Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.
There are few things more romantic than being a discoverer, whether it be Captain James Cook’s Sandwich Isles or Alvin Roth’s and Lloyd Shapley’s recent-Nobel-winning work on stable allocations. And the excitement exists even among us regular-folk scientists—our discoveries may not be of the magnitude of Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin or Einstein’s special relativity, but we bask away unheeded. “Dear world, here is my beautiful solution to the puzzle.” Not only is the solution typically beautiful—that’s often what makes a good discovery “good”—but it is packaged into elegantly-written journal articles or glossy books. On the basis of the splendor of our discoveries, laymen might wonder whether our minds are beautiful as well.
Far be it from me to debunk the mythical, magician-like qualities sometimes attributed to us scientists, but the dirtiest little secret in science is that our science minds are just as dirty and unbeautiful as everyone else’s… and this has important implications, both for aspiring students and for how science is funded. I’ll get to these later.
Now, it’s not that the entire scientific process behind discovery is ugly. Much of it is elegant. Good experimental design, valid statistics, analyses of hypotheses—there are sound principles guiding us, the same ones we teach our students.
But where we see the everyday-ness of our science minds is in the discovery process itself, that is, in the efforts to find the new idea (hypothesis, theory, whatever) in the first place. Discoveries can be dressed up well, but the way we go about finding our ideas is almost always an embarrassing display of buffoonery.
Joanne Manaster shares cutting-edge biology with teachers working on masters degrees at the University of Illinois. In addition to videos and articles at her website, Joanne Loves Science, her work can be found at Scientific American. She always has time for science on twitter @sciencegoddess.
Luann Lee is a National Board Certified high school science teacher in Oregon. She can be found on Twitter as @Stardiverr and now that her dissertation is finished, blogs about science and education here.
On Wednesday, President Obama proposed the STEM Master Teacher Corps, a new program to incentivize teachers who display excellence in teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or “STEM”). The idea is that 2,500 such teachers would be chosen and positioned in 50 different locations around the country in the inaugural year of the project. According to the White House, these Master Teachers “will receive additional resources to mentor math and science teachers, inspire students, and help their communities grow.” The Master Teacher proposal is a follow-up to his 2010 STEM teacher-training initiative, “Educate to Innovate,” and part of a broader effort to fight the fact that students in the world’s only superpower don’t do so super in science and math, which figure to be so important for our economy in a tech-driven future.
Everyone supports the idea of improving STEM education, but there are some important questions about the program. Most importantly, the criteria for choosing the teachers (and the panel who will determine the criteria) remain unknown, though early hints are indicating that student test scores will be a factor in determining the worthiness of the teachers for this honor, according to information obtained during a White House Twitter chat on July 18, 2012 (the entire chat is here.)
Because the specifics of the program are not yet fully laid out, there’s still an opportunity for scientists, engineers, educators, and parents to speak up and insist that the science taught in schools be meaningful, authentic scientific inquiry as opposed to memorization, drill, and lecture. Ideally, teachers chosen for this honor (and the substantial stipend that accompanies it) must be able to guide students to become masters of inquiry-based, hands-on science. What would a learning environment at the hands of such a master teacher look like?
Derek Lowe is a medicinal chemist who has worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases. He has been writing about drug discovery at In the Pipeline, where this post originally appeared, for more than ten years.
Slate recently published one of those assume-the-conclusions articles up on science and technology education in the U.S. It’s right there in the title: “America Needs More Scientists and Engineers.”
Now, I can generally agree that America (and the world) needs more science and engineering. I’d personally like to have researchers who could realize room-temperature superconductors, a commercially feasible way to turn carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into industrial products, and both economically viable fusion power and high-efficiency solar power beamed down from orbit—for starters. We most definitely need better technology and more scientific understanding to develop these things, since none of them (as far as we know) are at all impossible, and we sure don’t have any of them yet.
But to automatically assume that we need lots more scientists and engineers to do that is a tempting, but illogical, conclusion. And it’s one that my currently unemployed readers who are scientists and engineers probably don’t enjoy hearing about very much. I think that the initial fallacies are (1) lumping together all science education into a common substance, and (2) assuming that if you just put more of that into the hopper, more good stuff will come out the other end.
If I had to pick one line from the article that I disagree with the most, it would be this one:
America needs Thomas Edisons and Craig Venters, but it really needs a lot more good scientists, more competent scientists, even more mediocre scientists.
No. I hate to be the one to say it, but mediocre scientists are, in fact, in long supply. Access to them is not a rate-limiting step. (That’s the chemist’s way of saying it’s not the main bottleneck.) Not all the unemployed science and technology folks out there are mediocre—not by a long shot (I’ve seen the CVs that come in)—but a lot of the mediocre ones are finding themselves unemployed, and they’re searching an awful long time for new positions when that happens. Who, exactly, would be clamoring to hire a fresh horde of I-guess-they’ll-do science graduates? Is that what we really need to put things over the top, technologically—more foot soldiers?