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Science Education Paradox

How can the same system produce scientific elites and illiterates?
September 1, 2001

The united states by any conceivable measure has the finest scientists in the world. But the rest of the population, by any rational standard, is abysmally ignorant of science, mathematics and all things technical. That is the paradox of scientific elites and scientific illiterates: how can the same system of education that produced all those brilliant scientists also have produced all that ignorance?

The situation is not merely paradoxical; it’s downright perilous.We face an era that promises ever accelerating technological change in every aspect of our lives, while at the same time the very survival of our civilization may depend on our ability to make wise decisions about how to manage our resources, our climate and our conflicts. In the next century, we will need to be able to deal confidently with technical issues, and a responsible electorate will need to have some reasonable mastery of how the world works.

In these circumstances, an undergraduate major in science should be the best possible preparation for any serious profession. Or, put another way, the science major today should be what classical Greek and Latin were in the 19th century, and the liberal-arts major was in the 20th: the union card required to enter the professional world. Unfortunately, the science education we have in place to provide this union card could not be less suited to the task.

Science education in the United States today exists as a kind of mining and sorting operation, in which we, the existing scientists, cull through what comes our way, searching for diamonds in the rough that can be cleaned and cut and polished into glittering gems just like us. The rest are cast on the slag heap, left to fend for themselves with no basic understanding of the sciences. The paradox of elites and illiterates exists because our system of science education is designed to produce that result.

The problem starts in grade school, where few children ever come into personal contact with a scientifically trained person-including, unfortunately, their teachers. In most of the United States the only way you can graduate from college without taking a single science course is to major in elementary education. And, it is said, many people major in elementary education for precisely that reason. Our elementary school teachers are therefore not only ignorant of science; they are hostile to science. That hostility must, inevitably, rub off on the young people they teach.

A few years ago, I was on a committee to look into how well the “breadth” requirement-that all students take at least one course in science-was working at one University of California campus. We found that, of those students not majoring in a technical subject, 90 percent were satisfying the breadth requirement by taking a single biology course known informally among the students as “Human Sexuality.” Now, I don’t for an instant doubt that it was a useful and interesting course. It may even have tempted students to do hands-on experiments on their own time (a result we seldom achieve in physics). But I don’t think it constitutes a sufficient education in science for university graduates at the dawn of the 21st century.

I also know a bit about what goes on at the secondary level because in the 1980s I made an educational TV series, The Mechanical Universe, that’s still widely used in U.S. colleges and high schools. There are about 24,000 high schools in the United States. Nobody knows how many trained high school physics teachers there are (with, say, the equivalent of an undergraduate major in the subject) but certainly there are no more than a few thousand. I made The Mechani cal Universe primarily for the “crossover” teachers, those who teach physics even though they weren’t trained for it. It’s a source of great satisfaction that hundreds of teachers have thanked me for making it possible for them to have successful careers. But guess what? They tell me their greatest satisfaction is not in preparing the rest of their students to thrive in an increasingly technical world, but in finding those diamonds in the rough that can be sent on to college to be cut and polished into real physicists.

But nowhere is the problem more vivid than in graduate school. Gradu ate students are the elect, those selected to go on to the final stage of the mining and sorting operation. The average professor in a research university turns out about 15 PhDs in the course of a career. While the problem of science education is often framed in terms of a perceived lack of PhDs-too few elites to fuel our scientific and technological progress in the future-it’s clear we actually have a process in place equipped to multiply our kind 15 times over with each succeeding generation. What’s lacking is a means to provide the rest of our population with even the most basic understanding of science in an increasingly science-driven world.

My friends from around the country tell me that the number of undergraduate physics majors is at its lowest point since Sputnik, nearly 50 years ago. That’s not surprising. The undergraduate major in physics is largely regarded as preparation for graduate school, and the academic job market is still saturated from the influx of baby boomer PhDs in the 1970s, dissuading potential new candidates from pursuing an under graduate science degree. Those     without an interest in an academic profession don’t see a degree in physics as relevant. Thus, far from being the liberal-arts major of the 21st century, the undergraduate science major has become an endangered species.

Is there any conceivable remedy? Can we imagine a world in which we do better than turn out a handful of PhDs, many of whom will wind up with little but frustration to show for all their hard work, while the rest of the young people who graduate from college are unprepared to cope with a society shaped largely by science and technology? Of course, it would help if those of us who teach science in college would change our own attitudes and devise more inviting ways of presenting our subjects. But even if we could do that it would barely make a dent in the problem. By the time the kids get to us, they are already lost to science.

But imagine a world in which teaching in high school is such an attractive profession that it would be worth the trouble of a doctoral level education to get the job. For that to happen, we would have to pay teachers more, at least as much as what graduating doctoral students get. And they should be paid more. But that’s not the whole answer. Just as important, schools would have to learn to treat these teachers with professional respect, and society would have to afford them the honor and admiration that professionals expect. This is not unthinkable. Something like it was true in much of Europe before World War II. But it is very far from true in today’s United States.

Much more is needed, of course. The revolution would have to extend right down to the first grade. Teachers would have to be literate in science, and kids would have to find learning science as cool as following the fortunes of rock groups. That’s an awful lot to ask for. But then again, only our future depends on it.

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