Cool science

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Esther Cepeda
Sunday, May 29, 2011
— Considering that most students who want to attend college say they’re looking to earn a degree that will put them in line for a “good job,” they’re sure not picking their majors very well.

Flipping through Georgetown University’s just-released report, “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” the message is simple and clear: If you want to make big bucks, go into petroleum engineering, pharmaceutical sciences, math or computer sciences, or aerospace, chemical, electrical or mechanical engineering.

But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess that not one of those fields cracked the top 10 most popular majors list. In fact, they look very similar to geological and geophysical engineering, soil science and nuclear engineering majors, which top the least popular list.

Obviously these programs of study have a few things in common: They sound wicked-hard to get into and even harder to earn a degree. Plus, they don’t sound as attractive as business management and administration, the most popular college major and the likeliest to inspire cover-of-Fortune-magazine fantasies.

Yet big business, academia and the White House are obsessed with getting young people into the so-called STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—to make the United States more competitive in a time when overseas goods and labor are cheap and America is counting on a technology and information economy to drive the future.

But it’s even more fundamental than that.

“We’re in the information age of computers and technology, but as a society we’re creating a bunch of high-tech consumers and not creating high-tech creators,” said Christopher Emdin, professor of science education at Columbia University’s teachers college and director of secondary school initiatives at the Urban Science Education Center in New York. “How are we going to sustain ourselves nationally when all we’re doing is simply creating a population of consumers of international products?”

Well, at this rate, we’re not. We are well past the Sputnik moment that spurred scientists and engineers to fill up NASA headquarters and put the first man on the moon. And we should be well past the stereotypes of scientists as introverts with horn-rimmed glasses and pocket-protectors.

While I blame our society’s breathless adulation of reality TV stars and highly paid athletes, along with young people’s general scorn for knowledge-seeking, Emdin says the education system itself is pushing young people away from science.

“I don’t want to play the blame game, but at every level things could be done differently to make math and science fun, interesting and engaging,” Emdin told me. “For instance, in the lower grades science, is ignored for the sake of preparing students for standardized tests, then it’s reintroduced in the later grades where it’s generally taught by teachers who have no science training. By the time a student encounters science in high school, it’s no longer fun experimentation but memorization of chemistry and physics facts.

“Even those students who actually make it into college with the intention of majoring in math or science don’t do well because the nature of those disciplines is to weed out students based on their ability to calculate formulas or remember facts. Free-thinking, creative, abstract thinkers aren’t successful in that environment.”

Emdin is right. National Center for Education Statistics research on STEM students shows that even though these people are likelier than non-STEM students to earn a bachelor’s degree, 27 percent of them drop out of higher education entirely six years after beginning their programs.

“The ones who aren’t immediately turned off and quit spend years in a program before they get to work in a lab and use their natural curiosity, critical thinking and communication skills,” Emdin said. “That has to change.”

Emdin believes that students of all ages need creative, authentic hooks to get excited about math and science. His tack, as described in his book “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation,” appeals to lovers of that musical style. But it’s going to take a boatload of diverse themes—sci-fi fantasy, 007-esque spy gear, outer-space operas, extreme cooking, vampires and zombies—to get future generations into lucrative, innovative science and math careers.

Or, we need to see the nation’s top geophysical and nuclear engineers on the covers of celebrity magazines and on the red carpet at exclusive movie awards ceremonies. Maybe cable channels could feature mathematicians in high-drama reality TV shows. Might Lady Gaga put out a whole album about scientists?

Something’s got to spur our next generation of innovators. Our national livelihood depends on it.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 5:06 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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