Will this work?

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.


  1. Christian says

    “filler” reminds me a bit of the line from the book talking about the meat packing industry,

    “every part of the pig but the squeal”

  2. Dave C says

    Science and maths reigned supreme in the middle east for a while in not so recent history. Until religious forces squashed learning and advancement for its own reasons.

    Maybe the US is approaching the equivalent event horizon for christian fundamentalism.

    The formation of a theocracy in the US could shadow the events of centuries ago and lead to a new dark age (of sorts) for the US where knowledge is hoarded and advancement depends on the approval of ecclesiastical councils.

    Margaret Atwood’s novel about surrogate motherhood and a totalitarian state combined with Pam Andersons Barbwire could actually turn out to be exceptionally perceptive in their prophesy.

  3. John Evens says

    In reply to: “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’m not sure what tone of voice you were using when you wrote this, but I thought you were against any ethos that uses fear as a tool? You see, what I’m confused about is why you *believe* it is important that the US continues to be a force for science in the world.

    What are you trying to say in this post? That a decent, broad education including accurate science benefits an individual (I agree), or that the US needs to home grow some scientists so that it can continue to be an economic superpower (as I think some of the quotes you use implies)?


  4. Caledonian says

    All talk of a “broad” education aside, I think we’d help students immensely by trimming the deadwood from their schedules – or more precisely, permitting them to do so.

    Universities have a vested interest in making students take as many useless courses as they can. For that matter, so do high schools.

  5. Jeb says

    I have said it before. America is the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Likely the result of a mostly elitist society.

  6. Kagehi says

    You see, what I’m confused about is why you *believe* it is important that the US continues to be a force for science in the world.

    Your kidding right John? Science if practiced at all makes you a force in science “period”. It might be nice, if you have the biggest chunk of money and resources in the whole bloody world, if you where a force five wind and not some nation that only occational passes wind. If you don’t do any science, then what? Then you get the sort of BS that goes on now, but worse. The people with the power, the means to keep secrets, the willingness to cheat and lots of money buy up all the tech toys from someone that **does** have some bloody clue how it all works, and using it to screw everyone in sight. I.e., having a nation full of ignorant people that don’t know how the heck a light bulb works, never mind how genes do, just accelerates the progress towards a system in which only the powerful have the tools, and they don’t *need* to know how any of it works, they just pay someone to show them. Its why places in the ME find it easier to buy nuclear reactors from gullible nitwits like the French, rather than building them. You don’t need to know why X works, if some other idiot will sell it too you, and you *certainly* don’t need any of the peasants to know how it works, because if they did, you couldn’t go, “Abracadabra!”, and have all of them Ooh and Aww over you. An ignorant populous that relies on “someone else” to know how the hell everything works can be told damn near any lie, misinformed about just about any convenient fiction to keep you in power and kept from finding any of it out “precisely” by telling them all that, “You don’t really need to know all this silly stuff anyway, just let the guy behind the curtain handle that.”

    At best.. Everything stagnates and you get get more idiots in political office. At worst, you get some sanctimonious twit that takes the same tack on modern knowledge as happened at the end of the Roman empire. An empire that recent evidence has shown to have build stuff on par with modern ocean liners and even a analog computer for calculating astrological positions, which had it been instead applied to general computing application, could have been built centuries later by Charles Babbage. I would, assuming it was even possible to live that long, feel damn silly if 1,000 years after I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Gosh, why does the US need to remain a leader in science?”, someone dug up a paper on physics or some device everyone forgot about and said, “Amazing, their civilization failed, but just look, they where *so close* to inventing quantum teleportation.” Well, you get my point I think. Its imho, bloody stupid, if you “currently” had a royal flush to throw out the ace, because it didn’t *do* something for your religion, then, having just lost yourself the biggest possible hand in the game, tell the dealer that, “I would like all new cards. These big, high value ones make me nervous. A nice assortment of dueces, threes, fives and maybe eights would be nice, but no pairs please, I don’t like pairs.”

  7. says

    Two opinions to quickly vent here.

    1. Given that academia is more-or-less global in its intracommunication, total global scientific advance is what matters. Crippling any one country by wasting the intelligence of its citizens damages that country’s scientific output, thereby damaging the grand total global scientific output. I’m thinking of wasted potential in bright young people forced into low-productivity, boring, manual work by lack of opportunity, poverty, and / or cultural barriers (eg, religion).

    2. Kagehi, your post is strangely coincident on a disparate series of thoughts in my head. I’m behind on my The Economist readings by a couple of weeks, and I’m now reading their recent special report on “developing economies”. The Economist repeatedly makes the point that developing countries can modernize much more rapidly than the current “developed” countries did (eg, USA during late 19th century) because they don’t have to invent everything, they can import useful technologies from the developed countries (eg, your comment about French nuclear reactors in the Middle East).
    Then, last night, I watched Predator, (aside: the Gubernatorial film), and was struck by the mushroom cloud at the end – and the thought (I said strange) “how will the locals clean up the radioactive mess?” (the film is set in an unnamed Central or South American country). I wonder if, even in a poor country of relatively small population, there exists one or a few people with significant education in fields like nuclear physics, civil engineering, or molecular genetics.

  8. says

    I’m not sure what tone of voice you were using when you wrote this, but I thought you were against any ethos that uses fear as a tool? You see, what I’m confused about is why you *believe* it is important that the US continues to be a force for science in the world.

    I won’t speak for PZ, but I think it’s legitimate in the way that we use fear of disease as a reason to vaccinate: The fear has to be based on a real threat, and the response has to be one that genuinely deals with the problem.

    As for why it’s important that the US remains a force in science: ‘cuz I live here, and until I can realistically move to a more sciencey nation, I’ll fight the good fight over here, so that I may not have to move.

    Throw in Kagehi’s excellent post, too.

  9. Carlie says

    Here’s something you can actually try to do in your own area: you (or preferably your dean) hook up with the superintendent of your district, or better yet the head of the county superintendents, and see what can be done for elementary/middle school science teachers in terms of continuing ed classes/workshops, and then volunteer to do one. My school is setting up a couple of weeklong workshops next summer for math and biology elementary teachers. They will get continuing ed credit, some more confidence in their subject matter, and hopefully some concrete lesson plans to use (thanks to collaboration with handpicked local high school master teachers). We tend to forget that most k-8 teachers have at most one college class in each core subject, and the rest of their classes are all pedagogy. They have a very shallow knowledge base on many subjects, and are therefore hesitant about teaching many of them (or deeply, or most importantly, excitedly). I’m using a broad brush, but I’m saying what the county k-12 science coordinator told me last week. We’re going to pick a couple of key areas in the state curriculum requirements, particularly those that have been ramped up in difficulty in the last few years, and do a weeklong refresher course/lesson plan brainstorming sesson. Yeah, I’m volunteering a hell of a lot of my time to do it, but I think it’s worth it. It would be better to overhaul the entire system, but this is something I can actually do, so I’m doing it.

  10. RCP says

    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.

    Well, at least I’m ahead of the game.

    “Our 53 million kids in this country are not suddenly going to jump up and pay attention because some scientist got a Nobel Prize in gene transcription,” said Gerry Wheeler, a nuclear physicist who heads the National Science Teachers Association.

    I think this is part of the problem. Scientists aren’t portrayed well in popular media. They play the role of the villian, the bumbling sidekick, or random guy in a lab coat who gets killed. There probably have only been a few dozen movies or television shows in the past decade where the scientist has been the hero.

    There also seems to be a lack of science programming aimed at younger children. When I was growing up, I watched Bill Nye religiously. The influence of Bill Nye and nature documentaries (along with looking under rocks) got me interested in science and biology. After Bill Nye quit making new shows, there doesn’t seem to have been anyone to fill in for him.

  11. Shygetz says

    Also of interest along parallel lines (but running in the opposite direction) are reports that we are training too many Ph.D.s for the job market to bear. As was mentioned before, we are very good (perhaps too good) at the top, but we need to increase science literacy among the non-scientists.

  12. Millimeter Wave says

    After Bill Nye quit making new shows, there doesn’t seem to have been anyone to fill in for him.

    Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman? Ok, so not exactly a replacement… but they do at least promote skepticism and some semblance of practical application of scientific method.

  13. AstroPaul says

    Actually, I quite agree with John’s post, if I’m reading it correctly.

    As an American astrophysics grad student, I’m competing in a worldwide market with thousands of other aspiring postdocs of all nationalities, and I have too much faith in the free market to think the US has some sort of right to global economic dominance. If people of scientific ability in the developing world are finally competing with us on a level playing field, that’s only fair, and if they can do my job better than I can, I don’t deserve to keep my job just because I’m an American. That’s nothing but rank protectionism, whether it’s in science or any other industry.

    That said, I do think it’s important to emphasize science education in the US, not out of some sense of scientific jingoism, but because a well-informed populace is the only hedge against the tyranny of shameless liars. Other than that, I don’t know that the US needs to grow its own scientists — science jobs, particularly in industry, will migrate to wherever the business climate is most favorable (best balance of taxes vs. infrastructure, educated workforce vs. low wages), and the US can’t be ideal for every enterprise. In the meantime, foreign people with skills useful to US industry should be allowed and encouraged to work in the US, and vice versa.

  14. says

    I’m with AstroPaul. Even if I am not an American, and even putting aside my universalism, I think it is vitally important that science education be improved in the US. The idea that the most powerful country in the world could be even more full of know-nothings … that’s a recipe for disaster for sure.

  15. Samnell says

    “We tend to forget that most k-8 teachers have at most one college class in each core subject, and the rest of their classes are all pedagogy. They have a very shallow knowledge base on many subjects, and are therefore hesitant about teaching many of them (or deeply, or most importantly, excitedly). I’m using a broad brush, but I’m saying what the county k-12 science coordinator told me last week.”

    And the other side of that particular fist is that showing off a lot of content knowledge in ed programs is decidedly out of fashion. I’ve had any number of experiences with frighteningly ignorant history teachers, some of them with more than a decade of teaching. Their command of their subject is pretty much the textbook plus a few visual aids. I suspect it’s just as bad in every subject area. My own teaching program treated content knowledge as an unpleasant triviality which should be tolerated only in the most superficial of ways. There’s endless talk about how people learn and how to get them to learn, but what is actually to be learned is conspicuous in its absence.

    Some schools do offer a post-bac teaching program which requires you to qualify out in a major and minor subject area before being drowned in pedagogy (Much of it, well, a waste. I sat in pedagogy classes that were extended sessions of babysitting for adults and had more platitudes mouthed at me than I ever did useful information.) but if you do that you go on the job market with a Masters and most places don’t want you because they can’t afford you. So you get to pick between being at least halfway qualified and unemployable, or unqualified and employable.

  16. Greg says

    “[…] 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 […]”

    Actually, it is because they were taught that dinosaurs and humans did indeed walk the earth together.

  17. says

    Speaking as a non-American, the scuttlebutt over here in Asia is that the prowess of American science is not in spite of your problematic pre-college science education system, but partially the result of it.

    I know it doesn’t appear to make sense, but somehow an above-average kid who is far ahead of her peers in one of your schools seems to have a much better chance of a successful science career, compared to an above-average kid amongst a class full of above-average peers in one of our schools.

    What I am saying sounds counterintuitive but perhaps you guys are trying to fix something that isn’t that broken.

  18. says

    P.Z., right on!

    Xisla raises an interesting question — but I think it’s one that we ultimately have to answer this way: In fixing the U.S. problems, we need to avoid cutting off the path for the top achievers.

    NCLB, by the way, cuts off the paths of the top achievers. Rather than celebrate excellence, NCLB insists that the bad be made mediocre, and punishes schools if they don’t. There is no reward for a school that produces a Nobel winner, no prize for the school that produces 20% National Merit finalists out of its studentbody (about 200 times the usual ratio) — but punishment for the same school if the bottom scoring, brain damaged kid can’t improve.

    Perhaps we should expect from this president a plan that elevates and celebrates mediocrity and punishes excellence. Perhaps we should change Washington first in our quest to improve science education.

  19. says

    Xisla, it isn’t so much as fixing something that’s broken, we’re to both upgrade and keep it from being broken in the first place.

  20. says

    So, really, if colleges are forcing useless classes, which would anyone drop?

    I don’t see that much filler in the catalog of my kids’ schools. But the problem is that not enough of science and math are required, even if they are offered. I think that they should at least have various tracks of trig and calc. rather than reserve those subjects for the AP track. I had read, but haven’t checked on, a story which said that geometry classes no longer teach proofing; that instead classes focus on facts instead in order to prepare for NCLB standardized testing? Who does THAT benefit pther than teachers in schools which have agreed to the Q-Comp bonuses?

    Q-Comp is a bonus system paid to schools whose test scores improve. While I am not against some measure of teacher perfomance in determining bonus pay, I think it is a mistake to use test scores as the factor. It hurts our kids’ future.

    School boards are the place to start, dudes et dudettes. Attend school board meetings, even the boring ones and discuss with the members that you elect how important it is to teach kids properly, so that the future of science and math education in our colleges is secured.

    Doesn’t do much to whine on a blog board other than make you feel good. I know that most people think that involvement in school boards should be limit to parents with school age children, but, hey, Hillary was right. It takes a village.

  21. shiva says

    The US is ahead because of, among other things, sustained investment in universities and research institutions following the takeoff of modern science – AP, NP, QM, EvoBio in the early 20th century. It will remain ahead for the foreseeable future simply because it is v.v.v.far, far ahead. Even if Science comes to a standstill in the US it will take the rest of the world a long time to catch up. The policies in many other lands are not conducive to building up a culture of achievement. For instance take India. The brightest kids go on to study engineering or medicine. Not science. Who wants to work for a bureaucratic establishment where there is no link between achievement and reward? Besides many scientists in India are hung up on fashionable Marxist/Communist causes and think bloodthirsty tyrants like Fidel Castro are the nicest thing since sliced bread. This does not mean they embrace junk science. They simply do not believe in building up a meritocratic culture. While these scientists want less interference they have no intention of moving towards a tenure based, publish or perish meritocracy as exists in US universities.

  22. Chaoswes says

    I was, for a period of time, a middle school English teacher. While I was teaching, science was the only class the majority of the students enjoyed. Their zest for science was not snuffed out until high school where it was no longer considered “cool” by the majority of students. The real problem is not just science or language skills. It is a disinterest in learning period. Learning has become a necessary evil, not a joy and privilege. While I am not an expert in any scientific discipline, I do have enough of a background that enables me to understand the majority of what is discussed on this site. I have a great deal of respect for anyone willing to study any aspect of science to the level that is required to be considered an expert. It is this respect that has been lost and that is where the problem lies. As long as this continues the evangelical right will use this ignorance in the general public to their advantage. It is human nature to fear that which they do not understand and much of the public does not understand the higher sciences.

  23. Grumpy Physicist says

    Well, the US has a vigorous free market in higher education (universities, colleges, community colleges, etc.; even the public universities now get only a fraction of their budget from government). Unlike most of the rest of the world, where state-funded and controlled monopolistic universities are the norm.

    At the same time, primary and secondary education in the US is very much a state-controlled and (under)funded enterprise. With results to match.

    Now, a true-blue libertarian would conclude ‘see, private is better than public!’, but the rest of the world ALSO has state-run primary education, with much better results.

    State control IS worse, when it’s run by morons. Too bad we have an abundance of those, and ShrubCo is just making it worse.

    And I also note that (DoE sec) Spellings is now trying to browbeat higher-education into the standards/testing/regulation/bullshit NCLB paradigm that has worked SO WELL at the primary level. What is it with those guys? Why are they trying to strangle one of the greatest successes of the free market?

    Oh, wait. They’re GOP hypocrites. Never mind.

  24. says

    Unfortunately, I don’t have to read the article to know which way the funding winds are blowing, I just have to walk down the (empty) hallway here at our research section. We said goodbye to a lot of graduating PhDs this summer, and there’s been no one to replace them. Sad.

  25. quork says

    You should post a thread about all the Nobel prizes won by ID researchers. It shouldn’t take much work to put that together.

  26. David Harmon says

    Grumpy Physicist: “Why are they trying to strangle one of the greatest successes of the free market?”

    Because educated people, especially those with scientific or logical training, have an upsetting habit of disagreeing with those in power.

    The true GOP agenda is nothing less than this: They want to destroy any and every competing power base, that could possibly tell them “no”, about anything whatsoever. As far as they’re concerned, any contradiction of their policies, claims, or commands, automatically marks an enemy of theirs, who must be destroyed lest their house of lies be upset by a breath of truth.

    That, of course, is why the Religious Right is their natural ally — the power of the preachers and ministers is based completely on the subservience of their congregations, and they’d really like to have some sort of backing that’s a tad more stable, and not so dependent on cooperation from below.

  27. says

    Ed, I agree with we should avoid holding back the top achievers even while training some minimal competency for most students. Stanton, I know what you’re saying, but I just want to point out the limitations of evaluating the effectiveness of an education system by assessing how much “rote knowledge” their students possess.

    When I was a secondary school kid I did very well in the sciences and less so in the humanities. Our school principal insisted that we should focus less on the sciences and work harder on our weak subjects to become some kind of B+ “all-rounder”.

    Dropping your strengths in order to compete with other students using your weaknesses?

    This sort of brainless obsession to get above-average grades in everything eventually saps the uniqueness of our students, resulting in students who have no real interest in anything – except getting grades.

    Original thinkers and movers are a rare breed in any setting. What I am saying is that your system looks flawed to you if you just compare grade performance with the Asian systems, but if applied properly the American system is more supportive of the rare few who want to do creative science for a living.

  28. says

    Xisla: If that’s true (and I have my doubts), then there is a problem. Namely, the tension that arises between the importance of a well informed, critically thinking population as a whole, and the desire to have many actual scientists … I personally wouldn’t know how to resolve such a tension if forced. Better make sure the claim is true first. :)

  29. Science Teacher says

    I know this comment is too late but hey I got to say what I want to say.
    I am a high school Biology teacher. More often than not the students expect speed in everything. They cannot stand not understanding things say 5 minutes. To do research you have to be comfortable with having no answers and spend time working hard at finding the answer. Internet gaming has raised a generation that have very little patience and constantly in need of excitement and action. No matter what curriculum you have, no matter how long you train the teachers but if the students are more interested in being the next NFL player and busy thinking about what happen next to Britney Spears, no amount of teaching will get them interested in Science. I totally agree with English teacher comment above. Something in the American culture has change. Few of my students are still very interested in the marvel of science, most just want to go home and sleep or do nothing…. especially anything remotely resembling school.