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Notes from Carl Wieman’s lecture at UM on March 22 March 26, 2012

Posted by aquillam in Science, teaching.
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Carl Wieman gave a lecture titled “A Scientific Approach To Science and Engineering Education” on March 22 at UofM. Here are a few of my notes from that. There was quite a bit of interesting stuff in his talk, and I’m sure I missed a lot. I missed most of the references, so if anyone reading this has those references, please share!

He started off with a statement that I liked enough to try to get it down accurately:

“It’s amazing the things you can learn if you measure them.”

STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

We need a STEM competent workforce in this country to ensure our economic future. Therefore, it is important to ensure that students are interested in STEM fields, and that they develop true competencies in the fields.

Dr. Wieman’s enlightenment came from watching his graduate students. They started in his lab without much expertise, pretty much clueless about actually doing physics. After 2 years, they were amazing. Why? He decided to approach the question like a scientist to figure it out.

There were three questions to address, which formed the structure for this lecture:

  • What is “thinking like a scientist”?
  • How is “thinking like a scientist” learned?
  • What is the evidence from the classroom that the students are learning?

What is “thinking like a scientist”?

He talked to a lot of different people first to figure out how to define “expert competence.” There were three basic principles that seemed to show up in all fields:

  • Factual knowledge about a subject
  • A mental organizational structure
  • The ability to assess own knowledge.

The mental organizational structure means that experts have some way of thinking about a subject so that the pieces all tie together. Experts can fit new knowledge into this framework (this reminded me strongly of the upper levels of most modern interpretations of Blooms taxonomy for learning.)

The ability to assess own knowledge means that the expert can judge things like whether or not their approach to solving a problem is sensible. They should also have some idea about where the holes in their knowledge are, including which holes are person knowledge and which holes are in the field.

How is “thinking like a scientist” learned?

To achieve an expert competency requires an actual physical change in the brain.

Making that change requires doing tasks that require full focus. Easier problems, even if they build on each other to become more difficult, do not force that change. The brain requires exercise just like a muscle to grow.

Students must reflect on their own learning to achieve that change. This helps them build the ability to assess their own knowledge. Teachers must be cognitive coaches, helping their students learn how to become experts.

How does all this translate to the classroom?

A typical class for Wieman looks like this:

  • pre-class reading assignment to cover the basic facts & ideas.
  • A reading quiz to check that students did the reading, and to help with retention.
  • Do not spend time going over the material in the reading.
  • In class work is built on answering questions. Some questions are posed and answered without interaction, then students work in groups of 2 – 4, then re-answer the question (I think this was done using clickers.) Some questions are posed as group tasks. Students are given a few minutes to work on the task in their groups, then each hands in his/her own solution. (I want to know how these are graded, because actually checking 200 solutions every class is a daunting task!)

Time is always left for student questions. Some of these questions can become group tasks.

The teacher still spends most of the time talking, but the talk has to be answering questions rather than lecturing. Their role is primarily reactive. They must have MUCH more expertise (if you need the “Stop Faking It” guides from the NSTA, you’re probably not ready to teach this way!)

What is the evidence from the classroom that the students are learning?
In physics, there is the Force Concept Inventory, which has been used extensively since the 1990s (see Hake or Green.) There are similar concept inventory tests in Biology that have a long history and wide use. These studies show remarkable gains in learning using these interactive techniques.

In “Students’ beliefs about conceptual knowledge in introductory physics” D Hammer found that traditional classes leave students thinking LESS like experts than when they entered the class. Specifically, students seemed less inclined to think that different parts of physics were tied together (so thinking chapter 1 has nothing to do with chapter 5.) Also, students had less of a belief that physics describes the real world. (I haven’t had time to look at the paper, but you can access it through jstor at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3233679 )

Focusing on the process of doing science has a huge positive gain in perceptions about science and its relation to the real world. (I thought about this during Derick Pitts lecture when he mentioned the need to tell a story with the digital planetarium – we need to tell the story of science with our teaching, not hand the students a bucket o’ facts.)

Finally, what every teacher should know:

  • - Apply what is learned
  • - Connect with prior thinking
  • - know what motivates students (be a coach!)

Once students develop expert competence, they not only think in a different way, they don’t remember their prior thinking (in other words, it’s to recognize how much you’ve learned!) In some cases, they won’t even believe that people could think that way!

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