Thursday, January 08, 2009

Students say "yay for science"

I am quoted extensively in a recent Scientific American website post about the annual Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, a survey which asks high school kids about their opinions on science.

The good news? Science is getting quite a re-branding these days. No longer about nerdy guys isolated in their towers, a high percentage of kids (30%) said they were interested in science because they were interested in helping the environment, and 26% said they wanted to improve society. If science is now seen as the eco-hero, do-gooder career, that's a pretty cool recruiting concept. In particular, it's a good recruiting concept for girls. One of the fascinating things about science fields is that if you put the prefix "bio" in front of any particular subject, you raise the proportion of degrees earned by women by a lot. So, for instance, bio-statistics attracts more women than statistics, even though both are very math intensive careers. The perception, though, is that biology-based work is more helpful to and grounded in people and improving the world in general. Hard, bio-less sciences don't have that perception (though, frankly, they should! The world needs a lot of mathematicians solving its problems).

So that's the good news. Unfortunately, as I told the Scientific American blogger, the idea that 80% of kids think their schools have prepared them for careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields is "downright delusional." Only a small percentage of high school kids leave school with the skills and preparation necessary to succeed in 4-year colleges, full-stop, let alone in the demanding STEM fields. I guess this result -- that kids are very excited about science, and feel prepared, even though they're not -- is pretty par for the course in American schools. We have high self-esteem, even if there's little to back it up!

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