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Transforming and Enriching Science Education


Working with departments and students to transform science education at UBC, and beyond.

The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative – now in its fifth year at UBC – advises and supports UBC Science departments in scientifically measuring and systematically improving undergraduate education.

Over the past three years, the classroom experience of more than 18,000 UBC students has been improved by the CWSEI. Close to 50 courses in all nine UBC Science departments have been evaluated and enriched. The work has attracted international attention and support, including a $2-million gift from Google’s founding investor and UBC alumnus David Cheriton. But the task is still not complete.

An Urgent Need for Scientific Literacy

Our society is steeped in science, and as humanity learns to explain and alter our world at an unprecedented rate, science plays an increasingly important role in our everyday lives—and our common future. Whether studying the effects of climate change, discovering new genetic tests, tracking an avian flu epidemic, or making advances in fundamental health research, science is everywhere.

But disconcertingly, studies show that many university graduates lack basic scientific literacy — at a time when the demand for scientifically savvy members of society is increasing dramatically. Meanwhile, many institutions remain fixed on traditional teaching methods that often don’t provide students with an optimum learning experience.

This isn't a new problem, but one that Dr Carl Wieman — the Nobel laureate and passionate science educator recruited to UBC Science in 2007 — is determined to address. His singular purpose at UBC is to lead an unprecedented educational reform.

"Research has clearly demonstrated better methods for teaching science, but these are largely unknown to most faculty members," says Wieman, who established the program over three years, and has recently accepted a post Associate Director of Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "We must make them the norm in every classroom."

The UBC Science Experience

Reforming an educational experience steeped in history and tradition is no small feat. To succeed, UBC must establish a culture of science education in which faculty members continually carry out an evidence-based education improvement cycle. This will encourage faculty members to agree on goals, evaluate what students are actually learning, and determine where learning falls short of the established goals. Properly executed, this cycle will significantly improve teaching methods–offering students a meaningful and lasting educational experience.

A key challenge in transforming science education is to revisit the way professors, departments and faculties design and deliver learning experiences. The initiative is exploring better ways to help students develop critical learning and problem-solving skills without sacrificing the scholarly output of the professors–an essential contribution of any university.
"We’ll apply the latest science-learning research," says Dr. Wieman. For example, individual courses will be approached as components of an overall educational architecture, rather than as individual entities with vague, disconnected educational goals.

The CWSEI is also making moves beyond the classroom. Thousands of students are being surveyed to establish a baseline assessment of science education at UBC. Physics educators are developing a teaching assistant training module that will become a model for any university seeking to improve student education outcomes. And importantly, a centralized digital system is being developed to create, share and archive coursework and program materials.

The $12 million initiative is a unique convergence of will and vision. Over the next several years, the University presents its community and industry partners with a rare opportunity to invest in a profound educational movement.

How You Can Help

Please contact the Development Office at 604.822.3404 for more information about how you can help transform science education.

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