“Taking a Scientific Approach to Science Education” was the title of a talk by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman that I went to this past Thursday. After receiving the Nobel Prize in physics, Dr. Wieman became interested in figuring out how to improve science education at the university level. His talk focused on comparing traditional lecture techniques, which are used today in most college classes, to strategies that promote “expert thinking.” The results were staggering! Lecturers who switched from traditional techniques to these new strategies saw close to a 30 percentage point increase in their classes’ average test scores!
The two main differences between traditional lecturing and the new ideas Dr. Wieman presented were engagement and feedback. Students need to think critically about the material they are learning, and whether they are able to answer correctly or not, receive immediate feedback to cement their memory of the topic. This dffers from most lectures, in which a professor talks the entire time and students are left to study on their own and not receive feedback until a homework assignment or exam.
From my own experience of having a few professors who used methods similar to those described by Dr. Wieman, I do see the benefit personally. Specifically, it helps confirm what concepts the professor considers most key, as well as how to apply them to thinking about that area of science. Unfortunately, after going through my fair share of science classes in undergraduate and now grad school, these professors are the exception to the rule.
Science education is something I am very passionate about. I credit my high school science teachers with turning science into something that is interesting to me, and I think it’s a shame that that doesn’t happen for more students. Lectures such as this make me realize how far there is to go in turning around science education at all levels. On a more positive note, however, I am grateful that there are people like Dr. Wieman who are leading the change. I hope that in some way, I’ll also be able to contribute.