Faces of the Foundation: Carl Wieman

April 23, 2018
Bennett McIntosh
Livermore, Calif

In the spring of 2009, Carl Wieman presented a novel vision of science education to the Hertz Fellows gathered in Santa Clara for the Hertz Foundation’s 2009 symposium. The Hertz Fellow, Stanford Professor, and Nobel Laureate opened with a note of humility:

“You shouldn’t pay any attention to what I have to say just because I have a Nobel Prize,” he said. “Nobel Prize winners probably have stronger opinions and louder opinions than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. You should pay attention to what I say because it is supported by lots of data.”

Indeed, Wieman has spent decades gathering evidence that the lecture, “where the instructor is essentially a talking textbook,” is a fundamentally flawed method of science education. Instead, he advocates “active learning,” a framework where instructors watch and intercede in students’ problem-solving processes. Whether it takes the form of “clickers” to check student’s understanding during discussion, or instructor-led problem-solving sessions, active learning keeps students interested in the learning process.

Wieman says his educational work was inspired by his decades of atomic physics research, including the work that would lead to his Nobel Prize. “All my experiments are small tabletop experiments, where I was working closely with students, so I paid a lot of attention to their development as researchers,” he says. “There was a lot of research on teaching and learning physics at the time, so I got interested in that and started doing my own experiments, so for many years I had these parallel research groups.”

Wieman built his physics career off of building lasers whose output and frequency he could very precisely control, and then using them to measure electron energy states in atoms. Such precise measurements during his Hertz Fellowship at Stanford provided data essential to the continued development of the quantum treatment of electromagnetism (called quantum electrodynamics, or QED). After his PhD, at the University of Michigan and then at JILA – a joint institute between the University of Colorado and NIST – he continued developing more and more precise measurements of so-called parity violations in hydrogen and cesium atoms, helping provide the experimental grounding for linking electromagnetism with another fundamental force, the weak nuclear force.

The work that would win the Nobel started almost as a side project, as he experimented with diode lasers, a technology far cheaper than the tunable dye lasers he had built his career on. To demonstrate their use, he began using the lasers to control atoms’ movement, cooling them to less than a thousandth of a degree above absolute zero. “You could do laser cooling with $100 lasers instead of $100,000 lasers,” he says. “It really opened up the whole cold atom field.”

With his post-doc and then collaborator Eric Cornell, Wieman showed that the lasers – and some magnetic tricks to remove the hottest atoms – could cool rubidium atoms to about one six-millionth of a degree above absolute zero, condensing them into a new state of matter, called Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) for the physicists who had theorized that it could exist more than seven decades before. The condensate vanished after a few seconds, but in the world of atomic physics, this is stable enough to recreate and study.

Wieman considers this stability “lucky,” since the best theories about BEC had attached a 10,000-fold uncertainty to the substance’s stability. “It could very easily have vanished before we could do anything with it,” he says.

For years, Wieman had maintained a second research group in science education methods at the University of Colorado, steadily adding to the body of research showing that active learning was far superior to lecture methods. He’d had less success in convincing schools to change how they taught – until 2001. “People started paying attention to me after I won the Nobel Prize.”

“There were now countless people jumping into Bose-Einstein Condensation,” Wieman said, “So I saw that if I worked really hard I could do something three or four months before someone else. But on the education side, there were all these individual experiments looking at how to improve on the lecture, but nobody was looking at how to scale it up.”

Backed by the gravitas of the Nobel – and, more importantly, decades of experience and research into effective teaching – Wieman began looking for institutions where he could focus less on atomic physics research and more on how science was taught. In 2007, he moved to the University of British Columbia to become the founding director of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, helping UBC’s science departments redesign their educational programs to implement concepts from active learning. Students are able to escape the confines of a lecture, learning from and alongside their peers and facilitated by instructors with expertise both in the field and in educational techniques.

In the last decade, Wieman has helped many other departments carry out similar changes, and he’s confident the improvement is only beginning. “When the students take these courses, and then go back to the lecture course and say ‘what a waste of time,’” he says, “that’s going to drive more change.”