Dumbing Down America’s Scientists

Aug 5, 2011 by

Introductory comments by Donna Garner

Achieve, Inc. has been highly involved in the development of the Common Core Standards for English and Math. Now they are involved in designing the framework upon which the Common Core Standards for Science will be built.

One major problem: Achieve’s science framework teaches students to appreciate science rather than to become actual scientists.

Ze’ev Wurman is a Silicon Valley expert in the field of engineering, math, and science. Wurman points out in his analysis of the new science framework:

The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science…there is nothing about actually being able to model a system by its equations, or solve it using mathematical techniques…mathematics is left behind.

Wurman was recently a speaker at the 7.27.11 conference in Washington, D. C., “National Standards and Tests: An Unprecedented Federal Overreach.”

Other outstanding speakers included Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott, Dr. Sandra Stotsky (Endowed Chair in Teacher Quality, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas), Theodor Rebarber (CEO of AccountabilityWorks), Williamson M. Evers (Research Fellow and Member of the K–12 Education Task Force, The Hoover Institution), and James Stergios (Executive Director, The Pioneer Institute (Moderator):

Link to video of the speakers at this event:

http://www.heritage.org/Events/2011/07/National-Standards

[Please ignore the blank white space below and scroll further on down to read Ze’ev Wurman’s insightful analysis that follows.]

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8.4.11 — Education to Raise Technology Consumers instead of Technology Creatorsby Ze’ev Wurmanhttp://www.monolithic3d.com/2/post/2011/08/education-to-raise-technology-consumers-instead-of-technology-creators.html

 

 

We have a guest contribution today from Ze’ev Wurman, the Chief Software Architect at MonolithIC 3D Inc. Ze’ev discusses some industry implications of recent events relating to science education. Education is Ze’ev’s passion, and he recently spent two years as a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.


MonolithIC 3D is not unlike many other Silicon Valley startups. Around the table you find engineers from India, East Asia, Israel, and Europe. All received their primary education overseas, and a few their college education in the United States.

But it is only few and far between that we find an engineer who was raised and educated here. This has been my experience for more than 25 years, and over that time the fraction of young, American-educated engineers continued to dwindle.

I was reminded of this state of affairs reading Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about several initiatives, launched by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, designed to attract and retain foreign entrepreneurs, particularly those in the high-tech sector who wish to launch start-up companies in the United States.

One could well ask why in the midst of a recession (“recovery” in some circles) the U.S. would try to attract more foreign, highly educated scientists and engineers to our shores. Yet we, who live in the Silicon Valley, know the answer: fewer and fewer American students are interested, or able, to enter demanding science and engineering programs.

In 2006 the fraction of foreign undergraduate students in engineering reached 45%, in computer science 44%, and in physical sciences 40%.

In 2007, the fraction of foreign students receiving doctorates in science and engineering was even larger: 62% in engineering overall, 73% in electrical engineering, and 57% in computer science. (NSF S&E Indicators, 2010)

Consequently, I was excited when the National Research Council recently published its new Framework for K-12 Science Education, in which it outlines its vision for improving teaching science in America in the 21st century. The framework has prestigious authors in science and science education and they promise us:

a coherent and consistent approach throughout grades K-12 [that] is key to realizing the vision for science and engineering education embodied in the framework: [where] students, over multiple years of school, actively engage in science and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of each fields’ disciplinary core ideas.[p. ES-2]

The National Academies, this framework’s publisher, stresses promoting American competitiveness as an important goal:

Science, engineering, and technology permeate nearly every facet of modern life and hold the key to meeting many of humanity’s most pressing challenges, both present and future. To address the critical issues of U.S. competitiveness and to better prepare the workforce, Framework for K-12 Science Education proposes a new approach to K-12 science education that will capture students’ interest and provide them with the necessary foundational knowledge in the field.

This certainly looks promising, particularly because the framework for the first time introduces engineering as a subject of study for our K-12 students. Yet as I kept reading the document’s 280 pages of lofty prose, I noticed something odd:

The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science.

For example, the framework promotes a practice called Using Mathematics, Information and Computer Technology, and Computational Thinking (p. 3-13). Yet one observes that after singing paeans to the importance of mathematics, it only expects students by grade 12 to be competent in “recognizing,” “expressing,” and “using simple … mathematical expressions … to see if they make sense,” but not in actually solving science problems using mathematics.

Its other suggestions include the use of computer programs and simulations, ability to analyze data using computer tools and spreadsheets, modeling, and describing systems using charts and graphs. But there is nothing about actually being able to model a system by its equations, or solve it using mathematical techniques.

The framework also includes as one of its Cross Cutting Concepts something it calls Systems and System Models (p. 4-7), but there, yet again, it does not expect students to use mathematics for that modeling.

Its models “can range in complexity from lists and simple sketches to detailed computer simulations or functioning prototypes,” but mathematics is left behind.

One searches in vain for words like “algebra” in the text. Instead one finds only one(!) instance of something called algebraic symbolism, which allows taking “relationships [that] are expressed using equalities first in words” and changing them into “algebraic symbols—for example, shifting from distance traveled = velocity multiplied by time elapsed to s = vt.” Incidentally, this is the single equation in the whole 280 pages of the science framework.

One should not even bother to search for mentions of calculus or trigonometry. Only statistics and computer applications seem to have a place in this strange document.

All of this made me think. Before Lavoisier’s quantitative approach there was no chemistry, only Alchemy. Before Newton’s invention of calculus, physics was more a craft than a science. Mathematics has been inseparable from science for the last 300 years, and has been largely responsible for the world we live in.

Yet here we have a “21st century” science framework for our students that effectively ignores mathematics.

I went back and re-read the document to make sure I didn’t miss anything. And, indeed, I did not. Turns out it was staring at me right there on the first page:

The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology. [p. ES-1, emphasis added]


 

Suddenly it all became clear.

 

This framework does not expect our students to be able to do any science, or to be able to solve any science problem. This framework simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science.

 

It expects our students to become good consumers of science and technology, rather than prepare them to be the discoverers of science and creators of technology.

Now I finally understood the wisdom of our government in easing the immigration of skilled professionals even in the midst of the largest unemployment in almost a century. When even our congressionally-chartered National Academies, and their most prestigious National Research Council, have lost their belief that American students can compete with their foreign peers, what else can a lowly government department do?

Or, perhaps, someone ought to shake those prestigious scientists and science educators and bring them to their senses?


 

 

© Copyright MonolithIC 3D Inc. , the Next-Generation 3D-IC Company, 2011 – All Rights Reserved, Patents Pending

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To read more about Achieve, Inc. and “Developing Next Generation Science Standards,” please go to:

 

http://www.achieve.org/files/NextGenerationScienceStandardsFactSheet.pdf

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