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On those wasteful humanities majors…

November 9, 2011 1 comment

Will Wilkinson defends subsidies for non-STEM majors against Alex Tabarrok:

Speaking of human welfare, I wonder why Mr Tabarrok is so fixed on the role of education as an input to production but so uninterested in it as a form of consumption, whence all welfare flows. The fact that the percentage of students studying science, engineering, technology, and maths has declined, despite the fact that salaries for graduates with these majors are handsome and steadily increasing, ought to be very telling, especially to an economist. It’s important to note that everyone knows that engineering jobs are far more plentiful and remunerative than jobs in ballet companies. If we faithfully apply the economists’ idea of “revealed preference”, it seems we should infer that students decreasingly care to use their time at university preparing to land highly-paid jobs. We might even infer that parental/taxpayer pressure to do so has declined. I know I didn’t think I was making some kind of mistake studying in art instead of biology, because art is fun and putting test-tubes in a centrifuge is a perfectly awful way to waste one’s life, unless you happen to like that sort of thing, and, clearly, most of us don’t.

What is economic growth for, anyway? It’s for expanding our choices and making life better. Is it really so surprising that, as we grow wealthier as a society, more and more of our young people, when the amazing resources of the modern university are put at their disposal, choose to use them learning something satisfying and enriching and notfor anything except cherishing the rest of their lives? Is it really so surprising that taxpayers are not in revolt over the existence of poetry professors?

As we grow wealthier as a society, we also devote ever more money and time listening to music, attending performances, reading books, watching film and TV. Somebody has to make this stuff, and I’m certain its full value is not captured in the economists’ growth stats. I spent last evening reading a fine Pulitzer prize-winning novel by a graduate of a state-university creative-writing program. I appreciate everything math majors do for us. I really do. But, as far as I know, a math major has never made me cry.

Categories: Education

Science is really hard…

November 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Or so claims the New York Times:

Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

The bulk of attrition comes in engineering and among pre-med majors, who typically leave STEM fields if their hopes for medical school fade. There is no doubt that the main majors are difficult and growing more complex. Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.

My basic problem is the overall framing of the article. I am deeply skeptical we actually “need” more scientists, and my casual reading of the economics suggests the problem would disappear if industry just raised salaries. I have to look up the references, but I believe a few studies document that interest in STEM fields fields closely tracks salaries and employment prospects. As the article itself noted, many gifted students quickly “see easier ways to make money.”

I also don’t think Matt Moniz’s decision (profiled in the article) to switch out of engineering into psychology and English should be viewed as this great tragedy.
That said, I’m all for people keeping people interested in science and engineering, making classwork more relevant to daily life, getting rid of/minimizing weed-out classes, and mostly eliminating the whole macho attitude around these fields.
Categories: Education, STEM

People are scary in a way that numbers are not

September 29, 2011 7 comments

Two months ago TNC inveighed against reformers who depend solely on statistics to explain human motivations. They are blind to the possibility that changes leading to higher property values won’t automatically be supported. They can’t see that a neighborhood is often much more than a financial instrument. Most importantly, they often fail to note “the humanity in the actual human beings they would have reformed.”

This passage in particular struck me:

Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it’s really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not.

He could have been describing reports on scientific literacy. The Americans are scientific buffoons porn is quite easy to find. The people captured in those reports not so much. Who are some of these people without “basic factual knowledge of science?” What do they do for a living? For fun when they get home? Do they really need more science to live meaningful lives? As I said about women in science, it’s easy to rob people of agency and assume their lives are tragic. It’s a lot harder to try understand their decisions on their own terms.

None of this is meant to undermine either the value of education or basic factual knowledge. It is not a good situation that only 20% of Americans know the Earth revolves around the sun. We should try to improve the situation.

But if we had some deeply reported science journalism to complement the statistics, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much fatalism. If we recognized that real people leading real lives can get along just fine even with their scientific illiteracy, there would be no reason to judge them so harshly. As with housing policy reform, science outreach is easier if you actually respect the people being reached out to.

Categories: Education, Literacy, Society

The STEM Conundrum

May 24, 2011 1 comment

Via the Eduwonk, I came across this discussion on STEM Education over at the National Journal. Steve Peha (scroll down and read his entire response) argues that STEM “is not a real thing” and we should instead focus on aligning curriculum with specific careers:

Smashed together in a nifty though semantically useless acronym, STEM looks like a tight bundle of sci-tech opportunity. But it’s more a case of category confusion.

Science is not a single thing, but many things, including the social sciences—which I imagine have been left out of STEM, right?

For example, where would the work of Everett Rogers (the guy who came up with the “early adopter” technology innovation model) fit into a STEM curriculum? He was a social scientist studying technology adoption patterns, but not often computer technology, so is his work fair game for STEM programs?

And later on:

A program that elegantly integrated the elements of STEM could be interesting, but it could also prove unwieldy since the disciplines are so diverse. STEM itself is a conglomeration of things we think should go together but that really don’t, an artificial grouping of disciplines that obscures rather than clarifies what it is we might do in school to make our kids more future-ready.

STEM is a well-intentioned but ill-conceived approach at marketing technical and scientific literacy—a curricular Rube Goldberg Machine. I’ve asked many people what it is, and many people have asked me what it is. None of us seems to know—and that’s not for lack of trying to find out.

In theory, STEM is the wave of the future. In practice, “STEM” is wonkspeak for “We want to stop handing out H-1B visas and off-shoring tech work.” But we don’t need the H-1Bs and the offshoring because we’re short on techy types here at home. We seek tech help beyond our borders because it’s cheaper and because technology itself facilitates the management of distributed teams. Regardless of what degrees our kids end up with, Americans will continue to be more expensive and technology will continue to make distributed teams more effective. STEM may not only be confusing; it may be irrelevant compared to more “traditional” high tech disciplines like computer science.

If we want more scientists, let’s create amazing science programs, and push them down to the lower grades. If we want engineers, let’s create cool engineering programs. If we want more computer kids, let’s start teaching kids computer science instead of just PowerPoint and Word. If we want more kids to get hooked on more math, we probably need an age-appropriate, ultra-relevant applied math track for kids to pursue in parallel with traditional math instruction.

If we weren’t hung up on STEM, it wouldn’t be hard to see how simple sci-tech programs could be created, programs with direct links to sci-tech career opportunities. I learned computer programming in my freshman year of high school in 1976. I guess Mr. Erickson, one of our math teachers, was pretty STEMy for his time (though he didn’t try to teach us math during computer class, so perhaps he wasn’t so STEMy after all).

He also argues that we need to emphasize the literacy component of all STEM training, and suggests the new (catchier? worse?) acronym L-STEM. Oh dear!

While I agree with much of this, I think he does get very close to arguing that STEM education  should simply be job training (even though he insists otherwise!).

An interesting read.

Categories: Education

Why do we teach science?

March 3, 2011 2 comments

The Lt. makes an important point I’ve been meaning to address in his response to my suggestion that much of biology can be taught without the theory of evolution (emphasis added):

You may not need evolution to teach biology, but you pretty much do need it to teach biology well. I don’t know if you saw the new AAAS report on revamping the undergrad biology curriculum. The focus is undergrad and not high school. But they identified core concepts and the very first one was evolution. I guess it all depends on the class and what you’re hoping to accomplish.

In grad school I took a class on “Science Education for Scientists and Engineers.” Perhaps the most interesting discussions we had centered on the justifications for public science literacy. That is, why do we teach everyone science? Surely society’s need for scientists and engineers can be satisfied by training a small elite. But we clearly care about more than just that. The endless exhortations for more science education reflect, I believe, the belief that science must mean something for everyone.

And here is where it gets a little tricky. From my light reading in the field, there really is no expert consensus on why or how we foster a general public understanding of science. Scholars generally agree that science education should leave people with some content knowledge, some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But specifically what content, and how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation is a mystery.

From my standpoint, if we care even a little about the last goal (and I believe we should care a lot), then we must tread carefully around thorny topics like evolution. It doesn’t mean that evolution is not important (it surely is), or that the theory should be avoided (it shouldn’t). But a strident, narrow defense of evolution may undermine scientific literacy writ-large. Do we really want to tell people that they are unwelcome in physics and chemistry if they don’t believe in evolution? And do we have to do it so angrily?

In evolution and in politics, I wish we could all just try a little tenderness.

What is HPS 101?

November 30, 2010 1 comment

The recent discussions on the practical relevance of history and philosophy of science brought to mind this great Ezra Klein column.  Klein attended the American Political Science Association conference where one of the conference highlights was a panel titled “Is Political Science Relevant?” Sound familiar?

Klein asked several attendees what they wished politicians knew about politics.  The responses are illuminating for two reasons.  In and of itself, it’s interesting to see that presidential speeches don’t move public opinion, lobbyists don’t matter as much as we might think, citizen-legislators actually empower special interests, and (of course!) politicians should speak more to political scientists.  Now the implications of these findings are by no means straightforward, and we cannot simply apply them them to the rough-and-tumble world of practicing politicians.  But they are illuminating nonetheless.

Perhaps the more important take away here is that there were any responses at all to Klein’s question.  Practicing political scientists were prepared to discuss the key insights their field had for politics, and Klein was able to tease out some broad themes.  Would this be possible with the history and philosophy of science?  Even if we relax the assumption of policy-relevance, what are the key findings of HPS/STS?  That is, what would you include in an introductory college seminar? Are there standard texts like there are in physics? Given that scientists are prepared to answer such questions, it’s incumbent upon the historians, etc. to be likewise prepared.

Categories: Academia, Education, Philosophy

Sports as a pedagogical tool

July 18, 2010 4 comments

Roger Pielke Jr. has a post on using sports to examine “questions related to decision making, ethics, politics, prediction and more.”  To that list I would add epistemology, science policy, expertise, and maybe even the sociology of science.  I’ve advocated using sports analogies to explain science for a long time now (since at least January 17 of this year:)), and naturally I wish more people followed suit.  So I’m happy that Roger jumped on this thread.

Most Americans understand sports whether or not they are fans, and the framework can therefore be illuminating.  Delineating the relevant expertise in climate science would be easier if people realized that Freeman Dyson is to global warming as Michael Phelps is to basketball.  The New York Times wouldn’t have interviewed Phelps for insightful analysis about the NBA Finals, and they similarly should not have interviewed Dyson about climate change.  We can accept Dyson has crazy skills as long as we simultaneously recognize that it’s in a single sport.  It’s really not that hard of a concept.

No evidence for scientific thinking

June 20, 2010 7 comments

This Eugene Robinson column garnered some attention on my Facebook wall.  Here’s the offending passage:

We can all applaud Chu’s accomplishment. But here’s the thing: Chu is a physicist, not an engineer or a biologist. His Nobel was awarded for the work he did in trapping individual atoms with lasers. He’s absurdly smart. But there’s nothing in his background to suggest he knows any more about capping an out-of-control deep-sea well, or containing a gargantuan oil spill, than, say, columnist Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel in economics. Or novelist Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel in literature.
In fact, Chu surely knows less about blowout preventers than the average oil-rig worker and less about delicate coastal marshes than the average shrimp-boat captain.

Strong words indeed.  A couple of my friends naturally pointed out that Chu must have exceptional analytical and problem-solving skills that he can apply to the situation.  This argument is all too typical and at this point is almost a truism.  Of course scientists have spectacular analytical and problem-solving skills.  And of course it carries over from their very narrow field to other problems.  Surely this much is true, right?

One of the many problems with these assertions is the almost complete lack of supporting evidence.  Has anyone actually studied how well scientists think and problem-solve outside of their field? Is your average space physicist more adept at analyzing economics, politics and policy merely on account of being a physicist?  How do we separate the scientific component of Chu’s analytical skills from the fact that he’s really smart and driven?  As far as I know there’s no data either way.

What I do know is that a search for “domain specific” on the PsycInfo database yields a few thousand results.  And I also know that at least some research privileges content knowledge over analytical skills.  The latter thesis especially undermines the idea of an amorphous scientific thinking that magically transfers to every problem.

None of this means that scientific thinking does not exist.  It very well might.  But before drawing any firm conclusions,  we should first gather and analyze the available data.  Doing otherwise would be pretty unscientific.

Clarification on scientific literacy and reading comprehension

May 21, 2010 2 comments

Over at the Galilean Library, they’ve been having a good discussion about my recent post on the similarities between scientific literacy and reading comprehension.  I realize now that my use of global warming as an example may have caused some confusion.  Let me try clarify with yet another tendentious sports analogy.  (fyi, most of this comment has also been posted over at the above thread.)

I think what we mean by scientific thinking is a general critical thinking ability that can be applied across domains, even when you encounter a subject for the first time. It’s kind of like we expect someone who’s athletic to quickly pick up any sport.  The key point is that in both cases, general skills confer only limited proficiency in a new task.  An amazing basketball player will not necessarily be good at swimming or football no matter how athletic she is.   Similarly, an accomplished chemist may not be able to reason about geophysics even if she is great at “scientific thinking.”  Of course within certain domains it is easier to transfer skills.  Tennis knowledge probably helps with badminton, and running the 100 m helps with running the 400 m and so on.  But it’s a leap to assume that either a general athleticism or critical thinking ability can be applied everywhere.

So when Peter says  “Anyone can develop a good understanding of scientific thinking simply by reading the scientific literature,” I would say that we really have to specify “the scientific literature.”  You can understand the thinking in a field by reading its particular literature, and I’m not sure it will apply in other fields.

Has any of this made sense?

Two quick things

May 18, 2010 1 comment

I know I still have to respond to the comments on my reading comprehension/science literacy post.  I’ll get to that soon.  Until then, I recommend you check out two things.  First, read this beautiful post over at http://skullcrushermountain.blogspot.com/.  LT eloquently describes the sadness of cleaning up his old grad school papers.  Take this passage:

But going through the papers made me sad. It was like disturbing the cobwebs in long-dormant parts of my mind. I vaguely remembered many of the papers, and remembered why I had them, what questions spurred me to track them down and read them. Those questions remain unanswered, those avenues of research unpursued, at least by me. It is remarkable, really, how widely human curiosity has spanned. Whatever your question, chances are someone else has tried to find the answer. And yet, we never run out of questions, because every answer suggests more.

And later on:

I am not naive enough to believe that – even had I stayed and prospered in academia – I would have had time to follow all those untrodden paths. I knew and still know many harried and unhappy assistant professors. And it was partly the relentless drive to specialize that drove me away from the university. (It was also a desire to be more relevant – that push and pull I talked about here.) Grad school was a special time and when it ended, it was over regardless of what came next. Short of becoming independently wealthy and being able to do as I please, that existence has forever ceased to be an option. But the systematic asking of questions and iterative gathering up of knowledge to answer them is part of the core of my being, part of how I approach everything. It was simply writ large in my personal library.

As I said earlier, quite beautiful.  This blog is the first time in my life I’ve tried to write often and (somewhat) systematically.  In the past it was mostly for coursework or an ad-hoc basis.  Hopefully one day I can build up to that level.

The second thing to check out is the blog for “The Rightful Place of Science?” conference I’m currently attending.  You might be interested in it.  Academics often talk about interdisciplinary collaboration, but this meeting is the first time I’ve seen it in action.   I’ve already spoken with a dozen or so creative writers, observed a panel with a science reporter and a historian/philosopher, saw a talk by a PhD in religious studies, and watched two short plays about science.  It’s really good stuff.

Categories: Academia, Education, Literacy
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