Fake Banner
    Science is Hard...
    By Alex "Sandy" Antunes | November 5th 2011 07:30 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Alex "Sandy"

    Read more about the strange modern world of a day laborer in astronomy, plus extra space science-y goodness....

    View Alex "Sandy"'s Profile
    ... and we teach it wrong.  That's the conclusion of a NYT op ed, titled 'why science majors change their minds (it's just so darn hard)'.  Aimee Stem (here at Science2.0) argues that it's in part a diversity issue, that we're focusing our effort on the wrong age group.  I'd argue that the core is how we teach.

    Make no mistake, science is hard.  So is finance, and come to think of it, history wasn't a cake-walk either.  English majors have to read and write copious amounts of text.  Law school difficulty was made famous in 'the Paper Chase'.  Put simply, any well-executed major is and should be hard.

    I agree with the article that discusses the perils of 400-student lectures, the grind of Junior/Sophomore year physics theory, and the difficulty in connecting academic learning to real-world problems.  We need more simulation, problem solving, and experimentation over rote lecture-and-scribe techniques.

    However, I find the article rather... stale.  Issues with college as it stands today seem to be mired in the way the current crop of op Ed writers learned.  College today is different.  A huge number of students are taking different approaches.

    Students are doing college part-time while working.  They're taking community college courses before finishing up at a traditional college.  They're doing the 5-year plan as they balance out life and school.  And, in some cases, they're being smart consumers and intentionally going for the majors where they don't have to sit in 400+ lecture halls.

    How do you fix science education at the college and university level?  Apparently, economic forces and student/customer choices are providing some of the fixes the institutions fail to recognize.  People don't finish a major because it's hard, only because it might be poorly taught, and the system corrects itself, slowly.

    The real lesson these days is to not accept a college at face value, but look at what you can get out of it.

    Alex
    teaching physics these days, and still writing at Science2.0

    Comments

    While colleges slowly adapt, there's an awful lot students can do to make the ride through science easier. The key is the long summers in high school and college. Even with relaxation time and a part time job factored in, there's plenty of time to go through easily available used freshman science texts, and plenty of time to explore all sorts of good online resources.
    A science-relevant summer job, though admittedly hard to come by, would certainly help. One month in an industrial lab teaches you more about real life than a semester in a a crowded auditorium.
    Hank
    I think science education is a general purpose punching bag for a huge swath of writers who simultaneously contend they care about education and want more funding - but then insist kids are 'dismal' and teaching is the problem, but then try to say it isn't teachers that is the problem.

    Education was not held to anywhere near this standard when I was young - we recognized that some people were going to be doctors and some accountants and some worked in factories.  We didn't insist everyone be smart in science - but only about the politically correct aspects of science.

    Obama just got rid of No Child Left Behind, even though it worked quite well, and now people are advocating approaches that could only be implemented by a NCLB for science classes.
    We didn't insist everyone be smart in science
    That hasn't changed. It's just that we want the general public not to be aversive to science. If they have an unpleasant experience in high school or college it could easily lead to hangups later in life. These will make them more gullible in the face of magic- washing- bubbles salesmen, doomsdayers, homeopaths and so on.

    But I agree,  more funding is not the solution. It's all wasted on mostly useless gadgets, more bureaucracy and unnecessary raises.