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Stanford professor awarded $4 million prize for education research

Photo of Carl Wieman
Carl Wieman (Photo: Andrew Brodhead)

Stanford professor awarded $4 million prize for education research

Carl Wieman was named a recipient of the 2020 Yidan Prize, the world’s largest award in education.

Stanford professor and Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, an influential scholar whose work has shaped a new understanding of how to improve college science teaching and learning, was named a recipient of the 2020 Yidan Prize for education research on Wednesday.

The Yidan Prize is the world’s largest prize in education. Wieman will receive approximately $4 million in recognition of his work.

“I am thrilled and honored to be recognized with this award,” said Wieman. “It is wonderful to receive this recognition of my work, although really it is the recognition of the work of my wonderful students and postdocs over the years.”

Wieman is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and the Department of Physics in the School of Humanities and Sciences and holds the DRC chair at the School of Engineering. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work in the field of atomic physics. His 2017 book, Improving How Universities Teach Science, draws on his experience as founder and head of the Science Education Initiative, a program to help universities implement strategies for more effective undergraduate STEM teaching.

The Yidan Prize also recognizes Wieman’s work in establishing the PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2002, which teaches math and many areas of science using animated, game-like environments. PhET simulations, which are available for free online, have been translated into 85 languages and are used more than a million times a day around the world.

The PhET project uses technology in a new and powerful way to support STEM teaching, said Dan Schwartz, the I. James Quillen Dean and Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Educational Technology.

“Before PhET, educational simulations mostly consisted of constrained environments where students would set variables and then click a button to animate that scenario,” said Schwartz. Wieman reconceptualized how science simulations could be designed, he said, by creating environments where students are free to investigate cause-and-effect relationships as scientists would.

“Carl Wieman is an existence proof; he rebuts the argument that great researchers cannot be great teachers,” said Debra Satz, Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Carl has done pathbreaking research, producing the first gaseous condensate revealing a new state of matter, work for which he, along with Eric Cornell and Wolfgang Ketterle, was awarded the Nobel Prize. And not only is he a wonderful and inspiring teacher, but he has also been at the forefront of improving science teaching and education for everyone.”

Wieman plans to use the Yidan prize money to support and enhance the PhET project, which has seen a major surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A ‘scientific approach to teaching science’

Wieman’s passion for education research grew out of his work in physics, as he sought to understand how his own students learned and developed into scientists. “For many years, I had two parallel research programs,” said Wieman. “One was in atomic physics, blasting atoms with lasers to see how they’d behave. The other was studying how people learn to think about physics and finding better ways to teach them.”

Students learn more effectively, Wieman found, when they practice and receive feedback on making particular decisions using the knowledge and skills of their respective disciplines. “I’ve come to see education fundamentally as a way for people to learn to make better decisions,” he said.

Advocating for “a scientific approach to teaching science,” he urges STEM professors to apply the same principles in teaching that they use in their research. Instead of just lecturing “because it has always been done this way,” he said, instructors should be guided by research demonstrating more effective methods, applying these principles and carefully measuring the results to find ways to improve, just as they do in their science. 

Throughout his time at Stanford, Wieman has taught introductory physics, with particular attention to students with a weaker background in high school physics. He also teaches a course for graduate students and advanced undergraduates, The Teaching and Learning of Science, and has worked with many professors and teaching assistants in physics and other sciences at Stanford to adopt research-based active learning methods. The Department of Physics in H&S is now recognized as a leader in this method of teaching for physics majors.

Stanford Provost Persis Drell, who has co-taught with Wieman, also praised his leadership in working to overhaul the classroom experience by replacing traditional lectures with opportunities for students to engage with one another as they wrestle with a problem. “He is an energetic and inspirational spokesman for active learning and other research-based pedagogy strategies,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have him at Stanford.”

Photo of Wieman research group

Wieman Group researchers (l-r) Carl Wieman, Eric Burkholder, Argenta Price, GSE Assistant Professor Shima Salehi, Candice Kim, Karen Wang, Michael Flynn, Gabriel Murillo-Gonzalez

Preparing the next generation of literate citizens

Calling Wieman “the world’s foremost scholar on college science teaching,” Schwartz emphasized the value of his work in readying students to continue learning throughout their lives as knowledge, jobs and sources of information continue to evolve.

“His entire focus on science education has been to help prepare the next generation of citizens to be better prepared, and more scientifically literate, as they tackle the problems of tomorrow,” said Schwartz. “His work rests on the conviction that our best hope for tomorrow is tied to improved learning today.”

The Yidan Prize was founded by Charles Chen Yidan, a core founder of tech company Tencent and philanthropist. Each year the Yidan Prize Foundation awards two prizes: one in education research and another in education development. Yidan Prize Laureates each receive a gold medal. In addition, a total of $3.9 million of prize funds is awarded to the individual or team from each category, half of which is cash prize while the other half is project funding toward educational initiatives.

This year’s laureates were selected from nominations covering than 100 countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Fiji and Greece.

Since the Yidan Prize was first awarded in 2017, five of the eight award winners have been Stanford professors or alumni, including psychology professor Carol Dweck, who received the inaugural prize for education research.

Wieman will receive the award at a virtual ceremony on December 7.

Faculty mentioned in this article: Carl Wieman

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