Tag Archives: Science

Shortages in SMET fields: Not just for Americans

The Australians are also facing critical shortages of students choosing to study science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) fields:

“It is no exaggeration to say that the relative decline in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics capability and literacy of South Australian school students is a very serious situation that requires decisive remedial action by the government,” said Engineers Australia state president Bill Filmer.

“There is an urgent need for reprioritisation in schools, staffing and curricula to overcome this problem to enable South Australia to be more competitive in the knowledge-based economy.”

The report also identified the lack of training in science given to primary school teachers as a key issue and questioned their commitment to teaching science. [Emphasis added]

As to that last sentence above, insofar as I can understand the teacher education curriculum in Australia from a little bit of Googling, the curriculum for primary teachers does seem awfully lightweight on the math and science end. The curriculum at the University of South Australia has students take a three-course sequence in “Studies in Science, Mathematics, and Society and Environment Education”, and the course descriptions go like this:

[For the first course] This course engages students with constructivist perspectives of student learning; social constructivist pedagogies including interactive approaches to teaching; thinking and working mathematically scientifically, environmentally and socially from socially inclusive and critical perspectives; planning for learning in mathematics, science and society and environment; key concepts embedded in sorting and classifying, pattern, number, living things, interdependence and ecologically sustainable components of Years 3 to 9 curriculum.

[Second course] This course engages students with constructivist perspectives of student learning and focuses on interactive approaches to teaching and student questions; thinking and working mathematically, scientifically, socially and environmentally from socially inclusive and critical perspectives; planning for learning in Mathematics, Science and SOSE; student centred inquiry; equity (fair trade) governance (political, social and economic systems); key concepts embedded in spatial sense and geometric reasoning, energy systems, matter and fair tests, personal footprints, democratic participation and poverty as aspects of the Years 3 – 9 curriculum.

[Third course] This course engages students with constructivist perspectives of student learning and focuses on interactive approaches to teaching and student questions; thinking and working mathematically, scientifically, socially and environmentally from socially inclusive and critical perspectives; planning for learning in Mathematics, Science and SOSE; student centred inquiry; the SOSE value of social justice and equity through refugees and Indigenous Australians; key concepts embedded in measurement, earth systems (soils and weather), plant and animal relationships as aspects of the Years 3 – 9 curriculum.

Like I said, it seems light on the actual science and math content, but the students will certain get lots of social justice issues and a bias towards constructivism as the religion pedagogy of choice. Perhaps I don’t understand Australian culture as I should, but if I were a student being taught by someone thoroughly drilled in this kind of thing, I probably wouldn’t like math or science either. And if I were a teacher who wanted to teach math and science because, well, I really liked math and science, I would be a little put off by the back seat that the actual disciplines take to all this constructivism and social justice stuff.

It would be interesting to take the countries who are having these kinds of problems in one column, and the countries that are eating our lunch in SMET fields in the other column, and compare how science and math teachers are trained in each column.

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Filed under Education, Math, Teaching

Simon Singh versus… the chiropractors?

British science writer Simon Singh has a special place of respect here at Casting Out Nines for his outstanding  crypto survey The Code Book and for personally helping my upper-level topics students get their hands on a copy back in 2003. One usually associates him with high-quality intellectual discourse on science and its impact on society. So I thought I was not fully awake this morning when I read this in his email newsletter:

As some of you may have heard, I am being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. I cannot say much at the moment, but I will return to the subject in due course. In the meantime, thanks for the emails of support and the various blogs backing my position. I have not had time to reply – as you can imagine, I am fairly busy at the moment – but the support is much appreciated.

Huh? Well, evidently, Singh wrote an editorial in The Guardian called “Beware the Spinal Tap” critical of the scientific legitimacy of chiropractic medicine. That article is no longer at The Guardian, but others have reprinted, and the full article is here. Here’s a snippet:

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.[…]

I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

I can see how the BCA would find this sort of thing objectionable, but how about, you know, just objecting to it rather than suing the pants off of the person who wrote it?

And don’t these chiropractors realize that going after Singh in such a public way is only going to increase the propagation of his article and ideas exponentially (witness this blog post)? Sheesh.

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Filed under Free speech, Science

Culture vs. science education

Peter Wood has a tour de force editorial today in the Chronicle, titled “How Culture Keeps Our Students Out of Science”. Snippet:

Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market’s demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off — often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren’t very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, “Why bother?”

[…] A century ago, Max Weber wrote of “Science as a Vocation,” and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.

At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn — and worse, fail to develop as “whole persons” — if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren’t among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who “feel good” about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.

Wood goes on to trace the failings of postmodernism and relativism for preparing our kids for science and math. Go read the whole thing. I believe he is dead-on, and the article is full of money quotes such as:

Talk to recent college graduates and you are likely to hear something like: “Asian students are just better at science and math.” That is a verbal shrug, not a lament. The reward of 16 years of diversiphilic indoctrination turns out to be a comfort zone of rationalizations.

Wood does make a serious omission in his article, and that is the effect of popular culture on students. This is something I have blogged about over and over again. Kids are immersed in a culture that trains them for laziness and entertainment and deprives them of opportunities for hard, sustained efforts of the mind that are eventually rewarded. They are constantly bombarded by messages that say math and science are uncool, too hard, lame, etc. and nobody is systematically fighting that cultural flow. Elementary school teachers have a chance to inculcate the math and science “bug” in young kids and train them up with good basic skills, but many fail to do so because they themselves are ill-prepared in, and ill-disposed towards, science and math. (Note that this is not all elementary teachers — but certainly too many of them.)

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Filed under Early education, Education, High school, Higher ed, Math, Student culture, Teaching

Algebra meets astrophysics

Abstract algebra and astrophysics don’t have much to do with each other, right? Well, perhaps not, after all. Here’s a story about the results from a researcher in gravitational lensing being used to prove an extension of the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra to rational harmonic functions. Snippet:

In 2004, [mathematicians Dmitry Khavinson and Genevra Neumann] proved that for one simple class of rational harmonic functions, there could never be more than 5n – 5 solutions. But they couldn’t prove that this was the tightest possible limit; the true limit could have been lower.

It turned out that Khavinson and Neumann were working on the same problem as [astrophysicist Sun Hong Rhie]. To calculate the position of images in a gravitational lens, you must solve an equation containing a rational harmonic function.

When mathematician Jeff Rabin of the University of California, San Diego, US, pointed out a preprint describing Rhie’s work, the two pieces fell into place. Rhie’s lens completes the mathematicians’ proof, and their work confirms her conjecture. So 5n – 5 is the true upper limit for lensed images.

“This kind of exchange of ideas between math and physics is important to both fields,” Rabin told New Scientist.

Indeed, and very cool. The paper that Khavinson and Neumann wrote, with an update that addresses the relevance of Rhie’s result on gravitational lensing, is here.

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Filed under Math, Science

How big is 10 to the 20th?

Here’s a great illustration from George Gamow’s classic book One Two Three… Infinity which shows two things: just how big 10^{20} really is, when thought of as a scaling factor; and also the power of a good illustration to drive home a point about math or science. The picture shows a normal-sized astronomer observing the Milky Way galaxy when shrunk down by a factor of 10^{20}

That’s a big number, folks. 

Gamow’s book is one of several on my summer reading list, and there’s a reason it’s a classic. In particular, it’s chock full of cool illustrations like this that convey more information about a science concept than an hour’s worth of lecturing. 

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Filed under Geekhood, Math, Science