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 and that only science can explain and possibly mitigate, such as global warming, as well as to make wise decisions, informed by scientific understanding, about issues such as genetic modification.

Moreover, the modern economy is largely based on science and technology, and for that economy to thrive and for individuals within it to be successful, we need technically literate citizens with complex problem-solving skills.

In short, we now need to make science education effective and relevant for a large and necessarily more diverse fraction of the population.  

What do I mean by an effective education in science? I believe a successful science education transforms how students think, so that they can understand and use science like scientists do. But is this kind of transformation really possible for a large fraction of the total population?

Transporting student thinking from novice to expert

The hypothesis that I and others have advanced is that it is possible, but only if we approach the teaching of science like a science. That means applying to science teaching the practices that are essential components of scientific research and that explain why science has progressed at such a remarkable pace in the modern world.

The most important of these components are:

•  Practices and conclusions based on objective data rather than — as is frequently the case in education —anecdote or tradition.  This includes using the results of prior research, such as work on how people learn.

•  Disseminating results in a scholarly manner and copying and building upon what works. Too often in education, particularly at the postsecondary level, everything is reinvented, often in a highly flawed form, every time a different instructor teaches a course. (I call this problem “reinventing the square wheel.”)

• Fully utilizing modern technology. Just as we are always looking for ways to use technology to advance scientific research, we need to do the same in education.

These three essential components of all experimental scientific research (and, not incidentally, of the scholarship of teaching and learning) can be equally valuable in science education.  Applied to the teaching of science, they have the capability to dramatically improve both the effectiveness and the efficiency of our educational system.

The Learning Puzzle

When I first taught physics as a young assistant professor, I used the approach that is all too common when someone is called upon to teach something. First I thought very hard about the topic and got it clear in my own mind. Then I explained it to my students so that they would understand it with the same clarity I had.  At least that was the theory.

But I am a devout believer in the experimental method, so I always measure results.   And whenever I made any serious attempt to determine what my students were learning, it was clear that this approach just didn’t work. An occasional student here and there might have understood my beautifully clear and clever explanations, but the vast majority of students weren’t getting them at all.

Student reaction to my brilliantly clear explanations

For many years, this failure of students to learn from my explanations remained a frustrating puzzle to me, as I think it is for many diligent faculty members. What eventually led me to understand it was that I was encountering the even bigger puzzle of my graduate students.  

I have conducted an extensive research program in atomic physics over many years that has involved many graduate students, on whose professional development I have spent a lot of time and thought. And over the years I became aware of a consistent pattern:  New graduate students would come to work in my laboratory after 17 years of extraordinary success in classes, but when they were given research projects to work on, they were clueless about how to proceed. Or worse — often it seemed that they didn’t even really understand what physics was.

But then an amazing thing happened: After just a few years of working in my research lab, interacting with me and the other students, they were transformed.  I’d suddenly realize they were now expert physicists, genuine colleagues. If this had happened only once or twice it would have just seemed an oddity, but I realized it was a consistent pattern. So I decided to figure it out.

One hypothesis that occurred to me, as it has to many other research advisors who have observed similar transformations, is that the human brain has to go through a 17-year “caterpillar” stage before it is suddenly transformed into a physicist “butterfly.”

Brain-development possibility: 17 years as intellectual caterpillar before transformation into physicist butterfly?

But I wasn’t satisfied with that explanation, so I tackled it like a science problem. I started studying the research on how people learn, particularly how they learn science, to see if it could provide a more satisfactory explanation of the pattern. Sure enough, the research did have another explanation to offer that also solved the earlier puzzle of why my classroom teaching was ineffective.

We're going to look into that reason, do some research on learning and get to some basic concepts in Part 2.


W. Adams et al. (2005), Proceedings of the 2004 Physics Education Research Conference, J. Marx, P, Heron, S. Franklin, eds., American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY, p. 45.

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D. Hammer (1997), Cognition and Instruction. 15, 485.

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Z. Hrepic, D. Zollman, N. Rebello. “Comparing students’and experts’ understanding of the content of a lecture,” to be published in Journal of Science Education and Technology. A pre-print is available at

E. Mazur (1997), Peer Instructions: A User’s Manual, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

G. Novak, E. Patterson, A.Gavrin, and W. Christian (1999), Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

K. Perkins et al. (2005), Proceedings of the 2004 Physics Education Research Conference, J. Marx, P. Heron, S. Franklin, eds., American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY, p. 61.

E. Redish (2003), Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.


Originally presented in Change magazine, September/October 2007.