Friday, May 13, 2005

Science Education in America Part II

I believe most of us take blithely for granted that this, the United States, is one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet. This is a country that thrives on new inventions, where your fortune can be made if you can come up with the right "new thing", and which builds its jobs on the backbone of technological advances that move us forward into a service focused economy.

So the U.S. has established itself as something of a technological behemoth, yet incredibly we still can't quite get the idea of science right, not understanding what is or is not a "theory" goes to the heart of this problem, and apart from religion, especially when science is in conflict with religion. On top of that we're not so focused on the sciences as we once were, to wit (taken from the editorial by J. W. Moore in The Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 82 No. 6 June 2005):

Undergraduate degrees in science and engineering (S&E) are awarded to a smaller fraction of undergraduates in the U.S. than in other countries.
• The U.S. share of worldwide undergraduate S&E degrees has dropped.
• Annually the U.S. has a smaller share of the worldwide S&E doctoral degrees than both Asia and Europe.
• The proportion of U.S. citizens in U.S. S&E graduate programs has dropped below 50%, and 57% of S&E postdoctoral fellows are foreign-born [Personal note: my PhD touting wife earned her degree in Iran.]
• Since 1980 the number of S&E positions in the U.S. workforce has grown at nearly five times the rate of the workforce as a whole, but the number of S&E degrees is growing less rapidly than the workforce.
• Rapidly increasing retirements from the S&E field imply that, unless more domestic students pursue S&E degrees, the U.S. is likely to experience a major shortage of high-tech talent.
• As a percentage of gross domestic product, U.S. federal funding of basic research in engineering and physical sciences has declined over the past 30 years.

So on the one hand we're the technology leaders of the world, on the other we're unable to define what's science and what's not, and on top of it all we're not producing nearly as many scientists or engineers as we need to to sustain our technology base, which in the end will indeed be responsible for most of the jobs in this country as we go into the future. Don't just take my word for it that we're looking at a problem here, rather take it from some business folks (to see the full report go to Business-Higher Education Forum's A Commitment to America's Future: Responding to the Crisis in Mathematics and Science Education) :

"Increased global competition, lackluster performance in mathematics and science education, and a lack of national focus on renewing its science and technology infrastructure have created a new economic and technological vulnerability as serious as any military or terrorist threat."

Now those are pretty strong words, "... vulnerability as serious as any military or terrorist threat." Wow ... and we can't get a large percentage of the science teachers in this country to get their heads out of their Bibles long enough to figure out what's science and what's faith. Maybe the Department of Homeland Security should be working this one vice the Department of Education --- but hey, this administration has all sorts of faith-based initiatives, maybe they figure that faith will carry us along, creationism or not.

It's interesting how this issue of faith intersecting with science works. I have four Muslim friends who are reasonably observant of their faith, to the extent that one of the women wears a head scarf, and all eat halal, the Islamic equivalent of kosher meat, and all pray the requisite number of times during the course of their day. Two are PhD cosmologists, one of whom works on the cosmic background radiation which is a remnant of the big bang, the other is a cosmologist (I'm sorry, I don't recall what she specifically works on), and the other two are working on their PhDs in different areas of physics. They don't seem to have a problem with the big bang, though I haven't really gotten into a discussion of evolution per se (I did with one, and she didn't indicate there to be a problem.) I know another PhD, this one in biology, who's a Mormon that believes that all of this evolution stuff is hooey and that the big bang didn't happen --- he tends to keep his views to himself, though. Now interestingly enough he is more representative than my Muslim friends of the faith-based conflict with evolution, i.e. the problem, for as much as there is any, come from the Christian community (though I do appreciate that many consider the Church of Latter Day Saints to be more of a sect than a religion, I'll go with the IRS and agree that they're a branch of the Christian faith). I have to wonder, though, how a scientist with a PhD can out of hand completely discount large sweeps of physics and biology, and it's not like he's offering anything to replace it with other than his faith. Now he's entitled to his faith, but faith, last I checked, doesn't do much for curing diseases, feeding the poor (the green revolution, I'm sorry to say, did far more to feed the poor than any church ever did), or come up with the next generation of computer chips.

Ok, I've gone on longer than I likely should have, and I do hope I was able to get the message across. We need more students interested in science if we're to keep this country moving in the direction it needs to go, and doing a better job of it I may add, than those of us who've been there before them. And we need to get God out of the science curriculum if we're not to make ourselves out to look more foolish than we already have. God is God, and God has a place and I completely respect that place and anyone's entitlement to be in that place with God, for however much that's possible --- but God doesn't belong in science books until such time as God allows us to test, measure, and record what God does, at which point we'll all be engaging in science and maybe we'd also have a happier world to boot! And maybe when pigs fly we'll all learn to not eat bacon, or something like that.


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