The Disappearing American Science Student

Don’t they teach recreational mathematics anymore?!” – Doctor Who


No, Doctor, they don’t.  At least not according to Harold Levy’s sobering article in the new (Dec 13) issue of Scientific American, which rolls out some truly dispiriting statistics about the state of science and math enthusiasm in the United States.  For example, we learn that, in 2001, 65 percent of all electrical engineering doctorates awarded in the United States were given to foreign students, and that in 2009 46 percent of all master’s degrees in computer science went to students on foreign visas.


And no, the phenomenon has nothing to do with Diversity Quotas, so you can put that speech away, and everything to do with our inability to produce inspired and inspiring first-tier college students out of our high school system.  As a calculus and physics teacher since 2003, parent since 2004, and private tutor since my high school days, I’ve been watching this trend, first-hand, from a few different angles.  The good news is that the educational community is by no means taking these trends lying down, and some very exciting things are in the works which stand to make us a much more scientifically literate nation.


One of the things that I, and many math-first people of my ilk, have done much wrong-headed grumbling about is the rise of the Conceptual Science curriculum.  It started with physics, is making its way into chemistry, and is basically an attempt to give people solid scientific instincts independent of advanced mathematical skills.  Originally, the idea was that these Conceptual classes would be a good place to stuff struggling students, so as to cut some of the dead weight from the normal and honors physics classes.


Which led to unfortunate things, because the teachers that were stuck with the Conceptual classes tended to be on the bottom of the seniority poll, and so you had rookies teaching castoffs which, in spite of what the movies say, ends rather more often in disaster than inspiration.  But then people started realizing the raw potential here.  To illustrate, consider the following two problems, the first a typical physics class question, and the second a typical Conceptual physics question:


  1.  Two forces act on a 4 kg rope in opposite directions, one of magnitude 300 Newtons, and the other of magnitude 500 N.  Calculate the Tension in the Rope and the acceleration of the system.


  1. Two guys engage in a game of tug-of-war.  If they both pull with 200 N of force, what’s the tension in the rope?  Now, what would the tension be if we replaced one of the guys with a tree?


The first invites the student to construct a free body diagram, derive the relevant Newtonian equations, and solve for some desired variables.  All very standard and expected.  The second asks you to think, really think, about just what is going on here.  DOES it matter if I replace a man pulling backwards with a stationary tree?  Shouldn’t it?  But maybe not… why?


I try to incorporate these moments whenever I can into my AP Physics class, to break the students out of their very meticulously learned algorithms, and make them think about the actual physicality of what’s going on, to develop sure scientific instincts about what matters and what doesn’t, to get them debating about the variables and how they come into play.  It’s that intuition that my parents’ generation had but that, swamped with the need to perform well on standardized tests, was systematically murdered by the educational system over the course of several decades.  It is recreational- you are playing and weighing and arguing and having a grand old time talking about a rope and a tree, which is precisely the sort of free intellectual play that sustains people in their interest to pursue the rigorous course of a scientific education.


So, that’s all great, and it’s getting injected more and more into all levels of the high school curriculum.  But it’s not quite enough.  It’s not enough to just think about science and math until the end of your assigned problem set.  We need kids who actively choose to spend their leisure investigating problems that they find interesting, delving more deeply into topics they find compelling.  And that is all about parental modeling – the kiddos need to see from their earliest days that, the work day done, their parents don’t just flop insensibly into the warm and easy embrace of television, booze, or incessant Facebook nattering.


They need to see parents with intellectual hobbies, really ANY intellectual hobbies – a dad who takes a half an hour each night to read through some poetry, not because it broadens his education, but because he actually enjoys it.  A mother who has a few Erlenmeyer flasks in the garage for an experiment now and again.  Something that shows the kids that the care of one’s mind can actually be a joy far surpassing mere satiation.  They take their lessons in the use of recreational time from us – in many ways it’s the most important thing we have to teach them, and the one easiest to neglect.


But.  If we do make a sort of civilizational commitment to being mindful of our leisure hours, and if we do continue to find ways to structure curriculum to spark surprise and argument instead of the comparative ease of an expected algorithm, we have a chance to raise a remarkable generation of thinkers.

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