain.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I would not say that my research per se brought me to a concern with education. However, I am a hard-core experimental physicist, and so I always believe that it is absolutely essential to have an unbiased evaluation of what the data is telling you. I have learned that it is very important to see what is really there when you do an experiment and not simply see what you are looking for. It became increasingly clear to me that when evaluating the effectiveness of most physics teaching, if one stripped away the triple biases of ancient tradition, how we were taught as students, and what we wanted to see, the results looked pretty dismal.

I looked at teaching as part of my job, and I wanted to do that job well. I came to realize that I was not doing it very well, nor were most of the physics profession. Over time I have also become increasingly aware of the importance of science and technology to our modern society and the resulting dangers of doing such a poor job of teaching it to our citizens. Finally, I was also struck by the contrast between the meager understanding of physics most students got from taking years of physics courses compared with the almost routine caterpillar-to-butterfly like transformation into skilled physicists that I could observe in graduate students working with me on research.

The combination of these factors drove me to tackle the challenges of improving physics education. Perhaps the closest contact with my actual research was that it allowed me to look carefully at how and why students in the research lab learned so successfully, and so I could use this information to attempt to get something of those same factors into the completely different environment of the classroom. Also (as discussed below), I chose to focus my efforts on improving my own courses in such a way that I could utilize my strengths in research.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

There are two negative factors that I would not really call risks, because "risk" implies some sort of uncertainty. I would say these factors are pretty much guaranteed downsides.

First, it will take a lot more time to teach differently, whether or not it is better. It is really quite easy to follow a textbook similar to what was used in courses that you took in school, reciting more or less what is in that text up in front of the class while noting the important points on a blackboard, and finally assigning students to do the standard homework problems at the back of the chapter and giving closely related exams. And if you make a minimal effort to be reasonably organized and enthusiastic and tell a few jokes in class, your teaching will take fairly minimal time and effort and, at worst, will certainly be considered quite respectable in most any department.

It takes a GREAT DEAL more time to start from scratch to attempt to do it right. You have to go through and analyze what you really want the students to learn, analyze how student's think and learn and then figure out how each part of the course does or does not contribute to your goals, prepare materials accordingly, and then after you have used them evaluate if they are working or not, and finally going through it all again to make corrective actions based on those evaluations. Some day we will know how to teach science right, and we will be accustomed to doing it that way and it will be much easier. However, it is pretty clear that we are not there yet, and as a result it takes a lot of work to put in any useful changes.

The second downside is that the students will resent and dislike anything different from what they are used to. Over time, many can be won over if you work hard enough, but many never will be. Their unhappiness and complaints are particularly difficult to handle when you are doing something "nonstandard". Students do not particularly like the traditional physics course, but they are at least used to it. In the face of student unhappiness a faculty member always has the security of knowing that the course has always been taught that way so you cannot be held personally responsible.

Also you can quiet student dissent by pointing out that this material is always difficult for students and therefore one's difficulty in learning it is obviously more a reflection of the student's ability rather than a reflection on the method of instruction. Doing something nontraditional gives up all that security however, and will always bring in more complaints from students, sometimes even expressed to higher up administrators in your department or college.

I still remember the terrible course evaluations I got back when I made some radical changes in teaching the lowest level introductory course that was offered specifically for students who were deficient in science. Previously this course had been dismally received and accomplished dismal results in any sort of student learning. My numerical scores, which are usually all the Deans (and others) look at, were quite low even for this course. But it was very revealing when I read the individual comments, of which there were an unusually large number. There were many irate comments along the lines of "This professor was terrible and I should get my tuition money back. I had to work hard in this course and I learned a lot more than I have in other science courses, but Professor Wieman never taught us anything. I had to figure it all out by myself."

Of course this meant I was completely successful in the goal I had set out to achieve, but many of the students were completely unsatisfied, because they were so convinced that a science course was strictly rote memorization. I have learned to do a somewhat better salesmanship job with students over the years, but a significant amount of unhappiness is pretty much a certainty until the student's image of what is a "proper" science class changes. Fortunately the experience with students is not totally negative. One cherishes those occasional letters of gratitude from students who say you have opened their eyes to a completely new way of thinking about the world and what science is.

(As a side note, I might point out that I have found that winning a Nobel Prize does significantly help change student attitudes however. They suddenly become far more willing to consider the possibility that you know better than they as to the "proper" way to teach physics. I would recommend this step for all young faculty, although it does have some other drawbacks with regard to ones teaching.) I am not sufficiently successful yet to document my efforts.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

Frankly I have not been terribly successful at finding valuable connections. This has been a bit frustrating. I find there is an awfully big gulf between the research-oriented physics community and the physics education-oriented community, with neither having the necessary breadth of perspective to reach across the gap very effectively. Because it is the research community that controls the agenda of the physics departments in most major Universities, this gulf has a serious detrimental effect on education.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

In contrast with the commonly held beliefs, particularly among people focused heavily on education, I actually think that the culture of most physics departments these days actively supports the integration of research and teaching and nurtures the careers of faculty that seek to do that. The problem I see is that this culture still has a traditional view that teaching should be done with a conventional lecture format and coverage of vast amounts of material; that approach is just not very effective. So the issue is not one of supporting teaching, but rather to develop a culture that can evaluate properly truly good and effective teaching and support that. It will be hard to accomplish this until there are more examples of ways of teaching that yield dramatically better results without requiring substantially more resources.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts?

I have been working on finding an answer to this question, to get the chairs of leading physics departments in this country to talk about possible collective efforts, but I would hesitate to say just what should or could be done at this stage. The discipline needs to be exploring a variety of approaches and share information on results to determine the best solutions. In this respect, I hope to have the goal of effective teaching attain the same status and have the strengths of the scientific enterprise brought to bear on it in much the same way research problems are tackled and solved by our community.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

I am basically trying to find a way to substantially improve the educational experiences of students taking an introductory physics course, and to do this without requiring any additional resources in terms of faculty or teaching assistants time or changes in the physical layouts of classrooms. In spite of their many shortcomings from a learning point of view, the traditional, large lecture format that is used for most introductory physics courses is extremely cost-effective as simply measured by dollar per course credit hour.

Recognizing the fiscal realities of modern day higher education, particularly in public universities, I hope to find a reasonable compromise that preserves this cost effectiveness, but at the same time will greatly improve the learning experience for the students. I am considering how changing the subject matter and the method of delivery can help to accomplish this. For the DTS award I am undertaking two related projects as specific efforts to achieve this goal.

First: to enhance the teaching of physics by developing interactive java applets that help students to better visualize the basic physics processes at work.

Second: to develop interactive lecture demonstrations (actual experiments done in a large lecture class for which the students predict the results, and then analyze and discuss the outcome of the experiments).

Both of these efforts will be connected to the material covered in Bloomfield's text, "How things work; the physics of everyday life". This general choice of curriculum is based upon the idea of making the physics more relevant and interesting by always presenting it in terms of everyday devices and experiences with which the students are familiar. I expect if I can achieve my desired goals with these applets and ILDs, they will become more broadly used, as will the curricular approach. This is connected with my research in that much of my research success has come from my ability to design good experiments, and to develop a good visual intuitive grasp of the important physics. I tried to pick DTS projects that would utilize these skills. This work is pretty much in its infancy. I hope that as I develop it further, and if it is successful, others will get involved.