Friday, January 22, 2010

Carl Wieman and learning science

This will be the second non-Fourier post I will write, and again I apologize. Who knew that writing a thesis and applying for jobs was so demanding? The subject of this post is learning and teaching science. This week, we had Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman visiting Yale, and he gave two great talks on research people have done on how students actually learn science. Professor Wieman has been applying scientific methods to scientific learning for some time now, and among other things, he writes a blog about it.

One of the more interesting conclusions is that the standard lecture format of undergraduate courses is poorly matched to the way people actually learn and retain scientific understanding - in fact, often students come out of these classes thinking more like a "novice" scientist than when they started. By novice, I mean the following: there are certain ways that an expert in a scientific field thinks about that field that are very different from the way a novice thinks about that field. For example, a novice believes that scientific content consists of isolated pieces of information that have been handed down by some authority and require memorization. An expert believes that scientific content consists of a coherent structure of concepts that build on each other, being accurate descriptions of nature and established by experiment. Sad to say, but students coming out of intro science classes are even more likely to believe that science is bits of memorization based on nothing more than faith, as opposed to a coherent argument based on reality.

These results resonated with me, because in this blog, I've tried to emphasize how one builds to a conclusion (like "dark matter exists") from a variety of physical observations and theories (like the 20 posts that followed my original three). I'm sure that sometimes (often?) I fail in communicating this key point about the way I look at physics, but that is ultimately the goal of this blog. And when I start writing it again regularly, I'll try not to forget that.

Finally, Wieman and his group have developed a series of simulations for students to play with that really demonstrate key concepts of physics. One example that caught my eye is something that I tried to explain in a post a few months ago, the photoelectric effect. If a reader really wants to understand what I was trying to say in that post, I highly recommend trying out Wieman's simulation, located here. Especially you, mom (although she's currently in India right now, and therefore not reading this blog at all. By the time she gets back, I'll be writing more regularly...)


  1. If you liked Carl Wieman's presentation, you should also check out Eric Mazur.

    I saw both of them speak at McGill... for some reason I liked Mazur's approach better, though they're talking about the same thing.

  2. Carl Wieman is among the first people that showed how science perpetuates itself purely through it, he's a visionary in my book. Great article

  3. Mr Wieman concept is very helpful who want to learn science. You will understand it well to his good examples. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Carl Wieman is one of the best teacher in Science. I saw his blog and it is all about scientific method and scientific learning. You will learn a lot to his blog.

  5. Inspiring article. Thanks for sharing.