CU Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman Launches Project To Improve Physics And Science Education

October 28, 2002

Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, distinguished professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has launched a new science education project using part of his Nobel Prize money.

The Physics Education Technology Project, or PhET, is supported by the Kavli Institute of Oxnard, Calif., the National Science Foundation, CU-Boulder and the Nobel Prize award.

The project will focus on interactive "virtual" physics experiments created using Java Applets, a type of computer code that allows users to manipulate virtual objects on the computer screen. The computer programs will be available worldwide on the Internet.

"What I hope is that it will make physics -- and ultimately other sciences -- vastly more accessible and interesting to people of widely different backgrounds," Wieman said. "Applets provide information in a way that no other method of presentation that I've ever heard of -- and I've heard of them all -- can do. It has the potential to transform how people learn science."

The project, to be headed by Wieman, will begin with a staff of about six and will be funded by about $350,000 per year over the next three years beginning this fall. Current staff include CU-Boulder senior physics instructor Michael Dubson, graduate student Sam Reid, professional research assistant Krista Beck and software architect Ron LeMaster, who has been assigned to the project by the Kavli Institute.

"Carl Wieman has a unique vision and ability to create superior learning experiences in science education," said Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of the Kavli Institute. "We believe this project has great potential and are pleased and excited to participate."

The idea for PhET began about five years ago when Wieman worked on a project called Physics 2000 created by CU-Boulder physics Professor Martin Goldman. That project now allows users to conduct more than 65 "virtual experiments" on their computer screens and is intended for nonscientists and students of all ages.

"I saw the capabilities of the applets and have been using them around the world in talks," Wieman said. "I saw how effective they were in helping people understand complicated physics problems.

"Applets can convey the way a scientist looks at the world -- it makes it possible to share the mental pictures we have developed for how things work. They also make the learning much more active. The student adjusts the conditions in the applet and they can discover many ideas on their own by seeing what happens as a result of their adjustments."

PhET will be aimed at high school students, science- and nonscience-oriented undergraduate college students and the general public, Wieman said. It will concentrate on the concepts that are covered in many physics courses and that also are relevant to people's lives.

For example, applets will be used to demonstrate what is happening as electricity flows through wires and light bulbs, how radio waves are generated and detected, what happens in a microwave oven, and to illustrate the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere and how it warms the Earth.

PhET will employ a computer expert to create the applets and an education expert who will design learning units that guide students in their use and measure the learning effectiveness.

"It is clear that the current physics education system is failing in the creation of a technically literate public and workforce," Wieman said. "The nice thing about applets is that they can be an effective tool to help a very wide range of students."

The Kavli Institute will be an active partner in the enterprise, supporting the software architect and supplying much of the hardware. The Kavli Institute and Kavli Foundation were created by Fred Kavli in December 2000 and are dedicated to the advancement of science for the betterment of humanity.

The goal of PhET is to produce educational technology that will be broadly useful in science courses both here and around the world, Wieman said. In some Third World countries, computers are more readily available to students than textbooks, he noted.

Last year, NSF named Wieman one of the first seven scientists and engineers in the United States to receive its Director's Awards for Distinguished Teaching Scholars. Each recipient will receive $300,000 over four years to continue sharing their teaching talents and research excellence with students and the general public. Wieman plans to use his for PhET.

Wieman is teaching a large undergraduate class of nonscience majors this academic year on "The Physics of Everyday Life." The class covers physics through the examination of familiar items such as light bulbs, clocks, radios, musical instruments, microwave ovens and nuclear weapons.

The 2001 Nobel laureate has taught at CU-Boulder since 1984 and holds a Marsico Endowed Chair of Excellence. He also is a fellow of JILA, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The physics department is part of the CU-Boulder College of Arts and Sciences.

For Physics 2000 information visit http://www.colorado.edu/physics/2000. For information on the Kavli Institute call (805) 988-1767. For information on the Physics Education Technology Project call (303) 492-7746.

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