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Former CU Professor Wins Major Prize, Donates $3M to Campus

A Nobel Prize winner and former University of Colorado Boulder professor won a prestigious education research award and is dedicating $3 million of prize money to the campus' PhET Interactive Simulations Project.

by Katie Langford, Daily Camera / December 8, 2020
Boulder, Colo. Shutterstock/Jeff Zehnder

(TNS) — A Nobel Prize winner and former University of Colorado Boulder professor won the world's most prestigious education research award and is dedicating $3 million of his prize money to the campus' PhET Interactive Simulations Project.

Carl Wieman  was awarded the Yidan Prize in Education Research during a virtual ceremony Monday for his work developing techniques and tools in science, technology, engineering and math education.

Wieman, now a professor at Stanford University, was a physics professor at CU Boulder for 25 years and started PhET with his Nobel winnings to advance STEM education. He is still a senior advisor and research collaborator for the project.

"It was pretty nice and to be perfectly frank about it, the most exciting thing about it was I knew PhET was doing great stuff and really needed the money," he said.

The prize is a reflection of the great work at PhET and by his students and researchers at Stanford, Wieman said.

Instead of viewing education as an individual, teacher-to-student relationship, Wieman said he looks at it through the lens of how important it is to have a research-guided system producing an educated citizenry who can make informed decisions that shape the world we live in.

PhET develops educational simulations for all ages, helping students learn physics, chemistry, math, earth science and biology concepts in an interactive way. All of the simulations are free to use, and so far the project has created 158 simulations that are translated into 94 languages, ranging from static electricity to quantum tunneling.

The simulations focus on concepts that are often the trickiest for students to grasp, Director  Kathy Perkins  said.

Use of PhET has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, as teachers around the world switched to virtual learning, Perkins said. North American users are still the biggest chunk of PhET's audience, but the website saw more than 100% user growth across EuropeAsia and South and Central America. The simulations have been used 185 million times so far this year, compared to 115 million for the same time frame last year.

The additional funding will enable PhET to create more simulations and expand its international reach through hiring two ambassadors to work with existing education groups in MexicoCentral AmericaSouth America and Africa.

"The pandemic overall has been incredibly challenging and really tragic for the world as a whole, but the PhET simulations have been a tool that teachers have turned to to keep students learning science and math, to keep engaging them in those practices of exploration and discovery, keeping that hands-on experience even when students can't be in the classroom," Perkins said.

Diana López has worked on expanding PhET's reach in Mexico and Central and South America, and she will become an ambassador for the region. It's been slow going to connect with people, López said, but the pandemic forcing so many into online learning has accelerated the process.

"I feel like this is the moment where people are starting to believe in PhET," she said.

Another goal for the prize money is to expand PhET's function and effectiveness so that teachers know how to take complete advantage of the program, Wieman said.

"One thing that's really unique about PhET is that it works with a much broader range of students than any other range of teaching," he said. "The world isn't made up of people with a narrow range of preparation, it's made up of people with a big wide range of backgrounds. Because of the way the learner is controlling the process, it works with this big range of backgrounds and that's so particularly important with modern learning."

The Yidan Prize is providing support at a critical time for STEM education, Perkins said.

"The world is facing so many global challenges, many of them related to science and math, and it can benefit from a population that has really innovative thinkers and engineers and scientists working on these problems, as well as a populace that's educated in science and math that can think deeply about these problems and challenges and use them to inform their own path through the world," she said.

(c)2020 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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