Sunday, August 07, 2011

Poor Science Instruction, And It's Getting Worse

If we make science instruction more "fun", more kids will be interested, right? Then there's no problem!
This has been my experience for more than 25 years, and over that time the fraction of young, American-educated engineers continued to dwindle. I was reminded of this state of affairs reading Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about several initiatives, launched by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, designed to attract and retain foreign entrepreneurs, particularly those in the high-tech sector who wish to launch start-up companies in the United States.

One could well ask why in the midst of a recession (“recovery” in some circles) the U.S. would try to attract more foreign, highly educated scientists and engineers to our shores. Yet we, who live in the Silicon Valley, know the answer: fewer and fewer American students are interested, or able, to enter demanding science and engineering programs.

With new (national) science standards being published, we might expect this issue to be addressed--and it is, but in entirely the wrong way:
Yet as I kept reading the document’s 280 pages of lofty prose, I noticed something odd: The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science.
Uh oh.
For example, the framework promotes a practice called Using Mathematics, Information and Computer Technology, and Computational Thinking (p. 3-13). Yet one observes that after singing paeans to the importance of mathematics, it only expects students by grade 12 to be competent in "recognizing," "expressing," and "using simple … mathematical expressions … to see if they make sense," but not in actually solving science problems using mathematics. Its other suggestions include the use of computer programs and simulations, ability to analyze data using computer tools and spreadsheets, modeling, and describing systems using charts and graphs. But there is nothing about actually being able to model a system by its equations, or solve it using mathematical techniques. The framework also includes as one of its Cross Cutting Concepts something it calls Systems and System Models (p. 4-7), but there, yet again, it does not expect students to use mathematics for that modeling. Its models "can range in complexity from lists and simple sketches to detailed computer simulations or functioning prototypes," but mathematics is left behind.

One searches in vain for words like “algebra” in the text...

All of this made me think. Before Lavoisier’s quantitative approach there was no chemistry, only Alchemy. Before Newton’s invention of calculus, physics was more a craft than a science. Mathematics has been inseparable from science for the last 300 years, and has been largely responsible for the world we live in. Yet here we have a “21st century” science framework for our students that effectively ignores mathematics.
The author tells where this will lead:
Suddenly it all became clear. This framework does not expect our students to be able to do any science, or to be able to solve any science problem. This framework simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science. It expects our students to become good consumers of science and technology, rather than prepare them to be the discoverers of science and creators of technology.
There's a time and a place for watered-down courses like this--required courses that everyone must pass in order to graduate--but let's ensure our standards allow for some rigor somewhere, no?

Hat tip to Joanne for the link.


Anna A said...

I'm all for science being fun. At the elementary school level, and introductory sciences. When they are first starting to explore the world, catch their interest.

Full Disclosure: I'm a working chemist, who still finds lab work fun. (and aggravating when stuff is smarter than I am) I still don't know how I managed to pass 3 semesters of college calculus, though. And wanted to take the course, "Physics for Poets" rather than the standard one

pseudotsuga said...

It's hard to make any academic or intellectual discipline "fun" all by itself, whether it is English grammar or algebra, trigonometry or Latin.
But all this watering-down seems to be doing is giving everyone a college degree, just like the President and many others think is such a vital thing to do!
Heck, college will become so easy that ANYBODY and EVERYBODY can do it! And then we can have a huge pool of college graduates to enter our labor force, able to do all those things that college graduates do so well!

Dean Baird said...

The sky will remain aloft. Frameworks are, by nature, broadly-written documents.

Here is a direct quote:
"A significant advance comes when relationships are expressed using equalities first in words and then in algebraic symbols—for example, shifting from distance traveled = velocity multiplied by time elapsed to s = vt. Students should have opportunities to explore how such symbolic representations can be used to represent data, to predict outcomes, and eventually to derive further relationships using mathematics." (p. 3-14)

The author of the critique glossed over the mathematical practices. Let's see them in full:

 Recognize dimensional quantities and use appropriate units in scientific applications of mathematical formulas and graphs.

 Express relationships and quantities in appropriate mathematical or algorithmic forms for scientific modeling and investigations.

 Recognize that computer simulations are built on mathematical models that incorporate underlying assumptions about the phenomena or systems being studied.

 Use simple test cases of mathematical expressions, computer programs, or simulations—that is, compare their outcomes with what is known about the real world—to see if they “make sense.”

 Use grade-level appropriate understanding of mathematics and statistics in analyzing data.

What specific, mathephylic language were you hoping to see in this broad document?

Darren said...

He specifically mentioned s=vt as perhaps the *only* formula mentioned. So much else is "recognize" but not "solve".

Jerry Doctor said...

I was the chairman of the science department in a large urban high school when the district science supervisor informed us that all math prerequisites were being eliminated for science courses. She explained that the prerequisites were merely a means of keeping minority students out of advanced science classes.

As our physics teacher commented, "Physics without math is physics without physics."

Dean Baird said...

Algebra 1 is all the prerequisite anyone really needs for high school physics.

Physics courses of yesteryear preferred to mimic college physics. They limited enrollment to students who had completed chemistry and trigonometry. This tended to limit their enrollment to the 20 smartest boys in the school. The teacher was the high priest teaching nothing but learned scholars.

There is a common misconception is that Conceptual Physics is devoid of math. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who looks through the Conceptual Physics textbook will find it rich in mathematics. What Conceptual Physics "lacks" is the emphasis on number puzzles, which were the day-in-day-out staple of physics course in the '50s. Number puzzles are all good fun, but there's more to physics than applied math.