A proposed scholarship program to solve the shortage in Math/Science teachers is again in the news -- this time in the Rome Sentinel article How to get more math and science teachers. The article also expresses concern that the number of engineering graduates has decreased 20% since 1985 while the demand is increasing. As usual, the response is to throw money at problems, avoiding the causes. Here are three possible causes of students staying away from math, science and engineering:
(1) Students do not have an adequate foundation to be successful. When you don't know the basics, its hard to understand higher level math and science classes in school, or engineering courses in college. This makes these subjects "too difficult" to be interesting or enjoyable, or impossible to master.
(2) Time is wasted in activities with other students. Students these days are often required to spend their time with other students working on projects to "construct" their own knowledge rather than being directly instructed by the teacher. An example of this approach is spending four weeks studying and designing the soles of sneakers, so students can discover how "science is used to solve real-world problems." I could not imagine either being a student in such a class, or teaching it. Boredom and drudgery is a sure-fire way to drive students and teachers alike from math and science.
(3) Textbooks (when they are used) are uninteresting. I remember my Earth Science textbook back in 1962: colorful, easy to read and understand. The book (plus a really great teacher) made what I expected to be a boring subject interesting, and led to my majoring in it in college. My child's recent Earth Science textbook, however, was all black-and-white and "business." It was difficult to understand and had things in it that were far too advanced, such as phase diagrams of rock composition (something I did not encounter until I took a graduate level course in petrology.) The book was a real "turn off."
If we want more math and science teachers, and more engineers, let's fix the things that drive away potential candidates.
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