Go China!

27 04 2009

That’s right, I’m rooting for the Chinese. In what, and why? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

On July 16th, 1945, the Trinity test was conducted. America was the first and only country to master the most devastating weapon humanity had ever seen.

When 1949 dawned, we were secure in the knowledge that the Russians would not have the bomb for at least 3 more years. We were rather shocked (not to mention terrified), therefore, when later that year the Russians detonated their own nuclear bomb. We were ahead of them and could blame it on spies, however, so all that came of it was the Red Scare, rather than a period of national introspection.

Then, in 1957, the event which I consider to be, symbolically if not practically, the most important event in human history to date took place. I’m referring, of course, to Sputnik’s launch. This time, America had no response. We were still a long way from space, and so this time we looked at ourselves and realized that we were simply not prepared to compete.

Our response was to launch a massive research and education program. Sputnik brought about a fundamental rethinking of United States STEM education, especially science and math programs in public schools. Excellence, it was realized, mattered. Science and math programs received huge amounts of funding and attention, and were reformed to truly provide a solid science and mathematics education. Post Sputnik programs weren’t perfect (funding was often pulled from other subjects, most of which also matter), but they were important, and they generally worked.

***

US education is a mess. Science isn’t really taught in schools, facts are. The scientific method is, ironically, taught by memorization, and as if it were a rigid, restrictive, tidy structure. Math, when it isn’t paced far too slowly, often skims over important fundamental concepts. English destroys rather than fosters a love of reading, and where it could be used to teach intelligent insight and thought, is instead turned into a postmodern playground. History is taught as dates, names, and bits of legislation. Analysis of it and application of it is mediocre at best.

That brings us to China. They are going to be the next superpower, and pretty soon will be our biggest scientific and economic rival. I’m hoping desparately that they will give us another Sputnik moment, whether it be with nanotech, genetics, or anything else. Anything less than another Sputnik, I think, won’t be enough to drive America to fix our education system, a fix that we are in dire need of before we fall too far behind to catch back up.

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Inquiry based science class

22 02 2009

So, I noticed that the NJ Board of Ed is planning to add an “inquiry based” science class to the requirements for high school graduation, in addition to a year of bio and a year of chem, physics, or environmental science. This would be great, except, well, a science class is supposed to be “inquiry based” simpy by being a science class.

If you aren’t learning about and using the scientific method (or at least a close approximation of it) you aren’t learning science! A class without that is not a science class in any meaningful way. Adding an inquiry based science class further signlas to teachers that they can and should pull that out of their ordinary science classes. Why?

Sure, it’s a nice thought. They add the requirement to do this in case your other science teachers aren’t doing this. But like I said, if your other science teachers aren’t, their classes shouldn’t even be considered science!

And even beyond that, I get the distinct impression that an “inquiry based” science class would be meaningless. Since it sounds like it has to be a standalone course, it has no subject. So what exactly are you inquiring about? It isn’t biology or chemistry or physics or astronomy, so what exactly is it? By pulling it out of those classes, you lose any sort of focus for the class.

On top of that, it makes it harder to take all the science classes you want, because you effectively lose a year in which to take them. For instance, if you want to take both AP chem and AP physics, you have to either take summer courses or double sciences 2 years in a row. As of now, you can take biology as a freshman, chem as a sophomore, then AP chem and acc physics as a junior (or take a physics summer class) and then AP physics as a senior. With this, you lose either your junior or senior year’s main science slot. That’s not exactly fostering science, in my opinion.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and those involved in education seem to have a particular aptitude for laying concrete.