"…approach the teaching of science as a science" – Carl Wieman’s schtick.

It sounds like a dream – a high profile and hugely funded project (about 200 k per year, currently) entirely dedicated to improving the academic fortunes of the masses of undergrad science students. Students that currently seem to leave their lower-level physics and chemistry courses more detached, zombie-like, and unready for what real scientific enquiry is all about than when they came in (chem 205 with Dr. Chen, anyone?). But what exactly is the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) proposing, what are its methods, what has it accomplished in it’s three months of official existence, and what do concerned parties think of the whole shebang?

Carl Wieman, the Nobel laureate in physics from U of Colorado was recruited to UBC in 2007 with pomp and circumstance. But instead of setting up a state-of-the-art lab for experimental physics, he instead asked for a whack of money to stay in the office and spearhead a crusade for better teaching – in fact, that’s why he came here in the first place. Dr. Wieman has become more interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning over the past several years. The project’s goal is to

Provide substantial support to science departments to evaluate all of their undergraduate courses and pursue opportunities to improve educational outcomes. The focus will be on achieving sustained departmental-wide change, and will rely on the use of relevant science education research results and technology to achieve these goals.

Admittedly, the project is in its nascent stages. It has only vague notions of working together with teaching projects that already exist at UBC (like TAG and Skylight) in order to create comprehensive plans for improving the curricula of 5 or so chosen departments per year. Future fundraising is supposed to supplement this budget in order to be able to expand the project to all science departments. The basic idea is to train us science students such that we have the intellectual tools to solve the world’s big problems, and fuel its highly technical skill-reliant economy.

The way this is going to be done will be worked out on the departmental level, over the next months or year. For example, George Spiegelman is the CWSEI head for biology. Basically experts in science education will work with departments, professors, and instructors to gather data about student learning, and then develop methods, including technology (like course-specific software) to improve teaching and curricula on a per-project basis. This sounds good.

I sent an email to a few of my former professors to ask them what they thought of the initiative. Here are the two responses I got (so far):

Dr. Lacey Samuels (botany)

There are many profs and instructors in the Faculty of Science who have been attempting to use a “how-people-learn” philosophy guide our teaching strategies. We’ve been struggling to test the effectiveness of our methods, train graduate students in learning and teaching theory and practices, and working with the excellent SCLT researchers (Science Centre for Learning and Teaching). The CWSEI represents a huge boost of resources in this effort. The timing of the Initiative with respect to revisions in the Biology curriculum means that we will have the resources to evaluate the changes in the curriculum. It is pretty exciting. The timing of implementation with the budget troubles that UBC is suffering is tough.

Shona Ellis (botany)

I don’t really have much to say at this point. I think the CWSEI is very exciting. It gives us an opportunity to step back and take a look at how we are educating undergraduates (including uses of technology). In biology there was already a movement for evaluation and change, but without the funding of the CWSEI it would have been almost impossible to implement. For myself, it will be interesting to learn more about how people learn and I look forward to the opportunity to work with experts in education research. I am very optimistic about this project and I am very happy that science undergraduate education is a top priority at UBC.

Sounds like someone’s paying these ladies (/jk). I can attest to the fact that both Dr. Samuels and Shona have payed attention to how students learn. They run one of the most effective courses I’ve ever taken, Biology 210, which integrates about three (plus or minus two) phases in each lecture: a lecture, some sort of interactive question/answer, and some sort of visual picture component. Also, the combination of written overhead notes, and powerpoint pictures/visuals that the lecturers used is by far the best presentation mehtod. The marked attention this course pays to cross-referencing, sequencing and integrating the different types of course materials available (notes, pictures, text-book, lab book) in a way that makes sense was very successful, and reflects the investment of the people that build and teach the course. If this is the type of thing we’re aiming for, having the resources to make all professors more like Lacey and Shona, I’m all for it.

My critiques and comments are the following:

  • The CWSEI’s focus on technology may be misguided. There are many courses where the huge and confusing web components (be they compulsory, or merely an enormous network of resources) are pure horror. Biology 200′s massive and cyclic labyrinth of links comes to mind. Yes, it is a matter of preference, but I would rather read a sequential, story-like textbook than spend my life on webCT looking at superfluous animation links. He’s also big on clickers. Never used them, but his explanation in the podcast is fairly compelling. Also, some course-specific software (like, say, OWL) is a nightmare. These tools need to be implemented deliberately, not because of the gadget! shiny! cool! if I don’t use my budge it’ll be taken away! types of ticks scientists get.
  • The visibility of the project to students, and their participation should be emphasized. What with the budget cuts due to the deficit, and growing classes, and breaking labs, science students would like to know that this project is investing a lot of resources for their benefit.
  • Web presence: it is essential with a project such as this that people (students, other professors than the ones immediately concerned, etc) be able to stay up to date with the planning and implementation stages. With such a large budget, it would be a pity to pass up the opportunity to communicate both the process and the results of the project. It is also easy for people to become cynical about a large publicly-funded project if it has no in-depth, timely, accessible, public face.

Some links:

Carl Wieman’s not-very-grammatical powerpoint presentation
about CWSEI
Carl Wieman talking on podcast about education in 2005 (skip the first 4 minutes)
Skylight project grants – check out past successful projects to get a sense of a) the things that have improved, and b) the teachers who care about teaching


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