Time to 'Interfere' in Science Ed

Nearly all recent surveys of science and mathematics curricula in our secondary schools paint a picture of gloom and doom. A cross section of high school curricula and faculty taken across the United States reveals a lack of consistency in both the number and quality of courses. The research-oriented colleges and universities that draw upon today's high school graduates to populate their freshman classes are, however, generally blasé about the situation. A great deal of the colleges' effort

By | January 12, 1987

Nearly all recent surveys of science and mathematics curricula in our secondary schools paint a picture of gloom and doom. A cross section of high school curricula and faculty taken across the United States reveals a lack of consistency in both the number and quality of courses.

The research-oriented colleges and universities that draw upon today's high school graduates to populate their freshman classes are, however, generally blasé about the situation. A great deal of the colleges' efforts are spent in competing for the best of the high school graduates, but they argue that they have no trouble filling their quota of top-grade freshmen. The quality of students, they say, is better than ever. So they conclude they have little incentive to reach back into the secondary schools to influence either curricula or teaching quality.

A recent National Research Council report noted that, in contrast to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when student interest in science and technology was at its lowest in decades, today the interest in engineering as a major is extremely high, and engineering students nationwide are "among the most able in their age cohort." Thus, as has historically been the case, the quality of freshman engineering students is a function of factors exogenous to the university itself.

In spite of this recent good fortune of the engineering schools, and in particular of the research universities, we are told that one of every six college freshmen in the United States is enrolled in a remedial reading course, one of five in a remedial writing course, and one of four in a remedial math course. In 1983,88 percent of the more than 50,000 freshman college students in New Jersey were found not proficient in even ninth-grade mathematics.

Who Is Responsible?

Many would argue that there are enough good high schools in the United States to insure an adequate supply of quality science and engineering students. But for those students who are uneducated in mathematics and science, there's a high probability they'll not consider careers in engineering or science. Many superior minds may thus be lost to those fields.

Furthermore, the shortcomings extend to the general populace. In an era that requires technical literacy, the knowledge level among too many citizens "is insufficient to utilize computers, robots, and other elements of modern technology," according to Frank Barnes, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado. Part of the problem is a shortage of qualified teachers at the pre-college level. Barnes cited estimates that up to 85 percent of incumbent teachers did not like math and science as students and so are afraid or reluctant to teach those subjects now.

Whose responsibility is it to exert pressures for change at the pre-college level? University educators acknowledge that the principal pressure point remains the local school board, but they hesitate to interfere.

Yet perhaps "interference" is exactly what is needed. At the University of South Carolina in recent years, 50 students who fell significantly short of standard college admission requirements but who were commended by their high school counselors as having high potential wereput into a special program to bring them up to speed. These students eventually graduated at a higher rate than the other students, but at double the first-year cost.

The implications are twofold: first, many bright students whose pre-college education is inferior will never even get the chance to study, much less contribute, to science or engineering; second, investments by universities in remedial programs might better be spent to influence and upgrade pre-college programs. It would be in the longer-term interests of both the engineering schools and the universities themselves to become a force for the improvement of public education at the pre-college level.

The assumption by the colleges of their rightful leadership role in secondary schooling would require a change in their traditional hands-off policy. It would require the application of both money and manpower, something perennially in short supply.

Nevertheless, if the major research universities, with appropriate support by government and industry, would form a leadership consortium that could guide the administration of secondary schools toward curricula and instructional techniques more attuned to our high-tech society, it could provide these benefits:

  • A more technically literate citizenry.
  • Higher productivity for the nation.
  • More secondary school graduates qualified for science and engineering studies.
Christiansen is the editor and publisher of  IEEE Spectrum, New York, NY 10017,
and was a member of a recent National Research Council committee dealing
with US. engineering education and practice.

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