The US has done wonderfully well in collecting Nobel prizes this year, but there’s no reason to be complacent. There’s a lot of momentum in our science establishment, the result of solid support for many years, but there are troubling signs that the engines of our advance, the young minds of the next generation, aren’t going to be propelling us as well. Take this report by science educators, for instance:
“We are the best in the world at what we do at the top end, and we are mediocre — or worse — at the bottom end,” said Jon Miller, of Michigan State University, who studies the role of science in American society.
We’ve got an 18th century public school system with 21st century universities bolted on, and the strain is showing. Our real problem is that the lack of public support for real education hinders reform, except in the crude “test ’em ’til they bleed” strategy of plans like NCLB, which has always seemed to me to be an amalgam of the anti-intellectual refrain that any learning deserves to be punished, and a vocational bias that presumes that the only purpose of an education is to train someone for a job. At the same time, we’ve elevated fringe crackpots like the Discovery Institute to legitimate contributors to the dialog about how to improve education, and they’re doing their part to add to the chaos. Matthew Nisbet makes some suggestions about how to get the public behind a pro-science agenda.
One framing strategy that has worked in the U.S. is to re-define the issue away from the debate over the science, and to talk about the possible damage to the economic reputation of the community, the state, or the country if ID were added to the school curriculum. A second interpretation that appears to be persuasive is the narrative that arose from the Dover court decision, where ID was re-defined by Judge Jones as driven by the political agenda of a small number of Christian conservatives who were seeking to push their religious interpretations on the local community. Far from a religion versus science issue, ID was defined by Judge Jones as a conflict between out-of-touch cultural conservatives and modern society, an interpretation that fits closely with reality.
In light of that comment, now read the rest of that article on Nobelists and public education.
A 2002 survey by the National Science Foundation found that half the public didn’t know that electrons are smaller than atoms or that dinosaurs and humans never walked the earth together.
That’s because science education for most children is second-rate, especially between kindergarten and 12th grade, said science advocates. Below-average students study “pond biology and old science,” Miller said.
“We see a lot of kids dropping out of science and not studying it,” said education professor Richard Duschl, of Rutgers, who used to teach high school.
Some research has indicated that American science students rank worse than students in many other countries. Foreign universities in Europe and elsewhere are already challenging this country in attracting some of the world’s best scientists.
“If you look at the intellectual horsepower that is now becoming evident in places like China, Singapore, Australia… then we’re in for extraordinary competition,” said biochemist A. Stephen Dahms, who heads the Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Biomedical Engineering, in Valencia, Calif.
Cool. Let’s use fear of the foreign hordes of techno-nerds to slap American citizens out of this delusion that they can continue to cripple our schools. I also like this recommendation:
To compete well with other economies, the United States should improve training of science teachers, fund the curriculum more reliably, and perhaps require four years of science in all high schools, experts said.
Let’s also be unambiguous about keeping the religious nonsense, like Intelligent Design creationism, out of the schools. It does no good to expand science education if it’s merely bloated with filler and lies.