Kudos are due for physicist Carl Wieman. Not because he is a Nobel laureate, or a member of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy staff. Or because he published the results of a quasi-experimental study of undergraduate teaching and learning in Science this week. He deserves credit for all of this combined.
He and his collaborators conducted an experiment in active learning that engaged students, using a collaborative approach called "deliberative practice." Those exposed only to the tried-and-true lecture model scored half as well, in the aggregate, on a test of knowledge learned.
For those in the STEM education community, the results have been greeted with a range of responses. Academic methodologists have bemoaned the lack of a rigorous control group, learning researchers have hailed the results: engage students and the science will come alive, make sense, simulate the processes that thousands of practicing researchers experience each day.
Clearly, it's not a perfect experiment. The lessons of this study need to be replicated with better samples and a cleaner design. Faculty must be induced to break decades-old habits and try something new. The science community needs to walk the talk on how research informs and enriches pedagogy. (The last physicist Nobel laureate to try this was Leon Lederman, who focused on K-12 teachers.)
The reality is that if Wieman were neither a laureate nor a federal staffer (at the moment), this study would have been consigned to the archive read by a specialist community. The world would not have taken notice.
There is a familiar principle at stake here. It's the context that matters, the who and not the how or why. Scientists have been experimenting in the classroom for decades, focusing on pedagogical techniques and "professional development" (a term reviled by most Ph.D.s). The problem is scale: how to take what works and spread it to new sites and populations. Science does not do this well, as the K-12 reform efforts of the past 30 years attest.
Thank you Dr. Wieman, for uniting elements that are hard to ignore -- even if they lack the pristine qualities that would satisfy a host of STEM practitioners. Better to be daring and flawed than uninspiring and unfulfilled. The next generation still depends on the creativity and experimental spirit of this generation. That, too, should be a principal of STEM education at all levels.