The new buzzword in science education is STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. In America, there are dozens of studies on how to improve STEM education at all levels—including universities. Leading scientists have signed on.
Here's the problem. "Science" is NOT the same as "technology" and not the same as "engineering." There's a big difference between learning science and learning how to build things. The purpose of a degree in technology and engineering is obvious—it's job training. The purpose of a science education is quite different—it's supposed to teach you how to think critically.
But that distinction seems to have been lost on politicians, the general public, the media, and—most disappointingly—my fellow scientists. A recent article in The New York Times illustrates the extent of the problem [Why Science Majors Change Their Minds].
The author is Christopher Drew and he raises a valid point.
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.Why do science majors drop out? There are plenty of reasons. In the case of "pre-med" students (whatever they are) the reasons could be as simple as not getting high enough grades for medical school. They were never really interested in science in the first place and once they discover that they're not going to medical school they flee to other disciplines.
But that doesn't account for all the students who drop out. Some students think they are interested in "science" but they're actually interested in technology. Those students are bored reading textbooks and sitting in lectures learning about theory. What they really want to do is build robots and learn how to use DNA to solve crimes. For students like that, the solution is obvious. As Christopher Drew says,
The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures.If students enter science programs because they want to become technologists, then the way to keep them happy is to let them play with fancy toys as soon as possible. They're not interested in general relativity, plate tectonics, quantum theory, or evolution. Why should they be?
But if they're not interested in those things, why are they in a science program?
The goal of true science education should be no different than the educational goals in history, philosophy, or English literature. It's to teach students how to think. There are many ways of achieving those goals but the most successful ways involve concentrating on the basic principles and concepts in the discipline. Some of those concepts are really hard (e.g. evolution, relativity), and many of them conflict with misconceptions that the students have acquired before they get to university. Those problems have to be addressed and classroom settings are good forums for these kinds of discussions.
Science students, like all other students, should engage in discussions, write essays, and read books and articles. Students who are genuinely interested in science (not technology) will benefit from all the modern pedagogical innovations designed to improve the classroom experience. (I'm a particular fan of student-centered learning.)
I'm not saying that lectures aren't boring—most of them are. (So are most science labs.) What I'm saying is that the way to improve science education is NOT to provide more hands-on experience in analyzing DNA fingerprints. That's catering to the misconception that "science" is the same as "technology" and "engineering." The way to improve science education is to change the classroom experience and make it much better and more appropriate to the goals we all should share.
Yes, there's room for improving labs and practicals but that should be a secondary objective, not the primary focus of improved science education. Furthermore, all labs and practicals should, whenever possible, reinforce the teaching of basic concepts and principles. Let's not lose sight of the goal.
What about those students who enroll in science programs for the wrong reasons? What do we do about them? We educate them. We teach them that there's much more to science than what they see on CSI. We teach them that there's a real difference between science and technology. That's part of addressing misconceptions—a proven effective method of promoting critical thinking. When we discover that students are bored with theory (principles and concepts) we don't give up on theory and let them build robots. What we do is work on making the theory part of the course better and more exciting because that's the important part of science.
John Hawks has also written about article in The New York Times but he has a different perspective than I do [A reason for practical genomic education].
The irony is that everyone already treats lab experiences as the only serious training for STEM students in many fields. Professors already bring undergraduate students into labs and spend time (and their graduate students' and postdocs' time) training them in lab experiences. They just use the lecture classes as an expensive and time-consuming IQ test to filter those students. But this has a real cost: Instead of developing expertise within the undergraduates, which might get some real work done, and at least allow senior students to train younger cohorts, they learn techniques only a year or two before they depart.The real cost, in my opinion, is that we are "training," rather than educating, a whole generation of students who don't understand the basic concepts and principles of their discipline because professors don't know how to teach. The sad thing is that we now have a whole generation of educators who can't tell the difference between science and technology. They agree with John that lab experiences are the "only serious training for STEM students."
Science is not technology.
Theory and ideas are important.
Classroom teaching must be better.
Physics is not about sending spaceships to Mars.
Geology is not about finding oil.
Chemistry is not about better plastics.
Biology is not about drugs.
Science is about undertanding the universe and how it works.
[Photo Credit: Graham Stanley]