Dr. Carl Wieman Speaks!

On Friday I sat down with Nobel-laureate in physics, Dr. Carl Wieman to ask about the 12 million dollar science education initiative he’s heading up at UBC to improve undergraduate courses for the science masses. I wrote a post about the basics of the initiative earlier, so I won’t repeat them now. You can find that post, and some relevant links here (click!).

Listen to the interview here (click!)

The main thing to notice is this: The funding and implementation is through the departments. This means that departments have the key power to organize and prioritize the money as they wish, with guidance from Dr. Weiman and education experts they may decide to hire, which he would train and reference with. Neither Wieman, nor individual instructors are the heroes of this initiative, but the departments themselves (or whatever their consensus or leadership decides) will be determining the direction of the spending.

I had some thoughts about Dr. Wieman and the initiative after our interview, which I’d like to put out there:

The man is assiduously, zealously, diplomatic. You may notice in the interview that Dr. Wieman doesn’t give a straight answer to whether there’s an education quality problem at UBC. He often defers to the Departments, instead of asserting his experiences or ideas. He answered several of my questions with vague observations like, “we must first ask what we want and then…”. These responses are quite practical, when you get down to it: he shouldn’t tax the sensetivities of the VP academic, he cannot force the hand of departments, and yes, setting goals and research questions is crucial. Indeed, Dr. Wieman knows that he must work within the department structure of the University, and he’s embracing that. Fashioning himself as a revolutionary with all the answers will not help his vision come about, and he knows it. But don’t be fooled. For all the hedging, Dr. Wieman has a vision – it’s just tempered by familiarity of university realpolitik. This vision stems from the realization that the democratization of higher education, and the reality of larger classes and reduced teacher-student interaction implicit in it, create unique challenges. Dr. Wieman’s thesis is that with this reality, the only realistic way to cultivate the meaningful interactions and problem-solving challenges which are tied to “expert-like” learning results is through the adoption of researched, proven information technology.

I simply hope, that when the department implementation process gets to the nitty-gritty, that Dr. Weiman will be there. His austere replies in the interview may almost have convinced you that he actually doesn’t have specific ideas, or any over-arching vision. He does. I’m confident that he has the political gumption to bust these out when it matters the most, in each departmental decision-making conversation.

All that said, personally, I’m not sold on the technology fetish. Yes, Dr. Wieman is highly conservative, and very careful about his uses of these technologies. He stresses that they should only be used if they’ve been tested to work, in the correct context in the courses. Still, I keep going back to the OWL example: OWL is an interactive program used in Chem 233 that has animation-based organic chemistry teaching modules, problem sets, and quizzes that allow you to manipulate chemical compounds using shockwave software. OWL is meant to be a significant part of this course, and is even worth a toothsome morsel of the course grade. Nonetheless, the division is clear: some people loved OWL (either because it’s easy marks, or because they actually got something out of it) and some people (me) hated it, and preferred loosing marks than wasting their time doing detestable tasks that didn’t help them learn at all. The thing is, there will always be that issue. There will always be students that don’t get along with staring at a screen to learn, preferring to hit the books, and there will be those that will. That’s why I’m just not sure that out-of-classroom software is the be-all end-all of making students learn better.

I’d like more of of a focus on improving the quality of lectures themselves. Lectures are still important, and they CAN be done well. The lecture has taken a lot of flak as an inherently awful format, but this really needn’t be the case. A well-structured lecture can be very effective in ordering, prioritizing, and explaining material, even if it’s not the best at imparting problem-solving ability or deep conceptual understanding.

For an interesting read, check out Dr. Wieman’s report on “The Optimized University” that he prepared for the BC government’s Campus 2020 post-secondary education review here (click!).

This is the picture I took on my walk home the moment after I realized that I’d forgotten to take a picture of my handsome interviewee. Vancouver city-hall for you, therefore.


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