Tuesday, April 15, 2014

STEMing the tide, part III: A (new) 'modest proposal'

We have been writing about the push in this country to strengthen the STEM subjects in education, science, technology, engineering and math, because of their financial, career, and material role in society. This is being done explicitly because when money is tight, subjects like the arts, humanities, and social sciences don't pay direct benefits.  This can be seen as inexcusably crass, but in a tight job market and culture increasingly embedded in things technological, with weakening public support for education, it is an understandable trend.

We  happen to be Luddites in this regard, perhaps, because we think that our society should not back away from the more literary, esthetic, and contemplative aspects of life.  This is not snobbery on our part, or at least not only that, thinking that everybody ought to love watching opera or reading the Iliad. The point is a societal one.  Much of our culture, such as pop music, sports, video games, chat sites, and the like are called 'popular' in part because everybody likes them (opera once was 'popular'). But the point here is that you don't need formal education to be exposed to them, indulge in them, or appreciate them for their values.

Appreciation of broader aspects of life, such as the 'finer' literature and arts, history, philosophical and anthropological thought, and the like is much more complex and often out of modern vernacular, technical, complex--even boring.  But exposure to them is as greatly enhanced by formal education, just as is the case for STEM subjects.  They have snob value in our social upper crust, but they have their aspects of value and appeal that might benefit and edify the lives of many more.

Here 'education' refers first to K-12. The current way to describe topics is to group the fashionable ones under the rubric STEM and then largely dismiss the others by omission--let them be nameless!  School districts are, we regularly read, shrinking or abandoning their music and arts programs, teaching of classics and the like, because they cost money, while adding pre-college specialty courses such as calculus. In a nutshell, this is based on our cultural obsession with money above all things, because these are the subjects, we are told, that industry wants and that make money for them and thus their employees.

But if being an industrial chemist or mechanical engineer pleases the wallet, we rarely hear that they please the soul.  We have not heard of a single serious-sized school district that has abandoned its sports programs, such as football or basketball, which are quite expensive, to augment the arts.

Universities and perhaps many colleges, are racing onto (or is it 'down' to?) the same money-driven bandwagon. Abandoning part of their mission to 'educate' informed citizens, they are widely shrinking or even sometimes running completely away from the non-STEM areas (but not, of course, football or basketball).

The scientific data on successful, healthy aging
I just returned from a workshop at the National Research Council, underwritten by NIH's National Institute on Aging (NIA), to discuss what we have learned about the basis of longevity and healthy lifespan experiences.  An objective was to provide advice to the NIA on directions of future ways to invest their resources, based on what we have learned from what has been supported heretofore.  The results, in a central area related to the question at hand, were in fact major and clear--and should provide equally clear directions for future NIA investment.

Health is a biological phenomenon (even mental health, of course, since the mind is a biological organ). The approach to human lifespan, longevity, health and life-course experience relates to the causes of negative as well as positive experience.  We should use our research technologies to find and identify the causes of either, so we can intervene with the negative and reinforce the positive.

In this case, the working model, in our scientific age that puts technology first, has been that ill health causes social and psychological decline. If you are sick, a biological and in that sense technical state, you cannot hold a job, may be involved in abusive domestic situations, become depressed, then invest badly in food or other resources and the like.  If you are sick, you may be more likely to be overweight, shorter, more likely to drink too much or to smoke.  So we have a plague of people in whom to search for the misguided cells, so we can alter their behavior.

Surprisingly, however, the reported research has shown, rather clearly and in both humans and other animal models (in particular, findings in other primates in the wild were reported at this meeting), that quite the opposite is true:  Social standing and cultural milieu are major, primary determinates of life-course health and experience. This even moreso than money itself!  Longevity and even height is in a strong sense determined by the degree of satisfaction or control you feel in your life, your social position, and even physical resources (incomes) do not over-ride the social effects.  Excepting of course strong harmful genetic effects in a small fraction of people, disease and lifespan causal are mediated largely by these aspects of social environment which, in turn, affect your health prospects. If you're born on the wrong side of the tracks, you're fate is largely sealed.

Since similar results were reported in several aspects and respects and even other species, one need not worry about the details, which seem to be generally small relative to the main picture.  The details needn't be studied to death.  Instead--we paid for the research, the research was very carefully and well done, and we got a clear result!  The question has largely been answered, and we now know how best to invest future resources most effectively for life-course improvement.

But the answer will surprise you!

Our 'modest proposal'
In 1729, Jonathan Swift saw a problem of the widespread lives of poverty among the downtrodden in Ireland, and suggested a solution:  they should gain income by selling their excess children (of which there were many), to be cooked in various culinary ways to satisfy the rich.  Many savory recipes were provided.

Carve, saute, and don't forget the sauce.  Drawing by Dore

That essay was a vicious satirical critique of societal inequity in Swift's time, and we (living in more civilized times, we generally suppose) would never think to suggest that kind of solution to the offensive, growing inequity in our society today.  But we do have a modest suggestion for today, based on our National Institutes of Health living up to its word, and using the results of research it sponsors to improve our society's lot.

The non-STEM parts of our educational system address quality of life issues that have to do with your assessment of the world, sense of well-being, ability to integrate understanding of civil life and across different realms of human thinking.  People with higher levels of senses of integration and well-being will be better able (as the research shows) to negotiate society and this will lead to better prospects and better health and longer life.

Of course, knowledge of the STEM subjects is important in this.  But we are already pouring resources there, clearly with more to come.  But we are pulling the plug on the non-STEM subjects that are associated with giving you a shot at being on the better side of the tracks--better and more equitable places in society, and which, we now know thanks to NIA research, lead to longer and healthier lives. This quantitatively and qualitatively trumps the relatively smaller, and consequent rather than causal effects of the various high-technology, costly things we spend funds on in relation to the pandemic diseases like heart disease, stroke, obesity-related diseases and so on.

So: what the NIA should do is to redirect its funds from these very sexy technological research approaches to life-course issues (like GWAS and so many other Big Data fashionable fields), and urgently pour these resources instead into intervening in the actual major causes of impaired lives.  NIA should underwrite the improvement of K-12 education nationwide, and should endow non-STEM programs in universities, conditional on those areas being retained as serious-level requirements for graduation.

If we let this recipe cook for a decade or two we'd have a more sophisticated, knowledgable, intellectually resourceful and more savory equitable society with more peace of mind.  And the populus would, as a direct consequence, have more intellectual resources to engage in creative and innovative science and technology, with the economic benefits that go with that. As a result, the rates of our common chronic diseases, including mental deterioration, and their associated misery and costs would be way down.

The diseases that would be left would be the truly biological or genetic or clear-cut environmentally caused instances of these diseases, on which cases focused research (rather than just big-data collection) might have a reasonable shot at devising cures and prevention.

That is our modest proposal for how we should use the results of the research we pay for (but we dare to suggest that it's not how we're using them now).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Is there a right way to raise children?

Three pieces in the Sunday NYTimes about how to bring up children ring a bell.  The first, "Raising a Moral Child", asks "What does it take to be a good parent?"  The answer -- yes, there's an answer -- is to praise your child's character, not her or his deed.  "You are a kind person," not, "Sharing your toys with your friend was very kind," will produce a caring, generous adult.

Children sharing a milkshake; Wikimedia
The second, "Growing Up At Sea", refutes the widespread criticism of a family with two young children that intended to sail from Mexico to New Zealand, but got into trouble and instead had to be rescued by the US Navy and Coast Guard.  The author, Ania Bartkowiak, herself spent most of the first eleven years of her life sailing the world with her parents and older brother, anchoring at far-flung ports and finishing correspondence courses on deserted tropical beaches.  She describes what sounds like an amazing, rare, and cherished childhood.

The third piece, written by Keith Robinson and Angel Harris, asks no questions, but instead asserts that "Parental Involvement Is Overrated." How do the authors know?  Because
...evidence from our research suggests otherwise. In fact, most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.
So, three pieces about the effects of upbringing on the adults children will become, two with answers, one a cautionary tale about how conventional wisdom can be wrong.  Two reductionist approaches promoting what authors hope become conventional wisdom, one quite the opposite, extolling the virtues of unconventional upbringing.

Take a look at the parenting section of any bookstore, though, or go to Amazon.com and search for parenting books.  No, I'll do that for you … I find a grand total of 97,130 books on parenting.  Almost 100,000 authors believe they've got the answer to how to bring up children.  Wow. Here are just the first few titles: "Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking", "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids," "Parenting With Love and Logic."  Everybody has an answer.

But, here's what really interests me here.  If there were in fact an answer, there would be only one book, not 97,130.  Or no books at all, because we'd all do it the way our parents' did, because they'd have done it right.

And here's why this rings a bell.
Along with social scientists, geneticists and epidemiologists and nutritionists continue to look for single answers to complex questions, and often believe they've found them.  But, there are many ways to bring up kind, caring, successful children -- indeed, many ways to define success -- just as there are many pathways to heart disease, or tallness, or hypertension or doing well in school.  And all of these pathways involve genes and family backgrounds, peers and social pressures, and pretty much none of them can be reduced to a single factor: the right way to praise a child, the proper amount of parental involvement, the single gene or food or vitamin.

Should a parent help with homework?  What should we call 'help'?  Is making a child's favorite meal help?  Or picking her up at school or freeing him from doing the dishes, to allow more time for doing the work?  If you want a caring child, won't simply being caring yourself be a lesson?  Can't a smile, or loving words be praise?

Similarly, we don't only drink red wine or take calcium supplements or consume saturated fat.  These are always consumed in a larger context, including a complex diet, genetic background, childhood exposures, amount of exercise, illnesses and so on, and everyone's unique.

There will always be parenting advice, because there will always be anxious parents.  But the advice will always be embedded in the culture of the moment.  Who reads Dr Spock anymore?  Who even knows who he was?  His parenting advice was followed for perhaps several decades, and it was 'right' because there were far fewer advice books, and it fit the tenor of the times, and people believed it, which by definition made it right.  But times have changed and advice books have moved on.

But, just as with causes of heart disease, where, by the way, there's also an advice market, there is no single answer.  And any actual answers will take context and complexity into account.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

As remarkable as science, and as unremarkable as most science

Last Saturday we went to the opera---well, to the Met's live broadcast to local movie theaters.  It was Puccini's La Boheme, an amazing, remarkable feat, the match of anything in science.  But there was even more.

With something like 4 hours' notice, Kristine Opolais, an up and coming Latvian singer, who had sung the lead in Puccini's Madama Buttefly the night before, and got no sleep, got a message early in the morning asking if she'd sing the lead role, Mimi, in La Boheme at that day's matinee, because the expected lead was ill with the flu.  For some insane reason, she agreed.  In front of a full Met House and estimated 300,000 worldwide viewers, with closeup camera scrutiny, she delivered an essentially flawless, gorgeously moving performance.  It was doubly or trebly moving because of the feat of switching roles, remembering all the musical words and cues and notes, and learning the staging with almost no notice.

Ms. Opolais and Vittorio Grigolo in the Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Puccini's “La Bohème” on Saturday. CreditMarty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera .

Whatever might be mitigating circumstances (she's sung Mimi in other houses in recent years), this tour de force reinforced our respect for the nonSTEM aspects of human life.  Nothing we have seen in decades of science matched what we saw, for skill, technique, and all the learned aspects of high levels of human achievement.  This reflects the reasons we think universities should stop backing away from training anyone but scientists.

And then….  We are in Washington this week for a science meeting, but had some spare time and went to the National Art Gallery.  A big ad boasted that a new Van Gogh painting had been acquired and was on display.  Naturally, we went to see it, rushing past some other magnificent French impressionist paintings.  And what did we see?  Well, art is subjective, but this was under-whelming.  A blob of typical Van Gogh slap-dash.  We are sure the Gallery paid more for that than most of us earn in a lifetime.

Van Gogh, "Green Wheat Fields," Auvers, 1890

Yes, an investment in 'art', and maybe relevant to understanding a major artist's life.  But to us, as we quipped to each other, like a famous scientist's papers in a grade-B journal.  Not a masterpiece.  Yet, the worship of the Established leads to that purchase, much as too many journals and too many 'science' reporters, tout the every work of someone with a prominent reputation or job in a university near to Big City.

We, personally, have the utmost respect, or even awe, for any great human achievement, and the work and skill that are responsible.  The same is true for an art performance, a novel, a historical analysis, or, yes, even a scientific discovery.  But it is also true that most work in most fields is ordinary, yet we give it bloated treatment if it may show that we hob-nob with the famous.

Inspired works of human endeavor are deeply moving, in any field.  Science is among them, but brilliance is not restricted to science, and the experience of brilliance is something that should be open to everyone; the more who are educated to appreciate it, the more whose lives will be edified by the experience.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

development through research??

15 years ago, when Chief Khunchai first took a job managing a malaria clinic on a remote stretch of the Thailand-Myanmar (still Burma at that time) border, there weren’t year round roads, there was no electricity, no telephones, and the endemic guerilla warfare between the Karen and the Burmese didn’t pay much attention to the international border.  A Karen military base was just over the mountain on the other side of the river.  Sometimes when fights broke out, mortars would fly across the river and land near the clinic.  It wasn’t personal; such things don’t always stop at international borders.

Moei River - the international border between Thailand and Myanmar

In the hot season temperatures regularly exceed 90° Fahrenheit, at midnight.  Without electricity, every degree above 80 is obvious.  There is a constant trickle of sweat behind your ears and down your lower back, and you eventually stop mistaking this feeling for mosquitoes and other insects that want your blood.

In the wet season, everything is permeated by the omnipresent moisture.  Pencils won’t write on paper, which has been collecting moisture from the rain and from your sweat, and pens make thick smudges on anything they touch.  Records are hard to keep.  The landscape is almost fluorescent green during this season.  The dichotomy between inside and outside is a false one.  Even the walls grow green with algae, plants and vines work their ways into the cracks and struggle for a nook or cranny to fill and exploit.

In this part of the world, the sun goes down at a consistent time pretty much year round – 6:30.  But this malaria clinic is surrounded by sharp mountain peaks and karst rock formations, and these geological entities hide the sun more quickly.  If work was to be done after 5pm or so, it was done by candle.  Malaria diagnoses would have to wait until tomorrow, when the light from the sun could be used in the small circular mirror that illuminates the slides and lenses in the microscope.

microscope for detecting malaria

Contacting the outside world could be done using military styled radios, through a tall antenna that stretched out of the top of the clinic.  This was handy in case people needed to be evacuated because of flooding, fires, or fighting to relay information about the epidemiological situation, or to request shipments of dwindling medical supplies.  A lighting rod was placed at the other end of the building to keep people from getting barbecued during storms.

a storm over the Moei

Over the years, Chief Khunchai has become a much respected member of society.  He knows almost everyone in the district in some way or another, and he holds a lot of political weight.  His office gets nicer over time.  Still the chief of a malaria clinic, he looks back on those days with little nostalgia.  He shudders a little when he tells me about working by candle light and having to worry about the fighting.  Yes, today things are quite different.  

He now manages a new malaria clinic about 35 miles south of the one he started at.  This malaria clinic has electricity.  At first this meant an electric microscope and lights, and that work could be done at night.  It also meant fans, which make work much more bearable during certain times of the year.  Even more recently, it meant that sealed doors could be installed in the main room and office so that wall AC units could also be installed.  AC isn’t frequently used, but it is very nice to turn the units on when there are special guests (usually political superiors) visiting.  

There are at least three different large malaria projects running in the district, and each of these projects has hired staff that are housed at the clinic.  A room was built on to the back so that they would all have desk and computer space.  A little data entry and a lot of facebook and youtube happen in that room.  

In the same period of time, malaria cases appear to have decreased, even while the population of the area has increased.  This is especially the case with regard to cases in Thai nationals.  Most cases here are in Myanmar nationals or Karen people with no nationality.  In fact, it is entirely possible that today there are more malaria-related personnel in Thailand than there are cases of malaria in Thai people each year.  That is, I think, a very strange thing.  

I begin with this story so that I can paint a picture of a kind of situation that I think has occurred in many parts of the world.  Malaria persists in places where “development”, for whatever reason, hasn’t extended.  One (I) could easily argue that such “development” is actually destructive in many ways, but it is hard to argue that life for many people hasn’t become easier.  And malaria cases have gone down at the same time.  

At least some of that development must be a direct result of the research cash that flows in from major malaria research projects and initiatives.  Those data entry people in the back facebooking can now purchase relatively nice motorcycles; some of the managers might even buy cars.  It’s not just the malaria clinic that has changed, there are also new restaurants, roads that are mostly good (or equally bad) year-round rather than only being traversable during the dry season, and more recently, a 7-11.  I joke that next year there may be another 7-11 across from that 7-11, but you may not understand unless you’ve recently visited Bangkok.  All of these things have associated workers who in turn buy stuff from places that also employ people.  In this part of the world, and I think in other parts too, malaria is mostly a “rural” disease.  It exists in places without 7-11s and year-round roads.  As you pave the ground for those roads and build concrete jungles, this particular disease tends to go away.  

And I find in this all a great irony.  

I’ve previously heard jokes that the best way to get rid of a disease is to try to study it.  I think this means I’m not the first to notice what is happening.  

The malaria industry is huge and there is a lot of money in it.  Frustratingly, much of that money winds up getting wasted through corruption and through things that ultimately aren’t necessary for what I think really matters: helping people who are sick with malaria, or even better, getting rid of malaria.  

For that matter, a question I’ve increasingly worried about over the last several years is: Should we really be setting up an industry, a vast network of jobs, that are all geared toward halting a disease?  Will these people really be motivated to stomp out the very thing (in this case, malaria) that keeps their own lives, at least economically, afloat?  Is that why people heatedly argue that we should be trying to control malaria rather than just get rid of it??!  Even more-so, while I can see the value in having electricity at a malaria clinic for diagnosis purposes, is AC, more space, new desks, etc. all relevant for combating the malaria problem?  

But perhaps there is another way to look at this too.  That is, perhaps all those research dollars that get pumped into malaria research do actually work.  I think they really do.  I just don’t think they work in the way that any of us really intend for them to.  They wind up spurring the local economy, they boost peoples’ economic well-being, and then in some cases and for some extremely complex reasons, people who move out of deep poverty are no longer faced with the immediate health consequences of that poverty.  For them, malaria isn’t any longer an immediate danger.  They can sit in a nice office, preferably behind a nice fan and in front of a nice computer screen, and check boxes on the computer that correspond to a malaria patient’s age and sex (or to a “like” button on someone’s post).  After half a life’s worth of work in less-than-ideal conditions, maybe it is more than OK that Chief Khunchai no longer has to dodge mortars or work by candlelight.  Hell, maybe he deserves the occasional AC – I certainly convince myself that I do.  

Sometimes I’ve gotten quite riled-up by the ways I see malaria research dollars getting spent but maybe I’ve completely missed the point.  Maybe all that really matters is that those dollars with the malaria name on them wind up having the effect that (I think) we all ultimately want.  Even if the functional mechanism behind this cause and effect has basically nothing to do with the one(s) that many of us think matters.      

*** I know several "Chief Khunchais" - but this name is of course made up

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thoughts on teaching, and poems of spring

Edward Hessler has been reading this blog for so long that we now consider him a friend.  As he more often than not has trouble posting comments on Blogger, he sends his comments to us by email. (Frustratingly, others have said they sometimes can't post comments, too, and we wish we knew how to fix the problem -- if you've got any suggestions, please post in a comment…. if you can.)  

In any case, Edward usually includes a poem or two, and last week's email was no exception.  He is an educator and was responding to Ken's first post about STEM teaching, which included a quote from Aldo Leopold, a favorite writer of Edward's.  Edward sent as well an op/ed written by a teacher, Elizabeth Natale, published in the Hartford (CT) Courant in January.  We post that here as Natale's thoughts echo some of Ken's.  And we end with the poems of spring.  

From The Courant [Hartford, CT], Friday, January 17, 2014. 

Why I Want To Give Up Teaching

By Elizabeth A. Natale

Surrounded by piles of student work to grade, lessons to plan and laundry to do, I have but one hope for the new year: that the Common Core State Standards, their related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing and the new teacher evaluation program will become extinct.

I have been a middle school English teacher for 15 years. I entered teaching after 19 years as a newspaper reporter and college public relations professional. I changed careers to contribute to society; shape young minds; create good and productive citizens; and spend time with youngsters lacking adults at home with time, energy and resources to teach them.

Although the tasks ahead of me are no different from those of the last 14 years, today is different. Today, I am considering ending my teaching career.

When I started teaching, I learned that dealing with demanding college presidents and cantankerous newspaper editors was nothing. While those jobs allowed me time to drink tea and read the newspaper, teaching deprived me of an opportunity to use the restroom. And when I did, I was often the Pied Piper, followed by children intent on speaking with me through the bathroom door.

I loved it!

Unfortunately, government attempts to improve education are stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help children. The Common Core standards require teachers to march lockstep in arming students with "21st-century skills." In English, emphasis on technology and nonfiction reading makes it more important for students to prepare an electronic presentation on how to make a paper airplane than to learn about moral dilemmas from Natalie Babbitt's beloved novel "Tuck Everlasting."

The Smarter Balance program assumes my students are comfortable taking tests on a computer, even if they do not own one. My value as a teacher is now reduced to how successful I am in getting a student who has eaten no breakfast and is a pawn in her parents' divorce to score well enough to meet my teacher evaluation goals.

I am a professional. My mission is to help students progress academically, but there is much more to my job than ensuring students can answer multiple-choice questions on a computer. Unlike my engineer husband who runs tests to rate the functionality of instruments, I cannot assess students by plugging them into a computer. They are not machines. They are humans who are not fazed by a D but are undone when their goldfish dies, who struggle with composing a coherent paragraph but draw brilliantly, who read on a third-grade level but generously hold the door for others.

My most important contributions to students are not addressed by the Common Core, Smarter Balance and teacher evaluations. I come in early, work through lunch and stay late to help children who ask for assistance but clearly crave the attention of a caring adult. At intramurals, I voluntarily coach a ragtag team of volleyball players to ensure good sportsmanship. I "ooh" and "ah" over comments made by a student who finally raises his hand or earns a C on a test she insisted she would fail.

Those moments mean the most to my students and me, but they are not valued by a system that focuses on preparing workers rather than thinkers, collecting data rather than teaching and treating teachers as less than professionals.

Until this year, I was a highly regarded certified teacher. Now, I must prove myself with data that holds little meaning to me. I no longer have the luxury of teaching literature, with all of its life lessons, or teaching writing to students who long to be creative. My success is measured by my ability to bring 85 percent of struggling students to "mastery," without regard for those with advanced skills. Instead of fostering love of reading and writing, I am killing children's passions - committing "readicide," as Kelly Gallagher called it in his book of that title.

Teaching is the most difficult - but most rewarding - work I have ever done. It is, however, art, not science. A student's learning will never be measured by any test, and I do not believe the current trend in education will lead to adults better prepared for the workforce, or to better citizens. For the sake of students, our legislators must reach this same conclusion before good teachers give up the profession - and the children - they love.
Elizabeth A. Natale of Glastonbury teaches English and language arts at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford.

A house with daffodils in it
            is a house lit up,
            whether or not
the sun be shining outside.
Daffodils in a green bowl--
            and let it snow if it will

               -A.A. Milne

Forsythia Bush

There is nothing
like the sudden
one morning
without warning

into yellow
and startles the street
into spring.

           -Lilian Moore

Monday, April 7, 2014

STEMing the tide, part II

Our country is hurting when it comes to domestically trained first-rate science talent.  Our educational system is dropping the ball in many very well-documented ways.  K-12 is processing students who are poorly trained in basic reading and writing skills, as well as in numeracy and synthetic or analytic thinking, but who then go on to college or university.

When we get them, too many are not ready for serious level college work.  But we, too, at least big universities, have a business-model-based pass-through behavior and we give diplomas to a lot who probably cannot spell 'diploma' (much less 'sheepskins').  We know we are doing this, but are too cowed by budgetary fears to do our duty and address the problem.  Indeed, big money is being disproportionately invested in fancy rec buildings and well-appointed dormitories to attract students, over ways to improve education, which won't.

These are not secrets.  In some realms, such as what are known as STEM areas, basically science and technology, that have important commercial and other important roles in our society, there is a widely reported serious shortage of skills and knowledge, at least in students trained here.

We live in a highly technological society, for good or ill, and this is important.  But our country is so money-oriented and materialistic, short-sighted and soaked in a business ideology, that the stress on the genuine need to upgrade our STEM training is systematically squeezing out other subjects, such as language, history, society, the humanities, and arts.

The lack of value given to these non-monetary-related subjects is not even a new problem, as we recently wrote.   Our society simply hasn't got the ability to put limits on short-term material interests. This, even though understandably, with a very democratic, open-to-all system, which is likely a very good and enviable thing, we cannot expect every student to be a Darwin or Einstein, or even to give a damn about becoming an 'educated' person.  Most, naturally, want a job (and, before that, a few years of debauchery).

We have taught science, real science as best we understand it, for decades, and certainly know that better STEM-subject background would substantially improve what and how most students think.  The best are terrific, and while not everyone can be the best, they can be better.  Science can be taught in its context and students exposed to diverse subject areas, and subject types, can generally, and perhaps especially for the brightest, become more innovative and creative citizens.

But synthetic and integrative thinking, as manifest by many or perhaps even most of the very best scientists, is a hallmark of real creativity.  Science papers that hide a lack of substance beneath layers of impressive STEMming are, to us, quite rife and a costly societal problem, as we often write.

But, even in the US, there is more to life than one's job, something the 'Protestant ethic' too often leaves behind.  And, at the end, thoughtful people who are very successful at STEM, often reflect that they've paid a price--missed opportunities for edification, that cannot be reclaimed.  We have one life, and we should treat it as a precious gift not to be needlessly restricted.

Here is how one Charles Darwin (no fan of universities) put it, in his autobiography:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Our country is hurting, yes, but it's not just because not everyone can do calculus.  It's because too many are seeing too little, too late,  of the world they're going to rent for a while.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Teaching High School Science

Anne and I have been helping judge Pennsylvania high school student science projects for a number of years, including this week.  Students submit papers and give 12-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an audience, followed by questions, as in the format of many scientific society meetings.  The winners go on to national competitions.

There are many very fine projects, some just fine on their own--that is, as a reflection of a well-trained student picking a good topic, and designing and implementing a good, often sophisticated, experiment and analysis.

Garage vs University
But the projects fall into basically two categories.  The majority of the projects we see are ones in which the student, by him or herself, chooses and does a project, on a shoestring budget and with ordinary equipment and no fancy resources.  They may know how to find people to consult (such as people in departments of natural resources, fisheries, or agriculture), but they get their stuff off the internet, and do their work in their high school labs or in their own garages.  These projects are usually simple hypothesis tests, done by the student alone, on a simple question and with rather unclear results.  But they are, start to finish, the student's work and experience.

Controlled experiment: Wikimedia

By contrast, some hard-driven students (or, more likely, hyper-competitive parents) are set up with professional scientists in nearby major research universities or research-related industries like pharmaceutical companies, perhaps with friends of the student's parents, but perhaps not.

The student gets a mentor, is assigned a project and usually uses a wide variety of very sophisticated and expensive technical equipment, like DNA sequencers or very fancy microscopes, and works along with post-docs and technicians on some very sophisticated advanced project.  Even if all the work is technically done by the student's own hands, it is obvious that s/he is guided step by step, even in describing the methods and so on, by advanced faculty or staff.

The actual steps in the lab can be largely of the student's own doing and the student may even to some extent have identified the specific question he or she is asking but usually it is a cookie-cutter subset of what's going on in the lab.  The student takes a new detail or subcomponent and pursues it over one or sometimes even three or more years.  The resulting write-up is often in the form of a professional science article, showing that the student didn't really do this alone--the comparable journal articles usually have many authors.

So should the student's project be judged as a high school science project?  Or is this an unfair advantage over their in-the-garage peers?  This has to do, perhaps, with the objective of high school science projects.

The objective:  it is about thinking, or getting into MIT?
This evokes the more general issue of the elite and their unfair advantage relative to everyone else.  In this case, advantaged students have been set up in fancy university or industry labs as volunteers or summer interns, often because their parents know someone.  It's probably fair to say that these students often (if not always) learn more about the subject, even when largely by rote and of high technology, than the student doing his/her original work in the basement or back yard.  But the latter has gone through the entire process, from thinking up the problem to devising the experiments and carrying them out.  The latter may be a deeper thinker and greater innovator, but without real resources but the former is the one who will much more likely get into major university science programs, or get scholarships, and already be on the fast track to a serious science career.

So, is high school science for general scientific thinking or to prepare our next generation of STEM stars to contribute to our national economy and their own incomes etc.?   Probably both, but perhaps we should have tiered science project competitions: Garage science, and Institutional/Teamwork science.  In this way, innovative garage ideas would have a chance to be recognized.

Clearly most of the institutional-project students will be the ones getting scholarships to major STEM universities like Cal Tech, MIT, and so on.  That is not wrong, and may be in both the national and the universities' interests.

But perhaps a two-tiered system would give some daylight and recognizeability to the student who is working only with his/her brains and hands, not plugged into mentor-supervised use of this bit of gear, and that bit of gear, and advanced lab seminar meetings, and so on.  The value of the 'Garage' tier would be to recognize the fact that it may often be the case that the greater innovation will come from the less privileged, who have to do more thinking with less highly advanced supervision and resources.  It is widely known that institutionalized science can be incremental, technology-first, answer-second ways of consuming resources (we write about this often), while the freer environment of the non-institutional may be more inspiring for really new ideas.

Many are now recognizing that college is not necessary for advanced contributions to modern life, technological or otherwise.

Hypothesis testing: is it an out-dated way to teach science?
We were also curious about what may well be a growing gap between the way science is taught in high school and how it's currently being done in many fields.  High school kids are taught to conceive of a hypothesis and test it, following prescribed steps from start to finish, including writing up their results.  We all were taught that way.

But hypothesis-driven science is falling out of favor, to be replaced by "question-driven science", or strong inference, or multiple hypotheses (Jon Lorsch discusses all this here).  Indeed, the technology-driven production of Big Data has meant that what used to be sneeringly called "fishing expeditions" are now what many people do for a living; mine data for meaningful patterns.  Schools of education have some catching up to do.

Who does the teaching? 
The decline in American science (or, if you prefer, STEM) education can be laid at the feed of the national K-12 El-Hi system.  In some school districts, or probably more often private schools, things are just great, but not in most.  A major problem is the high acceptance, low admission standard, grade inflation, low graduation standard of schools of education.  This is well-known.  Further, when a teaching degree is in 'education' rather than, say, 'biology' or 'physics' accompanied by a few courses in educational techniques, the way science is taught may be stellar, but what is taught may not be.  We are not inventing this criticism, but while it's well and widely known, our nation seems not to have the guts to deal with it. As a result, we fall behind many other countries.

One problem could also be a positive in a sense.  Unlike small or relatively homogenous countries as in Japan or Scandinavia, we have a large, diverse population.  We are very democratic in that we insist, more or less, on compulsory K-12.  Perhaps our best students match the best anywhere, but our average is lowered by the fact that we give at least something to everyone, but a lot of people don't get nearly enough. It's a serious issue to try to understand, and where we fall short, to correct.

Nonetheless, on average, it seems quite clear that while there are surely many very fine exceptions, and they're found in every school district, the admission standards for degrees in education are far below what they should be.  If only university presidents had the determination to bite the bullet and deprive schools of education of resources unless and until they raise their standards in a major way.

Yet, it's clear from our time spent with students this week that some students are doing more than smoking pot during their high school years.