Posts Tagged ‘science’
I have always been of the opinion that everybody needs to slog their way through Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry, Chemistry and Physics on their way to a high school degree. Recently, Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, wrote in the NY Times that this is not the case, at least for math. His article is well reasoned, but some of his opinions are 180° opposed to the reasons I believe these subjects are so important today.
Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.”
This statement gets a big “so what?” from me. Should we only be learning the things we can memorize? The point is that math and science are cumulative; studying these subjects help us learn how to learn and how to apply what we have already learned to new situations. That is critical because the workplace is constantly changing. These subjects are sometimes difficult, but there is some benefit to successfully completing a difficult task.
One of the professor’s other points is the one that really bothers me:
What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.
Maybe there is no benefit in being able to make that proof, but there is an incredible benefit in knowing that some things can be proven. Despite the fact that we routinely treat laws (yielding, hands free cell phone use, giving cyclists 3 feet when passing) as if they are mere guidelines, some things are subject to scientific laws. During the recent heat wave that gripped the Mid-Atlantic States, a plane sunk into the tarmac at a Washington D.C. airport. People were inconvenienced, and people complained about the inadequate planning. Somebody, well a group of somebodies, made the decision at some point to save money by using asphalt instead of concrete pads at the gate positions. That wasn’t a place for opinion to rule the day. That was a case were a careful examination of the facts would have been a better choice, because at a certain temperature, a heavy plane is going to sink into asphalt. Still, it was public opinion that set the financial limits on airport construction.
I once attended a public meeting held by our local school board where we ended up debating whether or not to cut the annual maintenance program for the gymnasium partition doors. These doors are largest, heaviest moving objects owned by our town, and we were thinking of saving money by not oiling the hinges or repairing the worn fasteners. People actually said things like: “I think it’s just a scam for the door manufactures to make money” and “they [doors] shouldn’t need to be oiled every year”. Gravity and friction were never mentioned, the number of openings and closings were not discussed; we were acting out of impulse and emotion. A similar discussion ensued around the $1,000 maintenance contract on the panic bars throughout our four school buildings. Statements like “it seems like a lot of money for something unrelated to the core mission of the school system” were winning over the fact that there are laws that say that if these mechanisms break, the school has to close or post someone at the door at all times. People were unswayed by the sheer number of panic bars in the system, the historic frequency of repairs, and the fact that the replacement cost of a panic bar was over $1,100 at the time. I would guess that similar discussions have resulted in the gradual but continuing decline of our roads and bridges, as if corrosion, wear and tear, stress cracks and freeze-thaw cycles will be influenced by our opinions, or yield to the pressure of a bad economy.
Our planet is a life-sustaining system that is subject to known, proven and unwavering scientific laws. We can’t change them; we can only ignore them at our peril. The greater the degree to which people understand these laws, and are able to make decisions based on the gathering of facts and application of principle, the better off we will be as a society.
I took this picture while on the beach in Florida, after dinner at one of our company events. Some of the people nearby were watching me try to setup my camera on a mini-tripod, and I heard several comments like “I love the reflection on the waves” and “look how the moon is backlighting the clouds”, but nobody guessed what I was actually trying to capture. If you look below and to the right of the moon, there’s a white dot that looks like a bad pixel – that’s Jupiter! While all the focus was on our planet, our moon, our ocean and our atmosphere, most people simply ignored the biggest planet in our solar system.
Truth be told, I’m no expert on obvious. My daughter was old enough to realize this for herself, when I pointed out to her that Kanga and Roo (in the Disney Channel’s Winnie the Pooh), were kangaroos – the connection had only then occurred to me. Sad as that fact may be, I think I do understand certain obvious things that many of the people I read about, hear about and periodically encounter seem to miss. For instance, I think it’s obvious that we should continue to explore the universe beyond our atmosphere. Despite the benefits that the space program delivered to the rest of our economy, the recent news from NASA is all about how they are depositing the fleet of Space Shuttles at three famous museums and how it may be a decade until we return to space in a NASA-build vehicle. Sorry, that’s just wrong. I was still in single-digits when President Kennedy spurred this nation to the challenge of putting a man on the moon, and he simultaneously spurred an interest in math and science in me. Today, we lament the lack of students and graduates in this country in those fields, but we ignore the connection between what we want and what we do.
As I look back on the various things that have been in flux and transition during my lifetime, I feel like I may be on the event horizon of a black hole. When I was a child, everything and everybody seemed to be looking forward and outward. Today, we seem to be retreating to smaller and smaller interests, more narrowly defined goals and a view of the world as if the scientific facts we’ve uncorked during the previous 50 years are still a mystery. We have communication technology that actually lets us share and discuss ideas with people around the world on a continuous basis, but we have governments from cities all the way up to countries considering how to block those communication channels. Political candidates seem woefully unconcerned about even the smallest of larger issues, and unbelievably compulsive about the most trivial things. The people who occupy leadership roles in this country follow the narrow interests of their financial supporters as if to step off that path would be to wander into a minefield. We look backward to try to find ways to fight the battles we have already lost, and we seem willing to ignore the future battles I think we are uniquely capable of winning. My pet example is manufacturing. So many people talk about why we are losing jobs, how we need to stop losing jobs, and how horrible losing these jobs has been for our economy and our future. If we remain a capitalistic economy, there is simply no way we are going to bring most of today’s manufacturing jobs back from China. In fact, there’s no way China can stop those jobs from moving to places with even cheaper labor forces. The simple truth is nobody wants to pay more money for the stuff they buy; but what about the next generation of manufacturing jobs?
Why aren’t our politicians challenging and supporting businesses in this country to leapfrog today’s manufacturing process and create the next generation of good paying jobs in this country. Why aren’t we setting unattainable goals and then supporting the people who will achieve them in their efforts. Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” why do we continue to ignore this aspect of his legacy. We have an educational system that remains largely unchanged since I was a student, and the best our government seems to be able to do is make us spend more time testing children and then arguing over whose funds should be cut (schools or teachers) when children fail those tests. We have created an environment where stepping outside the box would be financial suicide and where success from trying a new technique will go unnoticed or perhaps punished.
Over 10 years ago, I donated three used computers to a middle school teacher in our town who taught special needs students. He had complained that these kids were uncomfortable working in the crowded environment of the Media Center and they were missing out on a valuable resource. The teacher spent his own money on a printer and a network switch, and on a Saturday morning, we configured a network in his classroom. The results, according to the teacher were amazing. Three months later, an administrator stuck a Board of Education inventory tag on each device and moved them all into the Media Center.
Einstein also said, perhaps when he was frustrated that people didn’t understand the first quote, that: “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”