This is now my second year as a TA, and I’ve been able to see first hand some of the problems with science education in the US pre-college school system. Most of the student I’ve been teaching physics to are not physics majors, but engineering, pre-med or biology students. The students have drastically different levels of preparation, depending on their schooling. On my first time teaching, I was asked by some student ‘three times zero is three, right?’. The university and the teachers work hard to try and bring these students up to speed with the rest, but it’s no easy job. For one thing, people have a real disinclination to learn math. It’s considered hard, painful, boring, and some students even become hostile when forced to think mathematically. I couldn’t even tell you how many times when I’ve asked students some question about finding the x and y components of a vector, I’m told “Oh, this is that SOHCAHTOA shit!”.
It’s not that SOHCAHTOA shit. It’s trigonometry. It’s about as old as christianity. Where were your schools when they should have been teaching you about it? Prior to coming to college, these students were literally living in the scientific dark ages – in a world that’s not just before Newton and Descartes, it’s before Galileo and Euclid!
Many of these students come from low-income school districts, and have learned no math or science to speak of. The college system gives them another chance to get up to speed with their peers – but this is not an easy gap to bridge, and they don’t have a lot of time to do it. Sadly, many do not succeed and end up dropping the class, or not going any further in the sciences. And these students are out of the minority who actually did have the opportunity and inclination to go to college and try to become an engineer or a doctor.
But what amazes me is the resilience and dedication of those that do overcome the odds and make it. Every time I teach, there are a few moments – when they realize they’ve proved something neat and counter intuitive and there’s a glimmer of excitement in their eyes. Those are the moments that make all the hard work and sweat worth it.
There are so many systemic problems with science education in this country that it’s a can of worms I’d rather not open in this post. It’s certainly depressing. But happily, there are teachers who, with the help of the internets and generous folk like yourself, are taking matters into their own hands.
Donorschoose is a website based on a marvelous idea – teachers pitch their cases for the classroom projects that need funding, and you can go there and fund the ones of your choice. The students win. The website has an annual blogger challenge to raise money from blogs. This year our friends at Cosmic Variance have taken them up and put together a list of worthy causes in math and science that are in desperate need of funding. Their goal is to raise $10,000 and are offering prizes for large donations! Take a look at their list, and do what you can. They’re competing with scienceblogs, who have also put together their list.
All kids are born with a natural interest in science. Their curiosity drives them to acquire language, and to explore and try to understand the world. A poor education only dulls this spark. We must do what we can to try and reignite it.