Could Google mentor's gift revolutionize UBC science?
Published Thursday, January 14, 2010 1:46PM PST
A man widely hailed as the visionary behind Google has given the University of British Columbia a $2 million gift to revolutionize the way the institute teaches science.
UBC grad David Cheriton, now a computer science professor at Stanford University, partnered with the school because of what he saw as a need to transform antiquated teaching methods.
"In the age of Google students have all the information at their hands at all times. They don't want to learn things they can learn on their own," he told ctvbc.ca from Palo Alto, California.
The gift will support the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI), a program that aims to improve the undergraduate experience by establishing new teaching techniques and overhauling course curriculum.
CWSEI founder, Nobel laureate Dr. Carl Wieman, said the program is based on advances in the last 20 years in cognitive science and education.
"Most teaching is the way they were taught in the 15th century so we're trying to change something that is thousands of years old," he told ctvbc.ca.
"This will help the way people learn and think about science, and new ways of teaching these complex teaching skills."
This entails teaching students how to learn, rather than simply memorizing facts and formulas. Professors are taught how to teach to their student competencies and individual motivations, and establish early what they already know, to avoid duplication.
Cheriton, who was born and raised in the Vancouver-area, became interested in the UBC program after having what he calls "a crisis" in his own teaching at Stanford.
"I wasn't sure what the students would know after a year after taking my class -- what they took away from it. And then I realized something had to change. We're trying to launch people's careers, not just for them to beat an exam."
He says today's students need more than book learning to succeed in a rapidly changing and highly competitive job market. And with an economy largely based on science and technology, Cheriton says citizens need to be technically literate and have complex problem-solving skills.
"If you try to get a job at Google they give you a technical interview -- they ask you to solve problems. So that's what employers are demanding and that's what the world is demanding -- I think it's important that universities do this."
The professor is credited for facilitating Google's invention by mentoring two of his Stanford students and helping them turn their dreams of creating a unique search engine into a reality.
Cheriton's vision is now focused on Wieman's work in transforming how people learn and teach science at the most fundamental level. It's a goal Wieman has been repeatedly told is "impossible."
"I wouldn't be trying if I didn't think it was possible but I'm also the guy who spent 20 years trying out physics experiments."
Wieman, who won a Nobel Prize for physics in 2001 because of that hard work, shut down his atomic research centre at the University of Colorado in 2007 to introduce the program at UBC. Now three years into its five-year project, 47 courses have undergone transformations.
UBC President Stephen Toope says the endowment will benefit more than 18,000 students each year, and praised Cheriton's accomplishments as an alumnus and philanthropist.
"His mentorship and foresight 15 years ago fostered the ubiquitous search engine that revolutionized the way people acquire information. His generosity will help transform basic and applied science for decades to come."
Wieman says the grant money, though extremely helpful, is actually secondary to the recognition for the program.
"The important part isn't the money - it's the signal that from outside the university and the rest of the world that what we're trying to do here is cared about and it's not completely crazy."
"Writing the cheque is the easy part - making something great happen is the hard part."