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James M. Gentile

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Carl Wieman and the Challenge of Science Education

Posted: 06/15/2012 10:33 am

Carl Wieman, the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who has been a key science official in the White House since 2010, has resigned from his government post for personal reasons. His departure provides an opportunity to reflect on his contributions in government as well as academia. Fortunately, he was one of the world's best-known and innovative leaders in science education before he joined the White House, so he returns to a position of great personal leadership even as he departs Washington, D.C.

Carl Wieman was appointed by President Obama two years ago to be Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He was the perfect candidate for a post focused on, in the words of the Obama administration, "restoring science to its rightful place in America as a tool for crafting smart policies that will strengthen the nation."

Not only did he bring to the job a Nobel Prize (for Physics in 2001) and a stellar reputation as a scientist, but he was already renowned as a leader in applying scientific analysis to the improvement of education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). After winning the Nobel Prize, he had created the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, while he split his time between faculty appointments there and at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

His position at OSTP enabled him to take that experience and apply it to making science a top priority in America. A major achievement during his tenure was the release in February 2012 of a report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) titled "Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics."

That report created a new national awakening, summarizing succinctly an astonishing reality:

[I]f the United States is to maintain its historic preeminence in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ... then it must produce approximately 1 million more STEM professionals over the next decade than are projected to graduate at current rates. To meet this goal, the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34% annually over current rates. Encouragingly, while this need may seem daunting, it can be accomplished with only a modest increase in the retention rate of STEM majors during the first few years of college. That's because fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete college with a STEM degree today.

In an analytical yet optimistic way, the report brought forward a stark reality: that science departments of higher education in America are not retaining students who want to major in science. That reality is now recognized, and institutions of higher education are embarking on addressing the challenge. That, in turn, suggests a crucial role for Carl Wieman, now that he has left government: providing ongoing leadership in applying scientific analysis to improving STEM education.

At Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I lead, we look forward to working closely with Carl as his remarkable career continues to unfold. He has been a close friend of the foundation ever since we awarded him in 1981 an early-career grant while he was still struggling as a young faculty member to establish himself as a scientist.

That grant underscores the importance of support for early-career scientists, as Carl recently explained to Chemical & Engineering News:

Things were looking rather bleak for me in terms of being able to get a research program started, continuing as a faculty member, and hence having any kind of future career in physics. Getting that first grant from Research Corporation cheered me up quite a bit, but more importantly, it allowed me to get started with initial work.

It's hard to believe that a grant of less than $30,000 could have had such an instrumental role in the career of such an important scientist, but that's the wonder of STEM education at the faculty, graduate, undergraduate, and K-12 levels: You seed knowledge, hypotheses, and exploration, and it takes off in ways that you can hardly imagine.

Yet for all of the marvels of science, the role of science education is much broader than creating scientists. As Carl Wieman wrote in 2009, before joining the federal government:

The purpose of science education is no longer simply to train that tiny fraction of the population who will become the next generation of scientists. We need a more scientifically literate populace to address the global challenges that humanity now faces ... In short, we now need to make science education effective and relevant for a large and necessarily more diverse fraction of the population.

That's the challenge for us as a nation. Fortunately, we have Carl Wieman to help us tackle and overcome that challenge.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.

 
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