Thursday, November 03, 2005

A 21st century Feynman?

Can you believe a Nobel winner is teaching an undergraduate physics course for nonscientists? Further, he uses some really cool physics simulations, and -- this is the biggest of all -- they are so cool that even non-physics majors can also appreciate it! The simulations are really, really classy.

We are talking about the 2001 Nobel winner Carl E. Wieman, and the simulations were developed through a project called PhET (Physics Education Technology). All the simulations are hosted by Wieman's home, the Department of Physics in the University of Colorado - Boulder, and you can download them for free!

Wieman's interview (by Claudia Dreifus) appeared in today's New York Times. In it, he elaborates on what physics education should really be like. Instead of stopping at elaborating a vision, he has actually been living it! Consider two facts. First, as already mentioned, he has been teaching a physics course for nonscientists. And, second, the money for developing the course, the class-room technology and the simulations has come mostly from a part of his Nobel Prize money. Talk about putting money where your mouth is!

Here is what he says about how physics is being taught today:

I've long thought that undergraduate science is poorly taught. Undergraduates think of science usually as something they have to "go through," a class where they memorize a bunch of disconnected facts and formulas. It has no connection to anything around them. They learn it in the same way they might learn Latin - by rote.

Moreover, the subject matter is taught quickly, overwhelmingly, without any concern for what young people can take in cognitively. After a while you have them thinking, This is what science is! And then you get them graduating and sometimes becoming K-12 teachers themselves. They then repeat this, believing, This is how science should be taught, because this is how I was taught.

Do read the rest of the interview, particularly for how he actually teaches the course. It's absolutely fascinating.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Argh.. U beat me to this! I saw the story yest in my aggregator, but was thinking of posting abt it over the weekend.

  2. Anonymous said...

    A very appropriate link (besides its usefulness!) given the recent discussions about a certain institute. I have started downloading the 66 MB simulation installer. Should play around with this over the weekend!

  3. Abi said...

    Aswin, Badri: Thanks for your comments. I too tried out the simulations, but only online. And they worked perfectly, without a hitch in firefox running on a linux machine. And, as I said in the post, the simulations are really great.