How Do We Get Students Interested in Science? Inspire Them

We need to start motivating students (and motivating women) to pursue science careers. Here's how we do it.
Peter Wood has an interesting commentary in the Chronicle today. At least, it starts out well, but by the end it turns into a bit of a train wreck. The good part is a discussion of a growing deficiency in science and math training in the US. The usual ignorant reaction to this problem is to flog the students and demand more drill-and-practice in the classroom, more testing, incentives and punishments for the schools ... the familiar Republican litany of No Child Left Behind, which treats the problem as a superficial one that can be corrected with more multiple-choice tests, or by marshaling market forces to make that engineering job in adulthood more attractive to 8 year olds. That's not the answer.
The precipitous drop in American science students has been visible for years. In 1998 the House released a national science-policy report, "Unlocking Our Future," that fussily described "a serious incongruity between the perceived utility of a degree in science and engineering by potential students and the present and future need for those with training."Let me offer a different explanation. Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market's demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off -- often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren't very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, "Why bother?"
Those of us who are scientists did not go into this field because we calculated the economic benefit (we'd need to be profoundly innumerate for the answer to that one to come up positive), nor was it because our middle school teachers gave us lots of tests. It's because we were inspired by the dream of learning more about the world around us, and we were motivated in spite of the difficulties of the subject.
PZ Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He runs the science blog, Pharyngula.
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