Yesterday, my son shared the video below – Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “We Stopped Dreaming (Episode 1)”. It took me back to childhood memories when I was inspired to be a scientist. I remember watching the Apollo launches. I think I remember listening to the Gemini 4 space walk – I was four, and my father recorded it on reel-to-reel, but I don’t remember him ever replaying it. I remember staying up late and falling asleep…thankfully to be awoken by my mother just before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. …Skylab, …the test flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.
Years later, I left behind aspirations of a science career (practicalities…how much money does the average physicist make anyway?) for one of engineering, but the love of space, cosmology, NASA…all still with me…which is why what Neil deGrasse Tyson is saying in this video saddens me all the more.
I worry that decisions Congress makes doesn’t [sic] factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow.
Apart from the applicability of that to just about any of the current Congress’s decisions, he’s dead right in this specific instance. We are not funding science. We are not encouraging and developing engineers. We are failing in educating our young people, not only in the technical fields, but in general.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares 15 year olds in 65 industrial countries. From the 2009 report:
The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among OECD member countries to measure how well 15-year-old students approaching the end of compulsory schooling are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies. The assessment is forward-looking: rather than focusing on the extent to which these students have mastered a specific school curriculum, it looks at their ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in curricular goals and objectives, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school.
“…to meet real-life challenges.” Care to guess how the U.S.A. fared in the latest, 2009, assessment? You can see here for yourself, but I’ll spoil it:
- Reading – 17th (out of 65)
- Mathematics –31st (significantly below the average)
- Science – 23rd
We fail. We fail across the board. We fail where it matters. I’m not sure how we will fare in the 2012 PISA, but I seriously doubt we’ll improve. Our system doesn’t support it anymore.
Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their book “That Used to Be us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, quote Matt Miller, one of the authors of a 2009 McKinsey & Company report titled The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, who said
They [American students] are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.”
I don’t know what the answer is. I admit a selfish cop out – we home educate our children – so I don’t think often on what can or should be done; we’ve taken responsibility for preparing our children ourselves. Still, one simple solution seems to be to promote science, math and engineering.
And we start doing that by not cutting NASA’s budget.
Fat chance. How much would YOU pay for the universe?
At Orion Magazine, college English Instructor Erik Reece has written an excellent essay exploring the role of schools in modern society. The conversation is expansive (covering such things as John Gatto, Citizens United and the trashing of the environment), yet the bases of his essay are his personal interactions with thousands of English students.
Here’s the launching point for Reece’s essay. He asked his college freshmen English students to write an essay on the following topic: “Evaluate the education you received over the last four years.” Here is his summary of types of responses he received:
- Many teachers show no passion for their subjects.
- Many teachers don’t seem to know their subjects very well.
- Teachers often have very low expectations for their students and very lax standards (late work is rarely penalized).
- Many teachers are afraid to engage students in real critical thinking or actual dialogue; they simply rely on handouts and lectures.
- Assignments don’t seem relevant to students’ “real” lives.
- Many teachers only “teach to the test.”
- The majority of the work is far too easy and leads to boredom.
- Students express an overwhelming feeling that only their attendance and test scores are important to teachers and administrators.
Again, this is the starting point for a highly worthwhile piece of writing. I invite you to take a look.
Try to think of a great way to destroy math and science education in the United States. Think of something that Osama bin Laden would have tried to do if he had tried to destroy math and science education in the United States. You might propose this: Defund the STEM Fellows GK-12 Program. Guess what? The U.S. National Science Foundation has done just that. Here is an excerpt from page 29 of the March 4, 2010 edition of Science (full article available online only to subscribers):
Researchers are shocked and upset by a decision by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to cancel a high-profile and successful fellowship program that is brought more than 10,000 graduate students into elementary and secondary schools around the country. A recent evaluation says the graduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (stem) Fellows in K-12 education program, begun in 1999, brings science to life for students, improves the skills of their teachers, and offers graduate students valuable training in the classroom. So participants don’t understand why the president’s 2012 budget request would abandon a $55-million a year program that addresses key aspects of the Obama Administration’s push to improve US science and math education.
Officials at NSF say that the program has been effective but claim that it is now time to move on. The scientists involved in the program aren’t buying this piece of garbage explanation, however. They know that the program was wildly successful, and that it has been highly touted, even by NSF in its recent budget requests to Congress. In its most recent independent evaluation, last fall, this program was declared to be achieving most of its goals pursuant to “substantial and credible evidence.” It has been a win win win program, except that it had a “modest impact on the graduate students’ research skills. Of course it has, since these graduate students are spending more time learning to be good teachers.
The fellows became better teachers, learning how to work collaboratively and how to communicate science to a non-technical audience. The public school teachers improve their knowledge of science and welcome to having graduate science students in the classrooms. The fellows’ new skills made them better college instructors, and their off-campus experiences gave them an edge in finding full-time jobs after graduation.
Consider what the NSF has recently said about STEM Fellows:
This program provides funding for graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines to bring their leading research practice and findings into K-12 learning settings. Through collaborations with other graduate fellows and faculty from STEM disciplines, teachers and students in K-12 environments, and community partners, graduate students can gain a deeper understanding of their own research and place it within a societal and global context. The GK-12 program provides an opportunity for graduate students to acquire value-added skills, such as communicating STEM subjects to technical and non-technical audiences, leadership, team building, and teaching while enriching STEM learning and instruction in K-12 settings. This unique experience will add value to the training of U.S. graduate students and will energize and prepare the students for a broad range of STEM careers in a competitive globalized marketplace. Furthermore, the GK-12 program provides institutions of higher education with an opportunity to transform the conventional graduate education by infusing and sustaining GK-12 like activities in their graduate programs.
By slashing the STEM Fellows program, the Obama administration will now save $55 million per year. Let’s put that in perspective. This country spends more than $2 billion per week pretending to fight a war in Afghanistan while actually propping up corrupt leaders and the poppy crop and antagonizing dirt-poor civilians– Afghanistan is a place where the U.S. military struggles to find even 100 members of Al Qaeda, according to the CIA. The war has nothing at all with which to commend itself, and yet we spend more than $2 billion per week on this “war.” That comes out to about $1 million for every five minutes. In other words, we have just destroyed a perfectly good science and mathematics education program, a program that brought 10,000 math and science graduate students into elementary schools and high schools, at a time when we are desperate to find ways to teach those students science and mathematics. We destroyed STEM Fellows GK-12 to “save” $55 million per year, the amount of money we burn in Afghanistan every five hours.
This is an absolutely pathetic display of bad priorities by our Peace President (who is also willing to toss out hundreds of billions of dollars to his buddies on Wall Street). I can’t think of a better way to move the United States toward second world or third world status.
[Lest there be any confusion, I voted for Obama and I am sorely disappointed with him, yet I still consider him a much better President than John McCain would have been--I am not claiming that Obama is trying to destroy math and science education, only that he has made a terrible decision.]
Take a guess . . . what percentage of young adults from Philadelphia would be qualified to serve in the military? 92%? 45%? Now check this out:
A nonprofit group says that up to 90 percent of young Philadelphians are ineligible for military service because of criminal records, obesity or lack of education.
So you’re probably thinking that the problem is with young adults in big cities, but you’re an optimist:
Nationally, the Defense Department estimates that 75 percent of young adults are disqualified from military service.
Ouch. We need boot camp for everyone. We need to put a moratorium on French fries, television and the “war on drugs.”
In her NYT Op-Ed, Pychologist Susan Engel advises what we are doing wrong in the classroom. She argues that we need to do more than change the way we measure progress–we need to overhaul the entire way we teach:
In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on. . . .
What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.
In the October 29, 2009 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers), writer Michael Bond considered whether members of the general public could benefit from specialized training so that they could better appreciate risks.
Believe it or not, there’s a controversy in this field. According to Bond, many specialists think that the public “will never really be capable of making the best decision on the basis of the available scientific information.” This pessimistic position advocates that risk-related decision-making should be conducted by paternalistic expert agencies, which should nudge people into making better decisions without educating them deeply as to why they should make the choices they are being encouraged to make. A classic example is changing the default on one’s driver’s license with regard to whether one would like to donate one’s organs after death. Making the default that one will donate one’s organs unless the box is checked dramatically increases those who participate in the program.
The optimistic camp is represented by a variety of experts, including psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, who advocates that “people can be taught to improve their decision make and skills.”
As the Nature article points out, poor decision-making is ubiquitous and it seriously undermines the well-being of people. When faced with unfamiliar emotion-fraud situations, “most people suspend their powers of reasoning and go with an instinctive reaction that will often lead them astray.” Bond gives the examples of people refusing to get vaccinations for measles-mumps-rubella, and the unjustified fear many people have with regard to genetically modified crops. He also mentions the statistical deficiencies of healthcare providers, an issue I discussed in an earlier post. We still get all exercised about snakes, even though we rarely encounter them, but we ignore such things as peak oil and the danger of getting into automobiles.
Why do people have such a hard time evaluating risks?
The problem, as many researchers in cognitive neuroscience and psychology have concluded, is that people use two main brain systems to make decisions. One is instinctive–it operates below the level of conscious control and is often driven by emotions. The other is conscious and rational. The first system is automatic, quick and highly effective in situations such as walking along a crowded pavement, which requires the near-instantaneous integration of complex information and the carrying out of well-practiced action. The second system is more useful and novel situations such as deciding on the savings plan, which calls for deliberate analysis. Unfortunately, the first system has a way of kicking in even when deliberation would serve best.
Gigerenzer argues that proper education and training could assist people to put the rational system in charge of the instinctive one. He claims that even one half-hour of training in statistics significantly improves people’s ability to quantify risk.
Bond lists several promising methods for improving critical thinking. One method is to train people to look at problems from an outsiders’ perspective. Another is training them to weigh multiple options simultaneously rather than looking at options one at a time. Another trick is to use “actively open-minded thinking,” which requires people to intentionally consider more than the first conclusion that comes to their mind.
How important is it that people learn better how to evaluate risks? In addition to the examples cited at the top of this article, research suggests that people who suffer from innumeracy overestimate the likelihood of terrorist attacks. They “tend to have a high body-mass index and tend to be poor at managing their own health.”
Those who believe that people can be trained to better appreciate statistics believe that people need to be taught to better “feel the numbers.” They need to use real-life situations to illustrate the statistics.
Many students don’t receive any training in statistics at all. In fact, your article mentions that only one law school in the United States requires a course in statistical thinking. This means that many judges and lawyers are not properly prepared to assess risks in our modern world. Younger students are neglected too. They are only taught the mathematics of certainty (such as geometry and trigonometry), not the mathematics of uncertainty.
Bond’s article concludes with the suggestion that we now have a society of people who don’t understand that they don’t understand. He argues that society would see long-term benefits if we would only stress the need for a rigorous education in the statistics of risk.
Friday evening, I was fortunate enough to attend the 40th anniversary Founder’s Dinner for the elementary school my daughters attended. My youngest, thankfully, is still there. She only has a year left after this one, and already I can feel the size of the hole left in my life when I no longer have the community behind its Big Red Doors to mingle with every day. This young woman, Brittany Packnett, was one of the speakers, an alumnus of the school who has gone on to make a difference in many more young lives as teacher in Washington D.C. I was in tears as I listened to her, knowing that my girls are being blessed with the same underpinnings of which she so eloquently speaks. This is what education for all children should be about.
[Admin note: See also this related post on Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences]