Is There Any Place for Dumb People in Sciences and Math?

Posted on January 9, 2012 by

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When I was an undergrad, I knew I wanted to get a job from my skills, but what was more important was simply “surviving” to graduate. “Survival” for me meant getting good enough grades to persist on to grad school, which at the very beginning of undergrad had been law school.

“Survival” meant avoiding the GPA-killing, drama-filled science and math classes.  All I heard about undergrad math and science classes were horror stories:  ones about motherfucking professor #1 who barely understandable in English, taught multivariate calculus;  there was unforgiving bitchass TA #93 who scarce on any explanation, managed to flunk about 3/4s of a class.

While I did value learning new and interesting things especially from sciences and math, the main priorities during undergrad were centered around saving money and being efficient:  getting a degree, being on time, and doing it in 4 years.  Even though I’d once been an honors algebra student, I didn’t think I had “it” to take any math or science classes at UCLA.  I felt that I was just too dumb for it, and that I shouldn’t waste money on my education for something I wasn’t going to do well in.

Demand is high for more of what I wasn’t able to engage much in during college.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  The STEM majors.  The useful majors.  Useful” because it is presumed that they are more likely to lead to jobs.  Everyone from Will.I.Am to Republican politicians has been advocating for students to pursue STEM majors.  The annual growth rate for employment in STEM careers is 6.2% vs. the overall workforce at 1.6%.

Recently, my talented sister recently graduated from a STEM major, environmental engineering at UC-Riverside, with a 3.2 GPA. Good enough to go to grad school, but has yet to parlay this math/science know-how into stable employment.

Everyone’s talking about all the opportunities in STEM majors and careers.  Obama’s planned big things for STEM education.  Back in 2009, he pledged over $260 million in support for his Educate to Innovate campaign.

While the support is there, many studies of students in STEM majors have highlighted a reality that people would probably rather not talk about:  the people who engage in STEM majors tend to be the ones who’ve gotten high grades in math and have scored high on standardized exams. Essentially, the only ones allowed to participate in sciences and math then are the people who’ve been reified, acknowledged, and told all their academic lives, “hey you’re smart.”

Meanwhile, a lot of us dumb people are on the sidelines wincing.  I’ve watched a handful of people in college avoid or transition of STEM majors or otherwise, painfully slog through them.  We keep wondering why people don’t go into STEM majors still have this huge demand for STEM careers and majors.

At this point I wonder, is there any room for dumb people to engage in science?

The initiatives are a start.  Think they’re the most that Barry O. can do from his position.  But those federal competitions and initiatives just tend to emphasize individual achievement and superstars for the purpose of competition, rather than stirring up any curiosity or interest.

I think the key question is not how to create more individual achievement and superstars, but short of implementing 9-hr school days, the way to increase math and science achievement is to find a way for the populace to engage in them in and outside of school. We need to create more cultures of curiosity, interest, practice engaging in sciences and math.

I like to think that with the internets, there’s more opportunity to find those cultures, or “communities of practice” especially through message boards and forums at the level of engaging and fostering hobbyists.

But for structural change, where careers are built, catching us dumb students, there needs to be support for non-traditional re-education in STEM disciplines.

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Posted in: Math, Uncategorized