US Science Education Sucks

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Fri Aug 24 2001 - 07:05:46 MDT

How can the same system produce scientific elites and illiterates?
The United States by any conceivable measure has the finest scientists in the
world. But the rest of the population, by any rational standard, is abysmally
ignorant of science, mathematics and all things technical. That is the paradox
of scientific elites and scientific illiterates: how can the same system of
education that produced all those brilliant scientists also have produced all
that ignorance?

The situation is not merely paradoxical; it's downright perilous.We face an
era that promises ever accelerating technological change in every aspect of
our lives, while at the same time the very survival of our civilization may
depend on our ability to make wise decisions about how to manage our
resources, our climate and our conflicts. In the next century, we will need to
be able to deal confidently with technical issues, and a responsible
electorate will need to have some reasonable mastery of how the world works.

In these circumstances, an undergraduate major in science should be the best
possible preparation for any serious profession. Or, put another way, the
science major today should be what classical Greek and Latin were in the 19th
century, and the liberal-arts major was in the 20th: the union card required
to enter the professional world. Unfortunately, the science education we have
in place to provide this union card could not be less suited to the task.

Science education in the United States today exists as a kind of mining and
sorting operation, in which we, the existing scientists, cull through what
comes our way, searching for diamonds in the rough that can be cleaned and cut
and polished into glittering gems just like us. The rest are cast on the slag
heap, left to fend for themselves with no basic understanding of the sciences.
The paradox of elites and illiterates exists because our system of science
education is designed to produce that result.

The problem starts in grade school, where few children ever come into personal
contact with a scientifically trained person-including, unfortunately, their
teachers. In most of the United States the only way you can graduate from
college without taking a single science course is to major in elementary
education. And, it is said, many people major in elementary education for
precisely that reason. Our elementary school teachers are therefore not only
ignorant of science; they are hostile to science. That hostility must,
inevitably, rub off on the young people they teach.

A few years ago, I was on a committee to look into how well the "breadth"
requirement-that all students take at least one course in science-was working
at one University of California campus. We found that, of those students not
majoring in a technical subject, 90 percent were satisfying the breadth
requirement by taking a single biology course known informally among the
students as "Human Sexuality." Now, I don't for an instant doubt that it was a
useful and interesting course. It may even have tempted students to do
hands-on experiments on their own time (a result we seldom achieve in
physics). But I don't think it constitutes a sufficient education in science
for university graduates at the dawn of the 21st century.

I also know a bit about what goes on at the secondary level because in the
1980s I made an educational TV series, The Mechanical Universe, that's still
widely used in U.S. colleges and high schools. There are about 24,000 high
schools in the United States. Nobody knows how many trained high school
physics teachers there are (with, say, the equivalent of an undergraduate
major in the subject) but certainly there are no more than a few thousand. I
made The Mechanical Universe primarily for the "crossover" teachers, those who
teach physics even though they weren't trained for it. It's a source of great
satisfaction that hundreds of teachers have thanked me for making it possible
for them to have successful careers. But guess what? They tell me their
greatest satisfaction is not in preparing the rest of their students to thrive
in an increasingly technical world, but in finding those diamonds in the rough
that can be sent on to college to be cut and polished into real physicists.

But nowhere is the problem more vivid than in graduate school. Gradu­ ate
students are the elect, those selected to go on to the final stage of the
mining and sorting operation. The average professor in a research university
turns out about 15 PhDs in the course of a career. While the problem of
science education is often framed in terms of a perceived lack of PhDs-too few
elites to fuel our scientific and technological progress in the future-it's
clear we actually have a process in place equipped to multiply our kind 15
times over with each succeeding generation. What's lacking is a means to
provide the rest of our population with even the most basic understanding of
science in an increasingly science-driven world.

My friends from around the country tell me that the number of undergraduate
physics majors is at its lowest point since Sputnik, nearly 50 years ago.
That's not surprising. The undergraduate major in physics is largely regarded
as preparation for graduate school, and the academic job market is still
saturated from the influx of baby boomer PhDs in the 1970s, dissuading
potential new candidates from pursuing an under­ graduate science degree.
Those without an interest in an academic profession don't see a degree in
physics as relevant. Thus, far from being the liberal-arts major of the 21st
century, the undergraduate science major has become an endangered species.

Is there any conceivable remedy? Can we imagine a world in which we do better
than turn out a handful of PhDs, many of whom will wind up with little but
frustration to show for all their hard work, while the rest of the young
people who graduate from college are unprepared to cope with a society shaped
largely by science and technology? Of course, it would help if those of us who
teach science in college would change our own attitudes and devise more
inviting ways of presenting our subjects. But even if we could do that it
would barely make a dent in the problem. By the time the kids get to us, they
are already lost to science.

But imagine a world in which teaching in high school is such an attractive
profession that it would be worth the trouble of a doctoral level education to
get the job. For that to happen, we would have to pay teachers more, at least
as much as what graduating doctoral students get. And they should be paid
more. But that's not the whole answer. Just as important, schools would have
to learn to treat these teachers with professional respect, and society would
have to afford them the honor and admiration that professionals expect. This
is not unthinkable. Something like it was true in much of Europe before World
War II. But it is very far from true in today's United States.

Much more is needed, of course. The revolution would have to extend right down
to the first grade. Teachers would have to be literate in science, and kids
would have to find learning science as cool as following the fortunes of rock
groups. That's an awful lot to ask for. But then again, only our future
depends on it.


Useless hypotheses, etc.:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego

     Everything that can happen has already happened, not just once,
     but an infinite number of times, and will continue to do so forever.
     (Everything that can happen = more than anyone can imagine.)

We won't move into a better future until we debunk religiosity, the most
regressive force now operating in society.

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