Robert Dalka: A case for more science in high school

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 - 4:59pm

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In preparation for writing my previous column,  “A 21st Century Science Course,” I interviewed Yuri Popov, a lecturer for two sections of Physics 140. Originally, I had planned to talk to Popov about changes that he has seen throughout the years while teaching introductory mechanics. However, we ended up discussing how U.S. high school students compare with other students around the world in math and science.

The causes and how to address these problems are debatable topics, but the fact that the U.S. lags behind many other industrialized countries in math and science education is a well-researched fact. From data collected by the Programme for International Student Assessment and analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. ranks 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 countries assessed.

Some people may not see this as a huge issue. Though the U.S. is not first in either math or science, we are not last either. Someone might ask why this even matters as most people will not end up using what they learn in high school chemistry class in their everyday lives, and they might be right. However, it is important to expose every child to these topics so that they have every opportunity available to them.

Just because someone doesn’t use the information every day, it does not mean that it is useless to teach. There is inherent value in teaching every person math and science. In these high school classes, students focus on logic and reasoning, and this will influence their cognitive development. We owe it to future generations to improve the way we teach these subjects to give them the best opportunity to learn and to grow. To do this, we first must recognize some of the problems that could be causing U.S. students to fall behind.

Popov highlighted what he sees as the issues that cause U.S. students to fall behind. “The three main problems are how schools are funded, who decides the curriculums and the (excessive) amount of choices these young 12 and 14-year-old kids have when signing up for classes,” Popov said.

The property taxes that  fund schools obviously offer more advantages in high-income areas as opposed to low-income areas. Changing the way that schools receive funding would make education more equal across the board. Deciding what material to teach and how to teach it has also been a hot issue for many years. Popov suggested that professionals in each field should be the ones to help develop the curriculums so that what is truly important is able to be discussed in the classroom.

These first two issues I think most people understand, and it is fairly simple to show that these are problems. However, the third is slightly more complex, and I myself did not think of this as a problem initially. In fact, giving kids choices and autonomy over their own lives is important for their development. As pointed out by Ned Johnson in an interview with Scientific American, children can lose motivation if they do not feel they are in control of their lives. It is great for someone who is a parent to encourage their child to explore what interests them and allow for them to make choices based on those interests.

However, as I began to reflect on this topic more, I realized that there might be some value in more standardized requirements and less flexibility in a high school student’s class schedule. I can’t speak for everyone, but at least for me, choosing courses in college is a confusing and anxiety-riddled time. I probably change my mind about a certain class four times before finally signing up for it, and I was the same in high school. Though it may help a child’s motivation if they are able to make their own choices, how do they know where their interests lie if they end up electing not to take what could be an important course in high school?

From the Scientific American article mentioned earlier, Ned Johnson used the example of allowing children to choose their own personal pastimes. I agree these choices should come in the form of what extracurricular activities a kid wants to participate in and what to do with their Saturday afternoons rather than what classes to enroll in. If a student has been required to spend a few years in high school studying and learning a topic, they will be more prepared to make decisions regarding specialization after high school.

During Popov’s years of secondary education, he was required to take four years of physics, four years of math, two years of chemistry and two years of biology. There was an importance placed on math and science, and the classes filled up his schedule. Four full years of physics in high school seemed unheard of to me, but thinking about it, I came to see it as not unreasonable.

To many people, this might seem too intense for every student. However, I think that if done correctly, this type of curriculum would be very beneficial. This is anecdotal evidence, but many people I talk to found physics, or any science for that matter, hard because it was confusing and taught very quickly. In contrast, if you had four years to really learn it, the subject could be taught at a better pace and be much more approachable. In doing so, people who may not have considered a career in a certain field might now be more inclined to do so.

It may seem like a radical change, but I think science literacy is truly just as important as English literacy. The more you are exposed to true science and scientific thinking, the better you will be at telling truth from fiction. From a study conducted by the National Science Foundation, from data located in Appendix Table 7-11, one can see that in 2014, 80 percent of college graduates responded that astrology was “not at all scientific” whereas only 60 percent of high school graduates responded with this answer. I believe this is because those who go on to college become exposed to more scientific thinking and therefore are able to distinguish real science from pseudoscience. Increasing the amount of science that is taught in high school would help those who do not go on to college or those who avoid science classes in college, to think more critically in their everyday lives.

Of course, there could still be room for advanced programs, classes that go at a slower pace and a multitude of electives to fill in gaps, but a more standardized high school curriculum that places more importance on science than it currently does is needed in the U.S. Implementing this is highly dependent on solving the issues of funding and curriculum creation. However, if every student was exposed to more science, more people would develop better analytical thinking skills and more opportunities would develop for those who may not have been exposed to these subjects otherwise.

Robert Dalka can be reached at rbdalka@umich.edu