How would *you* strengthen science in the U.S.?

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Summit Lists Ways–but Not Means–to Strengthen Science

In an unusual show of unity, 50 business, academic, and legislative leaders came to Washington, D.C., last week to proclaim what they believe is obvious: The United States should be paying more attention to science and engineering. But although there was a rousing consensus on the need to improve teaching, graduate more science majors, and boost spending on research and translating the results to the workplace, there was mostly silence on how these changes might come about and who would pay for them.


The group’s series of recommendations, announced before the meeting began, include more federal spending on basic research and set-asides for high-risk research, a doubling over the next 10 years of the number of undergraduates earning science and engineering degrees, changes in immigration laws to make it easier for foreign-born graduates to remain in the United States, and greater support for advanced manufacturing technologies.

Problem is, as they note, that no reasonable solutions are put forth regarding how to actually *do* these things.

Some numbers surprised me. They mention that of incoming freshman, about a third say they have an interest in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields–but only a measly 5% graduate with a degree in one of these areas. Thomas Cech of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy chase notes, “A lot of students come to top research universities with good science backgrounds, and it takes us only 1 year to drive this interest out of them.” I agree that poor intro classes can do this. Myself, I started off as a chemistry major in college. Loved chem in high school–largely because my teacher made it fascinating. Then I ended up in intro chemistry with 150 other pre-meds, and man, did that ever drain the interest out of me. Conversely, my high school biology courses were horrible, but since I was also considering med school at the time, I had to take biology as a requirement for medical school–and ended up with a great class, a new major and (eventually) a different career path than I’d originally intended.

Still, as a biology major, I had to take a year of organic chemistry and a semester of biochem, both of which I enjoyed much more than intro chemistry. It was well known that intro chem was a weed-out class: it was as if the professors tried to make it as horrible and uninteresting as possible. And, for me at least, they succeeded. Perhaps they figured that potential chemistry majors had already taken AP chemistry in high school, and were therefore already taking organic chemistry as freshmen. And sure, several of my classmates were doing just that–but not all of us attended schools where AP courses were offered.

I know I’ve seen comments on here (and similarly, on other science blogs or science discussion boards) that teachers “never made science this interesting when I was in school.” So, I’m wondering if that’s really what to aim for here? Would that make enough of an impact, and at what level–junior high? College? Earlier? The article does suggest financial incentives to teachers–to bring better science teachers to the field (and retain the good ones we have). They also emphasize more research opportunities for undergraduates, which I certainly favor. (Even though I teach in a graduate school, we open the labs in our center to undergraduate interns, and I’m working on developing an undergrad-level course in public health to draw more undergrads into this field). Especially for you science-interested but didn’t-pursue-a-science-degree folks out there, what do you think would have made a difference for you as a young adult considering a major and future career?

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Strengthening science from Florida Citizens for Science on December 16, 2005 11:53 PM

The Panda’s Thumb introduced a post entitled How would *you* strengthen science in the U.S.? It appears the focus is more on college and the science job market, but the issue made me think of where science initially grows or dies in people. In m... Read More


A personal tale, for what it’s worth: I _hated_ science in high school. Took chemistry and physics (not biology – couldn’t deal with the idea of dissecting frogs) and went off to college to study engineering. There I discovered calculus, which allowed physics to make a lot more sense. But intro chemistry was just painful: 500 students in the lecture and relatively clueless teaching assistants. The only REALLY interesting science class was introductory geology, taken to fill a requirement for a certain number of science units. But I got a BS in electrical engineering, went off to work for two decades, got tired of the Silicon Valley grind, and am now back in school pursuing a master’s degree in… (drumroll) … geology.

I’m extraordinarily lucky that I have the financial resources to do this. But the point is that I _didn’t_ pursue the science that interested me in college, because I’d had so many bad experiences with science classes. If we’re going to recruit more scientists, we need to start in high school, and make both the high school and introductory college classes more exciting. Undergraduates at my current school report that introductory chemistry and physics courses are very similar to what I experienced. Things that would have made the experience better: enthusiastic lecturers and teaching assistants. Small classes, with a relaxed atmosphere, encouraging lots of discussion. An effort to relate abstract concepts, not necessarily to “real life”, but to something cool. Give teaching assistants some basic training in how to share their enthusiasm for the subject with their students.

Without a good background in geology, I’ve had to take most of the undergraduate major classes. In one of these, the instructor requires that each student do some real, original research. It isn’t an enormous effort, but it transforms students, especially the younger ones. They come out of this class with the notion that they _are_ scientists. If someone had snagged me with that as an undergraduate, it would’ve gone a long way towards keeping me interested, even having to endure 500-student classes.

As regards getting students interested in engineering, it would help a whole lot if they weren’t bombarded on all sides with (true) tales of outsourcing. I couldn’t in good conscience encourage a student in the U. S. to take up EE, CS, or any IT course of study. I didn’t leave the profession because I was unemployable; I had the sort of expertise that’s still in demand in the U.S., even when a company outsources the bulk of its work to India or China. But it took 20+ years to acquire that knowledge. Young people just starting in the profession are definitely at a disadvantage in the U.S. today.

Although there’s no doubt that students have to be exposed to both the relevant and fun side of science in both high school and college, they also have to be molded into hard workers. So far, I have spent one year out of 21 teaching in the U.S, and I was not impressed with final exams that were worth only 10-15 % . More students need to be exposed to AP type courses, so that they are not later overwhelmed as undergraduates. We need a commitment from the media like the now defunct”Newton’s Apple(PBS)” and CBC’s(Canadian)”Quirks and Quarks” to encourage young people to read about science and to experiment in their free time. We also need more good science museums like Boston’s and Chicago’s. Science is both a new languages and a new way of thinking; it can never develop in the classroom alone.

The education system needs an overhaul. Much more science and critical thinking need to be integrated into education beginning in first grade.

Overhauls of a system like this don’t work - bureaucrats like the average educational body don’t handle change terribly well. I favour gradually upping the pressure on them to achieve - the “boiling a frog” approach.

The education system in the US won’t change without substantial accompanying changes in political, social and economic structures. So long as we view education as simply a means to produce more low-wage workers, we will never have well-educated citizens. And we as a society have already demonstrated, time and time again, that we simply don’t want to make those political, social and economic changes.

“It’s All About Student Success Warm Bodies in Chairs!” That’s how funding works.

I teach Human Anatomy and Physiology for allied health (nursing, radiologic technologists, etc.) at a community college in Indiana. 90 students can squeeze into a lecture room (we get hand-me-down buildings, so nobody has been able to build 500-seat lecture halls - thank God), which means that only one salary and benefits package goes on the expense side of the ledger.

Labs are limited to 22 students, so adjuncts handle at least half the labs. Adjuncts, of course, work less than 20 hr/wk, so don’t get paid benefits.

Of course, the state is spending almost a billion dollars for a new stadium so the professional football team stays in town.

fusilier, grading final exams for 650 James 2:24

I enjoyed science and math in high school, and quickly learned to avoid both in college. The undergraduate math classes were just dreadful–“Theorem. Lemma. Lemma. Proof. Theorem. etc.”. The professors would just stand there and copy proofs from the textbook to the blackboard.

Intro science classes, at least in my freshmen mind, involved a substantial risk of (1) pre-meds, (2) tedious labs to prove the obvious, and (3) mediocre teaching. So I majored in CS instead, where I could place out of several terms of intro classes.

Overall, I really wish I’d taken more math, engineering, and physics.

If you want to encourage students into the sciences, never overlook the lure of money. If there were more good, well-paid jobs for science graduates, more students would probably sign up. (Enrollment in our local CS department rises and falls in close synchronization with the average starting salary.)

I loved science in HS (Physics, AP Chem, Astronomy, & Biology).

Started as a college as a Geophysicists due to some encouragement by a scholarship.

Transferred schools and re-examined my educational desires. I narrowed the choices to either Astronomy or Aeronautical Engineering. After considering the job prospects, I decided that I could get a job as an AAE much easier than as an Astronomer. I took a lot of extra college science courses (Jr. level physics & chemistry that I didn’t need for graduation)

After 17 years in the job market I’m no longer working in anything related to my college courses.

I figure another 20 years or so and I’ll be able to retire. At that time I’m toying with the idea of trying to qualify to teach secondary science classes.

My question is this. Regardless of their education, who is going to major in STEM classes if there isn’t a good paying & interesting job waiting for them when they finish?

Many of my college friends made fun of me because my major was so much harder than theirs. My retort was that I had a better job waiting for me. If there isn’t a good (high paying) job waiting for the graduates of these programs, few will want to put that kind of effort into it.

I really enjoyed science in Junior High, then got turned off to it in high school by an odd sequence of events. Of course, I was also a terrible high school student. I had a few good history and social science teachers in high school (along with a fascination with politics) so I got propelled down the social science road in college and then onto graduate school.

So I suspect that there are a lot of badly taught science classes out there that turn students off. There are also a lot of badly taught econ, poli sci, anthro etc. courses that are badly taught and turn students off. I like to think my classes are not among those, but some of my students might see it differently.

All this said let me make one jaundiced observation. For each and every badly taught natural science (or social science or English lit) class, there are a large number of lazy students. When, where and how they learned to be lazy is a long story.

But I can tell you (speaking in generalities) the types of courses that tend to be popular at my University.

Courses that focus on the weird, the unusual and allow students to persist in the practice of not learning things systematically tend to be popular. Courses that require students to focus effort over a sustained period of time, that try to build on concept to concept and insist that students apply a bit of rigor tend to be unpopular. Of course, there are exceptions. Undergraduate psychology majors are pretty rigorous and yet psychology seems to be a pretty popular major.

A few years ago my wife decided to return to school and get a second degree-in biology. Last quarter she aced parisitology. Yet she told me that her fellow students were constantly complaining to her about the class and the teacher. So this makes me deeply sympathetic to her teacher because my students complain about exactly the same thing: I expect them to read the text.

Their complaint: the teacher actually expected them to read the textbook. So how do a bunch of undergraduate science majors come to get the expectation that they will be able to take an upper level class and not have to read the text? It isn’t that our science department is easy otherwise-because it isn’t.

Maybe it’s different at better schools. I suspect that its not that different elsewhere though, and that was an open admissions university just experience the same problems as everyone else does, only a bit more intensely.

Bottom line: a science majors is a lot of hard work. And while there is no doubt a lot that is done wrong in teaching, there is a lot more wrong with student expectations these days.

Here’s my list of things that need to be done, roughly in the order of most important to least:

1) Lots of good paying jobs 2) Good middle school introductory science classes & teachers to develop an interest 3) Good HS science classes & teachers (including AP) 4) Good college introductory classes & professors (put the weed out classes in the Sophomore year)

Even if someone is interested in a subject, they’re unlikely to invest all the time and money required in college if they don’t think they’ll be able to recoup the investment with a good job.

My thinking on the order in which the classes need to be addressed is that I first developed an interest in science at a relatively young age. Once my interest was built, a couple of bad classes didn’t change my feelings about it.

I have been a secondary school educator for a long time. This is a complex problem that will require a complex response, but there is one thing I have observed. Students coming in with a solid math background can handle just about anything you throw at them, even things that are not particularly mathematical. Students comfortable with math treat numbers as a form of communication; they see relationships easily and can understand what they mean because the language speaks to them. Even in my prep school there are a large number of students for whom numbers mean very little. If anything, putting numbers to things causes anxiety (these are the kids that divide by 100 on their calculator-they just don’t see what the numbers represent). These are not stupid kids- they handle very demanding humanities and foreign language courses in their time with us. However, their inability to understand the language of math makes them unable to appreciate the beauty and excitement in the physical sciences.

Our international students are years ahead of our American students in math, and can handle the advanced sciences even with a less than satisfactory command of English. It makes me question how we teach math at the elementary level. Students learn algorithms, but these fall apart when they must face conceptual problems that are quantitative. They can’t recognize an incorrect answer as obvious, for example. Math needs to be taught visually, orally, conceptually, with games, applied to science, cooking, anything to reach the little ones. Unfortunately, a lot of elementary educators are math-phobic too, and spend as little time as possible on it.

As illustration: when my son was in elementary school, they had a reading program where students collected points for books read and could trade these points for rewards. One of the rewards on the list was a day off from math homework. I hit the roof!

teachers “never made science this interesting when I was in school.”

My daughter, who is six years old, thinks science is boring! When I try to figure out what she means by this, I don’t get any clear explanation, so I suspect it’s a kind of kiddie group-think.

At home, from time to time, I show her something fun that has scientific principles involved. Recently we played with a large magnifying lens, seeing what materials catch on fire easily. And earlier I gave her a 6v battery, a light bulb and some wires with clips on the ends. We had a great time finding out what materials allow the bulb to light (barbies are not good conductors). She likes these activities but doesn’t know (from me) that they are “science”.

It’s in school she’s learning to “hate science”, and I worry that she is predisposing herself to hate it even when she’s older. I’ve seen this in other activities too, and suspect it’s part of the ‘boy vs girl’ games they play. When she was four she said once that “boys are doctors and girls are nurses” (!) She probably doesn’t even know the difference, but a result I now ask for the “lady doctor” in my daughter’s pediatric group.

I love science, wish I had pursued a scientific career, and hope my daughter will at least appreciate how exciting it can be.

But it seems counter-effective to first “teach” young people - especially girls - that “science is boring” and then later try to entice them back in.

I think the solution is to have “cool science” a regular part of the classroom. There should be regular and FUN demonstrations of scientific principles using, say, lots of liquid nitrogen and big flames. Or a wing that lifts the kids a foot or two off the ground. Or teach them to make catapults that actually break things. Keep all but the absolutely necessary “scientific explanations” out of the activities.

Of course, this won’t happen soon. Naturally schools must deal with funding, educational priorities, teacher knowledge, etc. But I think these are just symptoms of a bigger problem: science is made “boring” by society at large. Science is not “done” (vs “taught”) by anyone but “ivory tower” types, and only in institutions of “higher learning”. How many kids these days have an uncle or aunt who has a science lab/workshop in their house?? My dad - a chemist - did some of his research at home, and had to lock the door to keep me out of his hair.

Improving scientific learning and access to science is great. But if kids don’t grow up with it, don’t see it around them or hear adults talking about it, it’ll just end up an obscure field that only certain nerdy types do, not something that “normal people” do, and certainly not done for pleasure.

Based on the comments above, I would probably really enjoy sitting down with any of you over a couple of beers and talking about US math and science education.

I strongly agree with the idea that we have to address math and science education at the K-12 level, but I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of that undertaking. You cannot separate classroom instruction from the rest of society. Considering the mixed messages kids get from popular culture, parents, politicians; the poor funding of education in general, the low salaries and low regard of teachers, the unwillingness of school boards/teachers/parents to try new approaches; the sheer inertia that must be overcome, and it overwhelms you. And maybe that is the question to be thinking about: how can we effect change at that fundamental level - and convince all the people involved to get on board - when it is going to be costly and the real payback will be years, possibly decades, down the road?

Yes! Intro courses generally seemed to be overcrowded and boring, with little time available for discussion and arguing. To some extent, as an undergraduate, I could bypass the intro course (e.g., history of the world from the neolithic to WWII) and just take a higher-level course (e.g., Jacksonian-era US history). More important than the tighter focus of the upper-level courses was the interest of the teachers and students, and the opportunity to discuss the issues, rather than madly scribbling lots of notes. This was also true of the introductory science lab sessions, when there was greater opportunity to question and discuss the material. Furthermore, being a laboratory assistant (geology and biology) also benefitted me, as I had to come up with answers to all kinds of questions raised by the students as well as having to prepare lab exercises to illustrate the ideas being covered.

The lecture style also made a big difference in intro science–the best were those given by one of the physics professors. He frequently related personal stories of how he managed to solve problems (such as making a magnetometer out of a Clorox bottle and some scrounged wire, while floating on an iceberg).

Like others here, I tend to go with the view that this is a societal problem in the U.S., and not something that can handled within a single institution, such as the elementary school.

Look at the level of anti-intellectualism that is prevalent in the US, which is often covered by this website, and this view is only reinforced.

In some ways it was ever thus, but the world situation (i.e., few peer nations in science and tech) was such that those in the U.S. who did value S&T were able to keep up the country’s stature.

Now there are many other countries vying for the share of the pie that S&T can create for a country’s wealth.

Perhaps what it will take is the reality and realization that US stature and living standards are falling relative to the rest of the world for something to happen. This is a country, after all, that has a record of pulling together to address a certain issue when finally motivated to do so, but is piss-poor at sustained efforts to retain a level of investment to keep up anything very well.

The Reverend Jim Wrote:

The education system in the US won’t change without substantial accompanying changes in political, social and economic structures. So long as we view education as simply a means to produce more low-wage workers, we will never have well-educated citizens.

The Reverend and I find common ground at last, although I suspect we took different paths to get there. :>) Science and math are difficult subjects to master, and nowadays there are fewer incentives to make the effort. Although I support outsourcing, I admit it discourages native-born Americans from pursuing science-oriented fields, and our anti-intellectualism, with its concomitant embrace of the worst elements of our culture, doesn’t improve matters. I suspect that homeschooling will continue to make inroads in traditional education, and in the long run this will rejuvenate enthusiasm for the inhumanities. Or at least I hope.

Eric Wrote:

I enjoyed science and math in high school, and quickly learned to avoid both in college. The undergraduate math classes were just dreadful—“Theorem. Lemma. Lemma. Proof. Theorem. etc.”. The professors would just stand there and copy proofs from the textbook to the blackboard.

Yes! Eric, yer a man after Paley’s own heart! Math has to be the worst taught subject in the curriculum. Can anyone tell me why math “teachers” at all levels spend 90% of the time transferring the textbook to the blackboard? If you understand the text, the lecture is pointless; if you don’t, the lecture reinforces your insecurities. I recommend Morris Kline for further insight on this issue. I also find the American habit of shoving algebra down everybody’s throat to be quite dreadful. Outside of percentages, fractions, and statistics, math is completely irrelevant to many people’s lives, yet every child is forced to grind through mapping, domain and set theory. Stooopid.

i’ll tell you what science education needs in america.

More Jesus. the greatest scientist that ever lived.

Down here in Georgia, my middle school and high school science teachers were coaches for the baseball and football teams. Just so you don’t misunderstand, they were HIRED as COACHES. That has probably changed some in the intervening years, but it wasn’t really that long ago, and I bet some of those guys are still there, coachin’ and teachin’.

As a recent graduate of American public schools (from 1st grade through college), let me add a few comments of my own. Not really focused, just general ruminations.

I attended a magnet high school for science and technology in Virginia. It was an awesome school with its own scanning electron microscope, enormously talented kids, and labs in astronomy, biology, physics and optics, etc. where we had to do independent research projects to graduate (I did a project in the astronomy lab, calculating periods of variable stars- sounds cool, I know, but a bit deflating when you would work for a week to calculate the period to two decimal places and then look it up in the book to four decimal places). I really enjoyed my time there and learned a lot.

But the most important class I took wasn’t there: it was my 7th and 8th grade math classes, taught by Mr. Vern Williams ( He taught me to appreciate math. Before him, I didn’t like math and wanted to write history books with my life. Two years ago, I graduated with a CS and a history degree plus a physics minor, all because of him. He taught real math; no calculators allowed, no picture books, hell my 7th class didn’t even HAVE a book, just lecture notes and problems. Lots of problems. Hard problems. My 8th grade class (high school algebra I and geometry courses, each taught in half a year to 8th graders) he didn’t even check homework. You did the homework because you wanted to, because it was the only way to stay alive.

I often say that everything from 8th grade through 11th grade (integral calc) was merely a review and expansion on Mr. Williams 7th grade class, and it’s true. He changed my life, made me see the underlying principles in mathematics, helped us to see how it is used to solve problems, and got us to see the joy in it. Before I had his class math was kind of dull. Even probability and trig functions, the coolest thing we learned in sixth grade math, didn’t excite me. But after him I saw math everywhere, saw how useful it was, and was excited by it.

To my mind, all the talk about job prospects is orthogonal to the problem: my experience in engineering school was that the kids who were just in engineering classes to get a job after they graduated were the ones who left, moving over to the business school, law, or whatever, when they realized they didn’t really like what they were doing and there were easier ways to make more money. The kids who really liked playing with computers were the ones who stuck with it, who would stay up all night to write code, who would sit through boring classes and remember the important information in them afterwords, they were the ones who wanted to get jobs in the field.

Now I can see that someone with more experience would care deeply about the job prospects, but speaking for myself and my friends in the engineering program at UVA, we did it because we liked what we were doing, by and large. Now, the job prospects were certainly nice, but outsourcing didn’t really bother us; a recent phenomenon, to be sure, and remember that every kid that age thinks they are bulletproof. Look at all the people who know that only one in a hundred make it to the NBA but are convinced that they are that one in a hundred. If the job prospects for engineers were like that of the NBA, I think that you would still see a lot of people going into engineering schools, convinced that they were the ONE who would make it. I mean, the job prospects for people with humanity graduate degrees are significantly worse, and we still have far more of them than open job slots.

I am definitely coming at this from a slightly different direction. I started out as an engineering student and became an actor (making my mother proud). This was not because of specific subject matter, but rather because of general indifference to designing airplanes–I wanted to work in the space program.

While I eventually became disillusioned with what my program was teaching me, I have always retained an interest in the hard sciences (and curiosity about things I don’t know, in general). I seem to remember most of my freeshman classes as pretty fun: engineering chemistry was fantastic, quantum mechanics and relativity theory were also very interesting. It was somewhat later, with the specific fluid mechanics and a couple others where the horrific professors reared there heads. But this didn’t kill my love for science and knowledge.

I agree with many others here that it is more a societal problem: students these days just aren’t taught to be critical thinkers and perhaps aren’t that curious. It is these two problems that worry me the most. I teach in an arts program that brings theatre into the schools and I try to get my students to think about what we are doing and how it might apply it to other areas of life, including the sciences. It seems that many kids don’t ask and aren’t interested in doing something that isn’t set down and spelled out in front of them. By no means can this be a blanket statement, but I find more students without this drive than I had imagined before I started teaching.

One last thing: I think that science is inheritantly interesting. What can be cooler than finding out things that you didn’t previously know (and there’s a field for everyone). I agree that classes should be tough and not just a shiny bauble of XBOX science in order to make it look cool–yes even the intro courses should be rigorous. Rigorous isn’t synonomous with dull–science should be presented as a living process and not as a dry, rote subject–in this way society can see it as vibrant, interesting, and personally relevant.

may gravity be kind

I think a lot of elementary, middle and even high school teachers don’t know as much of what they’re talking about when it comes to science and math as they should. These are people who majored in education, and as a secondary focus, took a few classes in science or math. This probably doesn’t prepare them enough to know what the discipline is really like. I’m sure there are also excellent teachers out there who do know what they’re aiming at, but not all of them do, and some kids are going to get the ones who don’t.

In elementary school, I had an interest in math– not the kind of drudgework addition problems we did every day in school, but the kind of concepts I found in the children’s math encyclopedia which I checked out from the library practically every week. (I can still remember some of its presentations of concepts. I learned about exponentially increasing functions via a description of what would happen if vampires bit people and turned them into other vampires, and things like that.) And I went around saying I wanted to go into math, and my teachers were confused by this because I wasn’t disciplined enough to do my homework every day. And they told me things like, “No you don’t, you hate math,” and “What do you mean? You don’t even like to do the real math that’s in front of you.” And, as a consequence, I started believing that that was “real” math, and that for some reason I had changed and now hated it.

And do you know, when I got to high school and college I avoided math and science, and took high-level humanities courses, and in fact ended up doing so much extra work in foreign languages and English and whatnot that I barely managed to do my time in science courses. And my teachers and parents and advisors kept trying to help me with ways not to have to take math courses, and they kept saying “you wouldn’t like science, because you would have to do a lot of math.” And everyone kept encouraging me on this route, because from all the things my other teachers had said to me and the things I echoed back to people because it was what my advisors had said, everyone believed I didn’t like science and math. But that wasn’t true– it was just that I’d never really had science and math, but everyone treated it as something scary that I should avoid, so I listened to them and tried to avoid it. And if it weren’t for friends who incidentally exposed me to math concepts, I would probably still believe that it was all some mysterious thing that I officially didn’t like. But nowadays I know what math really is about, and it’s not very much like addition drudgery, and it’s a lot more like the concepts I wanted to study when I was seven. I wish my teachers back then had thought more about what real math is like, and I wish they’d instead said things like “do your addition first and someday you can get to the fun concepts.” Unfortunately, now that I have taken an interest again, I have practically no background whatsoever, and I’ve got to start over on my own from scratch if I decide I want to look into it, partly because my high school and college teachers and advisors– and my parents– went out of their way to help me avoid getting any background (and also, incidentally, any serious exposure to the subjects.)

It occurs to me that the elementary school teachers (who had to teach every subject) might have been science-and-math-phobic, and even the middle and high school teachers might not have been exposed to research in the field. Getting certified to teach a given subject doesn’t require as much immersion in the subject as I wish it would: I’m not certain of the exact requirements in my state, but I have a friend who teaches middle school, and he mentions things like co-workers who just pick up a second certification in another subject like it’s something you can do with a couple of night classes. These teachers might be people who enjoy the level of science and math that they get to teach to kids, but do all of them really know what they are (or aren’t) prepping kids to be?

Also, growing up (and this was in the 80s and 90s,) I heard a lot of “Girls can do anything they want! Even though you’re a girl, you can definitely study science and math if you want to!” from the culture in general– from TV, from posters at school, and so forth. Which had the subtle effect of making me think that although I was allowed to, I wasn’t expected to, and probably wouldn’t want to. I didn’t know history and I didn’t know about feminism; I was just a kid, for goodness’ sake. What was I supposed to conclude about circumstances that would make messages like that necessary?

I’m a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, and I recommend to the best and brightest that they get advanced degrees in math & economics.

Why the heck should somebody start in the industry- most of which is bloated with defense spending, and the unpredictability of long term work there- when they can work on Wall Street and immediately start at double the salary, with the potential to make millions, for doing what is essentially the same level of work?

Want to change the industry?

Change patent policies to make the individuals wealthy.

Then engineering schools will be fill to the brim.


I respectfully disagree with you.

The question of jobs is *not* orthogonal to the problem. You are living in an ivory tower if you think that your job prospects shouldn’t be a major consideration when deciding which major to pursue. Should you pick a major that you like? Yes. However, it is a very rare student that can afford to pursue any major they like without consideration for their post-graduation job opportunities to help pay back their student loans!

When co-ops, interns, and HS students (including my own) ask me about what fields to recommend. I do *NOT* recommend engineering.

There are a lot of really interesting jobs that our society needs filled. Really bright, hard working, and motivated students will have no problems completing a major that would equip them to fill any of a variety of jobs. So why would you recommend that someone go into Engineering (or Science) if another equally interesting job is available that pays much better?

When I was going through college everyone was bemoaning the fact that the US was losing the science and technology battle and that we needed more engineers and scientists. However, after graduation it took me 9 months to find a job. This strongly indicates to me that the market didn’t think that engineers & scientists were in short supply.

Now when people claim we need more science and engineering student graduates I *laugh*. If the US really wanted more science and engineering graduates, it would pay them more. That’s how the free market is supposed to work. However, instead of paying engineering and science graduates more, (my employer is guilty of this too) they hire engineers and scientists from overseas to come here and work for less or ship the job itself overseas (and this is happening to engineering design work in addition to IT work now too).

Do I think we should stop hiring foreign nationals to work here? No, but realize that because companies are able to fill their positions for high tech workers at a much lower cost, it is depressing the job prospects for our students.

This truly is a complicated issue and ignoring the actual job prospects for the graduates in these areas is a very big mistake.

My Ph.D. is in mathematics and I teach at a decent liberal arts college. I have three years work experience as a mathematician in industry, but most of my career has been in academia. Though trained in combinatorics, for the past two years I’ve been moving into mathematical biology, developing and co-teaching courses with biologists. I mention this just so my comments can be read in context.

I’ll be the first to aknowledge that there are dreadful problems with the way mathematics is taught, but a few of the observations made in the comments above are slightly off target. There is a real difference between a scientific outlook and a mathematical outlook. Roughly speaking, scientific statements are subject to external validation - if you get good data and it does not support your hypothesis, you toss the hypothesis, not the data. Mathematical statements are subject to internal validation - logical consistency, if you will, and the hell with the “outside” world. From this point of view, the “definition, lemma, lemma, theorem” approach makes a little more sense. It is, an any rate, an efficient way of organizing information for the benefit of people who are already committed to the study of mathematics, but not the best way to present the subject to most others. The interesting tension comes from using mathematics in science, but I think that would take me slightly off-topic here.

Dreary as they may be, there is some value to drill exercises that make arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry almost second nature. They aren’t glamorous and exciting in their own right (though kind of interesting from certain, broader perspectives), but they are the tools that let you think quantitatively. How in the world can someone understand a paper describing the allometric law relating metabolic rate to body mass unless they understand power law relations, exponential and logarithmic functions, and linear regression? If you have to run and look those things up every time you see them, what hope do you have of understanding the larger pattern of relationships exhibited by the data being modeled with those tools? If you are going to be scientifically literate, you have to be comfortable with those tools so that you can put your energy into thinking about the exciting science.

I wish I knew how to give younger kids those skills without driving them away from math (and science), but I don’t think the answer is to not teach those skills. Even with calculators and computer algebra systems, there is no replacement (in my view) for the intuition and ability to think through those complex - albeit, tedious - computations.

This all-to-frequent experience comes to mind. My pre-calc or calculus students use their calculators on a problem and come up with a patently wrong answer - say a negative value for the area under a curve - and write it down. They have no intuition telling them that something is wrong and they need to check their work. It is hard to make a lot of progress that way.

I think the concept of first year chemistry and physics courses being thought of as “weed-out” classes is really a sad state of affairs. I’ve been involved in a couple of planning meetings for the intro chemistry courses at my university, and I’ve never heard talk of conspiring to get rid of the pre-med students. I think that perception comes largely from the fact that those freshman courses are much harder than the chemistry and physics courses you take in high school. At least in my undergrad university, I found that my AP chemistry class didn’t really prepare me in the least for chemistry major chemistry my freshman year. Those people I knew that skipped intro chem because of the AP exam always lamented that they wished they hadn’t, because they missed so much.

Chemistry and physics are hard subjects, and getting students more interested in them isn’t going to change that fact. Not everyone can do it, and a lot of the complaints of weed-out are from pre-med students who are becoming disillusioned to that reality.

I agree with the people above who say that good science education should start young, with teachers that both understand and like the subjects they’re teaching. Growing up, I can count on one hand the number of good treatments of science I recieved in school. Most of the good stuff came from my parents. I think, above all, that the focus of science education until the high school level should be science appreciation, and ensure that people understand what science has given us, and what science is (sparing them the murky philosophical arguments).

Here’s my list:

1.Put perodic tables in all elementary school classrooms. 2.Design a variety lessons that examine our world for all elementary grades and make them available to teachers. 3.Make Earth Science start in kindergarten. Teach them what IS happening. Maybe states of matter, water cycle, carbon cycle, bi cycle, uni cycle etc. They can get a global picture without having to understand phase transitions or hardcore chemistry (refer to #1) 4.Show lot’s of Jacque Cousteau or Nova type movies. 5.Put perodic tables in all elementary school classrooms. 6.Do experiments in class. (My wife teaches middle school and has the students keep a science journal where they write down things they want to know, figure out how to test them, and draw pictures and describe observations.) 7.And did I mention that we should Put perodic tables in all elementary school classrooms?

Not the Cobb county periodic table either. Earth, Air, Fire, Water.

My experience might be a bit unusual relative to the other contributers, since I’m a Canadian and did most of my education there. (I was most recently at CMU, though, so I have some first hand perspective on the US scene.)

The issue that changed my mind fron science and engineering (I wanted to be a computer engineer originally) to philosophy was a realization that the questions I was interested in were more general than those addressed by traditionally scientific fields. I have kept up with some aspects of computing and other fields to make sure my philosophy of X is not ignorant of X, but this is difficult to say the least.

I think ways to encourage science and engineering (and other technological fields) are to (1) teach it young, including early critical thinking (2) focus on understanding the world, not doing hundreds of rote calculations (3) export the scientific method to social fields better (4) link science into other fields in general - education is so fragmented (5) work to improve the view of scientists and technologists in other contexts. S&T workers aren’t all Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation or that mathematician from Jurassic Park.

I managed to pull two BA majors- computer science and political science, before doing 3 years of a post BA PhD is CS. In the CS department, during my BA (which ended in 2000, just as the bubble was poised to pop) there were two types of students. Those who loved the field, and those that were there for the high paying job after.

After the bubble burst, the CS department enrollment fell by half. (I dont think this was a bad thing, but thats another issue) I wish I could say all that left were in the category of those that were there for the job. Some of the base left too- getting a technical or scientific degree is markedly harder than getting a humanities degrees- sorry, thats the way it is.

I for example, loved both computer science and political science. Had the chips fallen any harder for me, I probably would have left CS to go to law school. Humans are not incapable of loving and finding challege in more than one academic endeavor. If you want to keep people in T&S fields, you cannot forsake the effects of the job market.

For me it was worth it. I got an extremely interesting, highly financially rewarding career out of my time as a CS student. But the vast majority of my classmates did not, and the only difference between me and many of them is luck.

Speaking of wall street, I happen to work there. From personal experience, the best and brightest on wall street happen to have higher degrees in physics and math. The econ guys are there too, but for whatever reasons, they havent risen as far as the physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists. Many have dual degrees in CS, and I jingoistically assume their rise is because of this ;)

Someone earlier (I couldn’t find it again when I went to check who) mentioned the value of doing a research project as an undergraduate. I graduated from a department in a small university in Britain where student projects were required and it certainly stimulated us. In addition, we were encouraged to ask questions and the faculty were never defensive when they could not answer, if anything, they were pleased.

Years later, I helped establish the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Namibia, where the students came in very ill-prepared (during apartheid-days, an Education Minister said ‘One potato, two potatoes, what more do they need to know?’). We made a conscious effort to get the students to think for themselves. For each student a major part of their final year was spent doing some original research. This had a dramatic impact on the attitudes of many of the students who became fired with enthusiasm. It would have been even better if it occurred earlier, but it is hard to think of suitable original projects that could be done by first year students without too much supervision. I think the idea that they were finding out things that no-one knows about was particularly attractive.

I am now teaching courses to Education students in more or less remote communities in Canada. The last course was introductory biology, which had a textbook of over 1200 pages (I had no say in selecting it). It would have done as a text book for an entire degree, and several of the students found it overwhelming. It also bothered them that I was not giving complete details of everything that was in the chapters we referred to. This excessive detail seems to be a feature of biology texts in general. Although the authors may claim to be directed at students who require an introduction into the area, in practice the students feel they are floundering in a morass of information. I cannot say about other areas of science, but I have also taught statistics and there the textbooks are much more reasonable, covering what would be appropriate for just one or two courses.

I’ve been trying to think of striking experiments that you can do in chemistry, physics and biology, preferably ones that can be triggered without a great deal of preparation. Chemistry is obvious - just blow stuff up. The only thing I can think of for physics is some sort of Honda-esque array of moving parts. I can’t think of anything for biology that would appear particularly spectacular. Any thoughts?

The Ghost of Paley Wrote:

I also find the American habit of shoving algebra down everybody’s throat to be quite dreadful. Outside of percentages, fractions, and statistics, math is completely irrelevant to many people’s lives

There’s a very good reason for that, and it’s because advanced maths a) is enormously useful in almost all academic disciplines and b) if done right it helps enormously in training the mind to handle odd concepts. It’s quite noticeable that, as a maths student, I’ve been asked for (and been able to give) help by friends who are biologists, physicists, computer scientists, or even linguists. Not saying I’m in any way superior to them at their subjects - they have to acquire lots of skills that I don’t - but maths is excellent training for all sorts of problem solving.

erasmus Wrote:

More Jesus. the greatest scientist that ever lived.

I hope they don’t start teaching kids to turn water into wine. I tried something similar back in secondary school and ended up giving food poisoning to three of my friends.

Now answer my question. Do you think your religious opinions shouold be accepted as scientific evidence?

You are in no position to set the agenda for this thread or any other thread here. I will answer whatever I choose to, whenever I choose to, however I choose to.

So that would be “Yes, I do think my religious opinions should be accepted as scientific evidence”.

There are a lot of problems with science education in the US, which stretch all the way around the educational cycle. To fix the problems, they need to be attacked at multiple points around the cycle:

1) Public priorities and funding. When grade-school and high-school science is taught “on the side” by sports coaches, that tells everybody just what the school’s priorities are. Ditto when the school’s biggest capital improvement is the new football field, or when the state education budget gets ransacked to pay infrastructure shortfalls. This is something that can *only* be fixed by political action on every level, but especially local. Pro-science publicity can help, but it needs to get linked to the politics of education.

2) Educational system’s structural issues. In the US, education gets funded in a hodgepodge fashion – usually a mix of local, state, and federal funds. The local funds are typically based on property taxes, but in any case, they’re subject both to the local economy (poor vs. rich communities) and to demographics (number of parents actually using the public school system). The state funds can provide a first level of equalization, but there are also a) poor states (e.g. Missisippi, Alaska), b) states where private schooling siphons students and money from the public system, and c) states with demographics slanted against schools in general (e.g., Florida, with it’s large number of retirees). The federal funds are supposed to fill in the gaps of the other two sources, but they’re (also) subject to political interference and power, which consistently take precedence over need-based distribution. Note that while this hodgepodge of funding and authority makes it difficult to improve things, it also limits the damage that hostile politicos can do to national education!

3) The primary and secondary school system in the US have been heavily weighed down with social-control mandates as well as education. That is, they’re expected to keep the kids “in line” and out of trouble. Science education runs directly counter to that! Kids who really “get into” science are liable to do stuff like putting NI3 in the teacher’s desk, bringing assorted animals into school, blowing fuses with their electronics project, or evacuating the school with a chemistry project. All that stuff “Disrupts the Orderly Functioning of the School”, “Challenges the Policies and Discipline of the Administration”, and “Exposes the District to Lawsuits”. (The caps and quotes are my attempt at a sardonic tone.) Of course, those dangerous ideas about “open debate” and “reality testing” undercut the authority of the teachers and administrators in general. Then too, America is afraid of it’s children. These days, any “unauthorized behavior” by students is liable to be punished, and may well get them arrested. Of course, the most severe punishments within the school system are… suspension or expulsion from school!

4) We know quite a lot about how to teach math and science in encouraging fashion. But that involves changing the traditional methods. It’s not so much that the system is restricted by tradition, but most attempts to change the system involve political issues, and every time those land “on the table”, the entire system is left open to attack from all sorts of political agendas. Note that while this applies most directly to grade schools (K-12) it shows up in colleges et seq as well.

Big screen, high-definition televisions, weekly broadcasts of cool stuff for elementary and junior high kids – perhaps coordinated with state standards, but probably not.

Most of my friends in science agree a lot of the fun stuff can’t be done in schools anymore – exploding stuff, smoking and stinking stuff. That should be done on video for 30 minutes or so, with a great session on just what happened. Have you seen the videos of the Purdue U contest to light a barbecue quickest? The one with the liquid oxygen is a real winner.

The sessions should cover cool stuff – all the poisonous critters in Australia, for one; how snakes eat stuff bigger than their heads, and digest it; how owls make those cool pellets Cub Scouts dissect. That sort of stuff.

Television could be a powerful tool. It’s not, now. PBS could be the catalyst; or Berkeley’s evolution project could do it. But somebody has to step up to the plate and show how television can be used, and do it on a mass scale just to make sure.

Lots of demonstrations. Some cool animation, but mostly real demonstrations.

Remember the astronaut dropping the feather and the hammer at the same time – on the Moon? That should be required watching for kids before they hit seventh grade.

Naked mole rats. Iguanas swimming in the Galapagos. Volcanoes. Water eroding the Grand Canyon. Giant squids. You can’t do them in the classroom, but you could watch it, and it would be wonderful, in an exciting video.

Along with science they should be paying more attention to medicine where there is a constantly insreasing shortage of nurses.

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This page contains a single entry by Tara Smith published on December 16, 2005 1:50 AM.

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