Science 19 April 2013:
Vol. 340 no. 6130 pp. 292-296
Special Issue News

Transformation Is Possible if a University Really Cares

Jeffrey Mervis | 3 Comments

The same attention to scientific detail that led to his Nobel Prize is helping Carl Wieman improve how undergraduates learn science.

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From the giant squid axon to the complexities of the human brain, all learning occurs through repetition and association. What Dr. Wieman and Ericcson describes below is and could be accomplished a series of hands-on laboratories using the scientific method and generation of (mini) scientific articles in which directly related information from the text, notes, class discussions, on-line materials, and the literature are applied to further knowledge and understanding. Our students form hypotheses and collect data in groups of 4 with instructor supervision in my classes.

This is a model that worked in American Universities for many decades until the last 20-25 years (outside UG engineering), when we abandoned real hands on laboratories and lab reports.

My daughter is now a college student and I cringe when I see how online homework platforms and materials are (mis)used.

"Instead, faculty members must interact with hundreds of students in a large hall. Most choose to do that via a lecture. But research has shown that most students cling to their misconceptions even after sitting through a brilliant lecture.

What works better than lectures and homework problems, according to numerous studies, is having students work in small teams with instructors who can help them apply those basic concepts to real-life situations. But what's the best way to implement active, student-centered learning? The answer, Wieman decided, lay in melding it with the concept of deliberate practice.

That idea, developed by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University in Tallahassee, treats the brain as a muscle that must be exercised to perform at its peak. It's how a novice becomes an expert, whether in music, sports, or science. "We have learned that complex expertise is a matter not of filling up an existing brain with knowledge, but of brain development," Wieman says.

Deliberate practice, Wieman wrote in the fall 2012 issue of Issues in Science and Technology, "involves the learner solving a set of tasks or problems that are challenging but doable and that involve explicitly practicing the appropriate expert thinking and performance." The teacher, or coach, offers appropriate incentives to encourage students to master the necessary skills, as well as continuous feedback to help them remain on task. As with any sport, he notes, "[t]housands of hours of deliberate practice are typically required to reach an elite level of performance."

Submitted on Thu, 05/16/2013 - 14:11

“Transformation is possible …” (April 19) contains ideas for improvement, but the suggestions should not be framed as a response to the accusation that the US has been failing in science education:

“…. universities are squandering talent at a time when U.S. higher education is being criticized for not turning out enough science-savvy graduates to keep the country competitive” (p. 292).

There is good evidence that this accusation is false: There is no evidence that American science education is failing and no evidence that we face a shortage of qualified STEM professionals.

American students are doing well not only in science and math but in other subjects as well. Our unspectacular scores on international tests are because we have so many students living in poverty, 23%, the second-highest among all industrialized countries. When researchers control for poverty, American international test scores are at the top of the world. In fact, middle class American students in well-funded schools outscore students in nearly all other countries on international tests. Poverty means poor nutrition, poor health care, and little access to books: All of these have powerful effects on school performance.

The US produces more top science students than other countries: On the 2006 PISA math and science tests, 60,000 American students scored in the top category, compared to 34,000 Japanese students. Also, American students are taking more math and science than the economy needs: In 2007, 30% of college-bound high-school seniors had taken calculus, but only 5% of new openings require a math/science background.

According to Rutgers Professor Hal Salzman, there is no shortage of science and technology graduates. In fact, Salzman has concluded that there are two to three qualified graduates for each science/tech opening. Studies have also shown the US is producing more Ph.D.s in science than the market can absorb.

There is good evidence that contrary to popular opinion, we are turning out more than enough “science-savvy graduates.”

Submitted on Mon, 05/06/2013 - 02:46

While one can only applaud Professor Wieman's advocacy of more effective science education, he and other disciples of "scientific teaching" largely ignore how the organization of course and curricular materials impact learning. While alternatives to lecturing are well established as being effective in many contexts, all too often the implementation of a "recipe" takes the place of a self-critical, reflective, and cooperative analysis of how courses and curricula are designed. Asking instructors to report on how they teach without actually monitoring what students have learned is absurd. What is clear is that assessing meaningful learning outcomes is not trivial and involves more than multiple choice questions.

Submitted on Fri, 04/19/2013 - 10:55