Ramblings about what I encounter within the realm of the geosciences, as well as the occasional rant about nonsense.

07 August 2008

What we need more of is Science!

The immortal rhyming of M.C. Hawking (seriously, if you haven't heard "nerdcore" you haven't experienced true geek-dom) nails a problem with American society on the head. I am certain that everyone reading this blog thinks the current level of scientific literacy in this country is a joke, but it is still being talked about in the media (at least the media can pull itself away from which "Canton" Stephen Colbert is insulting now).

However, nobody can agree on what should be done to improve science standards in this country. This article, by Peter Wood, recently hit the web (from an issue dated 8-8-08, the temporal flux of the internet is truly something to goggle at). It laments a growing disinterest in science by American youth. While I agree that this is tragic, it doesn't propose how we fix this problem (rather it seems to say science isn't at fault, so leave us be).

Wood starts off explaining how the problem is affecting society, specifically it mentions the dilemma of maintaining America's high tech industries if we don't produce quality science literate citizens. Good point. It boggles the mind how this problem developed in the first place. The government has attempted to foster an appreciation for science:
Back in 2003, the National Science Board issued a report that noted steep declines in "graduate enrollments of U.S. citizens and permanent residents" in the sciences. The explanation? "Declining federal support for research sends negative signals to interested students." That seems unlikely, in that the alleged decline hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of students from all around the world for our country's graduate programs.

The precipitous drop in American science students has been visible for years. In 1998 the House released a national science-policy report, "Unlocking Our Future," that fussily described "a serious incongruity between the perceived utility of a degree in science and engineering by potential students and the present and future need for those with training."

Wood disagrees with this assessment. I concede he probably has a point, but when I became a science major all my friends' first comment to me was "What are you going to do with that?". And they continued to give me grief about it until I pointed out starting salaries for oil companies. So while I agree that market forces aren't the only thing keeping students out of science, in my experience it is a component.

Wood argues "cultural imperatives" are what is keeping people out of the sciences. By this, he means it is the science teachers (and the text books) fault for destroying an interest in science. Leaving behind only individuals who feel "a calling" to do science.
...they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren't very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, "Why bother?"
Around this point Wood gives scientists a good long ego-stroke about how awesome we are. We are diligent, highly intelligent, and we can control space-time (wait, I think the last one is about Tom Cruise). While, I'll take the compliment, I don't think he is correct in this stance. The whole point of people studying ANY field is because it doesn't feel like work.
"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
Wood then places the blame squarely on individuals who think children should be praised for learning things (i.e. teachers). And this leads to an exaggerated self esteem on the part of students. I don't agree that this is a problem. Rather, in my experience, I have found most individuals feel insufficient to take on science. Ever since I started college I have met many people (too many to count in my head) who, upon finding out I study science, feel the need to tell me "I am not very good at science" (this is assuredly because they have an inflated sense of accomplishment). I even tutored most of the people who would tell me that (hey, we were undergrads and met in class, I wasn't going to say: "screw you peon, you don't deserve to know the secrets"). With a bit of encouragement, they found that they can do just fine (and usually excel) in science. Here lies my point: The people who undertake science tend to be the conceited ass-holes that Wood is decrying. While the people who don't have this self-assurance tend to leave science alone.

While still in undergrad, I was double-majoring in geology and science education. I got on well with everyone in the education classes, except the science education students. They would belittle the other student teachers, and comments like "well that might work for you, but I teach science" were almost the norm. Now, I know, this can't be the norm for people who make it through the program (my professional teacher partnerships were always loads of fun, with no stuck-up attitude) I am just pointing out how the science education students would come off. And how, once again in my experience, it is the science-oriented students who are brimming with an undeserved sense of accomplishment.

Wood follows this point with a follow-up that scientists are modest, even humble. Continued ego-stoking aside, I don't find that the case. One of my profs. told us that it takes a good deal of hubris to publish any scientific paper. He didn't mean it in a negative context; rather it was a cautionary warning that if we don't keep ourselves in check, we will develop an over-sized ego. I have worked with several scientists who maintain this position, the most notable of which refuses to call himself anything other than a "glorified janitor" and will even clean the toilets at the end of a workday if he feels his ego is getting too big.

Wood also states that it is America's drive for diversity that is hurting the advancement of science. I can see where he is coming from on this one, though I don't necessarily buy the argument. If we have to cater to showing a multi-cultural view of science, that will hinder science. This is because, with a few notable exceptions, science was performed by men of sufficient financial means to support their endeavors. So students, who aren't rich white guys, don't see themselves reflected in science.

I have seen this argument elsewhere, notably in the chess world. At one point, the chess federation was trying to attract more women to chess. One solution they tried was to use dolls to replace the pieces (I kid you not). Surprisingly such a solution didn't work (I mean, what woman doesn't like being condescended to?). Such a solution to the science problem won't work either. Don't water down science, don't condescend to students. They will pick up on it and it won't work.

Around this point is where Wood jumps off the wagon. He argues that it isn't a problem that women and minorities aren't represented in science, because it isn't science's fault.
A society that worries itself about which chromosomes scientists have isn't a society that takes science education seriously.
Well, I'll be frank. The more people from different backgrounds involved in science, the more perspectives a phenomenon receives. The more perspectives a problem receives, the quicker science can address the phenomenon. The quicker science can address a phenomenon, the quicker science advances... and the loop repeats. Just because the NSF is concerned about the gender gap, doesn't mean we have stopped doing science. Papers are still being published, and classes are being taught. Organizations like the NSF, are only trying to reach a broader group of potential scientists. Let me reiterate: This is a good thing.

Peter Wood has commented that it is society's fault that students aren't interested in science. It is that we engender students to have confidence in their abilities, when they deserve none (or at least significantly less than we impart). I cannot agree with this statement. Science students display a tendency towards arrogance. Non-science students tend to be intimidated by science (thus the over-whelming success of pseudo-science and new age quackery prevalent in this culture). And it is easy to see why. I have already gotten into arguments with individuals who vehemently disagree with my thesis. It is intimidating when another, more experienced, scientist starts trying to tear you an academic new one. I took his criticisms in stride and did my best to respond to them, but after 30 minutes of being harangued, I would much rather have just walked away. It got worse when one of his regular collaborators wandered over to watch the show. As it was, I only got him to leave by shaking his hand and thanking him for his input (which, to this day, I find mostly useless).

Here is the honest truth; society isn't solely to blame for science's woes. The diversity of departments is not solely to blame for it either. These may contribute to be sure, but I don't think they are the major component. The problem lies with the fact that not enough scientists find the encouragement to continue, and they end up falling between the cracks. This problem cannot be solved by throwing money at it. It cannot be solved by making science "pink" (or any other color for that matter). It can only be solved by departments hiring individuals with a true passion for teaching. If students receive an education from a competent, compassionate source they are most likely to not give up.

This is not only for universities (though they should probably take the lead in this). High schools and middle schools need more, qualified teachers (and this is only made more difficult by schools losing funding if they don't pass exams). An odd disconnect happens somewhere between grade school and high school where science isn't "fun" anymore. This would be solved by the presence of more, qualified teachers. To get these teachers in place, the universities need to have the passionate, patient professors helping to get students through what, the students perceive, they cannot do.

My sister recently started a stint as a professor (not in science, but that is okay). She asked me for some advice on how to teach students. I told her the best thing that all teachers need, to convey their subject, is summed up in one word: patience. Don't rush a student (harder in the large lectures, but do your best), don't belittle a student or their efforts (trust me, if they are anything like me, they belittle themselves enough), just let the students know you are in their corner and are always willing to help.

Another prof. of mine once explained that being a professor is an odd job. You are part coach, part athlete, and part cheerleader (he also coached little league, so sports analogies were common). Coach, because you had to tell them what they did wrong. Athlete, because you are showing them how it is done. And cheerleader, because you have to always root for them no matter how bleak they perceive the situation to be.

The way to solve this problem is not to tackle it from the top (institution wide), rather the problem must be solved from the bottom (profs. have to take it upon themselves to do this properly). And to do this, we only need to inform future generations of academics that they can make a difference, albeit a small one, if they encourage their students (and develop their students' confidence). The problem won't be solved overnight (maybe not in my lifetime) but small steps can be made in the right direction.

And now, some geeksta rap. Take it MC Hawking!

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All the Latin on this page is from my vague recollections from High School. There are mistakes in the text. I just was trying to get the point across

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM
The photo of the travertine spring was taken in the small opening in the center of the image.

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