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Q&A: Yidan Prize winner Carl Wieman talks disparities in STEM, education accessibility

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Education and physics professor Carl Wieman won the Yidan Prize for Education Research on Sept. 23 in honor of his work creating new strategies for undergraduate STEM education. Wieman also won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work in physics. Much of his current research focuses on undergraduate science education. 

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: What excites you about your work in education? 

Carl Wieman [CW]: This is really a pivotal time, historically, in education. For the past few thousand years, the view of education has been that you’ve got a bunch of people sitting out there and education is the wise person spewing out information that’s remembered by those people, the learners. What my work and others have shown is that we need to think of educational activities that have learners really practicing the thinking that you want them to get better at. The research is showing us tremendous opportunities to make progress.

TSD: Your work on Physics Education Technology Project (PhET) Interactive Simulations, was a part of your efforts being honored through the Yidan award. Can you explain what the PhET project is?

CW: It’s online interactive simulations, so it sort of takes the mental model that scientists have for thinking about different phenomena and puts them into the computer. For example, there’s one [module] where you can build little electric circuits and so you can hook up light bulbs and switches and stuff like that. And you can see what happens now when you add more voltage or you make the wires longer and you open the switch up. 

We built a bunch of these simulations, and they’re quite an effective learning tool because they bring in new capabilities that you just don’t have [in the classroom]. They also have a big advantage over any other educational media like a lecture or textbook or even static figures in that they work effectively over a much wider range of preparation. The simulations are used about a million times a day.

Under COVID, there’s been a big jump in their use because everybody’s desperate to find online things to teach. So, it’s very extensively used all over the world. It’s translated in 80 languages and covers physics, chemistry and some biology.

I was so naive when I started this. I thought, you know, you do a program, you put it on the web and it’s all done. But when you’ve got things that are being used a million times a day on many different platforms, they’re just really expensive and need a lot of coding time, and that’s a lot of upkeep. 

TSD: A lot of your work in education helps make introductory STEM material more accessible to undergraduate students. How do disparities in fundamental STEM knowledge interact with this question of accessibility?

CW: Students come into Stanford, and they’ve all done wonderful things, and a bunch of them want to go into STEM careers. And basically, if they haven’t gone to a wealthy high school, they’re very likely to not be successful. The introductory chemistry and physics courses are made, sort of, to be optimized for the people who have the very strongest preparation, but not-very-wealthy school districts means you probably had a pretty lousy physics teacher, because there’s just not that many good physics teachers. And you maybe didn’t have any AP courses, or if you did, they were taught really badly. 

You come in, and you’re a year behind, and the course is such that you’re going to do terrible. Then you can’t go into engineering. You’ll switch to some other fields. The program is just really discriminatory, frankly. 

TSD: What can be done to address these knowledge disparities?

CW: People just have to recognize that it really is a question of who’s been educationally privileged, and how you should be optimizing your teaching resources and curriculum to serve the whole population as opposed to thinking, “No, these [gifted students] are special and important, so I should neglect the others. They’re hopeless.” Because they’re not hopeless. They had one crummy physics teacher — that shouldn’t determine the rest of their life.

TSD: What does the Yidan award mean for you and your work?

CW: The money is really nice, because this PhET project is really expensive. It’s always nice to have your work appreciated and honored. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Contact Kirsten Mettler at kmettler ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Kirsten Mettler '23 writes satire and opinions for the Daily. She is interested in political science, law and justice, and occasionally dabbles in theater.