Prof Carl Wieman is the 2001 Nobel Laureate for Physics. He has made path-breaking discoveries in low- temperature physics, subsequently proving the presence of Bose-Einstein Condensates (a new form of matter). He is a Professor of Physics and of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. and served as Associate Director for Science at The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy between 2010 and 2012. Originally from the wilds of Oregon, USA, he studied Physics at MIT, followed by a PhD at Stanford University. Being quite averse to the conventional examination approach of science education, he has passionately conducted research on improving undergraduate science education by developing new teaching techniques and evaluating their effectiveness. In this interview, he shares his very interesting journey into science, and makes a compelling case for overhauling the way we currently teach science.
“..anybody can do science. It isn’t easy and you have to work hard, but you don’t have to be unusual or special to do it.”
Why should people study sciences? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?
Personally, I feel there are two major attractions:
The first one is that it is a great feeling to understand the world around oneself; that it is not all mysterious and magical! Studying science helps explain why some things are the way they are and how systems work, such as the plumbing in your house, or the electricity powering everyday lives.
Science is all about figuring out answers to problems, and establishing a set of understandings of the world around us.
The second one is that science has such and enormous impact on society, whether we like it or not! Advances in science have resulted in the development of technologies which have completely changed the way we live, for the better.
In order to encourage the younger generation to study science, it is essential to relate to people’s sense of identity. It is particularly important for people, especially children, to see someone like them, or from a similar ethnic, or socio-economic background going into science and becoming successful. Finding such potential role models is likely to be most effective in inspiring the younger generation to study science. If wrong role models are chosen, young children might feel discouraged. Especially, for children from a less privileged background, this can have a negative effect, since they could be intimidated by people they cannot relate to. There shouldn’t be a sense that,” Oh! The people who go into science aren’t like me at all.”
What should be done to improve the understanding, excitement and appreciation for scientific research in society? Do you personally do outreach activities?
We should be able to show why science is of personal value to each individual, and their experiences. For example, for people to appreciate the wonders of medicine, the effect is more profound and relatable if they have a sick family member where scientific research has a clear impact. It helps if everyday items like mobile phones are deconstructed and portrayed as results of path breaking innovations which have resulted from scientific research.
The media is a reflection of society. Most teenagers have a negative view of science subjects, since they associate it with memorising and rote learning in high-school. The classes make science seem mundane, artificial and completely un-relatable. The media picks this up and then unfortunately makes it the narrative. For me, it is very important to focus on how science is taught, and examined, since that strongly affects people’s views towards the subject. There was a study where the winners of international science fairs were tracked over the years and it was seen that almost half of them switched out of science within five to six years. The culprit was the formal education system! In the United Kingdom and Europe, the exam-focused system to permit students to study science is flawed. In reality, such single, high-stakes examinations are quite poor predictors of academic success. Doing well on them only means one can write examinations well. Science isn’t about being locked in a room and taking an exam! It involves very different thinking processes.
Especially in western countries, there is the misguided popular belief that scientific achievements are some individual heroic deeds. Progress in science is almost always a collaborative, collective activity. Even Nobel Prize winners have only contributed incrementally to scientific progress. They contributed just the right part and got attention, but anybody can do science. It isn’t easy and you have to work hard, but you don’t have to be unusual or special to do it.
What do you work on, and how does it benefit humanity?
For many years, I did two kinds of research-one was blasting atoms with lasers, which won me the Nobel Prize in 2001. The other is research on teaching and learning science. Which area has a greater impact on society is a subject of debate. I feel the work on science education is more important, but not everybody agrees.
The work I did to be awarded the Nobel Prize was devising a way to use the interaction of light and atoms to cool them down to temperatures far lower than were previously achieved (a tiny fraction of a degree below absolute zero).
We did this intentionally to try and isolate a new form of matter (Bose-Einstein Condensates) which had been predicted by Bose and Einstein in 1924/25, but it needed temperatures much below what were possible at the time. Once we managed to get to these temperatures, we observed this form of matter, and confirmed that Bose and Einstein were right. The importance of the finding wasn’t very significant from the physics perspective. However, the new material had really unusual properties, since it belongs in the quantum world, but exists on a much larger size scale where it can be seen and manipulated in a far better fashion. It enabled physicists to visualise and study quantum physics in a new way. Our work has thus enabled building a bridge between the sub-microscopic quantum world and the larger size scale we see in the world around us. Understanding this boundary area assumes a larger importance as we move onto ever-tinier electronic devices.
The other work, done by another research group I run, looks at effective, evidence-based science education. We investigate what students are learning or not learning based on different types of teaching and why. We then try different, alternative teaching methodologies and measure how much they learn. The part I really focus on is looking at what unique thinking capabilities do scientists have, which allow them to understand things differently. I focus in making predictions or decisions better, and how well students are learning scientific thinking. We do case studies where we try different pedagogical methodologies and probe their thinking, to see what is more effective. We then deploy these new methods in the undergraduate classes to see how students respond to these new methods.
When looking at developing capabilities in scientific thinking, is there an intrinsic capability or aptitude which further enables them to study science? Could you just take any person and train him or her to become a physicist? What are the challenges in keeping students motivated?
This is one of the things our research does look at. We try to study what the inherent versus developed capabilities are, and their impact. Our research shows that virtually every capability needed can be developed. There are, obvious extremities at the ends of the mental abilities spectrum, but generally almost everybody can learn any of the core skills required.
However, if a person believes he or she lacks the required skills, they will never be successful. Therefore, a key aspect of teaching is that the instructor must convey to the learners that they have the potential to learn the subject and show them how they can then go about it. Giving the right support and incentives at the right time, even only for a little while can have tremendous long-term benefits.
In your interview to the Nobel Prize foundation, you attribute some of your interest in science to your school teacher, Mr Ron Tobias. You also go on to say that the less you liked a teacher, the worse you did. In high school, you enjoyed literature and writing more than science. How important are good teachers during the formative years of children?
Ron Tobias was a good teacher I had a long time ago. He was excited about science, and conveying it to us. That was quite different to the teachers I had encountered before. In college, I found classwork quite boring but what kept my interest in physics was doing research in laboratories. In terms of those opportunities, Daniel Kleppner was a mentor to me during my undergraduate studies. He gave me my first laboratory research experience, which helped me to see what scientists really do, how they work and allowed me to contribute towards the research being conducted in the lab. If I didn’t have that practical insight, I am sure I never would have got into science further.
Were your parents involved in science as well? Does having parents in science encourage children to pursue it?
No, my parents weren’t into science. My father was a sawyer in a sawmill and I grow up in the forests of Oregon. However, my parents were very supportive and encouraged us a lot to get a good education. My sister doesn’t have a PhD, but two of my brothers do. My youngest brother doesn’t even have a college degree but he made more money than all of us, because he became a software engineer. If you’re good enough at that, nobody cares about what degrees you have! Having family members in science is a tremendous benefit to people who want to take up studying the sciences.
How has your life changed after receiving the Nobel prize? How did it feel? Have you received more attention for your work, especially with regard to the public?
Yes, being awarded the Nobel Prize has brought more attention onto my work in science education. In many events, I get introduced as a Nobel Laureate who has started focusing on education. To this I tell them that I had been working in education for a long time, but nobody paid any attention to me, until after I got the Nobel Prize!
The Nobel Prize does indeed give a sense of credibility when I try to deliver a talk on pedagogy, which would otherwise go largely unattended in universities.
Are there people who inspired you and shaped the way you think? And do/did you have a mentor?
It is really important to have a mentor, and it is a tremendous advantage if you have a good one. A mentor can act like an individual guide who can understand your problems, and can give you guidance to help you succeed.
You are now working on improving undergraduate science education. How can we encourage more girls to take up science, especially physics? Does your work address this issue?
When an under-represented minority (like women, or those from some ethnic backgrounds) sees the rest of the peer group, they begin to feel they lack some innate talent and lose motivation. They also feel they don’t belong, especially if they feel they aren’t accepted in a community and then they opt out of the course. This starts a vicious cycle and the effect is seen quite often when a lecturer is not very effective in delivering content. If some students of the class understand the material, but those from under-represented minorities do not, then they feel even more out of place.
However, these issues can be fixed. Active learning methods based on greater group learning seem to be much more effective at making people relate more to each other and form a tight community. This is much better than a lecture theatre setting. I often give students my own example. I wasn’t a very good student, in the conventional sense. I didn’t fare very well in examinations. If I had been in the UK education system, I would have not done well at all. However, I was very lucky that I was at the right place at the right time when my exam results didn’t matter that much.
What do you think is the next big breakthrough/idea in science?
With great confidence, I can predict that any prediction that I, or any other old Nobel Laureate makes will probably be completely foolish and wrong. So I cannot make any real predictions on what discoveries may change the world and embarrass myself!
More information on Prof Carl Wieman can be found here. His opinion on how to change teaching methods can be found here and here