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Science in America

In the news there is a recent study of math and science education internationally. A lot of the stories set a "US improves in math!" tone. The most negative tone I've seen is "US science performance plateaus".

How hard is it to say that math and science education in the US sucks? Because it does. See the image at the end of this post for one reason why.

In the meantime here's an anecdote. I went to school in semi-rural western Pennsylvania. My math education was pretty sound. Our high school had agreements with a local college so that I even got to take college-level calc while in high school. I held up well and I was competitive when I ended up in calc 2 in college.

Science was another matter. I consider myself to be not entirely an idiot, but I was given nothing to work with in high school when it came to science. My physics and chemistry classes were disgusting. My best physics class was taught by an evangelical Christian who sneaked God into class sometimes (without my realizing at the time how wrong that was). My other physics class was taught by someone who didn't even know the subject. I took a standardized college-entrance exam in physics and I think I scored in the 20-something'th percentile even among Americans.

Meanwhile in my computer programming class I was working on ancient iMac G3's (the crayon-colored space ship cube kind) which barely ran a C compiler. I think we used either Borland or Code Warrior; I don't remember, and it doesn't matter because it didn't work. We had to resort to using QBasic in a Windows 95 virtual machine on the Mac's.

Our library had Macintosh Classics (the box-shaped ones from the early 1500's, with tiny little built-in monochrome screens). There was one computer in the library with internet access, which ran only DOS and could only access the national weather service and some library catalogs. I used to go edit AUTOEXEC.BAT to do horrible things.

The priority at the school was clearly not science education. It was sports. We dumped huge amounts of money into a new sports stadium. Cheerleading and swimming were the most important things happening. No one gave the slightest crap whether anyone learned science at that school. And I suffered for it.

If I hadn't been motivated to teach myself how to program in my spare time, where would I have ended up? Even more behind in college than I was? Not in college at all?

Is it any wonder that at college, most of my classes were taught by non-Americans, and a very sizable portion of students were non-American? This in a city NOT known for its diverse international population. People flew in from elsewhere, went to school for 4-8 years and left. Down the street at CMU the American-to-non-American ratio was even more extreme.

The anti-intellectual, anti-science attitude of many Americans is what I detest most about this country. Science is the most important thing that human beings do. Science is what enables modern life. People owe science and scientists more than they could ever imagine. And instead people take it entirely for granted, and spit in the face of science at every turn.

Now, here's something to make you puke up your breakfast. Public acceptance of evolution, by country. I won't post much about this subject because it would be mostly profanities.

public acceptance of evolution

December 09, 2008 @ 5:25 PM PST
Cateogory: Rants

3 Comments

numerodix
Quoth numerodix on December 10, 2008 @ 9:27 PM PST

My experience was not quite so grim, there is no god lurking in Norwegian classrooms. But the computer science portion is right on. Growing up I badly wanted to have a computer class (I didn't really know what programming was or if I wanted to do it back then) but there was no such thing. In junior high (age 14) I picked a computer class elective. It was a room full of 386/486 machines running DOS, and a couple of Pentiums. There was a single computer in the library that had internet access, and once I figured out I could book it every time we had class with a note form the teacher, I did. The "curriculum" of that class was pathetic, and people spent the whole time playing games on the few Pentiums that were capable of it.

In high school we had something called "IT" which was part economics, part "IT". As in "how do you create a two column layout in Word". Excel formulae, that was the peak of the course. No programming, no compsci.

And then people like us (not me in particular, I actually quite dislike this attitude), our peers, complain that "people are idiots about computers, they don't know anything". Well, is it any wonder?

Steven Oliver
Quoth Steven Oliver on December 11, 2008 @ 1:25 AM PST

While this might look bad for science, not accepting evolution doesn't really have much to do with math.

Stuart
Quoth Stuart on December 11, 2008 @ 2:15 PM PST

The overall biggest problem is just absolutely unqualified teachers being put into positions where they can't be fired even though they barely teach anything and let students do whatever they want. I can only think of three or four teachers I had in my entire high school career who ever required the class to do real work, and it's those that I really appreciate because I actually learned stuff.

I had others who were just infuriatingly self-important while being horrible teachers. One teacher I had for psychology went on at the beginning of the semester about how it was a college-level class that she expecte college-level work out of, etc. All of the assignments were the class "notes", in-class papers that we had to read about a section out of the book to do, and all of the tests were open note and basically verbatum questions. She did yearbook, and if anyone was in her yearbook class they could get away with anything - days where the entire class period was dedicated to doing the assignments that took a whopping five minutes to do but these kids would just sit around talking bullshit. Then when the test came and they didn't have the notes, she'd let them go out in the hall and do them then take the test the next day with no penalty. There are other examples very similar to this but she was by far the one that annoyed me the most with how she believed herself to be so absolutely vital to the educational process while contributing nothing to the development of any of her students; in fact, she was making them worse.

There's a new superintendant in DC that's trying to kick out teachers like this and has fired something like 200 underperforming teachers since she was sworn in, and when I read about her I just wished something like that would happen in my town so we could stop cranking out lazy idiots and maybe have a school system that molds young minds so they're ready to contribute to the world.