Thursday, May 19, 2011

Science education sucks

I don't entirely understand quite why, but I find the commercials featuring vacuum cleaner pioneer and self-proclaimed genius inventor James Dyson particularly irritating. Is it the plummy, unctuous tone of smug, self-satisfaction? Or is it that he is now one of England's richest people by virtue of having made a vacuum cleaner, albeit a fancy techy one. I try to reassure myself that, if I was that well-endowed in the genius department, I would want to leave my mark on something more substantial than a few carpets: a cure for cancer, a solution to the energy crisis, or a new superfood perhaps. I have never driven a Dyson; and I have never been so dissatisfied with the pre-Dysonian era of vacuuming technology to have been motivated to make the major investment in the magic ball; can cleaning carpets really be worth $500? Never has one of Dyson's famous balls graced my shag, and nor will it ever likely do so. Skeptics might be wondering at this stage if this is all a moot point since I never do any vacuuming, but I can assure those doubters that I have wrestled with the process on countless occasions in an ongoing campaign to prove I am more than just a befuddled college professor. My least favourite aspects are the cleaning of the filter (shades of Lady Macbeth - I never knew the old thing had so much dust in it), and the moving of furniture. Evidently I must be in a minority in the Dyson-hating business, since he is awash in loot and, like other genius inventors before him, is now apparently on a mission to save science education.

It has been amply documented that science education in America supposedly sorely lags behind much of the rest of the world. The data show that, although children enter the middle school era in America at least as adept as their foreign competition, by the time they graduate high school they have lagged far behind other countries (and not even advanced ones necessarily) in the key STEM disciplines. It is a source of concern to many in the sciences that the once (and arguably still) technological leader of the world is flunking in the training of its future scientists. Since the future prosperity of the nation depends on invention and technological development, so the story goes, we must do a better job of developing scientists. Although this seems like a no-brainer, as an aside, it is notable the lack of appreciation for and understanding of science prevalent among the nation's political leaders, particularly on the GOP side. Another aside: it has not escaped my observation that many in the science business who trumpet concerns about education stand to profit mightily from the situation.

I have learned that Mr. Dyson wants to change all that, not with laptops or iPods, as others before him have proposed, but with vacuum cleaner parts. Evidently students will be provided with a Dyson kit that they can disassemble and then rebuild into robots and other high-tech gismos. I am reminded of my visit to Tommy Bartlett's Robot World, a can't-miss emporium of technological wizardry, where to my untrained eye it appeared as though the exhibits were all constructed from late 1970's Hoovers. The hypothesis is, I gather, that tinkering with a few Dyson balls will inspire bright young minds to pursue a technical education, thereby saving America from ultimate slavery to the Chinese. Forgive me for being a little skeptical.

Many a tax-payer dollar has been spent in the attempt to improve science education. Most of these efforts, many supported by institutions like the National Science Foundation, have focused on throwing technology at the problem. To date it appears that no significant gains have been made for all the chest thumpings, grandiose schemes, clever widgets and huge expenditures. In the bad old days, our textbooks were dull-looking tomes with only a few line drawings for illustration; our blackboards were black and there was only chalk; the only high technology was a slide-rule; on the other hand our laboratory experiences were probably better since less was known about the tiresome inconvenience of chemical toxicity and proper disposal.

Every chemistry textbook these days has a preface several pages long that explains in depth all the various "pedagogical features" that are going to make students better chemists. I rarely read them. When the textbook vendors ask me what I like (or dislike) about their book compared with others, I struggle desperately to come up with some kind of cogent, objective response. I normally fail. To some degree, at least at the introductory level, paraphrasing the old commercial, chemistry is chemistry. Do we really think that some "unique problem-solving strategy" will make the slightest difference?

I wonder I might have been improved if my textbook had fancy color diagrams and photos and three-column problem-solving sections; if I had access to websites, videos, 3-d graphics, interactive games or even vacuum cleaner parts. Perhaps the problem with science education, if indeed there really is one, lies elsewhere. Maybe all these efforts have been largely in vain, although I have no fundamental objection to making the experience more entertaining, even if that entertainment really has little impact on knowledge or ability.

While the state of education in this country is bemoaned, international students flock to American universities to develop their talents. On that evidence there is little wrong with the product at the top level. Maybe we should take a more laissez-faire approach and be content with the numbers of scientists the system is currently producing, rather than thrashing away trying to craft a silk purse from a sow's ear by converting people into scientists who ultimately won't find positions in the workplace.