8 January 2012

The Science Boom - or Death March?

Once a month The Times (£) encloses a slim magazine, Eureka, addressing ‘Science, Life, The Planet’. This month’s issue (28) includes a Science Matters piece by the science writer Vivienne Parry, Engineering Success, with the theme ‘It is vital that engineering is done, but more importantly it must be seen to be done.’:
You might call it the boson effect, or possibly the Cox effect. Either way, interest in physics is booming, both at A level and degree level. It mirrors the CSI effect that spawned, at one time, more than 400 different higher education courses in forensic anything, including my favourite, a joint honours in forensic science with childcare.
But, at a time when the Government is frantic for growth, physicists are the prancing stallions of science — gorgeous to behold, but not easily harnessed. Meanwhile, engineers, surely the fount of regeneration, have removed themselves to a field where, Eeyore-like, and between mouthfuls of thistles, they say: “But nobody loves us.”
The problem with engineers — and, believe me, I wouldn’t be writing this if I’d had a pound for every time they told me they were unloved — is that they’ve got lost within theory.
… So, creative spirits, many of whom have engineering in their bones, go to art school or into product design where using your hands to put ideas into reality is built into the fabric of the courses.
… So, all hail UCL’s proposed Make Space … [which] will allow people to prototype, to share, to exchange and above all, to make.
Certainly, previous posts here have bewailed the lot of engineers in the UK: the way we use the term engineer, and the contrasting presence of engineers amongst the elite who run China. Whether the Royal Academy of Engineering would share the particular diagnosis offered by Parry, trained as a zoologist, or her proposed cure, I’m not sure. But I do find it slightly worrying if there is a CSI-style boom in physics – or at least applications to study physics at university – spurred on by the telegenic Brian Cox, professor at Manchester and former keyboard player for D Ream. Here he is on ITV1’s Jonathan Ross Show on 7 January 2012, talking briefly about, among other things, the Higgs Boson and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider:
I see nothing wrong with Cox making physics or science in general seem a cool thing to consider as a career, far from it. But it might be worth reflecting on an article in the New York Times last November about recent American experience, Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard):
Politicians and educators have been wringing their hands for years over test scores showing American students falling behind their counterparts in Slovenia and Singapore. How will the United States stack up against global rivals in innovation? The president and industry groups have called on colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. All the Sputnik-like urgency has put classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade — the pipeline, as they call it — under a microscope. And there are encouraging signs, with surveys showing the number of college freshmen interested in majoring in a STEM field on the rise.
But, it turns out, middle and high school students are having most of the fun, building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion. The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.
The article goes on to explain, in a vein not dissimilar to Parry’s, how
Since becoming Notre Dame’s dean in 2008, Dr. Kilpatrick has revamped and expanded a freshman design course that had gotten “a little bit stale.” The students now do four projects. They build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.
“They learn how to work with their hands, how to program the robot and how to work with design constraints,” he says. But he also says it’s inevitable that students will be lost. Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.
If engineering requires a “math-science death march”, physics even more so. The Higgs boson derives from the Standard Model of particle physics (and its extensions), inaccessible without advanced maths.  It would be comforting to think that young people whose imagination is being caught by charismatic communicators like Cox have a realistic understanding of what’s involved in getting to degree level in a STEM subject.

Let’s hope they do, because if the UK is going to sustain an advanced healthcare system, nuclear energy, submarine and weapons programmes, world-class engineering consultancy and advanced manufacturing, with an IT infrastructure to match, together with HS2 and perhaps a Severn barrage or other civil engineering projects – it’s going to need them.

So will the USA, whose new military strategy, announced by President Obama on 5 January, and rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region, implies a competition in military capabilities with China of the sort that characterised the NATO-Soviet confrontation of more than 20 years ago. Such capabilities are, of course, STEM-based.


  1. I am from the U.S. and here is my assessment of STEM education in the country.

    It's lousy--it's a post cold war curriculum that is understood by few, and of interest to few (with the exception of CS, and its many offshoots for end users, that type of thing.)

    Yes, the pundits opine about the lack of STEM grads and such, and yes, a few more high schoolers are actually interested in STEM subjects because of that.

    But it is mostly all talk and little action. The students who "may be" newly interested soon find sitting in large lecture halls attempting to learn mostly abstract concepts with 300 other students quickly look for other options (despite possibly being seen during "office hours" for help once a week.

    Who would blame them? Let's face it, what do you think of when you hear "lab science?"

    Then we have the reformers. They think that STEM should be "fun and experimental." We'll get them to work in small groups on philosphical robots, creative lego bridges,recreating Roman aqueducts, that type of thing.

    Of course that does not get very far because the hard core professors and administrators have a vested interest in the "old stuff," and weeding out pre-med students, and fancy pants humanities majors, etc.etc.

    George DeMarse
    The Sage of Wake Forest

    1. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment. Obviously I don't have any experience of US STEM education but everything I have read makes me think that, just as in the UK, there is a tendency to underplay how much hard work is involved, particularly in math (maths as we say!).

  2. Yes. I like your expression "maths" instead of the generic term "math," because there are ruly many types of mathematics, algebra, stats, calculus, finite, etc.
    And yes--most kids lack the maths skills to progress in science, which stems from weakness in middle skill maths mostly.

    The educators latest kick here is to try to show "deep connections" in math principles between levels and subjects in maths, such as the principles of associativity and commutativity, in the basic math, then algebra, then pre-calc, etc.

    The problem is that kids don't "see" any deep connections, they only see "technique" and "procedure" and can't remember all that stuff. The few kids who do see the connections go on in mathematics.

    George DeMarse

  3. Thank you for your interesting comment.