Brain Pickings

How to Save Science: Education, the Gender Gap, and the Next Generation of Creative Thinkers

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“The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable.”

“What is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications,” the great E. O. Wilson offered in his timeless advice to young scientists — a conviction shared by some of history’s greatest scientific minds. And yet it is rote memorization and the unimaginative application of technical skill that our dominant education system prioritizes — so it’s no wonder it is failing to produce the Edisons and Curies of our day. In Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists, materials scientist, inventor, and longtime Yale professor Ainissa Ramirez takes on a challenge Isaac Asimov presaged a quarter century ago, advocating for the value of science education and critiquing its present failures, with a hopeful and pragmatic eye toward improving its future. She writes in the introduction:

The 21st century requires a new kind of learner — not someone who can simply churn out answers by rote, as has been done in the past, but a student who can think expansively and solve problems resourcefully.

To do that, she argues, we need to replace the traditional academic skills of “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic” with creativity, curiosity, critical-thinking, and problem-solving. (Though, as psychology has recently revealed, problem-finding might be the more valuable skill.)

Ainissa Ramirez at TED 2012 (Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED)

She begins with the basics:

While the acronym STEM sounds very important, STEM answers just three questions: Why does something happen? How can we apply this knowledge in a practical way? How can we describe what is happening succinctly? Through the questions, STEM becomes a pathway to be curious, to create, and to think and figure things out.

Even for those of us who deem STEAM (wherein the A stands for “arts”) superior to STEM, Ramirez’s insights are razor-sharp and consistent with the oft-affirmed idea that creativity relies heavily upon connecting the seemingly disconnected and aligning the seemingly misaligned:

There are two schools of thought on defining creativity: divergent thinking, which is the formation of a creative idea resulting from generating lots of ideas, and a Janusian approach, which is the act of making links between two remote ideas. The latter takes its name from the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, Janus, who was associated with doorways and the idea of looking forward and backward at the same time. Janusian creativity hinges on the belief that the best ideas come from linking things that previously did not seem linkable. Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician, put it this way: ‘To create consists of making new combinations. … The most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart.’

Another element inherent to the scientific process but hardly rewarded, if not punished, in education is the role of ignorance, or what the poet John Keats has eloquently and timelessly termed “negative capability” — the art of brushing up against the unknown and proceeding anyway. Ramirez writes:

My training as a scientist allows me to stare at an unknown and not run away, because I learned that this melding of uncertainty and curiosity is where innovation and creativity occur.

Yet these very qualities are missing from science education in the United States — and it shows. When the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) took their annual poll in 2006, the U.S. ranked 35th in math and 29th in science out of the 40 high-income, developed countries surveyed.

Average PISA scores versus expenditures for selected countries (Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)

Ramirez offers a historical context: When American universities first took root in the colonial days, their primary role was to educate men for the clergy, so science, technology, and math were not a priority. But then Justin Smith Morrill, a little-known congressman from Vermont who had barely completed his high school education, came along in 1861 and quietly but purposefully sponsored legislation that forever changed American education, resulting in more than 70 new colleges and universities that included STEM subjects in their curricula. This catapulted enrollment rates from the mere 2% of the population who attended higher education prior to the Civil War and greatly increased diversity in academia, with the act’s second revision in 1890 extending education opportunities to women and African-Americans.

The growth of U.S. college enrollment from 1869 to 1994. (Source: S. B. Carter et al., Historical Statistics of the United States)

But what really propelled science education, Ramirez notes, was the competitive spirit of the Space Race:

The mixture of being outdone and humiliated motivated the U.S. to create NASA and bolster the National Science Foundation’s budget to support science research and education. Sputnik forced the U.S. to think about its science position and to look hard into a mirror — and the U.S. did not like what it saw. In 1956, before Sputnik, the National Science Foundation’s budget was a modest $15.9 million. In 1958, it tripled to $49.5 million, and it doubled again in 1959 to $132.9 million. The space race was on. We poured resources, infrastructure, and human capital into putting an American on the moon, and with that goal, STEM education became a top priority.

President John F. Kennedy addresses a crowd of 35,000 at Rice University in 1962, proclaiming again his desire to reach the moon with the words, 'We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained.' Credit: NASA / Public domain

Ramirez argues for returning to that spirit of science education as an investment in national progress:

The U.S. has a history of changing education to meet the nation’s needs. We need similar innovative forward-thinking legislation now, to prepare our children and our country for the 21st century. Looking at our history allows us to see that we have been here before and prevailed. Let’s meet this challenge, for it will, as Kennedy claimed, draw out the very best in all of us.

In confronting the problems that plague science education and the public’s relationship with scientific culture, Ramirez points to the fact that women account for only 26% of STEM bachelor’s degrees and explores the heart of the glaring gender problem:

[There is a] false presumption that girls are not as good as boys in science and math. This message absolutely pervades our national mindset. Even though girls and boys sit next to each other in class, fewer women choose STEM careers than men. This is the equivalent to a farmer sowing seeds and then harvesting only half of the fields.

The precipitous drop in girls’ enrollment in STEM classes. (Source: J. F. Latimer, What’s Happened To Our High Schools)

And yet it wasn’t always this way — a century ago, the physical sciences were as appropriate a pursuit for girls as they were for boys, with roughly equal enrollment numbers for each gender at the beginning of the 20th century. So what happened? Ramirez explains:

Several factors caused this decline: First, secondary schools began to offer courses in classics to promote their status and to help prepare girls for college entrance (classics were still needed for college admissions). Unfortunately, the introduction of classics reduced the science offerings. Second, practical learning (or vocational training like home economics) was emphasized at the end of the 19th century, which put another nail in [the] coffin of girls’ STEM access. Third, the role of science changed, particularly physics around the time World War II, when science was deemed a conduit to making weapons. These cultural mindsets pushed girls away from science. In the 1890s, 23 percent of girls were taking physics. By 1955, that number had dropped to less than 2 percent.

Today, we are slowly recovering from this decimation of girls in the sciences. Still, it is important to examine the messaging that rides alongside our efforts to rebuild. While there is discussion of different learning styles between boys and girls, it is important to recognize that they may be linked to this old legacy of prejudice that has morphed in form. Girls can do science and math just as well as boys. Period. In fact, the gender performance gap is narrowing in the U.S.; and in Great Britain, girls have outperformed boys in ‘male’ topics like math and economics. The relationship between girls and science has never been a question about their skill but more a reflection of society’s thinking about them.

In turning toward possible solutions, Ramirez calls out the faulty models of standardized testing, which fail to account for more dimensional definitions of intelligence. She writes:

There is a concept in physics that the observer of an experiment can change the results just by the act of observing (this is called, not surprisingly, the observer effect). For example, knowing the required pressure of your tires and observing that they are overinflated dictates that you let some air out, which changes the pressure slightly.

Although this theory is really for electrons and atoms, we also see it at work in schools. Schools are evaluated, by the federal and state governments, by tests. The students are evaluated by tests administered by the teachers. It is the process of testing that has changed the mission of the school from instilling a wide knowledge of the subject matter to acquiring a good score on the tests.

The United States is one of the most test-taking countries in the world, and the standard weapon is the multiple-choice question. Although multiple-choice tests are efficient in schools, they don’t inspire learning. In fact, they do just the opposite. This is hugely problematic in encouraging the skills needed for success in the 21st century. Standardized testing teaches skills that are counter to skills needed for the future, such as curiosity, problem solving, and having a healthy relationship with failure. Standardized tests draw up a fear of failure, since you seek a specific answer and you will be either right or wrong; they kick problem solving in the teeth, since you never need to show your work and never develop a habit of figuring things out; and they slam the doors to curiosity, since only a small selection of the possible answers is laid out before you. These kinds of tests produce thinkers who are unwilling to stretch and take risks and who cannot handle failure. They crush a sense of wonder.

Like Noam Chomsky, who has questioned why schools train for passing tests rather than for creative inquiry, and Sir Ken Robinson, who has eloquently advocated for changing the factory model of education, Ramirez urges:

While scientists passionately explore, reason, discover, synthesize, compare, contrast, and connect the dots, students drudgingly memorize, watch, and passively consume. Students are exercising the wrong muscle. An infusion of STEM taught in compelling ways will give students an opportunity to acquire these active learning skills.

Reminding us, as a wise woman recently did, that it’s only failure if you stop trying and that “failure” itself is integral to science and discovery, with fear of failure an enormous hindrance to both, Ramirez writes:

In STEM, failure is a fact of life. The whole process of discovery is trial and error. When you innovate, you fail your way to your answer. You make a series of choices that don’t work until you find the one that does. Discoveries are made one failure at a time. One of the basic tenets of design and engineering is that one must fail to succeed. There are whole books written on this topic. In civil engineering, every bridge we’ve traveled across was built upon failed attempts that taught us something (and cost many lives). It was all trial and error. Scientists fail all the time. We just brand it differently. We call it data.

She acknowledges our disheartening collective attitude towards math — which, as we’ve seen, is actually full of whimsy and playful fascination — and laments:

More broadly, as a society we tacitly acknowledge that its OK to be bad at math. … Our cultural attitude toward math creates an impossible job for math teachers, because their students arrive prepared to be bored and confused.

This isn’t just an anecdotal observation. Ramirez points out that math is one of the top three reasons why college students drop out of STEM majors — in fact, more than 60% of students who set out to major in STEM fail to graduate with a STEM degree, and the tendency is even more pronounced among women and minorities, who collectively constitute 70% of college enrollments but a mere 45% of STEM degrees. (And that’s today: When Ramirez herself graduated with a doctorate in engineering from Stanford, she was one of only ten African-American engineering doctorates that year in the entire country, and a handful of women.)

Ramirez goes on to propose a multitude of small changes and larger shifts that communities, educators, cities, institutions, and policy-makers could implement — from neighborhood maker-spaces to wifi hotspots on school buses to university science festivals to new curricula and testing methods — that would begin to bridge the gap between what science education currently is and what scientific culture could and should be. She concludes, echoing Alvin Toffler’s famous words that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”:

The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable. … Nurturing curious, creative problem solvers who can master the art of figuring things out will make them ready for this unknown brave new world. And that is the best legacy we can possibly leave.

Save Our Science — which comes from TED Books on the heels of neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s The Science of Optimism, wire-walker Philippe Petit’s Cheating the Impossible, and the lovely illustrated six-word memoir anthology Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated — is excellent in its entirety and, at a mere $3, a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the future of scientific culture. (Which, as Richard Feynman is always there to remind us, should be everyone, since science is culture.)

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