Wednesday, September 16, 2015

An open letter to America's Education Community Concerning Math and Science

Dear America’s Education Community,

It shouldn't be news to anyone that the United States is not number one in the world for mathematics and science. All around the United States; there's a cry going out for students to become more involved with math and science. According to the Pew Research Center and the Program for International Student Assessment; the United States of America is currently ranked 35th out of 64 countries for math and is ranked 27th in science*. Federal, state, and local programs are working with researchers to figure out why the United States is falling behind and what can be done to start regaining ground and catching up to countries, such as South Korea, Japan, Belgium, and the Russian Federation, that are leading in math and science. Theories suggest changing how teachers teach by adjusting to a "common core" or having set standards for everything. However what if it's not the “what” that is being taught; but rather fact that schools in the United States are removing one crucial element of education necessary for students to become engaged in Math and Science? Schools are forgetting to make it interesting.

Schools and Teachers in the United States are forgetting that in order for a student to learn, the student must be engaged in the subject. How does one become engaged in a subject that seems to be hard, boring, and the root of one of the most common questions "Why must I learn this" ? The solution to this problem isn’t hard to find.

Show the student how to apply the skills and let the student try to apply the skills being learned. Challenge the students by teaching them how to apply skills such as algebra, physics, or chemistry and biology instead of having them memorize the skills. Instead of piling on the endless worksheets and forcing students to memorize formulas, why can’t more projects take place? Why not challenge students to do research papers on mathematical and scientific topics that go broader than simply who created the microscope or who figured out the value of pi? Why not encourage participation in science fairs? Why not allow students to apply knowledge learned to solve everyday problems?

However, this is easier said than done. In fact, a student in Texas recently discovered that branching out on his own in an engineering class caused him to land in trouble. No, the student did not try to alter the school’s structure. The student also didn’t try to build a robot out of school computers. The student, Ahmed Mohamed from Mac Arthur High School in Texas, made a digital clock out of a pencil case and was arrested later in the day for carrying a “suspicious item” to school. Not only was he arrested, but it took a while before anyone seemed to believe him that the clock was actually a clock instead of a bomb. Police officers even accused him of making a “movie bomb” (a device made to look like a bomb). It wasn’t until President Obama tweeted about the subject that the student finally got some pretty sweet recognition and praise for what he actually did; he made a digital clock out of a pencil box at the age of 14.

Another very popular story concerning science and arrests is the story of Homer Hickem, the rocket scientist who’s story is the basis for the movie “October Sky”. Passionate about rockets, he overcomes trial after trail to finally create a working rocket in high school until one day he is arrested. Unable to prove that his rocket did not start the fire that lead to his arrest, he goes to work in a coal mine and does not finish his education until he teaches himself calculus to locate his missing rocket and prove that it did not start any fire. Homer’s story is true.

The solution to one of the problems currently facing our country, education, and students does not lie behind a scantron or piles of worksheets. It lies behind the face that we don’t allow students to challenge themselves when it comes to the fields of mathematics and sciences. Students aren’t shown what lies beyond the world of a text book or computer screen and when they venture out on their own, some are arrested. Instead of arresting Ahmed, why can’t we learn from him? For starters, find out what materials were used to make the clock and let the next physics/math project be making a digital clock. Instead of simply watching the movie “October Sky”, why not have students analyze what branches of science are involved. Allow them to find something they are interested in from the movie and do a project about it. Let them build models and try to solve physics and calculus problems similar to those that Homer had to solve.  

It should be that the United States is leading the world in science and math. Research Institutions and Universities across the country are filled with students from all over the world. However, the United States is lagging behind in what it should be excelling in. Student’s aren’t interested and that needs to change. Until students understand why something is important and that it shouldn’t be something that causes events to be ashamed of, such as being arrested, getting the students engaged will be a task nearly impossible for anyone to accomplish. How are you going to get a student interested?


A Concerned Science Major


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