Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Colorado's Fateful Education Decision: To Have NO Required HS Science Courses

Basic, functioning electric circuits are something every HS grad ought to be able to make.

When I first read the feature article in The Denver Post (p. 1A) yesterday I could scarcely believe my eyes. But the state had decided to drop any requirement for high school science courses (for graduation) within six years. No student will therefore have to take even a year of chemistry or biology or physics - but can opt to take an elective, say speech or drama or some other insubstantial subject. This is especially egregious given how far the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in math and physics - not to mention the other sciences.

While other nations (e.g. even Barbados) bound ahead, requiring successive years in each science subject, we are now - in Colorado - not prepared to demand even one course. This is given the fact the whole world will be even more technologically oriented in another few years and those who grasp neither science or technology will be left behind.

Admittedly I am biased, but I am convinced physics is the most important science subject because it impinges on so many areas to do with tech, as well as applied science, practical electronics, testing of climate science theories, alternate energy development etc.  One year of high school physics can therefore mean the difference between a scientifically literate person and an illiterate who will mutate into a future climate change denier, or a person who believes fracking represents positive energy gains rather than long term losses.

In other words, a person's exposure (or not) to physics can determine whether he will be an informed voter - say on practical policy matters - later. For example, would he poll in favor of approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or not? Current polls show - dishearteningly  - that barely 20 percent are opposed to it and a majority (nearly 39 percent) favor it - while 30 percent are unsure one way or the other. One can argue here that all things being equal only the ones who oppose it are informed enough about its deleterious effects on the planet in terms of the carbon load, and the negative environmental effects.

The map below appeared in an issue of Physics Today from 3 years ago, showing the uneven quality of high school physics education. At this time we see Colorado (in white) is ranked as average.

This is interpreted to mean that the average grade of high school students who took a physics course finished with a grade of C or a 2.0 average. The current arguments being pressed are that demanding a science subject like physics represents too high a 'mountain' to climb especially if "success" (grade of C or higher) is demanded for graduation. Thus, the ancillary objective of college preparation is much more disjointed.

In high school science curricula of the 60s, certainly for the college preparatory stream, it became common to offer the following in each respective high school year:

Freshman: Algebra I, General Science or Earth Science

Sophomore: Euclidean Geometry, Biology – including lab

Junior: Chemistry, Trigonometry- foreign language

Senior: Physics, Algebra II, foreign language.

It was also common practice in the 60s that even if a student was to split into the business or vocational stream, he or she at least had to take one General Science course and basic algebra. These were (rightly!) regarded as the minimum elements to be scientifically literate and numerically so.

Alas, as the decades have elapsed since then, science as well as math education have become victims to an over-crowded curriculum as well as the pernicious practice of teaching to the test – ratcheted up since Bush’s deformed ‘No Child Left Behind” – which actually left many millions behind and then Obama’s “Race to the Top”.

Physics, if taught at all, is now relegated to elite high schools like the Bronx Academy of Science, or special private schools. This is a national tragedy, especially since physics is arguably the most fundamental of the sciences. Without a background in physics, the citizen is at a severe disadvantage in coming to terms with the natural world, and will also be prey to any pseudo-scientific claptrap that comes along.

All of this is highly relevant now given that the grandees who recently convened in Davos all agreed we are headed for a bifurcated world where jobs are concentrated into two extreme ends: the high quality, high pay tech sector (computing, scientific development, energy etc.) and bottom level service with pay to match - including sanitation people, wait staff and dog walkers. Those who can't get into the first group will end up by default in the second. There will be no middle scale jobs (at least according to the Davos participants, see e.g. 'Down and Out in Davos', TIME, Feb. 9, p. 18).

At stake to enter the quality job sector is obtaining a degree in one area of the STEM (Science- Technology- Engineering- Math) field, according to Paul Cottle - a physicist at Florida State University. And as he notes:

"Having taken physics in high school is the strongest correlation to STEM degree attainment."

Important, no?  The other irony in all this is that in the same Post, planted eight or so pages to the rear, was another story that Colorado now has the highest proportion of space -related jobs, mostly centered with development of the Orion and other launch vehicles. But if our high school students aren't prepared to step into those (likely) expanding jobs in 6-7 years, then what? Well, most plausibly they will be taken by STEM -educated transplants from other states. Meanwhile, the Colorado students will be lucky to find jobs packaging MJ for pot retail stores. Or flipping burgers at Mickey Ds.

Sadly, the state's Education Dept. appears to be more concerned about increasing the high school graduation rate - if even via specious methods - than preparing its young charges for the future, which includes good paying jobs.

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