18 March, 2009

Not-So-Mad Science: STEM Education

In lieu of your normal Wednesday Cyber Journal Club Science Blogging, I offer you the following:

Most everyone agrees that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education in the U.S.A generally sucks. We often rail against Teh Stupidz of the masses and their ignorance of basic scientific concepts and principles and in doing so we frequently make the masses out to be lazy. I don't think they're lazy necessarily, I think the public school system and society as a whole have failed them. And to a degree, by extension, we as scientists have failed them.

Certainly, we can spend our time debating the global warming deniers and proponents of creationism or the vaccine-autism link. A vigorous debate is necessary to discredit the dishonest irrationality of the opponents of scientific knowledge and progress. However, I posit that directing the bulk of our attentions and energy to this task is stupid. Stupid because it is ineffective, like waiting in the wings with a tourniquet and bone saw as we watch clumsy children try to juggle chainsaws. When we spend so much time interfacing with and disproving the few loud idiot voices in the crowd, we are doing a disservice to that crowd by ignoring it. In effect, we are fighting the flawed output instead of striving to better the input. Doing so would stem the tide of ignorance and intellectual laziness.

I'm not saying that this is all on us scientists' shoulders per se, at least not exclusively. We're a busy profession, trying to conquer save the world by engaging in deeply imaginative and technically practicable play. The worlds inside our labs, our offices, our Ivory Towers are our cherished sandboxes, and as such we are reluctant to leave them and face the bitter reality that we cannot well communicate with...well, anyone who isn't also a scientist. We are a deeply insular and idiosyncratic culture and to a degree this is why we thrive in the right settings. But we need to come out of this shell and start real dialogues with interested citizens, nosy neighbors, and especially students.

Our society has forgotten the value of independent, creative, critical thought and replaced it with iPods and whatever clothing brand is popular today (Baby Phat?). We make public school students jump through the flaming hoops of standardized tests of regurgitated facts and teach through prime-time TV advertisements that instant gratification and consumerism are far more valuable than meaningful education or thoughtful pondering. We teach the dates of the important battles of the War of Roses or the American Civil War, but we neglect the causes of why those factions marched on each other in the first place and we fail to examine the consequences of those battles and wars. We teach the DNA is a double helix with 4 different nucleotides that pair specifically, but we don't talk very well about why a double helix is optimal or what difficulties it might pose. We teach physics as ballistics fun fun time and don't talk about how the application of electromagnetism has revolutionized the entire world.

Ultimately, we are substituting meaningful discourse on the Whys, the Hows, the What Ifs, and most importantly the Why Nots, for boiled-meat-and-potatoes Whats and Whens.

This represents a deep and disturbing failure to teach Critical Thinking and to foster Curiosity.

Society: FAIL.

We as scientists, ostensibly working for society, have an obligation to make that society smarter, or at least more curious. Why aren't more of us out there on lecture circuits in local libraries and community centers giving layman's presentations on basic scientific concepts, such as the nature of electromagnetism or what a gene actually is and how it works? Yes, we are nerds, but we are damn sexy smart nerds, and if we can figure out which molecules bind what cells or how to make a 100ton metal airplane fly through air, then we can damn well figure out how to talk to normal people!

We should be! So get to it!


I believe that TV is a useful barometer of cultural conditions, especially children's TV. I still watch cartoons, and I have noticed that the science content in cartoons has sharply declined over the past 10 years. 10 years ago we had Dexter's Lab, Pinky and the Brain, and Bill Nye reruns. Then for a couple years there was Jimmy Neutron. And now all that remains is Johnny Test, who is the favorite guinea pig of his twin scientist big sisters, and the "science" in these episodes is just plain stupid. I mean, even stupider than Dexter's Lab, which was at least entertaining. So do you think that maybe the absolute decline of children's science programming is reflective of a devaluation of the place of science in society?


Ambivalent Academic said...

Toaster - This is a fantastic post! You have very eloquently expressed a lot of my own frustrations with our public education system.

We should absolutely be more invested in improving general science education...and in fact there are a lot of scientists out there who have the skills and the drive to start making things happen. Unfortunately, it seems that the old saying "those that cannot do, teach" still informs the attitudes of a lot of academic scientists.

Teaching is not a very highly valued pursuit within academic science. There are of course exceptions - I can think of a handful of scientists who are fabulous teachers. But the culture of academia is still undervaluing good general education. Either that or they are unwilling to give some of their time or their people to this pursuit. I think that this is a terrible tragedy. The more we lobby for real scientists getting involved in public education (in any capacity) the more it will improve.

PhizzleDizzle said...

What I have to add to this - where the heck is 3-2-1 Contact? That was the best show, and there's nothing like that out there now. :(:(:(

Toaster Sunshine said...

I had never heard of "3-2-1 Contact" until you mentioned it. I went and looked it up. It was...uh...before my time. But just a little bit!

There is some validity to the statement: "Those who cannot do, teach" except that it needs the modification "Those who cannot do, become politicians" to make it true.

What I believe are needed in inspiring kids to, at the very least, understand more about their world and be more curious are 1) new Bill Nye-type show and 2) a Web interface for scientists to speak to public audiences from rather than being at the mercy of geography.

PhizzleDizzle said...

OMG! I think this is the first time anyone whom I consider a peer/contemporary has said something I know about is before their time. I've generally been young enough to avoid that, but I guess I'm moving on up in the world. :)