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Friday, May 13, 2011

STEM in the U.S. and U.K. We need "Science Idol"

I am in U.K. at the moment, and today attended a breakfast organized by Donald Taylor, meant to have good conversation with some of the thought leaders in learning in the U.K. I enjoyed it a great deal.

But, there was one conversation with a man who was clearly very smart and a delightful person that shocked me. He was thinking about getting involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. He was amazed when I suggested that this was a terrible idea.

Money and a push for STEM has driven the U.S. Education scene in the last years. As always, anything ridiculous that the U.S. does it convinces others to as well, so the U.K. has followed suit.

Why is STEM ridiculous? The idea behind STEM is that we need scientists and engineers and that our schools aren’t producing enough of them. Both premises are wrong.

I was a member of the science faculties of three of the top ten universities in the U.S. Never was there a lack candidates for faculty jobs. Quite the opposite actually. Too many good candidates, many of whom have to work in industry after they can’t get a faculty job.

Does industry lack talented engineers and scientists? Hardly. Silicon Valley is overflowing with talented job seekers.

What is lacking, any scientist will tell you, is sufficient funding for science research. Why doesn’t the government spend their STEM money on research?

Because the driver for STEM education is about two things. First, our old friend the testing lobby wants testing to be more ubiquitous and more important than it is now and they have big bucks to spend and math and science are easy to test.

And then there is the real reason. Any science or engineering faculty member at top U.S. and U.K. universities can attest to the fact that an enormous percentage of applicants to graduate programs in those fields are Chinese and Indian. The Chinese and Indians aren’t desperate to study those subjects because they love them or because they are so well taught in those places. They know that these subjects are a ticket out. They want to move to the U.S. or U.K. with a high paying job: Voila! They study math and science.

And, clearly, our governments want less Chinese and Indians to emigrate. Why I don’t know. They usually make wonderful colleagues.

And why don’t U.S. and U.K. Students study these subjects? For one thing they are not trying to get to a place that they already live. More importantly, the place where they live does not idolize the engineering student who made it out and who sends money home. We have American Idol and Football, and Movie Stars. We have taught our kids that being successful means being famous and being on TV. Our culture doesn’t produce scientists, it produces aspiring actors and singers.

If the government really wanted to produce more scientists it should create TV shows. How about “Science Idol” or “Science Court?” Nah. Too complicated.

To understand those shows kids would have to be able to think. And the schools have never wanted to produce students who can think clearly. They only want to produce students who behave, and who can memorize whatever facts are deemed important to know by the test makers.

My U.K. colleague quickly understood this. But there is no stopping the math and testing lobby.


Ihor Charischak said...

Ahh, a voice in the wilderness speaking the truth no one wants to deal with. I've been a fan of yours since I introduced you at the conference at a BOCES event in Westchester county, New York in the early 1980s.

mtraven said...

"Mythbusters" comes close to a popular show that demonstrates the scientific attitude. I have a kid who loves it. In this case the private, entertainment-focused industry seems to do a better job than government -- the PBS science shows are earnest and dull in comparison.

Samuel said...

I really liked the idea of creating the "science idol" or reality shows like "science labs" by this a common viewer can get some sort of inspiration to follow the suit. really great idea.

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