Solution to Failing Math and STEM Grades

MaxwellsEquations(Summer2015)
Maxwell’s Equations being discussed during Summer session, 2015

If you thought that an introspective look at how we’re teaching science, math and related STEM subjects would be the first step in finding a solution to the nation’s failing grades in those disciplines you would have been correct. Not surprisingly, that is not the solution some have chosen. Indeed, their suggestion is exactly the opposite!

Instead of looking at the results of decades of failing grades in the STEM disciplines and asking “why” with an eye towards adopting a real solution, the suggestion is that we actually don’t need them, specifically mathematics beyond basic college algebra. Forget Calculus, the discipline that was developed 300 years ago concurrently by Leibniz and Newton to describe the natural world, that’s out of the question. If it were up to
Andrew Hacker, we don’t need any of it and the idea that we do is a myth. His concern is that a

“frenzied emphasis on STEM is diverting attention from other pursuits and subverting the spirit of the country.”

Really? Frenzied emphasis on STEM? How so, Andrew? Diverting attention from other pursuits and subverting the spirit of the country? The only things subverting this country at this moment, in any sense, are the absurdities that pass for coherent political debate and the parade of idiots that perpetrate them. As a political scientist, that should resonate with you a bit, shouldn’t it? STEM isn’t what’s subverting the spirit of the country, its one of the few things that can save it! And what other pursuits? To make more money that you can’t take with you when you die?

As the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg wrote so eloquently in “The First Three Minutes

The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

Why would anyone expect Hacker to understand that STEM should always be a basic aspect of a complete education, after all he’s a Political Scientist and, the author of the piece in Slate that came out today in support of his nonsense is, and again, no surprise here, a journalist. In an excerpt from her piece, Dana Goldstein pens:

……Math helps us understand the world around us!” Andrei replied. “Like how derivatives demonstrate change over time.” He smiled, and I could tell that for him, it was all clear and beautiful.

But I had no idea what he was talking about. In high school, I found math so indecipherable that I would sometimes cry over my homework. I don’t think I ever understood what a derivative signified 15 years ago, when I was struggling my way to a low B in calculus—a class I was convinced I had to take to pad my college applications.

Dana, the concept of a derivative can be understood by a child. They teach Calculus to children in most other countries long before they get to college or are in a university setting. What happened in your case is sad and quite typical of a poor foundation in mathematics, problems that are systemic in a system that is designed to fail. It has been my experience that poor basic mathematics skills can be traced back to a teacher who was, themselves, trained poorly and/or didn’t know how to teach. At a given point during one of the many physics and astronomy courses I teach, without ever using the word “Calculus”, I describe a basic scenario, provide some context about a system or situation and then ask the students if they understand the solution within the context and parameters described, those concepts being the precepts of differential Calculus. Invariably, the result is almost always 100% in the affirmative. I then inform them that they can all take Calculus and at least earn a B+.

The title of this latest book is offensive. Given my advocacy of STEM, as discussed in previous articles, one could understand why I would find the title offensive. That is understandable and I can accept that but to express it so dogmatically is what I find particularly offensive. It actually caused a rise in my blood pressure. That usually doesn’t happen as I generally have an open mind and would consider most things at least once, except this: “The Math Myth And Other STEM Delusions“. I don’t have to read the book to know that its something that I’m not going to waste my time with.

The problem with education in this country is multi-faceted. There are no absolutes anymore and any semblance of a moral compass is gone. We’ve lost our way as a nation and as a society and I fear we’re on the downslide of a long decline that began decades ago. The belief that all you need to do is throw enough money at a problem and it will get fixed is one of the problems. Another is political combined with the lack of a moral compass. The line between a person’s religious faith and their public life has been blurred – just witness the international embarrassment that is this country’s latest election cycle has become: a parade of imbeciles with stupid pundits providing a forum for their stupidity. If one accepts that there exists a greater power than they that will take care of them and that we have a personal relationship with that power, why would there be any need for STEM or to provide anything for ourselves. This blind faith in a personal God who is going to save us, that somehow this country has a divine mandate, was conceived by a deity and is incarnated in the form of the United States is further to that point. Taken to its logical conclusion, there is no need for education at all, in STEM or anything else.

If you remove the idea of a deity, then we’re left alone, stark and naked in our mortality. That is terrifying and is why there is such a rise in neo-religious extremism as there is nothing beyond the grave. It’s a double-edged sword: we attempt to fill the emptiness with something that is, at its essence, empty.

We’ve failed to teach our young students basic reasoning and logic, from which mathematics stems. We have disenfranchised them and have done them and our progeny a great disservice. To compound this, Andrew Hacker would have us redouble the efforts already in play to dumb down our graduates in the STEM disciplines.

Mathematics is a language; it’s the language of nature and it’s our job as educators to teach the young minds in our charge that language as best as we can. To show them that they can discover something new, something that no one else has discovered before is a gift beyond compare and, in a word, is the antidote to the creeping malaise that is our educational system. A student once inspired is unstoppable, regardless of their career choice, be it in a STEM field or, perhaps….Political Science. Further, we waste precious time in the classroom “teaching to a test” rather than teaching basic science, ethics, philosophy, reasoning, logic, language, mathematics and basic attention to detail. In too many school districts, financial incentives are attached to test scores, something that any sensible person would reject.

Without proper training in the STEM fields, we can produce no more scientists, engineers, astronauts, pilots, professors, teachers or any of the other professions that will allow this country to maintain its leadership position going forward into this century and beyond. The suggestion that we should diminish or curtail education in any of the STEM fields, in any capacity, is an offense and an affront to the great scientific traditions of western civilization in general and to this country specifically, traditions that are deeply interwoven aspects of her history that have made her great. Hacker’s suggestion, his premise and the title of his book are repugnant on their face.

Rather than discuss additional ideas here that are counterpoints to Hacker’s premise, developed in previous, related articles, I invite the reader to consider the following articles. In all of them, I develop the idea that an inspired scientific world view is the antidote for superstition, intolerance, religious extremism and many of the problems we face, not only as a nation but as a civilization.

Horrific Paris Attack Highlights Need for Education
Science Must be Priority For Next US President
Trump Presidency Worst Possible Outcome of 2016 General Election
Why the Thirty Meter Telescope Project must be Allowed to Proceed

Imagination is more important than knowledge585px-Albert_Einstein_signature_1934(invert)
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.

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