Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Where is the wonder in science?

This has been sitting on my desk for a while waiting to be blogged about and I finally got that grant in so it seemed like a good time.

This editorial, and this issue of PopSci, in general address a growing problem of lack of students entering science and engineering as a career. We have an identity problem, a serious one. There was a similar editorial this month in one of my trade journals that suggested that maybe we should stop calling ourselves scientists and go by our more specific titles (i.e., geologist, chemist, physicist) to distance ourselves from this stigma (the article was tongue in cheek). But the facts are that China is putting out 40% of its UGs in Engineering and we are not even close (5%!!!) If we assume that technology is crucial to out economic future, which I believe is true, we will have to do something more.

I have long been a proponent of science and science education. Science is the kindergarten leaf project, science is the 3rd grade volcano, science is when you blow the straw paper off of your straw, when you make a paper airplane, when you examine an ant on the ground, and when you cook something in the oven for the very first time. Science is used to make ipods, cell phones, shampoo, make-up, cars, gasoline to run the cars, and even the pigskin used in the Friday night game. Science is such an integral part of our lives, I often have difficulty understanding how we as scientists could end-up with the stereotype of the gray-haired white guy with crazy hair in a lab coat with a pocket protector. Yet, every time I tell people about my occupation they always say that it must be hard or I must be smart. I guess my job is more challenging than flinging burgers at the Burger Barn, but it is infinitely rewarding. This is the enthusiasm that we must convey to the future generations. By the time they reach college it is too late. We have to go out to the elementary schools and middle schools and show students how they can turn their innate joy of discovery into a career that provides a lifetime of possibility.


At 2:57 PM , Blogger Field Notes said...

oooh ah! Yes, yes, and YES!

Students at all levels should be learning science.

At 9:19 AM , Blogger Holly said...

science and math are so integral to everything we do......in EVERY skilled job.

My son changed his major from Political Science to Math just because math is so basic to nearly everything we find fulfulling in life that he thought it would be most useful.

As he put it to me I do what I in conjunction with what engineers do.

At 7:35 PM , Blogger matt said...

I didn't pursue a career in science, in part, because school sucked the life out of it. At home my parents were great about supporting experimental things, not that I knew that's what I was doing at the time, breaking stuff up, recombining it, seeing what would burn and what wouldn't, how colours change as they mix or the light cast on them do, etc. etc. School took all that fun stuff, playing just to see what would happen, and turned it into boring drudgery; endless reading of ten syllable words and a dictionary at hand when the same thing could usually be said in (mostly) everyday language; reaching a correct solution by the "wrong" method was punished with poor marks; correctly understanding and describing the life of a cell but being reprimanded for poor sentence structure and spelling; bah humbug!

That was 15 years ago. Now my wife has gone back to school in environmental science. Initially she started "just to learn" and not caring about the piece of paper at the end. She was passionate about the subject. After 2 years into it, that has changed to "just get it done and don't bother about actually understanding it".

In her class there are 400 students on location and another 350 online. There is one professor and 5 teacher assistants. Lets pretend that each of the people teaching devoted 100% of a fourty hour work week to teaching. There are 125 students per (potential) instructor, so each student has potentially 30 minutes of focussed (40hr/125) attention per week. Of course those dratted teachers need to eat lunch and have coffee breaks and get up and walk around a few times a day, so let's conservatively knock off 10 minutes of every hour for "other stuff". Okay, now that teacher has 25 minutes to

a) read the student's latest assignment,
b) perhaps enter into a dialog to ascertain just what is behind the confused train of thought evident therein,
c) evaluate,
d) compose a cogent _illuminating_ response.

Even under the best of conditions, this is going to happen, what, 5% of the time? Of course even the best of conditions is very, very far away. Each of the teacher assistants are actually under-grads, busy beavering away on their own educational goals. Every minute spent with those lower down on the training rung is "lost" time, and is pared to the bare minimum with ruthless efficiency, after all their own success is at stake. (I wonder if it is a pyrrhic victory. If the poor attention to those looking to them for help gnaws at their sense of well-being).

I've been sometimes sorry I didn't follow on with formal schooling after high school. However watching my wife I wonder if not doing so was actually a good choice. The system is broken at a very fundamental level and it is only due to do the intelligence of those involved and their dogged determination (for those that stay) that it works at all. All too often people aren't getting educated because of the system, but in spite of it.

I'm concerned for my childrens' future. Not because I think they might not be able to cope, they are so much smarter and healthy and well adjusted than I was at their ages, but because I think they can cope, and so will possibly carry on in an unhealthy environment long past the point in time when getting out would be a good idea.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Hit Counter by Digits Who links to my website?