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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Real reasons why science education might be declining

Ed Sisson
Jeremiah the doomster insists that science education has been going downhill ever since it started, so presumably there is no bottom to the hill. That said, any kind of education could in fact be declining at a given time, and Jeremiah fulfills his duty in causing us to pause to wonder.

Here, for example, is the report by13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute professors on how to “change the culture of science education.” Their concern is commendable, but their report is the usual wish list for things that won’t and can’t happen. For example, they quote
“We’re trying change the mindset of the research faculty. There’s a sense that teaching isn’t important in review or promotion or tenure, and unless research universities take a role in making teaching important, it’s going to be very difficult to get faculty to invest more and change their methods.”

- Jo Handelsman
No research university is likely to do this. Star researchers want to research and will go elsewhere if they are cumbered with teaching - except when teaching essentially means recruiting reliable postdocs.

Friend Edward Sisson has a somewhat different, thoughtful take on it:

A major goal of their initiative is "to help ignite the spark of excitement in their undergraduates."

Science first got exciting to a large percentage of young people in the late 1940s. This was due to its role in the following:

1) communications: television, bringing entertainment and news into the home, and transistor radios, making music (via radio stations) portable in small objects

2) defense: atomic weapons and jet aircraft, and rockets
3) transportation, via jet airliners (spin-off from defense work in jets)

4) exploration of the planets and the moon, via rockets (spin-off from defense work in rockets)

5) cheap widespread electricity from atomic power plants (spin-off from defense work in atomics)

6) health discoveries: drugs (antibiotics) and machinery (artificial hips, etc.)

Science has become unexciting because all of these have either slowed down, or produced uninteresting results. To whit (in a different order):

4) the planets are boring to almost everyone. Now that we've checked them all, we find just rocks and gas. The most interesting, Mars, has its counterpart on Earth in the Atacamba Desert of Chile & Peru. The Atacamba interests the public not at all. To the public, the most interesting things on Mars are the things we have put there: the two Rovers in particular. The entire planet is basically a large yard for us to drive remote-controlled cars around.

2) defense lost its urgency once it was clear we had outclassed the Soviet Union in technology, and even moreso after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Plus the long-standing anti-military fervor of the left, which largely sways academia, has damped-down the excitement level. A university that has barred the ROTC for years is in no position to tell students that it is exciting to do science for the purposes of aiding military progress.

5) civilian atomic power-plants and widespread cheap electricity was shut-down by scare-mongering: Three-Mile Island, the movie "The China Syndrome," then Chernobyl.

3) transportation hasn't changed significantly since the 1970s. Shutting-down the SST (i.e., Concorde) ensured that. It may well be that shutting down the SST, due to environmental factors and noise, was the right thing to do; but its effect in stopping development of faster transportation ought not be denied, and thus its effect on the excitement of science as applied to transportation. Automobiles are basically the same as in the 1970s. A generation that as kids in the 1960s watched the cartoon Jetsons traveling in flying cars, and in the 1960s and 1970s watched the Star Trek crew "transporting" from starships to planets and back, is not too excited by what we have today.

1) communications: television has remained basically unchanged since the early 1970s. We have more channels, but each is basically the same as the original "three." The significant new element is computers and "smart phones" which do excite the young -- as I know from my own two teenagers. The young find it exciting to use them, but do not find it exciting to design them. If the science community had social savvy, it would be publicizing the individuals who design these, making them into public heroes. This is not happening.

6) health discoveries: the human genome was sequenced 10 years ago, yes? I saw an article recently that noted that this has not resulted in genetics-based miracle cures, or indeed any cures, contrary to predictions and hopes at the time. Cancer is still not solved.

On top of this, we read stories today of the glut of PhDs who can't find work; the drudgery of life as a post-doc; the boringness of life in the lab; the nasty politics of tenure-getting. Pharmaceutical companies are demonized because drugs are too expensive for the third-world and the fixed-income elderly; who then wants the name of a pharmaceutical company as their employer? The anti-military movement, the environmental-protection movement, and the third-world-redistribution movement each send out a powerful message that denigrates th major institutions that employ scientists, and thus tarnishes the reputation of people who choose to go into science.

And on top of that, we have a biological science community devoted to telling us we have no divine spark, we are just advanced apes, sprung accidentally from mud.

Is it any wonder that the intelligent young people who would make the best scientists take a look at this and, applying their intelligence, decide that science is not a field they want to choose? Do they not make the very rational conclusion that a life spent in science would not be exciting? That in fact, it would be a life of drudgery, disappointment, and denunciation?


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