Wieman Tells Senators What Doesn't Work in STEM Education

Getting it right. Carl Wieman has led efforts to improve undergraduate science.

White House Office of Science & Technology Policy

The physics Nobelist who recently stepped down as point person for the Obama Administration's efforts to improve U.S. science education told Congress yesterday that many federally funded programs don't draw upon current research about how people learn and, therefore, haven't managed to boost student achievement.

Carl Wieman, the former associate director for science within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), gave a blistering critique of the state of science and math education during a hearing by the Senate's commerce and science committee. The hearing reviewed progress under the America COMPETES Act, a 2007 law covering research and education programs at several federal agencies that was updated in 2010 and is set to expire next year.

This was the first appearance on Capitol Hill by Wieman since he left OSTP in June to deal with a serious health issue. But he has remained active in reforming science education through the eponymous institute at the University of British Columbia that he directs and the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he began his work in the late 1990s. His testimony drew on an article he wrote about applying new research to improve science education that appears next week in Issues in Science and Technology, a quarterly publication of the U.S. National Academies.

"There has been very little change in the level of interest in STEM or the mastery of STEM subjects by U.S. students in the past few decades," Wieman testified before the same panel that had approved his OSTP nomination in 2010. The lack of progress, he told Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller (D-WV), who chaired the hearing, is due to the way most teachers are trained and most students are taught.

"The mastery of science and math is not a matter of simply transferring knowledge into the brain, which is the traditional model," Wieman explained. "Rather, such learning and expertise is a response to strenuous practice."

Effective STEM teaching, he said, "is a lot like effective coaching. First, the coach figures out the central skills needed, creates challenging practicing activities that the players carry out, motivates them to achieve that level of expertise, and offers frequent and targeted instruction. All these techniques apply to teaching STEM. … This approach has been demonstrated, but it's profoundly different than what is found in the typical K-12 or college classroom."

Wieman told the committee that "powerful, vested interests" on college campuses discourage the adoption of new ways to teach science and train future science teachers, saying that most universities place a higher priority on research productivity than on student learning. He also questioned the value of federally funded scholarship programs for students hoping to become STEM teachers, saying that they simply reinforce existing approaches that are not effective. And he said that professional development for teachers already in the classroom is based on the flawed premise that teachers who haven't learned the needed skills during college can somehow acquire them through some type of "voluntary, intermittent, after-hours activity."

His sharp words created the only buzz in an otherwise routine hearing about how federal support for science can bolster the U.S. economy. Citing the current budget crisis, Senator John Thune (R-SD) wanted to know if, based on Wieman's critique, "the dollars being spent by the federal government to improve STEM education are being wasted."

Wieman initially recoiled from the question, saying that "it's a sweeping statement to say they are being wasted. And many of the dollars are being well-spent." But he repeated his objections to some activities, saying that "there is also a lot [of money] that could be spent better."

Rockefeller also referenced upcoming budget battles by predicting that the next version of the COMPETES Act "will probably [contain] a cut" in programs now authorized under the current legislation, which expires on 30 September 2013. A strong backer of the law, Rockefeller called it "a last stand in taking global competitiveness seriously." And he implored all the witnesses, who included former Lockheed Martin Corp. CEO Norman Augustine and Microsoft research chief Peter Lee, to "tell me why it's important that COMPETES be fully funded."