Why Young Americans Have Lost Substantial Interest In Entering The Fields of Science and Technology

by Dr. Max Fogiel, President

Research & Education Association
Reprinted from: Exotic Research Report (Volume 1, Issue 1; Jan/Feb/Mar 1996)

It is difficult to comprehend that the United States has lost its leadership in science and technology. Repeated studies and surveys by educational organizations keep reminding us that students in foreign countries possess substantially greater math and science skills.

In surveys of 175,000 students worldwide, the United States ranked almost at the bottom in math and science proficiency.

Where Has American Ingenuity Gone?

It is particularly difficult to understand how we lost our leadership when we consider that American ingenuity produced the first ones of such products as refrigerators, elevators, steam engines (railroads), automobiles, telephones, aircraft, television, and countless other consumer products that raised the American standard of living far above that of any other country. Such American ingenuity was practiced more by tinkerers in their garages and basements than through organized research sponsored by government and industry.

What has happened to those imaginative tinkerers who labored patiently to understand the laws of nature and used the knowledge that they gained to create improvements in our living standards? Have our current generations produced insufficient numbers of tinkerers—those with curiosity, imagination and drive—to enable us to maintain our leadership?

Reasons For Not Entering Math and Science

We do not have conclusive answers to those questions, but discussions among educators center about the following:

Television

  • Students spend considerable time each week watching television. Perhaps television is robbing them of the time needed to engage in serious studies of the maths and sciences. It is easier on a student’s mind to be entertained through television than labor over problems to be worked out in math, science and technology.
  • It is also not likely to fire the imaginations of those who have successfully completed their math, science and tech courses, to go on and do bigger things with what they learned, if they spend a large amount of their time watching television, videos, and the like.

Math & Sciences Lack Appeal (Aren’t Sexy)

  • Enrollments of science and technology/engineering students have dropped drastically in recent times. These disciplines had special stature and were usually looked upon as glamour fields in which the men and women were regarded as having outstanding minds, and students competed vigorously to gain entrance to these disciplines. Why do current students lack the drive to enter these fields?

Math and Sciences are too Difficult

  • Students are often discouraged, even at an early age, from pursuing math and science if they receive poor grades in those subjects. Poor grades often result from inadequate textbooks and class lectures that fail to help students grasp the essential concepts. As a consequence, students become “turned off,” and they dismiss the maths and science subjects with such fashionable announcements as “that’s not for me”; “not my thing”; “too much work, no fun”; “who needs all this?”

Textbooks

  • Textbooks are rarely written for the level that students can grasp readily. They are usually written by professionals who have an insight in the subject matter that is not shared by students. Explanations are often written in an abstract manner with involved concepts which leave students confused when trying to understand the principles to be learned. The explanations offered are not sufficiently detailed and extensive to take into account the wide range of applications and different aspect of the principles being studied.

Teachers

  • Teachers in math and science, although knowledgeable, often themselves lack the skills to convey an understanding of the difficult concepts to students and clarify the contents of the texts. There is also a severe shortage of math and science teachers for elementary and high school levels. A young student can become easily and permanently discouraged by a poor teacher in math or science.

Problem Solving

  • Math and science can usually be learned only by doing exercises in which problems are solved. It is here in problem solving, where students often become discouraged by not being able to solve the problems they are expected to tackle. It is not uncommon for students to spend hours reading and rereading pages in their textbook that apply to a problem to be solved, and still not be able to solve the problem.

Parents

  • Parents who should provide inspiration to their children may fail to do so. Often they do not instill in their children a desire to excel in their studies and to strive for scholastic achievement. They do not provide enough guidance or spend sufficient time with their children to generate real interest and enthusiasm about math and the sciences.
  • Whereas parents have often become busy with their own careers and daily responsibilities, they nevertheless need to find the time to do more in getting their children away from in front of the television and into more productive learning activities.

Differences between Math, Science, and Engineering

There are no standard definitions for the terms math, science, and engineering or technology.

Simply put, however, mathematics is a tool used by scientists to discover and understand physical principles or relationships that are often expressed in rather abstract form. Engineers or technologists design and construct equipment that make practical use of these principles for the benefit of mankind, taking into account practical cost factors, too.

For example, Einstein, working as a scientist, discovered physical relationships governing the universe by using mathematics. He expressed these relationships in such abstract forms that for many years only a few of his colleagues could understand them. Making practical use of these principles and relationships, engineers and technologists then designed and constructed the physi-cal equipment, such as space exploration vehicles and communication satellites that make low-cost telephone service possible.

What we can and cannot do

In searching for the answer to the question, “how can we attract more students to math and the sciences?” we can assume that we will probably not be able to persuade students to reduce their TV viewing time, nor will we be able to modify the habits and behavior of parents within a reasonable time.

It is equally improbable that we can quickly create a new generation of teachers who possess all those qualities that will generate new student interests to enter math and the sciences.

It is also unlikely that improved textbooks will appear on the horizon to meet the requirements. Numerous texts are continuously written in each subject, with each text intended to be the answer to students’ (and teachers’) prayers, but never quite achieving that. Until these rather long-range issues can be resolved, however, there are some steps we can take for the near future:

Students can be helped toward greater progress by including in their learning diet, a generous amount of illustrations on how problems related to selected topics are solved. If such illustrations provide detailed explanations on how to approach given problems and how to think through the various steps involved in the solutions, students can grasp the subject matter quicker and easier.

Through the illustrations students gain a deep understanding of how to solve problems in a given subject. This results in achieving better grades at school and improved performance when the students practice their professions later on.

Once a student is able to solve assigned problems within a reasonable period of time, he/ she will not need to agonize, often for hours, over how to find the solution to a single problem. The student will then gain self-confidence and actually enjoy math and science. The key is learning how to solve problems.

In recognizing these conditions, various problem solving study guides have been developed in the form of books, videos, and computer software. Books are preferred by many because they contain greater detail, and it is easier to study and learn complex material from a printed page. Some selected study guide books are filled with numerous worked-out examples that are much more in-depth and tutorial than those found in a textbook.

These study guides take the student “by the hand” and guide him or her step-by-step through intricate problem solutions. Such books help students save a large amount of time and a great deal of frustration from being unable to solve assigned problems. Study guides are available at bookstores in almost every math and science/engineering subject, as well as for other fields of study.__MF

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