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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Science education: Yawn Central ... oh, no, wait! This just in ....

In an American election year, the science lobby worries that many people don't know enough about science to make informed decisions, according to G. Jeffrey MacDonald ("Are we science-savvy enough to make informed decisions?", USA Today, August 8, 2008):
... only 26% believe that they themselves have a good understanding of science. And 44% couldn't identify a single scientist, living or dead, whom they'd consider a role model for the nation's young people.

These results are disturbing, science education experts say, because scientists aren't the only ones who must distinguish solid scientific methods from bogus ones. Some important scientific questions are being debated this year, including food safety, imported-product safety and the effect of biofuels.
But most of their recommended solutions won't be much use because people either can't or won't follow them. I think a Media Studies course would be more useful - if it improves skill in distinguishing how information becomes "news" and how to distinguish hype from hope.

Meanwhile, another round of kvetching about "why American kids don't like science", this time featuring Mr. Microsoft himself. Bill Gates, according to Peter Wood at, offers a solution:
... while Gates didn't make the point in so many words, his call for more H-1B visas was really testimony to the incapacity of American education to inspire children to take an interest in science and motivate young adults to follow though. He noted that 60 percent of the students at the top American computer-science departments are foreign-born.
Woods comments,
Let me offer a different explanation. Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market's demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off - often too far to see. But 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?"

- How Our Culture Keeps Students Out of Science (August 8, 2008)
Well, East Coast American lawyer Edward Sisson, a sympathizer of the intelligent design theorists - who told me to go ahead and say so - couldn't resist giving Wood's article a "thrashing" and invited me to print his comments here. Done!
As the father of two teenagers, I make a point of watching the TV shows they like, while I am with them. What they watch are shows in which sports stars show off their fancy houses ("cribs") and fancy cars and swimming pools etc. Or else they watch shows set in high schools, in which the students are never shown studying, they are shown in their social lives (always dynamic) and sports, and in lives filled with family conflicts and friends-conflicts. Or they watch shows like America's Next Top Model (fashion modeling) or Project Runway (fashion clothes design) or other competition talent shows (American Idol (pop singing) being the premiere example). Or shows like The Apprentice (business entrepreneurs) or Top Chef (high-fashion cooking). In summary, shows involving young people engaged in emotionally passionate activities. If the science community can come up with a way of making a show that shows young would-be scientists or engineers involved in exciting competitions, it ought to do so.
Woods noted,
Success in the sciences unquestionably takes a lot of hard work, sustained over many years. Students usually have to catch the science bug in grade school and stick with it to develop the competencies in math and the mastery of complex theories they need to progress up the ladder. Those who succeed at the level where they can eventually pursue graduate degrees must have not only abundant intellectual talent but also a powerful interest in sticking to a long course of cumulative study. A century ago, Max Weber wrote of "Science as a Vocation," and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.
Sisson replies,
The TV shows I described above sometime show the fruits of success for people who are successful in those fields: sports stars' fancy houses, cars, etc.; the lives of fashion models or fashion clothes designers or pop singers or business entrepreneurs. If the science community can come up with a way of making a show that shows that successful scientists or engineers are rewarded with exciting lives, it ought to do so.
Woods notes,
At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn - and worse, fail to develop as "whole persons" - if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren't among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who "feel good" about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.
Sisson replies,
This is false. The TV shows teens like are full of emotional moments where someone is told he or she does not measure up on the merits and has to leave. I have never met a teenager -- and I meet lots, having both a teen boy and a teen girl -- who has an over-assessment of his or her abilities due to undue praise from parents or teachers, or who feels that he or she does not need to work hard at "intellectual ascents" because he or she has already achieved an "intellectual ascent."
Woods notes,
The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences. Modesty? Yes, for while talented scientists are often proud of their talent and accomplishments, they universally subscribe to the humbling need to prove themselves against the most-unyielding standards of inquiry. That willingness to play by nature's rules runs in contrast to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along insouciance that characterizes so many variants of postmodernism and that flatters itself as being a higher form of pragmatism.
Sisson replies,
The comment immediately above applies here too. The self-praise of scientists who "universally subscribe to the humbling need to prove themselves against the most unyielding standards" far better describes every high-school jock who wants to excel in sports.
Woods notes,
The aversion to long-term and deeply committed study of science among American students also stems from other cultural imperatives. We rank the manufacture of "self-esteem" above hard-won achievement, but we also have immersed a generation in wall-to-wall promotion of diversity and multiculturalism as being the worthiest form of educational endeavor; we have foregrounded the redistributional dreams of "social justice" over heroic aspirations to discover, invent, and thereby create new wealth; and we have endlessly extolled the virtue of "sustainability" against the ravages of "progress." Do all that, and you create an educational system that is essentially hostile to advanced achievement in the sciences and technology. Moreover, those threads have a certainty and unity that make them not just a collection of educational conceits but also part of a compelling worldview.
Sisson replies,
Again, false. Only a minority of students make social politics their priority, and the students who have a personality prone to want to get into social activism are unlikely ever to choose the very different kind of life offered by science. Much of this article devolves into denunciation of liberal social trends in education. Regardless of whether you like those trends or not, I see no relationship between those trends and the decisions of students not to pursue lives in science.
Woods notes,
In his testimony, Bill Gates did more than glance at the failures of American schooling. Our record on high-school math and science education is particularly troubling. International tests indicate that American fourth graders rank among the top students in the world in science and above average in math. By eighth grade, they have moved closer to the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, our students score near the bottom of all industrialized nations. As a result, too many of them enter college without even the basic skills needed to pursue a degree in science or engineering.
Sisson replies,
Again, false. This is not a failure of schooling, the decline over the years between 4th grade and 12th grade reflects the fact that higher and higher percentages of each class of students learns, over the years, how comparatively dry and un-passionate and un-remunerative a life in science is as compared to other paths of life in America, fewer and fewer see any reason to prepare for a kind of life they just don't want to lead. Is not the Dilbert strip a fairly accurate portrayal of the quality of life most such students would lead, if they took that path? Why would we expect any student to want to grow up to be Dilbert?
Woods notes,
On the other hand, nothing in his testimony suggested recognition that American education's cultural imperatives play a role in diminishing the importance of science and technology in the eyes of the great majority of students. I don't take it as a tragedy if our top graduate programs fill up with ambitious and talented students from abroad; if we need to issue more H-1B visas to sustain our high-tech industries, let's do it with dispatch. Welcoming some of the world's most educated, talented, and ambitious scientists to our shores only strengthens the nation. But the apathy of so many homegrown American students to the intellectual challenges of science is something else - something that building schools, multiplying computers, and ginning up STEM programs won't touch.
Sisson replies,
For foreign students, Dilbert's life may well be better than any other option they can see for themselves. Not so for American students.
Woods notes,
Bill Gates may not be the right person to tell us how to restore that mixture of awe, admiration, sheer ambition, delight in meeting difficulties, and stubborn curiosity - the patient exuberance - that draws students into the adventure of science. A few of our students catch it despite the preoccupations of their teachers and their textbooks. But what to do about the larger problem? I'm starting my own Hilbert's list [of unsolved math problems].
Sisson replies,
American students do not believe science is an adventure. They think it is Dilbert's life. If it really is an adventure, why aren't there TV shows that show what an adventure it is? If America can make a show that makes fashion clothing design an adventure, America can make a show that makes science an adventure. If, in fact, it is.

The biggest problem here is that the promise of science-as-an-adventure, as promoted in the 1950s and 1960s, plainly failed. The big impetus for American science education was Sputnik and the space race. I have a colleague who remembers that era vividly -- he was in grade school and suddenly science was all the rage. This was the great driver of science education in America: the exploration of space. Well, we went to the moon-- and, in the public's opinion, there wasn't anything exciting there. We sent fly-by probes to all the planets, and again there wasn't anything exciting, as far as the public is concerned. We landed two rovers on Mars - and the most exciting thing about this achievement is our own rovers, and how long they have lasted. What the rovers actually saw, and explored, wasn't exciting. Now we have a Mars digger, and it's finding water ice. Exciting?

No. From the late 1700s through to the early 1900s people thought there were vast water canals, there could be civilizations -- so a little ice is not exciting, it is a big let-down. And now it appears perhaps the soil there is antagonistic to life.

And, of course, to turn to our key issue, the science world repeats endlessly that life bubbled-up out of mud or other matter, and its course of development into us was a giant accident, and there is no reason to pay any attention to any idea of God -- and then they put the label "isn't this exciting" on a picture of the world and of us that is as desolate and boring as the surface of the Moon, or the surface of Mars. And believe me, the public does find them boring.

My area's cable TV provider includes the NASA channel. It has zero production values. Endless long sequences out the shuttle window of earth below. Nerdy astronauts in dorky clothes describing how they turn knobs and so forth. The public just doesn't see any adventure in this. That isn't the fault of the schools, it is the fault of the fact that what science has actually discovered doesn't excite, and the process of discovering it conveys no adventure.

When you're in the broccoli business you can spend hours telling people that broccoli tastes as fun as ice cream. But folks, it doesn't. If you're selling broccoli to a community that otherwise has only rice or potatoes to eat, you may get a lot of satisfied customers. But in America, science is a broccoli stand surrounded by ice cream parlors. That's the reality.
I think Sisson is on to something there, on at least two points:

Foreign students: Yes, absolutely. As a Canadian, I get nervous when I hear Americans bellyaching about the number of "foreign" students at their universities (I know they mean my #1 son-in-law, among others, even if they are too polite to spell it out). But getting into a posh US U is a vital career asset to many foreign students, one for which they will sacrifice much. And a career in science is of much more use if you need to provide for your family than a career in art history would be. So it's not exactly a choice anyway.

Science as dullness raised to an art form: Does anyone remember the scene in Mrs. Doubtfire where the Robin Williams character points out that the kids' science show currently airing is just awful? As Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin transforms the show, and it takes off.

But yes, all too many science shows do sound like Dr. Snore the Science Bore rather than the wonderful March of the Penguins. But whoops!, March was accused of being an ID-friendly documentary, and the producers went to the trouble of denying it, pointing out that, after all, penguins are not faithful to their spouses. ...

So here we are, folks, at the crack of Yawn ...

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