I’ve seen a few links passed around to this Tom Siegfried post about science literacy, which is mostly a familiar story about how polls show most Americans giving incorrect answers to science questions. The sort of stuff you find in the NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators report. What’s getting the social-media attention, though, is this paragraph near the end:
In fact, I’d contend (and have contended) that the problem with science education is not that it fails to inculcate enough facts, but that it tries to inculcate too many. Science classes in high school and intro classes in college seem to be taught as though everyone needed preparation to pursue a Ph.D. Seriously, calculating solubility constants in high school chemistry classes is about as useful as teaching drivers’ ed students how to maneuver an F-16 fighter jet. Important general principles that could (and should) be retained for a lifetime are diluted to the point of homeopathic impotence by a flood of excessive technical detail.
There’s a level on which I share the “yeah, screw the boring calculations!” reaction. Particularly when it comes to science classes in subjects I don’t teach, like high school chemistry. (Though, to be fair, my high school chemistry teacher was very good, and I enjoyed the class. The Regents exam in chemistry was a joke, though– I would’ve aced it, had it not been canceled over a cheating scandal. But I digress.)
Bring it around to physics, though– and we get lots of similar complaints in physics, mostly about deriving equations– and my reaction is a little different. And that’s the problem– it’s easy to deride stuff you don’t like or understand as “excessive technical detail,” but from the inside, that stuff often seems critically important. One person’s “excessive detail” is another’s minimum necessary factual content.
A lot of calls for sticking to “general principles” also completely miss the essential nature of science and education. That is, it’s all well and good to talk about grand overarching principles, but if you want to learn science, you have to do science. Which sometimes means getting into the tedious mathematical bits, because that’s what science is at some level. You wouldn’t teach driver’s ed students on a fighter jet, true, but you also wouldn’t give them a license based only on classroom lectures about the “general principles” of driving. They need to spend some time out on the road behind the wheel to know what driving is really like.
The other hidden assumption of these kinds of arguments is that perfect “tracking” is possible– that students at the high school level know what they really want, and that we can accurately identify those who really will be going on to get a Ph.D. in science from those who don’t really need to know the technical stuff. I’ll pause for those who actually deal with high school and college kids to stop laughing and catch their breath.
We regularly pick up new majors in their sophomore year, and have had students decide to add a physics major as late as the middle of their junior year. I’ve even signed paperwork to approve some interdisciplinary majors with a physics component for students who weren’t really on our radar until they were seniors. There are any number of “how I became a science writer” stories out there from highly respected journalists who only drifted into science after college, and you can even find people who made a late decision to become professional scientists. Hell, string theory demigod Ed Witten has an undergraduate degree in history with a minor in linguistics, and only switched to math and physics in graduate school.
It’s just not possible to perfectly sort students into groups who will definitely need the technical stuff and others who just need “general principles.” We can do it a little bit– I’ll be teaching a “Gen Ed” class on relativity in the Fall term, trying to cover the general principles with even less math than in my talking-to-the-dog book on the subject– and I’m fairly confident that none of the students taking that will end up missing the technical derivations. I’m not perfectly confident in that, though.
And, of course, there’s a resource issue. Yes, we absolutely could make introductory classes that stick to the inspiring general principles and leave out the technical details. If we add another year to the degree program.
Introductory college science classes include a lot of technical stuff because those courses have to do double duty, as both the token science class taken by students who won’t ever need it, and the entry point for students who are going to major in the subject, who really do need the technical detail at some point. And if the technical detail isn’t there in the introductory classes, lest it turn off the non-majors, it has to get put somewhere else. Which means either making the first “real” major class brutally unpleasant, as you try to pack in all the detail that they didn’t get in the introductory class, or you end up adding a whole extra course, and extending the time to complete the degree. Or you water the degree down, and push more stuff off to graduate schools, which brings a whole new set of problems.
This is not to say that there aren’t things we should be doing to make introductory courses more effective and engaging. We could certainly do better, and that’s largely why Physics Education Research programs exist in a lot of departments. Plenty of people take this very seriously, and are working to make science education better.
At the same time, though, the situation isn’t nearly as simple as the usual “too much technical stuff” arguments would suggest. The technical detail in intro classes isn’t just there because faculty are lazy traditionalists, but because a lot of other factors come into play that aren’t necessarily obvious to students grumbling about solubility calculations on their chemistry homework.