Iconoclasts Anonymous

Inane ravings of an irreverent slacker

Science education needs help!

Posted by Jeff on August 7, 2008

I read this article the other day and had mixed feelings about it. It starts off great talking about issues with science education in America and I even sort of agree that false self-confidence can be a bad thing. But not that bad… Then I read this post by Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles. Some of his commentary on this article reflects some things I’ve been saying for years…

Chad writes:

I agree that students are being turned off from science, but the problem isn’t “self-esteem” or “identity”– the problem is bad teaching at the early levels. And that comes about because many of the people who go into teaching are not comfortable with math and science, and that discomfort comes through. They do a lousy job presenting math and science to students, and it turns those students off.

It’s true… Even working as a tutor at a Community College I’ve recognized this very trend. Time and again I’ll be helping someone with some very introductory level mathematics and have to listen to them lamenting on how much they hate math and can’t wait until they don’t have to take anymore math or science course. When I ask what they are studying, more times than not the response is ‘elementary education’!

See, when an elementary school teacher has a distaste for math and science the children are influenced by it. Sure they will still teach the subject, but kids are a lot more observant than a lot of people realize and that dismissive attitude does rub off. When even the teacher sees math as a chore, how can we expect the children to develope a liking for it?

The article ends up going on some tangent about diversity in the sciences and gender issues. Aside from the fact that the Chronicle article has some fairly misguided ideas about this I think that the whole issue is off base. The problems of gender discrimination in the sciences would be solved by approaching the issue at the root. That root is not that women aren’t as good at science! The problem is with education. Americans – male and female – are increasingly science illiterate. Children need to develope an interest in science early in life, and it’s the teachers who have the power to instill this interest or discourage it. And when these teachers are impressing on people that men are just better than women at science, it escalates into the gender bias issues that many brilliant female scientists are now dealing with.

More from Chad:

That’s the core of the problem. We’re raising students who are bad at science because we have teachers who are bad at science, because we aren’t willing to do what it takes to get people with strong science backgrounds into education. And, of course, we tolerate this because of the “math is hard” culture of innumeracy that I ranted about last week.

Amen brother.


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