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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The periodic table, girls and math and the demise(?) of science in general

Anyone worth their science salt probably knows about periodicvideos on youtube.  They are one of my favorite series of videos.  Real life demos of the various elements!  They recently posted a new one called 118 elements in 10 minutes! Check it out.

A study published recently out of the U of Wisconsin-Madison states that American culture is responsible for derailing girl math geniuses!  There is no lack of girls with incredible math skills, but our culture seems to ensure that few of them are allowed to continue their potential.  Here are some of the findings by Janet Mertz, an oncologist and Titu Andreescu, a mathematics education professor:

  • "Contrary to the myth that females lack the intrinsic aptitude needed to excel in mathematics at the highest level, an idea proffered most famously by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, many girls exist with truly exceptional talent for mathematics.
  •  Girls as well as boys with such talent are frequently identified and nurtured in  some countries where this ability is highly valued; in the US, such talent in routinely overlooked or ignored, with many American boys and girls feeling they are actively discouraged from excelling in math.
  • American children of immigrants from countries where math talent is highly valued--notably Eastern Europeans and Asians--are much more likely to be identified as possessing extraordinary mathematical ability.
  • The pipeline for nurturing top math talent in the US is badly broken beginning at the middle school level.  Eighty percent of female and 60 percent of male faculty hired in recent years by the very top US research university mathematics departments were born in other countries."

"We show," the group reports, "that many girls exist who possess extremely high aptitude for mathematical problem solving. The frequency with which they are identified is due, at least in part, to a variety of socio-cultural, educational or other environmental factors that differ significantly among countries and ethnic groups and can change over time."

By this, it might seem that, as a culture, America does not place a high value on mathematical aptitude, our students seem to lack role models and there are some seemingly systemic flaws in the US public school educational system.

Many people seem to think it is time for America to find a motivation to put science and math back in the forefront. Surely it is not for the lack of needing new answers to problems that a diminishment of enthusiasm for science has crept into America. Much has been written on this topic, and it is difficult to imagine what the catalyst to create new scientists will be at this time, in this culture.  Once upon a time, it was the space/arms race with the USSR.  What will it be for this generation?  A biological/health crisis? An ecological crisis?   I don't expect that it will be a competitive spirit that motivates us to recapture and expand upon our innate curiosity. 

Is the innate curiosity being suffocated by our culture? I don't think so, but I think our attention span to find the answers to our questions is dwindling. A lengthy attention span is required not only to learn about science, but also to conduct science.

What is the role of science TV and videos? I think they help by enticing viewers into the world of science but may also hurt by providing too quick answers.

Science is perceived as difficult, and with good reason. The life of a research scientist IS tedious, and not always rewarding in the day to day or even lucrative as a career.   In fact, I just read a blog conversation today via The Scientist about science not being considered a good career choice. This conversation is based on an article from the UK based Guardian.

I've been giving a lot of thought as to why I love science SO much and will ponder it more and maybe write my thoughts in a future blog. 

Until next time,



Tue, November 11, 2008 | link 

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