Science Education May Not Be Rocket Science, Wieman Tells Senate

NASA has the right stuff for space exploration, says Carl Wieman, the Nobelist who President Obama has tapped to oversee the Administration’s heightened effort to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. But it may not be the best classroom teacher.

The extent to which federal agencies should be involved in STEM education is a perennial issue. The National Science Foundation has traditionally supported the most research in the field, but more than a dozen agencies have a slice of a $3.5 billion pie.

Appearing today before the Senate commerce committee as the nominee for associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Wieman was asked if NASA should play a bigger role in the federal effort to raise student achievement and produce a better-trained workforce. He politely but firmly suggested that NASA stick to what it does best—sending astronauts and scientific instruments into the heavens.

“I think the answer to that is unclear,” Wieman told Senator Mark Pryor (D–AR), who was filling in for the panel’s chairman, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D–WV). “NASA has a unique role in inspiring people. I wanted to be an astronaut as a child. And there’s something really dramatic about rockets blasting into outer space. But at the same time NASA does not bring much expertise to exactly what’s critical to achieving learning in science and engineering.”

Wieman knows of what he speaks. In parallel with his Nobel-winning research on lasers that led to the discovery of a new state of matter called Bose-Einstein condensates, Wieman has spent 2 decades studying how students learn and how to train teachers to be more effective. And for several years he has chaired the Board on Science Education at the National Academies’ National Research Council, which reviewed NASA’s education programs and found them wanting.

“It was clear that they needed to be looking a lot harder at accountability and what was really working and whether they were really being guided by the best understanding of STEM education,” he told the committee about the findings from the 2008 report. “So I think it would be best to have them focus on what they are uniquely good at.”

Wieman was the only one throwing punches, if gentle ones, at the hearing, which was attended by only Pryor and Tom Udall (D-NM). Eschewing the panel’s normal role as inquisitor, Pryor’s first question was a polite, “Can you tell us about your research, and what a Bose-Einstein condensate is?” Wieman’s expertise in science education was also taken as a given by the panel. “Carl knows better than anyone [else] how to improve STEM education,” asserted Senator Mark Udall (D–CO), in introducing the nominee.

Wieman told the committee that he had been recruited for the job by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a fellow laser jock and Nobelist, who sold him on the idea of public service. “He contacted me late last summer,” Wieman told ScienceInsider after the hearing. And Wieman says he’s eager to get started. With no opposition in sight, the only delay is the Senate itself, where nearly 100 nominees are pending confirmation votes.