Meeting with Carl Wieman at Stanford University

As part of my Bay Area trip, I had the opportunity to meet with Carl Wieman, Nobel laureate from 2001 in Physics at Stanford University. Carl is a person who has embodied the teacher scholar ideal better than perhaps anyone – with his ground-breaking research in Bose-Einstein condensates, which won the Nobel Prize, and his Wieman Science Education initiatives at University of Colorado, Boulder, and at University of British Columbia. In both universities, he was able to develop dramatically improved learning gains in physics, and to foster dramatic changes in pedagogy. His initiatives are intended to both develop advances in student learning through more active pedagogies, and on-line simulations, and to advance educational research through thorough assessments of teaching practices, and gains in conceptual thinking and proficiency in students.

Carl had visited Pomona College previously, when I was a younger faculty member, as part of an external review team in 2002. At that time he was able to highlight some key areas of strength in our department and some areas that needed improvement. I was grateful to the external review team as they helped us hire some key new people at Pomona, and helped shift our department toward a more responsive form of pedagogy in many of our classes.

My visit to Carl also gave a chance to revisit Stanford where I was a student in the 1980’s. At that time, Stanford was not known for its excellence in teaching, but rather for its research and Carl’s arrival to Stanford comes after decades of discussions about teaching and curriculum that have dramatically improved some aspects of Stanford’s undergraduate experience. The Stanford SUES report on Undergraduate Education from 2012, the development of new programs and positions such as the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education (Harry Elam), and the Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning (John Mitchell), new online education efforts, the Institute of Design or, and the Thinking Matters courses  all have made a big impression on the higher education community. I was very interested in learn more about the state of Stanford in light of these changes, and some of Carl’s ideas for his newest role, as a joint appointment in Physics and Education at Stanford.



Carl Wieman

I asked Carl about how places like Stanford and Yale-NUS can best design a new curriculum. Carl noted that often there is a “disconnect” between curriculum design and pedagogy – leading to many problems. He indicated that it is not enough to design the content of the course (which is the more common and easy discussion) but to design the course, and the curriculum, and the spaces around more active and engaged pedagogy. Carl also was eager to try to connect some of the Thinking Matters courses together and link them to new ways of teaching.  Carl noted that “No data shows that changing curriculum causes vast changes. But we do have that data on changing how things are taught” – and he indicated that this is what changes how well students learn.
Carl is also eager to see large Research Universities include more emphasis on teaching as an incentive for faculty to take more time to develop their skills.  He is eager to get beyond teaching evaluations to more thoughtful ways of assessing how people teach, and then use these assessments as a way of both improving teaching at the university, and incentivising faculty to upgrade their teaching practice.  He is a big advocate of a new instrument he developed, known as The Teaching Practices Inventory.  This is a tool for collecting how people are teaching in a short objective way. Then once an institution has this information they can use the data to see and extend the use of use of practices that are known to be more effective. Carl argued that this method of evaluating teaching is very similar to evaluating research on the basis of grants and publications. Just as an institution will have faculty go for a peer review every 5 years or so for research, he would like to see this kind of peer review implemented as a robust way of assessing teaching.
He would like to build a meaningful incentive system for effective teaching, and then build in the faculty support needed to help them do this. Carl points out that it is relatively easy to measure teaching practices, but much harder to measure student learning outcomes, and the Teaching Practice Inventory enables a quantitative measure that is a proxy for teaching quality, as one piece of the teaching review.  Carl described two of his big experiments in institutional change – at University of British Columbia and at University of Colorado, Boulder. He pointed out that at Colorado 75% of faculty changed how they taught, which to his knowledge is the biggest change ever, amounting to 15,000 credit hours per year. The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative starts by assessing how people are teaching, with the teaching practices inventory, and also assesses both what faculty and students are doing in classrooms, using a protocol Carl invented known as the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS). The training of faculty and postdocs all emphasises what Carl sometimes calls “the holy trinity” – knowing what students should learn from learning objectives that are assessable, being aware of which instructional approaches improve learning, and assessing student learning (and teaching) thoroughly, and adapting and adjusting approaches based on this information. Below are two illustrations giving examples of his approach from a UBC web site.

Carl noted that any kind of educational reform effort at a university has to make use of the most important unit in the research organization – the department – and there is an expertise there, and a culture that has to be leveraged and respected. The trick to Carl’s reform effort at UBC and at Colorado was to base “Science Educational Specialists” in departments. The departments would hire people typically with PhDs in the field, who were more interested in a career in education. These Science Education Specialists would then be trained by Carl’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, and bring back their techniques to the department, where hey were based.  He indicated that for a thorough reform of a large institution like UBC or Colorado it was necessary to have 1-2 postdocs imbedded in each department, over a period of about 5 years. Many of these postdocs could then be hired as faculty in a Teaching Track to help continue the reform for a longer term impact.
Carl indicated that this model of imbedded educational specialists, is something like how IT is supported on campus; many departments hire people with these specialized skills so that faculty members don’t have to be experts, but will have to have specialized people to ask questions about pedagogy. This model is one that can complement a Center for Teaching and Learning, and help develop faculty teaching expertise from within their departments.  The interview was very interesting – and I hope to bring back some of Carl’s tips to my Center at Yale-NUS, where we are in the process of hiring a new postdoctoral educational researcher who might be able to do the sort of work that Carl’s Science Initiatives have enabled at UBC, Colorado and now Stanford!


shifts in faculty teaching practices at UBC after the CWSEI



Leave a Reply