Nov 7, 2011

This just in: Science is hard.

I had a look at the NY Times article describing attrition rates in college technical degrees. A quick synopsis: Technical students (they call them "STEM" for "science, technology, engineering and math") in US institutions are hitting a bit of a wall in the first few years of college because they have trouble with the theoretical backings to much of their engineering work, etc.

My knee-jerk reaction to this is "Buck up, buddy". Do you really want an engineer who designs a hand-held phone that doesn't actually understand basic electricity and magnetism? Do you want a doctor to prescribe you a potentially lethal narcotic when they don't know how to compute an exponential decay for a well-known solution to a trivial differential equation problem?

Not me! Thanks so much!

While the overall tone of the article was unsettling (they belittle the foundational work that lies at the basis of all of these technical fields at a very fundamental level), they do make a good point that the "rubber needs to hit the road" much earlier for students so that they can see where all of this comes into play. I'm a strong advocate for research being an integral part of a good science education, which is why I push people who are looking into science as a career to go somewhere that has an active research program. Having only "academic classroom" environments is a career killer there. Students need to be engaged in what they're interested in doing, and see that there are reasons why all of these classes are required material. Typically people giving lectures don't have the time during class to cover lots and lots of real-world applications, but the same professor may have some great insights into applying it in their own research when they have more time outside of class.

This article is part of a general trend that I see happening in the US: things are hard, so make them easier. Never mind the fact that the rest of the world seems to have no problem with them, and US students in the past ALSO had no problem with them. Science and these technical fields have a very hard adversary that is not so forgiving nor understanding: NATURE. It's cold, it's cruel, it's not interested in changing things to make life easier for you, and fortunately or unfortunately, it happens to correspond to reality!

So yeah, the "buck up" response is still high on my go-to list, but I'd soften a little and add "but if you're confused, ask your professor how this is applied to the real world!" Typically they'll be all too glad to assist.


Staid Winnow said...

Hey Wolfram alpha solves my differential equations for me

With a $1.99 app bought through iTunes.

Are you saying that I should not be making use of science?

rappoccio said...

Knowing enough to get an app for that is actually fine with me ;)

Anonymous said...

It's a person's choice to study the basics or not study the basics, yes?

IMO, if a person chooses to not study the basics, or to teach their children a different version of their mythology (in my state, a huge portion of the population home-schools their spawn to teach only the Christian fundamentals) then that person should not use the benefits of scientific, technical, engineering and mathematics.

Those types of people, if they were honest and moral, would eschew aspirin, surgery, use of cars or airplanes or gasoline, libraries, printing presses, Internet, refrigeration and pasteurization, well, you get the picture.

I hope.

What could be more vanilla-bland, not subject-to-imaginary interpretations, than mathematics or engineering? How could a fundamentalist Christian reject that curriculum because it "is not based in Christian principles?"

I'm not kidding, I was told that last week by my supervisor; he and his wife do not use the state-authorized home-school curriculum for their son because the lessons are not based in Christianity. I do not comprehend. I am confused. How do you teach English, Social Studies, Geography, or Math with a Christian bent?

His ignorance of the principles of evolution are enough justification to throw the whole baby Science out with his bathwater; it starts with his initial false assumption: that one can compare and contrast the scientifically-established principles of evolution with anything in any religion describing the imaginary initiation of our universe. Let me be clear: my statement does not impugn his belief in God at all.

One can entirely reject any mythology of the beginnings of the universe without denying any belief in God. But that's not how they take it - their reception of the rejection of the imaginary part is wholesale; "love me, love my dog," in other words.

The Christian's use and abuse of STEM, with the concurrent and subsequent rejection of the basics and the principles due to his inability to corrupt them with mythology has resulted in exactly what you describe: reducing the competence of our next generation.