NPR’s Eric Westervelt Talks with Carl Wieman about His New Book

Published: 06-13-2017
Fellow Adjoint Carl Wieman

NPR’s education reporter Eric Westervelt is excited about Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman’s passion for transforming how undergraduate science courses are taught. On June 7, 2017, Westervelt talked with Wieman about his new book Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative, which was published by Harvard University Press in May of 2017.

Wieman’s message is that universities should do away with lectures in undergraduate science courses and replace them with active learning methods. Instruction based on active learning substantially improves understanding and retention of complicated material. Plus, students attend more classes and get more out of their classroom experiences. Armed with data to prove that he’s right about the effectiveness of active learning methods, Wieman is determined to convince universities across the nation to give up on the lecture method of teaching science to undergraduates.

The lecture system “grew up haphazardly,” Wieman explained during the interview. “Really it grew before the printing press was invented, and the structures––like the lecture––were how to transmit information to people who didn’t have books.”

Wieman said his research showed that lectures actually circumvent the way the brain processes and learns new information. During a lecture, information just flows by and students typically retain only about 10% of what they hear. And, to make matters worse, many students these days are busy with cell phone apps as the information flies by. Another problem is that universities often value faculty research accomplishments far more than teaching skills.

Westervelt first spoke with Wieman on NPR about improving science teaching in universities on April 14, 2016. That program was entitled “A Nobel Laureate’s Education Plea: Revolutionize Teaching,” In that interview, Westervelt said that Wieman believed that, “the college lecture is the educational equivalent of bloodletting, one long overdue for revision.”

Carl Wieman began his research on undergraduate science education while a Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and a Fellow of JILA. Wieman joined the University of British Columbia in 2007 and moved to Stanford University in 2013, where he is Professor of Physics and Professor of the Graduate School of Education. Wieman is a Fellow Adjoint of JILA.