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On the issue of kids not pursuing engineering/science/math these days

  1. Jul 23, 2009 #1
    In a Wikipedia article about Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat"
    Why do you think this is so? Why has the American youth decided to abandon these fields?
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  3. Jul 23, 2009 #2
    I think the standard line is the end of the cold war. America's culture made the space program the ultimate accomplishment (in their minds) and then it was accomplished. Motivation is about a stick and a carrot, the carrot is gone. Science fiction novels laud the potential awesomeness of nano-tech or superconductors or the likes but culturally america (I'm canadian so I guess i'm saying "north america", if not "the west") does not recognize these things as something that we need to drive towards, they will happen when they happen. I think it's a better questions to ask why science and engineering were so "sexy" during the cold war.
  4. Jul 23, 2009 #3
    Americans are becoming more and more stupid. It's easier to hide incompetence behind vague excuses and inexact explanations in fields without absolute measures.

    [This is coming from a current high school student]
  5. Jul 23, 2009 #4


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  6. Jul 23, 2009 #5


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    Not only is this the american youth, it is widespread across the western hemisphere. I've had a few thoughts on this matter before. I have concluded that technology is a double edged sword.

    We strive to gain better technology and better fields in science and engineering. In the process we "cushion" ourselves with better lives and more sophisticated tools. As we do so the tendency to become better and/or the *general* tendency to have an interest in these fields fades because for many "its already done". For instance having a top notch phone in your hands, or riding on a segway (sp?).

    The consequence of such advances comes a factor of *laziness*, simply because learning about these things are hard.

    The other edge cuts us because of this. The public gets the better technology has to become in order to "woo" them. A perfect example of this is the iphone. I am not going to hide as I am a victim of this laziness. I shun the idea of not being able to send email from my phone.

    In my opinion I think those of us in the fields have to create an interest in them again. We need to be able to show the public that not everything that can be done has been done yet, we need their input.

    I know there are efforts out there to bring youth into the field, (persons such as Brian Greene are trying to achieve this) But I don't know how pretty we can make "long complicated" formulas look.

    Perhaps if we can use a more "hands on" approach in *more* schools it will be very successful.
  7. Jul 23, 2009 #6
    Well ultimately it comes down to a trade off, we could design the education system to produce powerful scientists but then we'll lose more students along the way. The current philosophy is "no student left behind" (in slogan anyway, the actual implementation seems to be too much of a chore for most politicians to consider). Although I certainly accept your point I don't entirely agree with it. Given true motivation the tools of modern technology allow a scientist to be more productive than ever before. Ultimately it's all about motivation and creating a culture where people actually have strong ambition to do science.
  8. Jul 23, 2009 #7
    shudnt all this new technology promote an interest in science/engineering/technology?

    I think its because of the stigma that starts at a young age about math. Mathematics should be taught to little kids in a more interesting way. If kids where first taught about the elegance and deeper implications about math instead of giving them boring homework exercises then they would be more interested by the time they reach high school...
  9. Jul 23, 2009 #8
    Well I think your grapes might be a little sour sir. I acutally have optomistic view of the current generations potential (well, i'm pretty young myself). Take this for what it is worth coming from someone who specializes in computational but I think computational approaches are the future of science and I was using DOS when I was 6 years old, my parents however viewed the computer as this funny little box that allows them to do word processing and send e-mails (still do as a matter of fact).
  10. Jul 23, 2009 #9


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    On the contrary, it causes kids (and teachers alike) to become lazy, and resort to the plug-and-chug approach onto their high tech gizmos and technology.

    Just look at the evolution of the graphing calculator. Totally removed and outdated "manual computation", a skill which I believe to very important. Not just that, but it also got rid of theoretical analysis and thinking behind all those plug-and-chug techniques (such as in AP Calculus).
  11. Jul 23, 2009 #10
    Let me put it a different way: if you do something wrong on your 1st grade math homework, it's wrong. A good teacher will explain what you did wrong and help you improve, but that doesn't change the fact that you got the wrong answer. It's far easier to slide around laziness when writing a 1st grade book report - even if you only read the first chapter, you still stand a chance of convincing the teacher that you did your work. Lazy students learn to hate subjects that you can't dodge around with excuses.
    You definitely aren't the norm. The overwhelming majority of people at my school view computers the same way as your parents. This is all anecdotal, but I would bet it applies to the general population as well.

    Think about what "computational approaches" are. Actual understanding of software is dying. Increased accessibility has the perverse effect of destroying the incentive to learn.

    I agree with some but not all of this. The bigger problem is the emphasis on computation over theory, "solutions" over proofs, rote repetition over thought, etc. A well-taught math class will not be threatened by technology because it will demand work a calculator can't provide.
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2009
  12. Jul 23, 2009 #11
  13. Jul 23, 2009 #12
    Maybe they did their research and have found the false, unsastisfying information that seems to make many people so hesitant in choosing a STEM career.

    Remembering several years ago..I was never told " Math is an extremely powerful tool. Everything in the universe could be reduced to a mathematical equation" or " If you know math then you could figure out how far a projectile will go in so much time by so much force ect ect"

    Also I remember one day in 8th grade talking to my science teacher. He sorta giggled when I told him "Every advancement in science is beyond our imagination of happening. Like travelling to the moon. Or the Internet. Those use to be myths"

    I feel not many students hit that nail and realize how much left is to be discovered. And dare I say it they should open up to the fact scientific theories will change and when someone says something is impossible , then that person is wrong.

    Not enough stimulation of creativity might also be something. What captivated me most the videos. When I finally understood E=MC^2 and relativty I doomed myself to an interest in physics. Videos of the history of science.

    Perhaps if more science were incorporated into video games. Like planting a secret seed. For instance Half life series. You play as a theoreticle physicist who is part of a teleportation project that goes terribly wrong. When the player realizes how physics does/can make those automatic laser turrets, advanced AI, singularity machines, teleportation, zero point energy field manipulators ectect feasible they'll have the seed of growing interest.

    I know this because it certainly fulled my creativity as a student already looking into physics.

    Lastly it might be too hard. And it might be underpaying in the long run. Suprisingly kids are quite aware of these circumstaces are young ages when thinking about long term goals which they do. Not to mention parents who usher their children to become doctors or nurses or lawyers.

    This was more rambling and speculation but I conclude by saying the interest is there ..it just needs to be awaken
  14. Jul 23, 2009 #13

    Amen, the biggest threat to the newest generation of scientists is CULTURE not technology. Everytime a TV shows insults or makes a mockery out of sciences or a person makes a joke out of nerdiness.... THAT kills science. Toss out Hip Hop culture, CSI and Rush Limbaugh and the newest generation could look like the Uber-Mensch relative to now.
  15. Jul 23, 2009 #14


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    My first question is this: what evidence to we have to suggest that there is less interest in science and engineering? Does the article quote enrollment rates at universities in particular subjects? Is this notion based on employment rates in particular fields?

    The reason I ask is because I'm not sure this is really a trend. Lots of people like to jump on the up and coming generation for all the technological toys they have. I'll admit, I do this from time to time. But is it deserved? One might argue that today's youth naturally have to be more technologically aware than previous generations. They have all sorts of career paths not open to the previous generations.

    Even if you argue that enrollement in physics is going down, is that balanced by an increase in enrollment in programs like: engineering physics, materials science, forensic science, computer and information technology, medical physics, and other subjects that were classically filled by regular physicists?
  16. Jul 23, 2009 #15
    I take exception to your inclusion of forensic "science" but otherwise I very much agree. Those who want to do science can now do science better than they ever could before. Those who don't... well they've hardly changed from previous generations either. Although I have to say, I've been reading "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" lately and his accomplishments by my age puts me to all kinds of shame (hell, his accomplishments by age 10 put me to all kinds of shame) but I have to think that there are probably people like that kicking around in our generation as well. And, yes, ultimately it comes down to, as you point out, the numbers. Statistically HOW MANY children go into sciences, statistically HOW WELL do they do, relative to previous generations, etc.
  17. Jul 23, 2009 #16
    I don't necessarily think the problem is purely because of a lack of intelligence in students today. I agree it is a problem, but why is it that students seem to be lacking in knowledge about science? What I'm trying to say is that this problem is a symptom rather than a cause of a lack of interest in the sciences.

    It seems to me that the problems cause stems from an early age. It seems that a lot of students go through elementary school without any sort of interest in the sciences, why is that? Perhaps that is the actual question we should be asking. I mean lets face it -- if you don't like something you're not going to continue to pursue it if you don't have to. If students lack an interest in the sciences what is the motivation to pursue mathematics, or any science for the matter? There is none. Because of this students direct their energy into other pursuits and lets face it: if you don't have a solid foundation in math, or any science then of course you will be perceived as unintelligent when it comes to all of these fields. Basically is a lack of interest early on that causes students to skim over the foundations which only leads to more problems later on in their "educational career".

    Students are not being inspired to learn anything pertaining to the sciences. The curriculum tries to encourage the scientific method and rational thought but what scientific ideas are discussed when teaching such things? I don't know what it was like for anyone else but to be honest at least for me science was just not interesting in elementary school. I probably would still had a disinterest in physics if it wasn't for two particular high school teachers I had.

    What we need is a reform on the ways we teach science. It needs to be taught in such a way as to stimulate interest in children. We all take too much for granted and in doing so neglect the principles which have been the inspiration for innovation, or worse yet fail to see the ingenuity of the innovations in the first place. We need to come up with a way to make sure that innovation is not looked down upon. I'm not particularly sure how to accomplish such a thing but doing so, I believe, would help to create a genuine interest in the sciences.
  18. Jul 23, 2009 #17
    Implicit in this argument is that the average child of previous generations had a better understanding of science. Which seems all kinds of wrong to me.
  19. Jul 24, 2009 #18
    Not at all. I'm merely saying that a lack of knowledge is a common side-effect of being uninterested in the sciences.
  20. Jul 24, 2009 #19
    I know quite a lot of people who have went on to do Engineering.

    As for science, there's simply no money in it...when you compare it to how much time it takes to get anywhere. In my country you can spend 7 years getting a PhD in physics or spend 6 months at Police college and get the same salary.
  21. Jul 24, 2009 #20


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    Well that's not a fair comparison. You're not in a position where you could be killed on a daily basis as a physicist. Business is a much better comparison or nursing. Come right out of college and you could be doing very well. If you look at the economics of it, hard science majors just aren't in big enough demand and it isn't seen as the source of major financial benefits.
  22. Jul 24, 2009 #21
    I'm afraid that it's just pure and simple economics. STEM careers require a lot of work, and while the pay isn't bad, you can probably do better elsewhere with less effort.
  23. Jul 24, 2009 #22
    I don't know if there's been a change in the levels of people interested in science.
    Often people talk about trying to make maths and science interesting to children, as a way to get more people to study them. I wonder about this, because I think a lot of children are put off not by a lack of interest, but by a belief that they lack the necessary aptitude for science.

    I think very early on children are told whether or not they are good at science, and there's a certain cultural belief in the west that mathematical/scientific ability is almost purely innate. I certainly remember thinking "well, if I was any good, it wouldn't matter that I haven't studied - I'd still get 100%". So a lot of people learn that there's no point in learning about physics and mathematics - if it doesn't all come naturally to them without effort, then they'll never get it anyway. Even at university, it was common for lecturers and tutors to write people off because they got a bad grade as just "not having the ability to ever understand", even if the reason they got the bad grade was because they (for whatever reason) missed out on the work or didn't have the appropriate preparation.

    Perhaps this is a reason why people might opt out? I think in countries where less emphasis is placed on the value of innate talent, and more on [ed: skills attained through hard work], more people might be inclined to stick it out in the sciences. But my opinions may be ill-informed.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2009
  24. Jul 24, 2009 #23
    That said, I don't know if a lack of interest in the sciences is really that big a problem. The only reason it worries me is that people really won't understand issues related to environmental problems and energy use and so forth.
  25. Jul 24, 2009 #24
    I come from a UK perspective, but I think things are similar in the the US. I don't think science gets enough appreciation from "popular culture". For instance (like the US) "the Apprentice" is a very popular programme and makes "hero figures" out of business people. The same goes for sports, music, and (even!) estate agents. In the 1970s figures like Patrick Moore and James Burke were as iconic as Alan Sugar or David Beckham. They persuaded many kids (like me!)to look closely at science. Where are these iconic figres now? "Stephen Hawking?" You ask. I don't think he penetrates far enough into the popular consciousness. Kids used to watch "Sky at Night" or "Tomorrows World" every week on the TV. The latter isn't there, the former is now on at very odd hours, and doesn't have the "drive" it used to have.
  26. Jul 24, 2009 #25
    I disagree with the sentiment of this thread that more people should be pursuing STEM-related fields. The natural sciences are completely saturated with talent as is, even with the immense increase in funding over the past few years from the NSF/NIH. What makes the West great is that our culture doesn't hold science/engineering to be the majors everyone pursues (unlike the East) and people are free to pursue their passion. I get the distinct impression from many of my eastern classmates that they are largely being forced into the profession, which can't be good for productivity.

    I feel that due to our system only the competent (or stubborn :)) will go all the way for their PhD, which is exactly how it should be. I'm not saying every competent person will go into STEM-related fields because well look at how many MIT grads go into finance, but I'd say that very few fools get far along their higher degree paths.

    Yeah this is true and it's wrong. I once failed two quarters in a 6th grade class on pre-algebra and logic. I got tutoring after that and 10 years later I'm at a top 5 graduate school for engineering and working in arguably the best lab for my field.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2009
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