Carl Wieman - Acceptance Speech

Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Carl Wieman
Professor of Physics
University of Colorado-Boulder

With this award and the oft-repeated story of my cutting off the Nobel Prize press conference to go teach my class, there are frequent references to my "passion for teaching." Well I have a shocking confession to make; I don't actually have a passion for teaching. What I remember about teaching on the day of the Nobel Prize announcement is that it was a real disappointment. I was supposed to be teaching the concept of buoyancy and how this is useful, and I still remember that it was obvious that most of the students just didn't get it. Okay, maybe I had some excuses that day, but it still bugs me that they didn't learn it. Actually this illustrates that although I don't have a passion for teaching, I do have a passion. I have a passion for students learning. I firmly believe that when anyone gets a better understanding of the world around them and how it is governed by certain scientific principles that make its behavior comprehensible and predictable rather than mysterious and frightening, it will improve their lives and allow them to be better and more successful citizens. I also believe that perhaps the finest human creation is this unusual and challenging of way thinking that we have created to more objectively establish knowledge and truth; this way of thinking that we call the scientific process, and I want everyone to appreciate and benefit from this marvelous intellectual creation.

So having students learn this is what I am passionate about, and that learning is what I am striving to accomplish, but my individual teaching plays a relatively small part in this effort. One thing that I have learned from my physics research is that you can accomplish a lot more by hiring good people and inspiring them to pursue your goals than you can ever accomplish by trying to do something yourself, and I have found that works just as well in teaching. I have a wonderful dedicated group of people working with me on physics education who are responsible for much of the work that is being acknowledged with this award. I also want to thank the NSF, the Kavli Operating Institute, and the University of Colorado for providing the money to hire these wonderful folks. A second lesson I learned from my physics research is that it is a whole lot easier to copy the proven successes of others than to try to invent everything myself, and my education group has followed this approach to good effect in our work as well. Our activities are based on research by many people on physics education and cognitive science, as well as teaching innovations from people such as Marty Goldman and Lou Bloomfield. All of these many people whose work has been the foundation of my efforts deserve a share of this award. So on behalf of all of these many people, let me thank CASE and the Carnegie Foundation for this recognition of our work.

Let me close by getting one pet peeve off my chest. That peeve is the way people are often so surprised and impressed that I am teaching students who are not majoring in science—sort of as if it's like Father Damian caring for the lepers. This annoys me for several reasons. First, most people are not scientists, so if we are to provide meaningful broad science education these are primarily the students we need to teach. Second, I do not know the statistics, but there are a lot of prominent scientists who are very involved with general science education, so I don't think I am doing something that unusual. And third, it's not a sacrifice. It is very rewarding to interact with students with such a varied range of interests and backgrounds and to open their eyes to a new way of looking at the world around them. Although I will be the first to point out that this does not happen with all my students, and I spend a lot of time worrying about these failures and how I can do better.

Finally, I now realize that there is one special benefit to teaching nonscience students that I never anticipated. That benefit is that you get students like Sarah Wheeler who was a wonderful thoughtful student, but more importantly, probably because she was a philosophy major, she writes much better than any science student I have ever encountered. I was given a copy of her nomination letter after it had been sent in, and I remember thinking at the time; "My God I wish I could write like this! If my nomination is successful it is going to be entirely because of this letter." So let me say to all you science teachers out there—if you want to be standing up here some day getting this award yourself, you can really improve your chances if you teach nonscience students like Sarah who can write so superbly.