Published: Sept. 23, 2020

Wieman will use prize and project money to support CU Boulder’s award-winning PhET Interactive Simulations to advance STEM education globally.

Today, the Yidan Prize Foundation awarded Carl Wieman the prestigious Yidan Prize in Education Research for his “contribution in developing new techniques and tools in STEM education.” The Yidan prizes are the world’s largest international prizes in education, providing honorees with nearly $4 million each.

Wieman worked as a professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder for 25 years. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics together with Eric Cornell in 2001, and then directed his considerable energy and intellect toward the challenges in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

“Winning a Nobel Prize is not easy,” said Cornell, a fellow at JILA and adjoint professor of physics at CU Boulder. “But going on from there to win another global-standard prize in an entirely different field, that’s truly remarkable.”

“We are thrilled to congratulate Carl on this incredible achievement, recognizing his 20-year dedication to improving science education methods and tools,” said Chancellor Philip DiStefano, “Carl’s work, and that of his amazing team of students and postdoctorals, has been pivotal in establishing CU Boulder as an international leader in science education and science education research.”

Through Carl’s tremendous generosity, PhET will be able to expand its global reach and impact to improve STEM education globally, working with Carl to build on his founding vision.​"

Wieman, currently a Stanford professor of physics in the School of Humanities and Sciences and in the Graduate School of Education, and the DRC Chair in the School of Engineering, was the founder of CU Boulder’s award-winning PhET Interactive Simulations project and continues to serve as a senior advisor and research collaborator for the project. Working with Kathy Perkins, director of PhET and a faculty member in CU Boulder’s Department of Physics, Wieman will use the prize money to support PhET’s mission to advance STEM education globally.

“I am thrilled and honored to be the recipient of the 2020 Yidan prize for education research,” 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, and also the work of Kathy Perkins who has done such an outstanding job of directing the PhET project for the past 10 years.”

The Yidan Prize Foundation was founded in 2016 by Charles Chen Yidan, a core founder of the company Tencent. This year’s Yidan Prize in Education Development is being awarded to Lucy Lake and Angeline Murimirwa from CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education) for their contribution to female education. 

“Education transformation is more important than ever,” said Chen in a statement. “The outstanding achievements and commitment of this year’s laureates demonstrate that in a post-pandemic world, education continues to be of vital importance to solving future problems and creating positive change in individuals, communities and the environment. Innovative ideas and practices are key to driving progress in education to create a better world.”

Wieman’s STEM education work at CU Boulder and beyond has focused on preparing the next generation of students to be more scientifically literate as they tackle the problems of tomorrow. And toward that end, Wieman’s research and work has been necessarily diverse, striving at all levels—in classrooms, departments, universities and across the nation and world—to realize effective, sustainable and scalable improvements in STEM education.

Mexico students

At the top of the page: Carl Wieman teaching at CU Boulder. CU Boulder/Casey Cass. Above: Students in Mexico. Photo by Diana Lopez.

Early education research at CU Boulder

Making science and scientific ways of thinking both engaging and accessible for all students has long been a top priority and passion for Wieman. As a freshly-minted Nobel Prize winner at CU Boulder, he fully transformed a course for non-physics majors, called “Physics of Everyday Life,” redefining the learning goals, introducing research-based interactive teaching techniques, creating new teaching tools, developing new measurement instruments and making iterative improvement.

Working with Professor Marty Goldman on the Physics2000 project, Wieman realized the power of interactive simulations to help diverse audiences—from high school students to physics faculty—engage with and understand the fundamental ideas behind the complex physics of his Nobel Prize research. Inspired, he started PhET Interactive Simulations—originally known as the Physics Education Technology (PhET) Project—in 2002 with a grant from the National Science Foundation and his own Nobel Prize money.

Today, the PhET project provides a collection of over 150 interactive simulations, which are translated into 93 languages and used more than 180 million times per year worldwide. 

“PhET is a lasting legacy of Carl’s time at CU Boulder and the Physics Department, and has had an incredible impact on students of all ages,” said Michael Ritzwoller, chair of physics at CU Boulder.

A focus on institutional change

Beyond the classroom, Wieman was a driver of institutional change. He used his standing within the physics community to champion the notion of engaging in research around what and how students learn in science classrooms.

“Carl was a transformative force in our department in those early years, sparking conversations about teaching and raising our awareness of education research,” said Ritzwoller, “He used his influence with colleagues and with the university to help establish CU’s Physics Education Research group in 2003. Today, our PER group is a national and international leader in the field.”

Cambodia students

Students in Cambodia. Photo by David Dionys.

Wieman extended his research and impact from the classroom to the university. In 2006, Wieman established the Science Education Initiative (SEI) at CU Boulder, a $5 million university-funded initiative to support and transform departments to use a scientific-approach to teaching. Wieman extended this work in establishing the Science Education Initiative at University of British Columbia in 2007, directing both efforts.

The impacts of these institutional efforts created lasting improvements in STEM teaching and learning at CU Boulder and UBC, and have led to widespread research-based improvement in university teaching and transformed the way science is taught in major universities. Indeed, the approaches to institutional change pioneered by Wieman’s SEI projects have served as models for others, including national initiatives from the American Association of Universities and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. 

Work at the national and international level

“Carl has been one of the great drivers and advancers of STEM education research internationally,” said Noah Finkelstein, professor of physics and co-director of the Center for STEM Learning at CU Boulder, “His work has been foundational to what and how people learn, how we might build modern tools such as PhET for learning and how institutions adapt and embrace our educational missions. His work has been taken up by millions and has advanced the capacities of educators, scholars, institutions and policymakers across the globe.”

Over the past 20 years, Wieman has been a tireless advocate for advancing STEM education at the highest levels. From 2004-2009, he served as the founding chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Science Education, championing one of the most impactful studies of Discipline-Based Education Research to date. And from 2010-2012, he served under President Obama as the Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, enacting policies and programs to advance STEM education and education research.

Advancing a legacy in the global impact of PhET Interactive Simulations

In line with the Yidan Prize Foundation’s mission, PhET simulations are transforming the way students learn science and math. Rather than passively listening to lectures or memorizing equations, PhET simulations create an inviting interactive environment where students can actively engage in STEM practices to investigate key concepts. And every simulation is grounded in education research to address known student difficulties.

Indonesia image of students

Students in Indonesia. Photo by Muhammad Zulham.

Whether exploring atoms, electricity or equation equality, students of all ages, all around the world, can use PhET simulations to conduct experiments, discover cause-effect relationships, observe patterns, reflect on results or test their ideas. Like a scientist, they can construct and expand their own knowledge and they can do so with curiosity, creativity and joy. 

“The PhET team is extremely proud of Carl and his achievements,” said Perkins. “Through Carl’s tremendous generosity, PhET will be able to expand its reach and impact to improve STEM education globally, working with Carl to build on his founding vision.”

Free and open access to high-quality educational resources has always been a priority for Wieman. Since its founding, PhET has licensed all simulations as open educational resources. This mission has been made possible by the support of PhET’s funders, including the U.S. National Science Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and CU Boulder.

The need for open, high-quality digital education tools has been greater than ever this year, as teachers around the world had to quickly adopt remote teaching strategies. Usage of PhET simulations surged, with some countries seeing a 500% increase. 

“This year has been challenging for many in the education system with COVID-19 causing unprecedented disruption to learning and to schools,” said Chen. “It is therefore crucial that we champion people with the courage to bring educational change and reimagine the future of education.”

“PhET Interactive Simulations is a shining example of the university’s work in STEM education and its impact globally," said DiStefano. "We are absolutely delighted to hear that Carl will use the Yidan prize to further advance PhET’s work. The world needs projects like PhET, especially right now.”