Science is hard

Our Culture Keeps Students Out of Science, argues Peter Wood in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Success in the sciences unquestionably takes a lot of hard work, sustained over many years,” while our culture tells students that learning should be fun.

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.

The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences.

When I’ve asked high school students about their career ambitions, the honor-roll students often want to be geneticists, forensic scientists, doctors or architects. There’s a lot of interest in scientific fields. But are young people prepared for the challenges?

Science is cool, writes P.Z. Myers, a biology prof. If students realize that, they may be motivated to do the necessary work.

By the way, I have a column up on Pajamas Media on girls and math.

About Joanne


  1. Charles R. Williams says:

    There are two complementary aspects to this problem: content and culture. A student headed for the sciences should complete a rigorous Algebra I in the seventh grade and be well-prepared for multivariate calculus by the end of high school. Both the course content and an educational culture that supports students taking a long and difficult path have to be there. This can be accomplished only through identifying and tracking strong students or empowering parents to choose appropriate schools for their children.

    What we have is a system where only the most privileged students, often those with parents in the sciences, have these educational opportunities. It is not a matter school funding but rather the ideologies that dominate our public schools, ideologies that subordinate high achievement to other goals. Few parents have the knowledge, the money and the will to buck a system that works against them.

  2. While I agree that Mr. Wood’s assessment is true for some students out there, as a 17-going-on-18-year secondary science teacher, I don’t think his point gets at the real issue.

    As you mentioned, there are plenty of students (and not just the “honors” or privileged variety) who are interested in forensics, engineering, and more. I watch them graduate from high school—with all their enthusiasm for a career in the math and sciences. I rarely see them leave college achieving that goal, having been beaten down by “weeder courses” designed to flunk them out of their programs, having grown tired of endless lectures and no labs or application, and so on.

    Maybe universities need to take a long hard look at the way they do business.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    Um, yeah. It seems as though this is yet another false dichotomy. In my growing up, one of the popular TV shows for children was Mr. Wizard. It still stands up today when you can catch the reruns. Not so many bells and whistles as might be expected todayp–and perhaps a bit too scripted, but otherwise good inquiry-based (to my amatuer sensibilities) lessons (what do you expect will happen–let’s try it out–why did something different happen than what you expected?). My brothers had access to science kits and erector sets–as toys. I finally got a chemistry set one year. These were toys–fun things.

    These many years later learning continues to be basically an enjoyable activity–despite the best efforts of some teachers along the way to beat all the enjoyment out of it. The problem may be, not that we are teaching students that learning should be fun (should be or not–learning, when it occurs, is enjoyable), but that we hold fun out as some lightweight frosting on the cake kind of experience, filled with bright lights and expensive toys. And when schools are held accountable for the end product of learning, they announce they displeasure by cancelling anything that might be “fun” even if their action hurts learning.

  4. Charles R. Williams

    I am in faver of tracking, but, why 7th grade Algebra? What colleges or universities require multivariate calculus for the freshman science and engineering majors besides Cal Tech and MIT?

  5. U.S. culture, for a myriad of twisted reasons, became anti-intellectual in the 1960’s and has stayed that way ever since. Especially when applied to Math and the Sciences.

    Kids normally love to learn about the world around them – except when peer pressure is telling them that it’s not “cool” to do so.

    Adults normally love to learn about the world around them, too – except when peer pressure labels them an “elite” because they know more than the average person.

    Fortunately, in recent years there seems to finally be a trend in the other direction – it’s slowly becoming “cool” again to know things. Maybe that’s because we live in a highly competitive information based economy now, where the more you know, the more money you make?

  6. Seems strange to assume that only scientists/engineers, or those studying to be scientists/engineers, work hard. So I find it hard to believe that this argument applies uniquely to science based careers.

    If I’m to believe the data I’ve seen about the distribution of Myers-Briggs temperaments then I’d hypothesize that people avoiding science is a more fundamental issue. I’m also assuming that the career preferences generally attributed to the temperament types are accurate.

    The press about Americans failing to pursue science based careers tend to get a lot of press because of the statistics coming out of India and China; that they are producing more scientists and engineers than the U.S. So why are they producing more scientists and engineers? The most likely reason is that they have 3 to 4 times the population of the U.S. So if the U.S. is going to compete on absolute numbers, we’d better get busy 🙂 They may also have a skew in the proportion of people pursuing science based careers, because its a meal ticket. Either to a job in the U.S. or for a company making products bound for the “first” world. People are comfortable buying engineered products from across the globe. But other knowledge workers beware, everyone will probably share in the globalization trend eventually. There are also reports that government statistics from China and India are being hyped to attract foreign money. Ok, lies, damned lies, and statistics will probably always be there to some extent.

  7. superdestroyer says:

    Succeeding in the hard sciences and engineering requires the ability to put up with banging your head against the wall until you succeed and being able to listen to lecture while comprehending little of it at the beginning. The weed-out classes are meant to eliminate the students who cannot bang their head against the wall.

    Also, I agree that we expect students to probably know too much going into college. You can still take calculus your first semester and survive.

  8. Reality Czech says:

    What colleges or universities require multivariate calculus for the freshman science and engineering majors besides Cal Tech and MIT?

    I don’t know if it is required, but it would certainly help a great deal at any engineering school.

  9. A big problem here is artificially overinflated self-esteem. Our students have been shielded from the natural consequence of failure; subsequently, they don’t see the harm in setting unrealistic goals because they think that everything is easily attainable.

    Giving constructive criticism of a student’s work or behavior, if they choose to feel offended by it, can now be construed as an “aversive intervention.” The lack of realistic feedback this creates is doing atrocious harm.

    A couple of years ago, a C-and-D student with no honors classes told me she wanted to be a neonatologist. I advised her to take harder math and science classes, and pull her average grades up to A’s. That afternoon, her dad called the school and screamed at us, furious that I’d made his little princess feel bad.

    “What?” I silently fumed. “Would you be happier if she continued to underacieve and never reach her dream, but have an easier time along the way?”

    Math and science fields are difficult. We can’t expect many of our youth today to dedicate themselves to strenuous programs if they’ve been raised by a culture that revels in indulging their every juvenile whim. Kids might want to have their cake and eat it, too, but at some point they have to face facts.

  10. I think much of it is cultural. We’ve seem to have lost the realization that there is a lot of joy to be had in learning to do something that is difficult.

  11. Miller Smith says:

    My honors chemistry students are unable to perform basic arithmetic. Not Math-arithmetic! They are very sure they are smart, and they are, but they are uneducated by the curriculum and assessments given them in all previous years. Chapter 3 of the chemistry textbook is a review of arithmetic needed for chemistry such as unit conversion and the metric system. Instead of one day of review it takes 6 WEEKS to get them up to basic ability to proceed into the chemistry content.

    They have wonderful grades in math all their school career until they get to me. Their parents see the first D and E (we don’t use F) that they have ever seen for their child. The admin response is to tell me to do chemistry without math.

    The state decided to do chemistry without math last year. They removed the MOLE concept completely from the curriculum and will not include any math on the state chemistry assessment.

    This is the State of Maryland.

  12. Marianne says:

    Miller – the mind boggles. Chemistry *without math*?? Can’t be possible. I’m trying to remember what’s left if I eliminate all those hours I spent doing mole problems and trying to balance the equations.


  13. @pm: China and India both inflate their numbers when they report how many “engineering” college graduates they have. For example, both countries count auto mechanics as “engineers” in their numbers. Imagine how many “engineers” the U.S. would have if *we* counted our auto mechanics, too?

    (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an auto mechanic! One of my brother’s best friends is an auto mechanic, and he makes $60,000/year.)

    @Huston: 100% agree. The collapse of the K-12 education system in the U.S. (and now even the college eduction system in the U.S. is beginning to show cracks) always seems to come down to a few core issues: (1) an anti-intellectual culture; (2) the self-esteem “I don’t have to accomplish anything to be special” movement; and (3) politics corrupting education on both sides of the aisle at all levels.

    @Miller Smith: There are no F’s? The admins tell you to take the Math *out* of Chemistry? In the entire State of Maryland, they don’t teach moles in Chemistry anymore?

    That’s completely insane. That’s like learning about English literature without Shakespeare. Don’t you love dealing with admins and politicians who don’t understand any more Math or Science than the kids they’re coddling do, much less how to teach it? Reminds me of my first high school Math & Physics teaching job – the principal was a former Social Studies teacher and basketball coach, whose understanding of Math was only about half of Algebra I, trying to give me instructions on how to teach PreCal and Physics to students in subjects he didn’t understand himself.

  14. Ragnarok says:

    MiT said:

    “I think much of it is cultural. We’ve seem to have lost the realization that there is a lot of joy to be had in learning to do something that is difficult.”

    Afraid I have to agree with Mike.

    “China and India both inflate their numbers when they report how many “engineering” college graduates they have.”

    Quite true, but the real hard sciences people do very rigorous stuff.

  15. Reality Czech

    That was not what I saw in the early 70s. The ones with High School Calculus were just as confused as those of us taking it cold turkey. Unless they passed the AP test with a 5 they made them start with first semester Calculus. I have always suspected that the quality of their high school instruction was poor, but these were the ones in the upper 2 or 3 percent of their class and were definitely very bright. Another of my theories was they had a hard time getting used to classes of 300 or more. We had dull and poor lecturers with thick accents. We also had the option of ignoring the homework since it was not graded. They gave us the answer book. I might have just have experienced an especially bad example.

  16. Dave Moelling says:

    When I entered engineering school in the mid 1970’s it was at the low point of interest. Aerospace had crashed and our entering class was the smallest in a long time. So we had only kids who really wanted to be engineers and scientists. Later classes started to get students who were told that they should get into science especially more women. You could see the difference in motivation at once.

    One of my roommates now has a daughter in Engineering at the same school. Her comment is that there are too many women who aren’t prepared or motivated in the school.

    It does little good to push kids into fields they aren’t interested in. The best you can do is give them a good grounding in math/science and show them some paths that are not shown on TV (i.e. forensics).

  17. Miller, I don’t always agree with you, but I *definitely* agree that you cannot take math out of Chemistry. When I was in high school, I took Chemistry with nothing more than a basic working knowledge of arithmatic. I still can’t do algebra well, reliably. But I can understand unit conversion, and the math needed for basic science. Wolf 359 Vet’s right: we can place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the anti-intellectual movement begun in the 1960s.

  18. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    I remember well in high school I desperately wanted to take a course in astronomy, as I always have loved the subject. My senior year, it was offered…but then dropped without explanation.

    Some sciences are more fun than others, IMHO. What I would like to see happen is more high schools offering more of a selection of sciences to appeal to different passions. I suspect at that point you’ll see more would-be scientists come out of the woodwork, so to speak.

  19. Devilbunny says:

    How about the fact that the sciences generally do not pay as well as other jobs requiring roughly equal intellect? It seems that the US method tends to select out those who don’t have a strong predilection for doing science to the exclusion of anything else.

    I’m a doctor. I’m not a lab scientist by nature, but if the prestige and pay scales of the two professions were reversed, you can bet it would have affected my career choice. It’s not as though every investment banker was born to the job.

  20. The biggest practical obstacle to attracting more people to sci/eng is tough grades in the disciplines combined with grade inflation in the humanities. So long as A’s and B’s are usually easier to come by [at all schools including the elites] in history and sociology than math and physics, there will be a penalty for doing science and not finishing in the top half.

    A Caltech or MIT grad in EE or Physics with a C average and perfect test scores has fewer chances of getting into law school or med school than the product of any college with a puff major, lower test scores, and an A average, no matter how poor the school. The same is true to a lesser extent when comparing a B- grad of engineering at a state school with an A student from an Easy Studies major. There is even econometric research backing up this claim (non-science grade inflation drives people out of science).

    So eliminating grade inflation across the board would help a lot by not penalizing science grads and by giving realistic assessments to students in the humanities/social sciences.

  21. Charles R. Williams says:

    “I am in faver of tracking, but, why 7th grade Algebra? What colleges or universities require multivariate calculus for the freshman science and engineering majors besides Cal Tech and MIT?”


    This is the international standard for students heading for high level careers in the sciences. Our colleges and universities do not require it because so few American students can meet it.

  22. > The state decided to do chemistry without math last year.

    Scores will no doubt go up in the new watered-down Chemistry courses and Maryland will congratulate itself on its educational “improvement”.

    More students should sue their states for failing to provide them with a proper education.

  23. Charles R. Williams,

    Yes, I am aware it is the international standard outside of the US. Years ago, I saw the high school Calculus text of a lycee student. It looked a lot like my analysis of real valued functions textbook with half the pages. We don’t do it because we do not limit college prep to the top 5% of tested 10 year olds.

    I even read that German colleges are implementing US 4 year programs for their German students because it is more practical.

    I do not see the need to imitate the pre college education or the undergraduate education I saw in Europe. I am not sure it is practical to implement the French Lycee, the German Gymnasium or the British A level. I do not recall reading about any Nobel Prize winning Polytechnicians in a very long time.

    I do admire a lot of the vocational programs I saw in Europe and I wish we would imitate them here instead.

  24. Personally, I’d love to see the standard Math & Science high school curriculums in the U.S. take this shape:

    8th Grade: Algebra I
    9th: Geometry
    10th: Algebra II
    11th: PreCal (i.e., Trig and Probability & Statistics)
    12th: Calculus

    8th Grade: Basic Science (i.e., the Scientific Method, etc.)
    9th: Biology
    10th: Earth Science & Astronomy
    11th: Chemistry
    12th: Physics

    I know, I’m just dreaming, though. 🙁