Science Education

I’m taking microeconomics this semester, the one that requires two years of calculus and linear algebra and is much harder than the other microeconomics class. I knew that our society had been ceding these classes to Asians (some are Asian American), but it’s still somewhat startling to see how few whites and other minorities there are in the class.

Yesterday I tutored someone for the chemistry SAT test, and I was shocked, seeing the test for the first time, to see how little of the material is covered by the majority of teachers at our local school. The student I was tutoring is exceptionally bright, but he hadn’t been taught the material.

So my first thoughts are the familiar ones, my usual education rant: our kids need to be learning more, much more thoroughly, at a younger age, facts and concepts and the ability to communicate them. Some of this is practical stuff, not just book stuff, lots of experiments beginning in elementary school and especially in junior high. Way less TV, video games, jobs to pay for gasoline. Etc. Test-driven education? – think SAT and tests at a good university, tests both to get into rigorous courses and to be able to excel once there.

My experiences learning science, from teachers and Scientific American when I was young, from professors and Science magazine now that I am older, is the magic of learning causes for what I see in everyday life (yes, we walk by using our leg muscles, but we can’t move forward unless something outside our body pushes us forward; the sky is blue and the sun is yellow, more yellow than people in outer space would see, so what does our atmosphere do to sunlight?) Especially for those of us from chaotic homes, the magic of causality is powerful. It is the magic of learning concepts impossible to perceive in the world we live in, a world of middle lengths and middle speeds and middle mass, like Goldilocks’ world, not too much or little of any of those – because the worlds of small masses or high speeds or significant masses and accelerations are very different from any world we can easily understand. That word magic is a strong part of my experience, along with rigorous requirements that models explain observations, and make successful predictions if they are to be accepted by scientists, if I am to feel comfortable with the models myself.

Then I opened the newspaper to see what is the really large educational issue today, even larger than No Child Left Behind: whether to dilute science education even further.

The Soviet Union had two types of science, to oversimplify, Lysenkoism and other. To be hired into the Lysenkophile fields of science, one had to agree to ideology, and generally one could not be Jewish. In the “other” categories, the Soviet Union often excelled, sometimes it was preeminent.

So Lysenkoism is working to establish a toehold in the US, as the battles over creationism continue.

[(Primarily) leftist opposition to nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops, no matter what the facts are or may turn out to be, also harms society. Eg, many support environmental organizations that produce ideological “science”, actually policy papers that purport to depend on science. At the K-12 level, this may appear as a weaker push in math and science than our kids need to compete in the world of 2017, or even 2005. It leads to fighting the people who can describe the big environmental problems, to fighting those who can suggest the solutions. A friend who teaches third and fourth grade still hears arguments about whether to teach phonics and how that ignore all results from studies in favor of ideology.]

Nothing written here should be taken as a support of all science, no matter what, eg, procedures to let people create a baby for the purpose of providing a transplant to an older sibling. And we have to take much of science with skepticism, particularly medical tests on test tubes or paid for by drug companies.

That said, the general disdain for science, and the attacks on the teaching of evolution in biology classes which will presumably be followed by attacks on the teaching of geology (facts and experiments tell geologists that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old) and of astrophysics (facts and experiments tell astrophysicists that there was a Big Bang, despite the fact that no astrophysicist is old enough to have been there to witness the event), do not bode well for us spiritually or economically. Spiritually, it presages a world for many where they learn only what they already believe. Economically, it creates difficulty for companies that need people trained in science, trained to begin with the facts and then draw conclusions.

If our society is to be able to hear what are the major environmental and other problems which scientists warn us of, hear how serious they are, and help us find solutions, it is to be hoped that we can find a way to listen better. If we want society to be more economically competitive, we need to prepare people in science and math.

That can best be done if we find ways to include everyone in the joy of learning the lessons we can learn from a piece of rock, or the migration patterns and mating calls of birds, whatever is out there. It is a spectacular universe, a universe of mystery. It is a magical universe.

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