Why Educate People in Science?

This piece in the Columbia Journalism Review provides a welcome debunking of the myth that in science and math, we’re short of people. The reality is the country is short of jobs.

The shortage myth typically begins with the observation that American high school students’ scores on international comparison tests in science and math lag, on average, behind other countries. That is then presented as proof that American students perform poorly overall. But Rutgers’s Hal Salzman and Georgetown’s Lindsay Lowell have exposed serious problems with the data, including differences in the definitions of student status used by various nations’ school systems that result in apples-to-oranges comparisons between students of different ages and in different grades. In addition, the US has the most diverse student population of any industrial country, with large numbers of high-scoring students and another group—largely from disadvantaged minorities—who score very low. The averages thus indicate not an overall deficit in American science and math education, but the need for serious work with our worst-performing students.

In fact, American college students have for decades shown strong and consistent interest in STEM; year after year, just under a third of all college students in this country earn degrees in those subjects. But, ironically, dismal career prospects drive many of the best of those students to more promising professions, such as medicine, law, or finance.

Note the last paragraph didn’t include journalists and teachers among those more “promising” professions. But people move into those fields too, because they can be challenging and rewarding. I have to wonder whether it’s really such a crime that some of us got science degrees and didn’t become scientists or engineers.

First of all, medicine should not be listed among those non-scientific professions.  God help us I’d like to think doctors are at least somewhat science literate, and many doctors do scientific research. And it’s good that some lawyers know something about science. Environmental law, patent law, and other fields require some science background. I’ll reserve judgment about finance.

Science education can make us all more enlightened citizens. We have plenty of scientists studying environmental problems, but a shortage of people who are capable of understanding them or willing to listen.

There has to be more to science and science education than a conduit to prosperity. When I first learned about the relationship between DNA, RNA and proteins back in 8th grade, I thought it was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever contemplated. Other students disagreed, but maybe science is like poetry, jazz, or opera – not everyone is going to appreciate it but I’m thankful that I had to opportunity. It’s a sad state of affairs if disadvantaged minorities are being left out, whether or not they would use their science knowledge to make money.