A review of Carl Wieman’s latest book on Science Education

Carl Wieman's "Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative" book coverA review of “Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative,” by Carl Wieman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Based on the title, and Wieman’s reputation in the field, my expectations were that this would be a book about using best practices for teaching science at the undergraduate level, and lots of data – both quantitative and qualitative – to back up the conclusions. I was disappointed to discover that I was mistaken. Instead, more than anything, it is the story of Wieman’s magnum opus in science education, the Science Education Initiative. Wieman takes us through the trials and tribulations of trying to scale science education reform at both the University of Colorado and the University of British Columbia. And, he’s pretty clear about the fact that it turned out to be a far more difficult task than he expected. That surprised me. I couldn’t help but think of President Trump’s infamous statement, “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.” Apparently, Wieman didn’t know that science education reform could be so complicated. He does now.

In fact, that was the real power of the book for me. It’s a classic case study that demonstrates just how difficult it is to transform the deeply entrenched people and practices we often find in higher ed. Wieman is very blunt, and sometimes tedious, in describing the barriers, pitfalls, and occasional sabotage (both active and passive) that met his efforts. I would have thought that as a physicist, and long-time academic, he would have heard the one about Inertium – the imaginary element responsible for bogging down all change in a sea of academic bureaucracy. Unfortunately, it was a painful learning experience, even for a Nobel laureate. It was especially hard on the many project team members who quit in complete frustration.

What about the actual reforms, themselves? Well, while Wieman is occasionally self-congratulatory concerning the methods he brings to light, I didn’t find much that was new here. The project – to its merit – focuses on active learning and the instructional strategies that promote it. And, in all honesty, Wieman does a service to bring attention to these long studied, evidence-based approaches of which many faculty members are completely unaware. That’s hard, important work, but it’s not innovation.

The project promoted the “discipline-based science education” model. In this model, research is focused on pedagogical content knowledge, connecting specific discipline knowledge with the most effective pedagogy to teach it. Again, important, but not new. What the project did contribute is a particular approach to changing faculty teaching. It’s the same model that has been adopted by Pitt’s own dB-SERC. In short, faculty members apply for grants to transform individual courses using evidence-based methods. The desired goals are improved learning outcomes and the permanent adoption of the new methods. In addition, instructors create materials that can be shared with their colleagues to spread the new approach widely.

Unfortunately, the project’s outcomes were mixed. Learning outcomes were not always improved. Wieman even acknowledges that he doesn’t think most of the positive results will outlive the funding. In addition, the idea of broad impact through sharing didn’t really happen. What is most concerning is that no significant data around the successes was collected. In other words, while the project members strived to push evidence-based teaching approaches, they failed to demonstrate that their own model works. It’s a painful irony.

Finally, the actual “how-to” part of implementing course transformations are relegated to the appendices. In a very long (nearly 60 pages!) Appendix 1, Wieman spells out all the practical steps that I had expected to be the heart of the book. It’s a very nice compilation but, again, I was hard pressed to find anything new or innovative.

So, in conclusion, it’s my opinion that Wieman’s book tells a story of the difficulties inherent in trying to implement change at a major university, and it’s something I truly empathize with. However, it’s not a book about innovative faculty development or science education transformation, and I wouldn’t recommend it as such. Nevertheless, it may still have some value in this area. I think it is possible that because of Wieman’s stature, and his advocacy of discipline-based science education, this book would have an appeal to STEM faculty. If the book can be used as a tool to reach some science faculty who would otherwise not give this topic serious consideration, I would take that as a win.

Key Points:

  • Transformation of Science Education at large, established research institutions is extremely difficult.
  • As a physicist and Nobel Laureate, Wieman has the potential to reach a particular audience – STEM faculty – who might otherwise fail to engage with the topic of science education transformation.
  • Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) strongly supports student focused, active learning strategies and best practices such as:
    1. Developing Learning Outcomes
    2. Using Course Alignment Model
    3. Formative Evaluation
    4. In-class Group Work
    5. Peer-to-peer Discussion
    6. Hands-on Activities
  • The Science Education Initiative (SEI) promoted existing, effective educational approaches, but did not contribute any new or innovative teaching strategies.
  • The SEI model – small, individual faculty grants to transform individual courses – was not validated as an effective reform strategy.

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