Tuesday, September 25, 2007

When Science Suddenly Mattered, in Space and in Class

This is a New York Times piece on the same issue on the importance of science and mathematics education. It is disheartening to realize that even after several studies spanning many years, the issue of the lack or weakening of the importance of science and mathematics education hasn't gone away and, according to some, is worsening.

In 1983, a bipartisan federal commission warned in the report “A Nation at Risk” that the country was engulfed in a “rising tide of mediocrity,” citing particularly a “steady decline in science achievement.”

More than 20 years later, a panel established by the National Academies, the nation’s leading organizations in science, medicine and engineering, said much the same thing. In “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a report issued in 2005, the panel said the erosion of the nation’s scientific and technical strength threatened America’s strategic and economic security.

Of course, if you have followed this blog, there seems to be no end in the different methodologies done at both the high school level and at the college level to try to raise the interest of the students to study science and mathematics. It appears that most of the blame for the lack of science education in the US falls on the way it is being taught.

There is no shortage of ideas about how to turn things around. But people who study the issue see several problems.

Dr. Malcolm said some of the blame must go to the way classes are taught, with too much emphasis on memorizing terminology and not enough on concepts. Most students receive teaching-to-the-test instruction, she and other experts say, in which science laboratories are organized like cookbooks, with ingredients, equipment and instructions — and results — known in advance.

Ideally, Dr. Malcolm said, students should be given the chance to do real research — to experience framing a question, deciding what kind of evidence is relevant and figuring out how to collect it. “I’m not saying there’s not drudgery in science,” she said, “but when you get to the point where all the data are sitting in front of you and you start seeing patterns and nature begins to speak — that’s a kick.”

I certainly think that how it is being taught can make a difference. However, speaking for myself, I came out of such a system that is being criticized, and I know many others who do. In fact, if you look at the educational system in China and Japan, the two nations who are now producing scientists and engineers at a very high rate, they have a system that is even more rigid than the US. Almost every point of criticism that is in this article are what is being practiced there. Yet, it is working effectively in those places and they seem to be producing quite a number of excellent scientists.

I don't think it is all on the educational system. I think a major part of the lack of interest in studying science is (i) the perceived lack of importance and (ii) the perceived lack of employment that is commensurate with the amount of education one has to obtain. Let's face it, not many people are willing to spend 4 years in undergraduate education, 6 years in graduate school, then maybe 3-4 years as a postdoc, and then maybe, just maybe, get a $50,000 starting salary.

Until being a scientist, and in particular, being a physicist, is perceived to be a viable and realistic job opportunity, not many students will consider it.


1 comment:

Kent Leung said...

Why is the market for physicists/scientists is not self-regulating. As in, if there is a demand for scientists, then their wages should naturally increase. So I don't think there is a shortcut for physicists in the job market.