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Carl Wieman

© Noah Berger

Carl Wieman Takes Physics, Education Jobs at Stanford

Carl Wieman’s crusade to improve undergraduate science education is now based at Stanford University.

The physics Nobelist and former White House science education czar has been named a faculty member in both the physics department and Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The joint appointments, effective 1 September, give Wieman an academic perch to take his research on learning in new directions while continuing to incorporate those insights into the classroom.

Wieman joined the Obama administration in 2010 from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada. He and his wife, Sarah Gilbert, led an eponymous institute there that worked with several science departments to transform their undergraduate courses by changing the department’s approach to teaching. One outcome of that project is a compilation of effective teaching practices that correlate with improved student performance. The checklist is available in survey form on the institute’s website.

Wieman says that his new job will let him “spend my time on things that I personally find a lot more fun and satisfying” than his 2-year stint at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In that post, which he left abruptly in June 2012 to battle multiple myeloma, his attempts to reshape the $3-billion-a-year federal investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education faced significant opposition. At both UBC and the White House, he says he was “trying to find ways to get people to do things they did not want to do.” Those efforts, he adds, “may have been necessary, but they were not much fun.”

Those two experiences, he says, “have earned me the right to be more selfish” in his professional life. In particular, that means conducting research on how students learn and applying those lessons to individual courses in specific fields. “This work involves thinking about interesting intellectual problems, working with good students and collaborators, and writing papers,” he says.

These academic pursuits don’t mean a complete withdrawal from the frontlines of education policymaking, however. “I will continue to advocate for the adoption of effective teaching practices and give advice to institutions that want it on how they can improve their STEM teaching,” he says.