Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"I'll Never Use The Skills I Learned In Physics"

Yup! Don't be surprised if most of the students taking intro physics classes, especially those made for non-science majors, have that kind of attitude and understanding. This business major at UIUC, no less, had no qualms in expressing the belief that nothing that she learned out of a physics class will ever be used by her later in life.

It does not matter what field of work you go into, whether it's education, journalism or engineering, the common denominator that all students (hopefully) have when we graduate is that we will all be making money. So, why then, is there no required class about basic money management? I can guarantee I will never use the skills I learned in 'Physics 140: How Things Work' in my future professional or personal life, but the same is not true for nursing and communication majors that will need to know how a 401(k) works just as much as a business major.

The problem lies in three different areas:

1. Of course, this person doesn't know that in a modern civilization such as ours, we are always faced with issues that are based on scientific and technological understanding. At some point, the public will be asked to fun, via taxpayers money, various scientific endeavors. While the decision on what to fund is left to various agencies and peer-reviews, it still requires a knowledgeable public to support such funding. This is especially true in the election of scientifically-literate political representatives, or at least someone who appreciates the importance of funding science. This translates directly from a scientifically literate population, not from a population in which almost 50% of it does not know that the earth orbits around the sun.

2. The "skills" that one learn out of a physics/science course goes BEYOND physics. It is a skill of thinking things through and systematically. It is the skill in knowing what KIND of evidence is required for something to be considered to be VALID. This is highly important no matter what you do. How do you know that something somebody utters on TV is valid? Most of the time, people are persuaded not based on valid evidence, but based on personality of the presenter and all the bells and whistles. Apply this to the world of politics, where phrases fly off into the air as if they are facts, or as if simply by saying it, it is true. The same can be said with regards to the battle between evolution and creationism. The inability of some members of the public to actually think through something THIS obvious clearly shows that the skill of analytical thinking isn't there!

3. At some level, it is also the fault of the educators. When non-science students are required by their curriculum to take such classes, make it as plainly obvious as possible on WHY they are asked to take such classes. These are not stupid kids here, and if you reason with them plainly and simply on what valuable skill and knowledge that they can obtain out of such classes, I will bet you that they will show a lot more interest and be conscious of what skill they acquire. I had tried to do just that when I suggested a series of intro physics experiments in the revamping of the undergraduate physics laboratories. Make it explicit on the nature of the skill that they will be learning, and how they will have to think things true in making the connection between what they observe, and what they can deduce as valid.

I am convinced that a large part of the public has the same understanding of the usefulness (or lack of usefulness) of the skills they learn out of science/physics classes, the same way this person does. She is just one of the few brave enough to voice what we all already suspected. And in the end, it helps to contribute to the ignorance of the importance of physics, and perpetuate the notion that physics only deals with esoteric, non-useful idea that have no connection whatsoever with everyday lives.

That wrong idea has got to change.



Unknown said...

As long as people are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge and basic reasoning skills we will continue to end up with polarized debates over topics like: creation v. evolution, global-warming fact or hoax, the ethics of stem cell research, etc.

It is impossible to come to any reasonable conclusion without some basic scientific knowledge, and equally impossible to determine the validity of arguments presented without basic reasoning skills.

Unfortunately, Americans as a whole, and especially in my part of the country seem to have dismally poor science educations.

A national lack of scientific education and teaching of critical thinking skills is a threat to democracy and progress.

Kudos to you for speaking up.

Anonymous said...

"and perpetuate the notion that physics only deals with esoteric, non-useful idea "

hey, didn't Carnot show that perpetual notion is impossible?

oh, wait...

but i do agree. it's not necessarily the physics itself that they need, it is the problem solving and critical thinking skills that the DEFINITELY need.