Archive for the ‘Science Education’ Category

Why People Don’t Like Science: some links

May 17, 2013

A long while ago I wrote a piece called “Why People Don’t like Science, Especially Physics” in which I speculated as to the answer to that question.  About two years ago I decided to delve more deeply into that and related questions, and ended up writing three columns for Strange Horizons.  The columns involved interviews and email exchanges with scientists, a historian, and anthropologists, and revealed some very interesting things about the culture of science.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to post the links here.

So here goes.

1)  Diffractions: On Science, Emotions, and Culture, Part 1, where I pose the question as to why so many scientists are embarrassed by emotions.

2) Part 2, where a mere physicist discovers the explorations of anthropologists in… physics labs

3) Part 3, where I start with a poetic quote from Richard Feynman and end by growling at Descartes.  Actually I end with a quote from Bell on new ways of seeing.  And hoping for a new way or ways to thinking about, doing, teaching and learning science.

More soon!

Argghhhh… Frustrations and Depressions

March 2, 2012

I don’t generally whine about the teaching aspect of my life but…

So here I’m teaching a course that I haven’t taught in three years, and it is a basic, required course, non-science majors.  I put a lot into it because I have to convince a bunch of students who hate science that science, even physics, hell, especially physics, can be a) utterly interesting and b) comprehensible and c) something to do (maybe) with the world around them.  And I have, in a period of two days, a student I had to throw out for texting (after repeated warnings to the class as a whole — some people really don’t understand that professors actually mean what they say) and a student who stated quite unequivocally how much she hated science.  Now I’ve come across science-haters before — you throw a frisbee in any direction in America and you are sure to hit someone who hates science — and I even sympathize with them to some extent because I’ve worked very hard to understand where these folks are coming from culturally and otherwise.  Popular urban culture in the US is incredibly anti-intellectual in my experience.  This is why I try all kinds of things to interest my students and generally a majority of them will respond positively.  But what does one do with those who resist all attempts?  I don’t give up on any student so I will continue to try, but in the meantime it is very discouraging.  Teaching is a two-way thing, where the enthusiasm of the teacher feeds the student and the answering enthusiasm feeds the teacher.  Unlike the other class I teach for science majors, this one is a lot harder despite the “easy” course material simply because that positive feedback loop is difficult to set up, let alone maintain.

All this will eventually get me to a state of thinking creatively (I’m incredibly stubborn about this) but in the meantime, frustration is the name of the game.



Peering Out at the World: Quick Notes & Links

March 27, 2010

I am peering out from behind a huge pile of undergraduate papers to see if the world is still there.  Looks like it is, for now.  So I’d like to take a few minutes to post some links.

This past week the American Association of University Women came out with a report called Why So Few?

“Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics presents in-depth yet accessible profiles of eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities – that continue to block women’s participation and progress in science, technology, engineering, and math. The report also includes up to date statistics on girls’ and women’s achievement and participation in these areas and offers new ideas for what each of us can do to more fully open scientific and engineering fields to girls and women.”

When pondering this question, which is close to my heart, I’ve always felt that we not only need to change how society views girls in relation to science and science careers but we have to address the internal culture of science in research labs and universities and colleges.   This internal culture seems to be to be oriented toward certain personality types while putting others at a disadvantage — at its extreme there can be cutthroat competition, a confrontational style of dealing not only with people but with Nature, and a narrow, blind, disconnected approach to the problem at hand.  Not everyone thrives under such conditions.  I’ll have a lot more to say about all this in a future post.

And in news from our favourite satellite, it appears that the Moon might have more water than we thought.  600 million metric tons distributed over 40 craters near the lunar north pole.  What this makes possible is: stations on the moon, and a place from which to launch space exploration vehicles — a stepping stone to Mars and beyond!  Water means life resource and rocket fuel.

Somebody needs to write a poem about this.  I mean, all that water on the moon!

All of our spacely adventures can only happen if we have the sense to save the planet by slowing and reversing global warming.  Tomorrow, Saturday March 27, is Earth Hour, the annual momentum-building, consciousness-raising event that is growing hugely every year.  I plan to be one of the millions around the globe participating by turning of my lights for an hour, 8:30 to 9:30 pm.  Last year’s participation was around a billion people and hundreds of cities, organizations and institutions.

This reminds me that I started this blog about a year ago, so this is an anniversary of sorts.  I’ve posted only sparsely but have somehow managed to maintain the pace, however slow, of inflicting my thoughts upon the world.

In personal news, I am surprised and pleased to note that one of my novellas, Distances, published by the good and brave folks at Aqueduct Press, is a Tiptree honor book for 2009, as announced here.  Congratulations to the Tiptree winners (Hi Greer!) and honor list authors, and to L. Timmel Duchamp (Hi Timmi!) who gets special recognition for her tremendous Marq’ssan Cycle.

Also, I have a story coming out soon in Strange Horizons.  It is vaguely related to the first story I published there a long time ago, one called Three Tales from Sky River.  When I first wrote that story, years ago, I imagined a woman who went from planet to planet in a far future starfaring age collecting stories like the three tales of the title.  I wanted to write a story about her, but when I finally managed to write it last year, it turned out that it wasn’t just about her, and she needed a teller as well, and somehow events in 11th century C.E. India became important.  In short, it got complicated, hopefully in a good way.

More on the SF Workshop at IIT – Kanpur

July 17, 2009

Being late and hurriedly written, this account is somewhat incoherent.  Re-writing it would take too long in my current state of time-zone zombied-ness.  My apologies.

For the first part of the report on the workshop, see here.

The workshop students continued to produce some wonderful work during my week.  Perhaps the best short, in-class writing exercises came from our discussion of SF and the Other, in particular the Animal Other.  We reviewed and discussed the science on animal emotions (which is to say, surprise, surprise, animals like mammals and birds and possibly others, have emotions!), and shared personal anecdotes about our own experience with animals.   The exercise was to write from the point of view of an animal.  We got some great responses, and I was interested to note how many people had picked insects.  No cutesy disneyfications — very cool stuff.


On Why People Don’t Like Science, Especially Physics

April 14, 2009


Take a child.  Put said child into a sufficiently stimulating and diverse environment and let him/her explore.  When I’ve done or observed this, I’ve found that

a)      Children are interested in and curious about practically everything,

b)      And this includes asking scientific questions, and looking for or speculating about possible answers. 

Now add a few years of schooling, including heavy doses of negative stereotyping about science, especially for girls in the West.  Include also deadly dull and boring teachers who either hate the subject or the students or both.  Include huge reams of homework and assignments and authoritative pronouncements on who is stupid or smart, who is a science-type or not, and other forms of labeling. 

End result: people who think science (especially physics) is boring, or dull, or for “smart people only.”  People whose imaginations are unmoved by Saturn’s Rings, quadratic equations or the implications of the special theory of relativity.  People to whom gravity is something to be taken for granted rather than something amazing. 

I try not to take all this personally but it does get a bit depressing when people who are otherwise intelligent find out what I do and immediately cringe, or wince, or say something inane about how brilliant I must be.  This is not dissimilar to the reactions I get about writing science fiction (except for the “brilliant” part).  And while I think the two reactions are related, I first want to speculate about why people don’t like science in general and physics in particular.

Here are some random thoughts that come to mind.  These are in the nature of hypotheses:

  • It is taught poorly, which kills the student’s interest
  • It is challenging in the sense of what it requires from the student: dedication, attention to detail, discipline and constant practice.  
  • Formal education tends to divide the universe into “subjects” that appear to have little to do with each other.  Those who are not going into the sciences tend to think, as a result, that physics has no relevance to their lives.
  • It gets bad press, from dull textbooks and incomprehensible news reports to mad scientists in movies.  Particularly in societies where the herd mentality is paramount, where people tend to go with trends and bury their individuality in an attempt to conform, science is not portrayed as “cool.”  In such cultures (I’m thinking in particular of the US) it is the province of nerds and geeks, as though it is a necessary rite of passage when growing up to give up one’s curiosity about the natural world.  And if you don’t do that, gosh, how embarrassing you are.
  • Science, especially physics, is portrayed as antithetical to art so people who write or paint or make music are naturally turned off by it.
  • Science is the handmaiden of industry and war and is therefore off-putting.  It is owned by the powerful, and those in the lower levels of the hierarchy do not feel a sense of connection and ownership with respect to science.
  • Science is a boy thing and therefore not something that can be done by girls, or should be done by girls. 
  • Scientists are notoriously poor communicators, with some happy exceptions who write about it well, but then you have to know a certain amount of science and have some liking for it in order to appreciate their work.

In my experience growing up in India until my early twenties, things were different in two ways (again this is my experience):

  • There was no negative labeling if you liked to learn.  Kids who did well were looked up to by their classmates.  I don’t know if this is still true given the amount of penetration of Western norms into urban India in the last couple of decades.  
  • While there was less labeling regarding “science types” or “arts types” there was some.  But interestingly I didn’t myself come across the idea that girls could not do science.  The idea was that science required hard work and anyone who could put in the discipline could do it.  I’ve heard that nowadays in India female science graduates are sought after by mamas looking to arrange marriages for their sons because they can bring in a decent income.  However, then at least, a woman pursuing science would be expected not to go into demanding areas like research (as a long-term career anyway) because that would take too much away from family duties.

All right. I personally think that retaining one’s curiosity about the natural world adds to the richness of life experience, whether one is a scientist or a saxophonist, a mathematician or a dressmaker.  I mourn the take-over of science by Wall Street and the war mongers, but not the science itself.  I wish it were done and taught differently — in a more holistic way for lack of a better word — in a way that made us feel, like John Muir or the Buddha, connected to everything else, so that it would mean something to us at a personal level, and so we would not use it for harm.  But to dislike science itself, to think of its ideas as boring, or irrelevant, or dull?  That is beyond my comprehension.

A quick note:  I think a dislike of science may be connected to a dislike of science fiction, although not necessarily and not in every case.  But I’ve come across a bunch of reviews of my new collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and a couple or three of the reviewers have been totally baffled by my stories.  One classic example was the person who said that these stories were not really stories because they had science in them! 

Anyway all I’ve done in the above is to speculate.  I’d like to hear what others think.  Why are some people turned off science? Why are there so many of them?  What, if anything, should be done about it?

Update: See my latest post on this, with further links.