The Scientific Activist

It has been known officially since 2002 that the sciences are hard, and, as much as we scientists love it when our friends and family tell us how smart and wonderful we must be since they could never understand what we do… is this elevated position going to cost us in the end? Big time?

Addressing this issue, an article by Emma Brockes in yesterday’s Guardian explores the plight of the physical sciences in the UK, taking a humorous look at the question of whether a lack of interest from students will spell their eventual demise:

It is presumably never easy being a physics teacher, what with physics being, you know, hard, unlike geography or needlework. But it must be particularly difficult being a physics teacher today, on A-level results day, when the dwindling number of pupils choosing to study the subject provokes yet another round of where-will-it-all-endery. This week the CBI said it thinks it will end in a downturn in British business; the House of Commons select committee thinks it will end in damage to the British economy; A-level students who did media studies think it will end in a more fulfilling life, and physics teachers, on whom much of the blame is unfairly laid, think that it will end in unemployment. No one else thinks about it at all. That’s the problem.

And so the embattled science lobby – the Institute of Physics, the British Association for the Advancement of Science etc – regroups once again to try to reverse the trend. Their position is fairly entrenched by now: the number of A-level entries in physics has halved since 1982 (55,000 in 1982 to 28,000 last year), while the numbers taking chemistry A-level have dropped by 37% in the same period. University departments of unpopular sciences keep closing, most prominently the chemistry department at Exeter University, but also parts of the chemistry departments at King’s College London, Queen Mary, University of London, and Swansea University; the physics departments at the University of Newcastle and Keele University; mathematics at the University of Hull and civil engineering at Aston University. The Institute of Physics states that, since 2001, 30% of university physics departments have either merged or closed. Only biology is safe and, as everybody knows, biology is science for girls.

I don’t know about that last part, but my field (protein NMR) is still going strong, enjoying a seemingly stable position at the triple point of biology, chemistry, and physics, and it’s the biological aspect that brings in the funding. In fact one of my labmates in Oxford is actually here in the Department of Biochemistry because of the closing of the Exeter chemistry department, where he studied small molecule NMR.

The article goes on to explore a variety of related issues–in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way–and I’ll just touch on a couple of them here. It’s worth a look, if for no other reason than its interesting conversational (and–dare I say–blog-like) tone.

On making science interesting to a broader audience:

The question science educators are wrestling with then, is how to increase the appeal of their discipline without compromising its basic content. This is actually two questions, says Daniel Sandford Smith, the long-suffering education manager at the Institute of Physics. He compares what’s happening to his subject to what happened years ago to that mother of all turn-offs, Classics, but, he explains – who says physicists can’t be controversial? – “In a sense Classics wasn’t going anywhere as a subject, whereas physics is still developing. It’s going to provide us with the answers to global warming; we’re going to have nanotechnology and get round the energy crisis … I think one of the problems is that students don’t understand how physics can lead to such a wide variety of careers, that are well paid as well.”

The two parts of this problem, he says, are “one, about producing new scientists, and the other, about producing scientific literacy for all”. The kind of teaching and syllabus that suits one set of pupils, those for whom a career in science is an active possibility, might deter the other set. “Previously we had tried to do both those things in the same course with no differentiation,” says Sandford Smith. Now, with the introduction in September of new GCSEs, that is changing, and he thinks it is a good thing.

These new exams are the government’s answer to the complaint from science teachers that inflexible, exam-driven syllabuses are cramping their style; the new emphasis will be on “application” and “relevance,” over hard-core theory. They haven’t been universally well received. Earlier this year Dr Martin Stephen, the headmaster of St Paul’s school in west London, called the decision to put cloning and GM food on GCSE courses rather than purer scientific theory, “a lethal injection” to the subject and said the new approach was “to real science what baby food is to steak and chips”.

Other educationalists say, well, it’s all very well for posh private schools with over-achieving pupils to sneer at the attempt to broaden out the appeal of science. But they are hardly representative of the average classroom experience. Dr Derek Bell of the Association for Science Education says: “Most of the kids that he [Dr Stephen] would have come across are quite academic and wish to study the subject for its own sake. And that is perfectly legitimate. But there are other kids who aren’t in that situation but who are quite interested in science when there’s a reason for it.”

Although such a stark pre-categorization of students into those “interested” in the sciences and those who aren’t should raise some alarm bells, it does reflect the harsh realities of modern schools. When it comes to increasing science’s appeal among students, though, balance is key. Science should never sell out its insistence on basic theory for instant appeal, but there are ways to make theory more appealing. I think both sides of the argument tend to miss that point, whether it’s a hard insistence of dry textbook facts only or, just as bad, stretching too much to teach science with more familiar examples so far removed from the actual concepts that the connections are lost. As long as teaching the theory is the number one priority, and coming up with interesting applications is secondary, making science interesting and relevant can only help, for both “types” of students.

More importantly, though, is that science needs to be made interesting from a young age. If a high school student has already decided years ago that science is incredibly dull or impenetrable, even the most amazing science teacher may not be able to turn this student around. That’s why proper funding of science education, particularly in the early years, is so important. Many promising graduates who would be great teachers are turned off by low pay (although for many others, their dedication trumps these financial concerns), and the potential of those in the classroom is limited by insufficient materials–the kinds of things so desperately needed to take science out of the textbook and into the real world.

It could be argued that with a tiny bit of aptitude, science is actually less hard work than arts subjects because you don’t have to read so many long books. “If you grasp the fundamental principles, applying them is not that difficult,” says a friend of mine with a physics degree, who went into consultancy and now runs his own business. “I think that it [physics] is perceived as … not conferring incremental benefit in the modern workplace, ie that students might prefer to do softer subjects and still get the same jobs at the end.” But, he says, “interestingly, when I was there, McKinsey [a leading management consultancy] did place more weight on what they called ‘hard’ (ie properly numerical) subjects in selecting which graduates to interview.”

For better or worse, that last point is exceedingly obvious here at Oxford, where in the biochemistry department, for example, most of the graduates do not go on to do science (or even something remotely related). Many end up in investment banks, law offices, and, God forbid, consulting firms. The skills they’ve developed in completing a science degree have made them surprisingly qualified for these positions, although by eschewing their science background, they’re not doing much for the cause.

It may be that the education market will start naturally to correct itself; rising university fees may inspire a return to those subjects that increase a student’s chances of actual employment. And as the parallel debate about sinking A-level standards wars on, the “harder” subjects may be a better barometer of a candidate’s worth than the actual grade they get; perhaps at some stage, the “softer,” media-studies type subjects will even be denied the status of A-level.

There may be some truth here, but something causing the opposite trend is differential tuition, the charging of different rates of tuition for different courses of studies. As scientific subjects are more expensive due to the equipment involved, and as differential tuition becomes increasingly popular among universities, these rising will more likely deter students from the sciences than attract them.

So, is this the end of the hard sciences? Will chemists and physicists in the year 2100 be a museum oddity, like old-timey alchemists? Not likely. Funding for the basic sciences is still strong (although the trend here isn’t positive) and the basic sciences still have a limitless number of questions to explore. In addition, modern advances have opened up a variety of interesting avenues of study, often combining aspects of various fields, particularly between the physical and biological sciences. Also, the number of applications of the basic sciences are increasing rapidly, broadening the career options for students with a science background.

Most of all, though, science is pretty damn interesting, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. Now, if we can just communicate that, and the rest of these facts to the next generation, we should be in good shape.

Comments

  1. #1 SMC
    August 18, 2006

    “[...]the new emphasis will be on “application” and “relevance,” over hard-core theory.”[emphasis added]

    So close, but they still don’t quite get it.

    Application and Relevance are extremely important, and I think genuinely neglected in modern science education (at least in my experience). Unfortunately, the quote above gives me the impression that rather than actually show how the hard-core theory is useful for “real” things (a photograph of a car engine and a caption saying something like “your car operates by thermodynamic principles” does not qualify), they are just going to try to change which facts need to be memorized for the test into something fluffier. I envision “word problems” and “math puzzles” that are still as bizarrely contrived and wildly improbable as before, but now they will be about powering an iPod(tm) with a Carnot engine, or memorizing the wavelength of the microwaves used to cook one’s “Lean Cuisine(tm)” meals.

    Different people have different ways of learning. Some people are primarily “visual” learners, some people actually do learn best by reading texts, or hearing the lectures. Some people (like myself) “learn with their hands” – I tend to do quite well in labs, and any classroom subject that I can readily relate to “realistic” things outside of the classroom (seeing the immediate relevance in introductory chemistry to processes I’ve observed all my life and to materials I have sitting around my house made it easy to learn. Physics, unfortunately, seems to be taught as “purified” from corrupting and confounding “realistic” situations. I still got “A’s” in my last Physics class and “lab”, but the amount of sheer effort involved compared to the small amount of actual learning I walked away with seemed completely unreasonable.

    And on the subject of getting the general “non-scientist” public to understand basic science – I, for one, feel a great deal of sympathy for everyone that keeps having to try to explain the practical value of cutting-edge scientific research to the “How can we spend billions of dollars building some gadget so some physicist can look for the Pineapple-upside-down Quark when there are people starving in New Orleans?” crowd. I think there’d be less of this problem if the general public was taught in a way that better emphasized that science does directly benefit them even if they are not themselves scientific or technical people. While encouraging more interest in scientific careers is nice, I’d be happier just seeing a large reduction in the number of people actively opposing science.

  2. #2 joe
    August 18, 2006

    i think a hypothesis worth testing is that since teaching as a career has deteriorated (both in fulfulment and monetary terms) concurrently with the decline in student numbers, people with useful/transferable skills such as hard science graduates have made an emminently rational choice – take their high quality brains elsewhere. students are also making the only rational choice they have available – don’t take badly taught subjects. rinse and repeat.
    i think what we are seeing is a fairly obvious iteration of bad teaching leading to worse teachers on a decadal timescale. One test would be to see how many physical science teachers majored in their subject, took it at 2nd year level or just kinda wandered into it. I suspect you’d see a large decrease in teachers who majored in these subjects over the last 2 decades.

  3. #3 Nick Anthis
    August 18, 2006

    Good points, both of you. Although I find physics generally very interesting, my two semesters of college physics in undergrad were arguably two of the least interesting courses I took during my time at A&M. I wouldn’t blame the professors, either, because it was clear that they were putting in a good deal of effort. Part of the problem, as far as physics is concerned, is that the field has advanced so far that it’s difficult for a student to make the connection between the basic principles of mechanics taught in Physics 101 and the newer (more exciting) advances in the various subfields of modern physics. When you place the two side by side, they’re almost unrecognizable as the same subject, although those basic fundamentals are essential for understanding the principles of modern physics. I think physics courses would be much more interesting if those connections could be made, but that would require such a jump. I certainly don’t envy the teachers and professors in that position.