Tag Archives: science education


Carl Sagan has been damned as a popularizer of science. Carl Sagan has been praised as a popularizer of science. Since the first time he put on his corduroy jacket and turtleneck to introduce the masses to the wonders of the universe in his ground-breaking TV series Cosmos, he has been many things to many people (and associated with the phrase “billyuns and billyuns”).

So. Is being a science popularizer a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if you expect a scientist to remain in the lab and conduct research, without wasting her or his time appearing on Johnny Carson. It’s a good thing if you think science needs to be popular for society to survive.

That Sagan appeared on Carson’s show was not a fluke. Rather than being the epitome of an obsessive researcher, Sagan was an enthusiast and a promoter of science who could, at the same time, entertain as well as he explained.

Sagan was in the news a lot, too. He was the one that insisted that astronauts who had been to the moon be quarantined for a period to make sure they had brought back no alien germs. He was the one who demolished the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, famous for his book In Search of Ancient Aliens, which purported that alien civilizations have visited Earth and left their mark on ancient astronomy, archaeology, and biblical studies. (Every year when he was teaching astronomy at Cornell University, Sagan devoted one whole lecture to debunking Velikovsky.)

Sagan’s astronomy class was swamped with auditors (particularly on Velikovsky day). To be officially registered for Sagan’s Astronomy 102 class, you had to sit through Astronomy 101, a deadly boring class taught by a deadly boring professor. (I had the great good fortune of taking Sagan’s class, and met him at department parties.) His teaching was compelling and his tests were far from regurgitating dry facts.

Sagan’s particular field barely existed: astrobiology. Since life has never been discovered on other planets, there wasn’t much to say about it, though he could, and did, do experiments on what circumstances and elements needed to be present for life to arise out of the “primordial soup.”

He memorably said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” He was also famous for “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge” and “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan is now present on Facebook, despite the fact that he’s been dead for some years. Most of the quotes attributed to him are on the subjects of today’s culture of stupidity (though he didn’t live long enough to see how thoroughly correct he was), the lack of science education in the US (or at least rigorous science education), the dumbing-down of popular culture, and the need for both scientists and people like him to make science accessible.

Many of the Facebook quotations are influenced by the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was required reading in his astronomy class, though it had nothing to say about astronomy. Instead, it was a work that denounced what came to be known as pseudoscience, such as belief in ghosts and witchcraft.

Losing Sagan was a profound blow both to science and to making science available and understandable to the masses. Others have attempted to carry on his work as popularizers of science, notably Neil deGrasse Tyson (who had a part in the “Is Pluto a planet?” debate) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy). Tyson has even starred in a reboot of Cosmos, though nothing can rival the fascination of the original series.

Neither one, helpful as they may be to the science-ignorant, has stepped into Sagan’s loafers as a teacher, a public figure, a prescient philosopher of science, an inspiration. I miss the heck out of him.

Stemming the Tide of STEM

I’m generally in favor of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – education, especially when girls and young women are welcomed into the programs and treated with the same attention as males. (As long as they don’t junk it up with a pink color palette.)

But it’s being oversold.

(Typically, at this point I would produce a rant about how STEM is being glorified and promoted ahead of reading, writing, literature, art, music, social studies, and various other humanities. That’s a rant for another day, though. I’ll get back to it. I promise.)

To see all the STEM programs and magnet schools, you’d think Sputnik had been launched just this week. We’re not in the same kind of Cold War/space race with the Russians now, yet science is king in schools.

Admittedly, science and technology are vital today and will be for the future that our students are preparing for. But just as you don’t have to know how to program a computer to write using a word processor or play a video game, you don’t need to know engineering to fill one of the many service jobs; or banking, human resources, business management, or sales; or professional pursuits such as law or teaching, that will also be vital for tomorrow’s society.

Financial services and business management were the most recently hyped “hot careers” that students were being funneled into, with courses in entrepreneurship and leadership skills filling up the curriculum. They seemed to overlook the fact that only a few students would become business leaders, managers, or owners. With the middle class shrinking and the job market tightening, even the middle echelons of business have proved to be out of reach for millions of students.

The same will likely be true for many of the STEM students. How many research scientists can universities and the private sector afford to hire? Since the dot-com crash, how many openings are there for techno-wizards? What we need are more computer educators, who can teach hapless, hopeless adults how to use their home and business computers effectively and efficiently.

It’s profoundly ironic that schools are pushing science, when the Powers That Be are science deniers and proud of their scientific ignorance. Even if we give students an outstanding STEM education, who will listen to them? Not legislators. Not the general public, at least those that think TV shows about paranormal hunters, ancient aliens, and assorted prophecies are scientific.

What we need are science educators, and not just for the brainiest STEM students. We need teachers in elementary schools that can make science engaging and teach students that early humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs. We need middle school teachers who can teach the foundation of all the sciences – the scientific method – and how to recognize bogus scientific and especially medical claims, how to examine evidence. And for high school science, we need teachers who keep up-to-date with their fields – and texts that do the same. Those kinds of learning are what the general public of the future needs.

We also need science popularizers. Though the scientific establishment sometimes looks askance at the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson, they perform an invaluable service. They remind us that science isn’t just something you learn in school and then forget. That general understanding of the weather or earthquakes or DNA testing or vaccines is vitally important for more people than learning to build a robot is.

(And popularizing science demands outstanding communication skills – writing and speaking clearly and effectively. But I’ll get back to that another time.)

STEM is promoted for elementary students as a way to make science engaging. But is STEM really what does that? In “STEM: It’s Elementary!,” Erin McPherson says, “[K]ids who experience STEM early through hands-on learning are the ones who will be best equipped to develop a strong understanding of STEM concepts as they get older.”

It’s hard to argue with that. But isn’t hands-on learning what elementary students should be getting in writing, history, and art, too? McPherson does talk about art – “By adding art and music concepts like design, rhythm and movement to STEM education, students are able to fully visualize STEM concepts” – but only as an add-on to STEM, not subjects worthy in and of themselves.

Also, is STEM becoming a de facto gifted and talented program – and that only for brainy kids with a penchant for math and science? Do the less talented, less able students or the artistically gifted fall away and get less attention?

One purveyor of online STEM curricula touts that its offerings are “for all students based upon National Academies research with a strategic emphasis on gender, racial and socio-economic concerns.” But look at the “pathways” of courses they list: architecture, biotechnology, engineering, entrepreneurship, manufacturing, renewable energy, science, and technology. Do these really meet the needs of “all students”?

And what about those heavily emphasized future and futuristic jobs? Elaine J. Hom, LiveScience Contributor, claims that “STEM jobs do not all require higher education or even a college degree. Less than half of entry-level STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree or higher.” (She doesn’t list any.) Meanwhile, the Department of Education reports that the STEM career with the most projected rate of growth (a whopping 62 percent) is biomedical engineering.

Want more telling statistics? J. Maureen Henderson, contributor to Forbes, says, “The future is already here and it brings with it low-wage temporary or contract work as a way of life….According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 30% of American workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs – defined as earnings at or below the poverty line to support a family of four – in 2020. … Given that roughly 50% of recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed and those who do work are much more likely to hold these types of jobs, this is a particular grim prospect for young workers….”

Another member of the Forbes staff, Jacquelyn Smith, suggests, “If you want to ride a crest of increasing employment over the next 10 years [through 2022], get into health care, personal care, social assistance, or construction. That’s the advice you can glean from a report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics today [2/01/2012].”

After all, the future technocrats will still need baristas, day care workers, plumbers, chefs, massage therapists, pastors, firefighters, hairdressers, and sales clerks; and their companies will still need freelance and contract (read: low-paid) writers and designers and even accountants for their ever-tightening workforces. And I hope that society will still need works of literature, art, and music, and the people to create them.

So, is STEM education a valuable educational approach? Certainly, for some students. For all students? Maybe not so much.