Science Teaching May Be Overdue for an Overhaul

Nobel Laureate Believes New Methods Will Offer Dramatic Improvements

Oct. 16, 2009

According to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman, today’s students could be stagnating under five centuries of stale science education.

While science experiments have advanced the world with breakneck speed, Wieman says the state of science education hasn’t advanced much beyond the Middle Ages.

Wieman shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics with Eric Cornell and Wolfgang Ketterle and is a professor of physics and director of science education initiatives at the University of British Columbia.

For the inaugural Gateways to Excellence in Math and Science (GEMS) lecture at 5 p.m. on Oct. 19, Wieman will offer an innovative glimpse at new methods of science education.

Wieman’s lecture is free and open to the public in the TI Auditorium (ECSS 2.102) on the UT Dallas campus.

We sat down recently with Wieman for a preview of his talk.

Can you give us a brief explanation of the work that led to your Nobel Prize?

We figured out how to get atoms really, really cold (less than one millionth of a degree above absolute zero) and when we did so, they transformed into a completely new form of matter that had been predicted by Einstein in 1924, but had never been observed. It has very weird quantum properties and is very interesting to play with.

What makes you passionate about science?

I never handle this question very well. It is because I see science as a different and more useful form of establishing knowledge and understanding and predicting how the world/nature works.

Why are you interested in “using the methods of science to teach science?”

Because it works.You can use a scientific approach to find ways to teach that result in far better learning for all students. As a species, we face extremely serious challenges that are fundamentally technical, involving energy and the environment. These challenges can only be fully understood and dealt with wisely in a democratic society if the people have a far better understanding of science than they are getting from our current education system. The fate of mankind depends on all students learning science better

What’s the prognosis for science education in the near term? What about the next 25 years?

The potential is there for dramatic improvement. Not just the 10 to 20 percent improvements that people get excited about on standardized tests, but improvements of 200 percent or 300 percent! I am trying hard to make the prognosis match the potential, but whether or not that will happen is very uncertain.

What’s one thing you hope people come away from your talk knowing that perhaps they didn’t know before?

The potential exists to dramatically improve how we teach science, and it does not have to cost significantly more money or require massive changes in infrastructure. It only requires we apply to every classroom what research from the past 20 years has told us about how the brain learns, and the most effective ways to support that learning. Of course, doing this will require science teachers to abandon 500 years of tradition and superstition with regard to teaching and learning. It took medicine nearly 2,000 years to abandon blood-letting as the treatment of choice. Hopefully, we can be a little faster in science education.

Media contacts: Brandon V. Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected] or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]

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Carl Wieman

Carl Wieman shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics with Eric Cornell and Wolfgang Ketterle and is a professor of physics and director of science education initiatives at the University of British Columbia.


The GEMS Lecture

GEMS was developed to help ensure academic success in math and science gateway courses. The progoram's inaugural lecture will be in the TI Auditorium (ECSS 2.102) at 5 p.m., Oct. 19. Guests are advised to check the campus map for updated route, construction and parking information.


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April 22, 2018