Monday, May 29, 2006

College students and science fatigue

I've been out of commission over the weekend, as I was traveling to Ithaca for my sister's college graduation. It seems appropriate, then, to return to blogging with a consideration of an article called "Why American College Students Hate Science", from the Times opinion section. In this piece, Brent Staples considers the education model of UMBC's Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which seeks to engage students in science through realistic hands-on laboratory research:
The students are encouraged to study in groups and taught to solve complex problems collectively, as teams of scientists do. Most important, they are quickly exposed to cutting-edge science in laboratory settings, which demystifies the profession and gives them early access to work that often leads to early publication in scientific journals. At the same time, however, the students are pushed to perform at the highest level. Those who earn C's, for example, are encouraged to repeat those courses so they can master basic concepts before moving on.
The article never really answers the question its title asks; Staples seems at one point to be arguing that viewing basic science classes as "weed-out" courses is hurtful to the discipline, but he changes horses partway through in order to discuss institutional racism. Early in the article, he writes that "large numbers of aspiring science majors, perhaps as many as half, are turned off by unimaginative teaching and migrate to other disciplines before graduating," which is a plausible claim but is presented without evidence. In short, while this is an interesting case history of one school's attempt to combat science fatigue, it doesn't present a coherent answer to the question of why college students hate science in the first place.

That said, I actually think it's the question, not the answer, that's important. And asking this question brings up a few more: Do American college students really hate science? Do they hate it disproportionately to how much they hate other disciplines? If so, what can we do about it? If they hate all college education, what's to be done about that? And should it change our plans for improving science education, if we find that students' educational antipathy is not discipline-bound?

PZ Myers recently sparked a discussion of the relative worth of the sciences and the humanities. The post began by refuting an uninformed claim about science being "overrated," but the comments delved deeply into the reception history of science, its place (versus humanities) on the academic hierarchy, and the spuriousness of the "science versus humanities" distinction in the first place. One image that came up over and over was of the English major with the barely-concealed hostility towards science and math, or the engineer who considers literature to have no value. Both of these descriptions are (on average) caricatures, but neither is a fabrication. There is a nearly inexplicable sense of mutual uselessness and incomprehensibility between science and humanties fields. This, to me, seems to be Thing One in why college students hate science: we haven't made them understand that accepting science doesn't mean rejecting literature, philosophy, or aesthetics.

And speaking of philosophy, Thing Two is that philosophy of science courses aren't required to earn a science degree. A physics major, for instance, could graduate knowing how to calculate acceleration due to gravity, but lacking the equally basic
understanding that scientific theories must be falsifiable; they might know the effects of a particle accelerator but not of a scientific revolution. In other words, they can easily graduate knowing all of the what but none of the why. And while this might qualify them to contribute to scientific journals, it doesn't qualify them to contribute to public scientific understanding. And it certainly doesn't qualify them to want to. This problem is not unique to the sciences, by the way; the very real anti-science sentiment among many humanities scholars means that literary theory can't account for the influence of the current scientific zeitgeist, and whole aspects of the reading and writing individual's world experience are almost completely ignored.

Mind you, I think it's possible, even likely, that the academic sciences are suffering due to general student ennui. I've certainly noticed a tendency, among the students I've encountered, to consider a college education as a token labeled "Redeemable for One (1) Lucrative Job Immediately Upon Graduating." This could easily lead them to turn up their noses at the sciences, hard ones no less than social, as well as at art or English. Figuring out how to instill some kind of fundamental joy in learning might be step one. If what your students want out of college is essentially a professional certification, they may not find Human Evolutionary Genetics any more desirable than Early Modern Poetry.

But there do exist students who believe, or can be convinced to believe, in the fundamental value of education. And these students are ill-served by the unnecessarily strict divisions, often reinforced by campus geography, between the humanities and the sciences. They get the impression that in declaring a major, they are declaring a personality -- are they science and math types, or poetry and philosophy types? Sure, they are encouraged to sample from the other disciplines, but this is presented as Science People needing an English course to graduate, or Humanities People fulfilling a "natural sciences" requirement for Latin Honors. The idea that you don't need to pick a turf isn't seriously considered. So while scientists badly need to understand philosophy in order to be thoughtful researchers, and the humanities need to graduate beyond 19th-century pop psych if they want to regain relevance, there are no adequate models for stepping off those turfs onto neutral ground.


Julie said...

A great link between the two disciplines is AWIS- The Association for Women in Science. As a student with a weak high school science background, I struggled with my first few years of chemistry, physics,etc. at the college level. I found the environment within the AWIS community to be very nurturing and encouraging- especially for women. Women have slightly different needs in the sciences because of the traditional way science has been taught. This is quickly changing, hence the new female professors in the department at my liberal arts college.
Check out awis at They offer activities for all ages, including elementary school girls. In San Diego, the chapter includes twelve committees (approx) that allow students to develop their writing, networking, public relations, leadership, and other skills. AWIS gave me the opportunity to build a writing portfolio. This can be difficult to do if you don't already have published samples. (all of the journalism whizes who read this are saying "duh"). AWIS has a national magazine called AWIS Magazine. It's a great way to start writing.
Two web sites of interest are and (San Diego Chapter) Good luck.

6/06/2006 1:00 PM  
Mel said...

Speaking as a recent (science) undergraduate, I don't think it's that college students hate science or hate classes. I think it's that most college students are not nearly as enamored of the "liberal arts" concept as their professors and parents. They take classes outside their major (and minor) because they have to or because it'll boost their GPA, not because they want to.

Only a handful of my classmates in any class were truly enthusiastic about a broad range of subjects; most students had only one or two academic interests outside their major, and one of those was almost always a foreign language. This is anecdotal, of course, but from talking to my friends at other colleges and reading and similar sites, I get the distinct impression that overall academic engagement levels were higher at my college than normal.

Yes, there are probably slightly fewer non-science majors interested in science than science majors interested in other disciplines. It doesn't help that "liberal arts and sciences" is often shortened to "liberal arts," and no one seems to remember than over half of the original liberal arts were science and math. I've met more than a few students who were puzzled as to why a science major would go to lib. arts college rather than a tech school or a state university (um. Where do they think most scientists come from, exactly?).

And time plays a factor, of course. Taking more of the non-science classes I wanted to take would have precluded graduating on time, and once you get your major and gen. ed requirements out of the way, there's only so much space left in the schedule, and you can't always fit the courses you want to take into that space.

I hope that made some sort of sense. It was a long day at work and I'm kind of fried.

6/10/2006 11:12 PM  
jess said...

I think it's that most college students are not nearly as enamored of the "liberal arts" concept as their professors and parents. They take classes outside their major (and minor) because they have to or because it'll boost their GPA, not because they want to.

Do you see that as a problem, though? I do, but maybe I'm being a liberal-arts partisan. Why don't students have a broader range of interests? Mine tend to claim that high school ruined them for ever being interested in [insert subject here] again. This seems plausible, but it's not immediately obvious what to do about it. It's not really a matter of making science or literature more palatable to the students; it's a matter of making students more broadly curious and receptive.

If we could figure out how to foster a deeper across-the-board intellectual curiosity, we could potentially do away with CORE/gen ed courses. We didn't have them at my school, which was a large part of why we could dabble in other disciplines without affecting our ability to graduate ob time (which was especially important since my school didn't have another option -- four years and you're out, done or not).

I'm probably being implausibly idealistic here, but I really am dead set against allowing students to pigeonhole themselves, at the age of 18 or younger, into maintaining a small and goal-oriented academic focus and resenting all outside incursions.

6/10/2006 11:46 PM  

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