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SPIE Professional January 2012

New Rules of Student Engagement in Science

Retaining physics students at the undergraduate level requires a new approach, one that teaches innovation and problem solving.

By Rich Donnelly

A study at the University of British Columbia (Canada) compared the amount of learning students experienced, when taught in three hours over one week, by traditional lecture vs. using interactive activities based on research in cognitive psychology and physics education.

The research team at the UBC Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative found that students in the interactive class were nearly twice as engaged as their counterparts in the traditional class. Students from that class uniformly scored nearly twice as well in a test designed to determine their grasp of complex physics concepts. Attendance in the interactive class also increased by 20% during the experiment.

Wieman, associate director for Science in the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, believes that innovative thinking is not so much a gift as a skill that can be learned. The teaching methods he advocates also aim to make students more comfortable with concept-based problem solving, and pulling together information resources in new ways to create solutions.

The study was led by Louis Deslauriers, a post-doctoral researcher at UBC.

Education research leadership

SPIE leaders were on hand in Washington, DC, last year to congratulate Wieman on receiving the 2011 Award for Education Research Leadership from the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP).


 Ralph James, SPIE Immediate Past President and CSSP Chair- Elect, Carl Wieman, and Martin Apple, president, Council of Scientific Society Presidents

Ralph James, SPIE Past President and CSSP Chair-Elect, and SPIE Executive Director Eugene Arthurs were among scientific society leaders honoring Wieman for his strong support of science education, including his creative leadership in establishing innovative programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and UBC.

Wieman is also a recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with Eric Cornell and Wolfgang Ketterle, for work related to their creation of the Bose-Einstein condensate.

Wieman says that while there have been great advances in the study of how the brain functions and learns, basic teaching methods have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Memorizing the recipe

In "A New Model for Post-Secondary Education, the Optimized University," Wieman wrote in 2006: "Most students are learning that the subject is a set of facts that are unrelated to the workings of the world and are simply to be memorized without understanding.

"They learn to 'solve' science problems by memorizing recipes that are of little use other than passing classroom exams."

In a keynote address to a forum in Silicon Valley in May 2011, Wieman said that one of the biggest hurdles to making the problem-solving approach an integral part of science education is simply committing to do it.

"It's not that hard to implement," he said, "once the philosophical shift has been made."


SPIE Newsroom has video on teaching physics, optics

The SPIE Newsroom has a video on the subject of changing the way optics and other physical sciences are taught.

Noah Finkelstein, associate professor of physics and director of the Physics Education Research group at the University of Colorado, discusses the challenges and opportunities to new approaches in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at spie.org/physicsed.

Finkelstein has worked with Carl Wieman, associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and testified about science education before the U.S. Congress in 2010.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201201.22

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