Why the Lack of Science Literacy in North America?

Warning: pet peeve-worthy opinionated content ahead.

Lately I have come across several articles trying to pinpoint why—and how to work with—students who lose interest in science. Some articles take a generalist angle and talk about we need to make science more hands-on in the classroom, while others address a somewhat mysterious drop in interest around 11 to 14 years of age i.e. the transition from primary school to secondary school or, as I call it, the preteen personality complex.

This is purely anecdotal. Growing up it was not unusual to make friends with other kids that were interested in animals, the outdoors and experiment. We all wanted our own detective kits, produce our own magazines and see the rainforest. However, once we entered middle school, most of my peers’ personalities flipped. If someone was not ranting about jail-like management of the school or the inability to socialize with old friends because of different assignment lunch times, most people started focusing on dating, forming cliques and learning how to exclude old friends to please new friends.

To me it was like these kids were abandoning what made them unique and interesting and forcing themselves into a “mature” lifestyle where they all do the same activities. No one had interests anymore. No one cared about learning.

So perhaps we can attribute the lack of intellectual interests at that age because of hormones and peer pressure (which, in a way, partly exists because of someone else’s hormone trip). But I have another anecdotal suggestion.

When you are a “kid”—by and large according to anyone’s opinion—you are the target audience for most educational venues. Local nature programs tend to cater to younger kids. Elementary schools have the flexibility in their curricula to have fun science experiments. Most science books are basic enough for a ten-year-old to understand. But any older you are in this netherland. You are too old for the kids programs, yet you are not in the 16- to 18-year-old crowd that career-oriented programs sometimes recruit.

You outgrow many museum exhibits and many general audience books have the same freaking information you already read everywhere else. After all, Zoobooks have more qualitative information than most popular science books.

So a young teen with intellectual pursuits has many obstacles. It is no longer “cool” to learn, you may lose friends because of that, you cannot visit education centers without feeling bored and old, and you are too young to strike out on your own. You may, as myself and several people I grew up with, lose the fervor for your interests until late high school when you get to pick electives. Even then, the constant micromanaging, disciplinary talks (very counterproductive when you had nothing to do with the kids that the teacher suspects might end up doing something stupid—very insightful my school was) and lack of variation in the classroom in favor of standardized test prep really pushes students away from being fruitful during school hours.

Test Comic
This meme has been floating around the internet for a number of years.

Too many students either dropped out or could not wait to graduate just to get the bleep away from the nonsense. Good student, bad student, everyone knew this was not a healthy environment for them.

College is a breath of fresh air. Teachers let you learn instead of forcing you to do things a certain way—an element of psychology that the PhDs in the school administration and state education board might want to consider when designing and implementing policies.

In 2010 Massachusetts implemented a standardized test for secondary school science, much like the national ones for math and English. Get this: the science teachers were against that decision.

The teen years is a prime time for potential future scientists, or even reasonably well-rounded adults, to learn and feel empowered with their interests, and the teachers know science will lose many of those students if class time is used for memorization and test-taking skills instead of…well, science skills.

Forest research plot
This is one of the plots I worked on with a graduate student one summer–an experience very few non-college students get to have. Not enough money. Some sort of legal issue. Not enough cooperation from the students. Someone wore the wrong shoes despite explicit advanced instructions and the class couldn’t just leave that person behind. Something.

How do freshmen college students pick their majors? Too many choose based on which classes they hated in high school. Hated writing? May as well major in science and go to medical school, after all, there is no better reason to go to medical school (seriously pre-medical students? No other research or feel passionate about alleviating society of a difficult health conundrum?). Hated math? Lets major in journalism! That industry can also use more responsible, passionate professionals.

If we allow education to be about positive experiences instead of tightening the reins, students just might have positive outlooks.

A mention about “tightening the reins”: horses, much like youth, always fight back when you fight them. The tighter the reins the more they try to take the reins out of your hands.

Short rein
Kitt is not taking kindly to his rider’s hand cues. The rider tightly pulls the reins towards her and he pulls back. This just leaves both parties frustrated and not accomplishing anything.

How do you get a horse to accept the bit? Relax. Flex the reins frequently and open them in the direction you want to turn. Keep a light seat in the saddle so the horse can free its back muscles and thus free the neck and head muscles. From there, with practice, you reach harmony and the horse more willing learns new concepts. The horse may even start to like you!

Firm Rein
Kitt relaxes and responds to his riders instructions. She uses a longer rein and a grip that releases slightly when his head bobs with his stride. This way they are not tense and can communicate what they need to get done.

My main point, as negative as this all sounds, is we should make decisions and create scenarios for those decisions based on what empowers us. The processes by which many—granted, not all—individuals lose their passions and drive their lives based on what they want to avoid are unnecessary and changeable. It does not matter if the person was once interested in science, but I like to think that actively learning is a sign of a responsible character. Life lacks luster if we do not have good characters.



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