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Failings of Science Education

February 20, 2007

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science features the release of hundreds of papers with new research findings -- and also, receiving less attention, important talks on science education. Here's a sampling:

  • Failings of computer science education. A Stanford University professor said it's time to stop complaining that the lack of good computer science jobs discourages students from enrolling in computer science programs -- that's just not true. "There are more jobs in the U.S. today than there were at the height of the dot-com boom," said Eric Roberts, a fellow in undergraduate education at Stanford. The constant media attention to the outsourcing of tech jobs to other countries has created a totally false impression that there are no jobs in the United States, he said. Roberts called on colleges to improve their own programs -- and also to push harder for improved computer science education in high schools. Otherwise, he said, today's myth will become true. "If you believe that there will be no computer jobs in the U.S., that will become true. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy."
  • Thinking vs. memorizing. Steve Rissing, a biology professor at Ohio State University, presented results of an experiment on teaching difficult topics in intro courses. Rissing used two different approaches to teaching students about working with enzymes, a topic on which he has previously been concerned about limited student learning. With one group, he used the traditional "cookbook method" -- step-by-step instructions for a lab experiment. A second group was given only a very rough assignment -- how to prepare enzyme solutions from a raw turnip -- and wide latitude on what to do. When tested later on the key concepts, the second group fared much better. Rissing is applying these ideas with more assignments that encourage independent thought in intro courses, many of which require students to read The New York Times daily and to be prepared to discuss science issues raised that day.
  • Ignorance on evolution. Jon Miller, a professor at Michigan State University, presented data on why Americans are so much less likely than Europeans to accept the scientific consensus about evolution. Only about 40 percent of American adults embrace evolutionary theory, Miller said, a figure lower than that for any European country and half that of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden. Miller's research examines why this is possible and he pointed to two issues: religion and politics. Many religious groups in the United States have made a point of questioning evolution, he said, unlike those in Europe. On politics, Miller noted that many Republican politicians (among them President Bush) have questioned evolution, or characterized it as one theory among several that may be equally valid. In Europe, he said, there is no major political party associated with questioning evolution.

 

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