Sunday, April 03, 2005

Do Science Classes Kill Curiosity?

I often tell people that math is easy; it's math classes that are hard. By this I mean that most of the mathematical ideas you encounter in high school and college mathematics courses are fairly common-sensical. Sadly, this fact tends to get lost in a sea of arcane rules for manipulating algebraic expressions and converting contrived word problems into actual equations you can manipulate. Courses inevitably tend to stress the latter aspect of mathematics because students have to receive grades at the end of the term, and these grades have to be based on something more concrete than “getting the idea.” On top of that, there are certain basic mathematical skills that must be mastered if you are going to move on in the subject. No one enjoys this aspect of learning a discipline, but the fact remains that you must walk before you can run.

I was thinking about this while reading this op-ed from the Harvard Crimson. The essay was written by Irene Sun, a Harvard undergraduate, and begins as follows:


“You’re concentrating in history and science and taking my class?” my molecular biology professor asked. “So that must mean you’re pre-med, right?”

“No,” I responded slowly. “Actually, I’m not.”

“Wow! I’m really impressed!” he exclaimed, with a genuinely surprised expression on his face. “You’re taking this class because you’re interested in the material!?”

At that moment, I honestly, truly wanted to cry. There I was, sitting in my professor’s office at the end of his weekly office hours, and I could hardly hold back my tears. I had a test the next day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my own professor expects to teach to an audience whose primary goal is not to explore an interest, but to fulfill a requirement. I had never felt as disappointed in the meaning of a Harvard education.


After listing various science courses that she took, she writes:


In those classes, I encountered an incredibly driven pre-med population. They worked exceedingly hard in class, often forming study groups on Friday and Saturday nights. I was impressed by their diligence, but I was also continually frustrated by their unabated emphasis on grades. They memorized lectures and regurgitated textbooks in hopes of an extra two points on an exam, but I found that few of them were ever truly excited about the material they toiled over. And slowly, disturbingly, I found that my own interest in molecular biology was waning.

So here I am, beginning my fourth semester at Harvard by shopping zero science classes. I still love learning about how life works, but I can’t stomach the thought of continuing to learn it with the attitude that I’ve encountered here.

My conceptions of my peers, as well as of intellectual life at Harvard, have been thrown into turmoil. I now question the value of intellectual passion in a world that seems increasingly to be based on grades, course requirements and career prospects. I question the effectiveness and sensibility of our cutthroat GPA and exam-based academic structure. But I also question the mindset of science professors and of my fellow students. At what point did professors automatically expect that their students studied their subject matters because of career requirements rather than intellectual appeal? Why are so many of my fellow students so hell-bent on requirements instead of passion? What happened to that sense of academic adventure, excitement and curiosity?


Unfortunatly, Ms. Sun's questions have very simple answers.

Every math and science professor I know dreams about having a student like Ms. Sun. But the simple fact is that most students enrolled in introductory math and science courses are not there primarily out of a love for the subject. That is why Ms. Sun's molecular biology professor was surprised by her answer. When I teach first semester calculus I do so knowing that almost no one is there simply to learn about one of the supreme accomplishments of the human intellect. The reason I am so certain of this is that on the first day of class I have them write on an index card their reasons for taking the course. If two people in a class of thirty indicate an interest in the material as one of their reasons I consider it a good omen. In reality most of them are there to satisfy a requirement of one sort or another.

But Ms. Sun should also realize that the situation changes dramatically once you rise above the introductory classes. In mathematics, and I suspect in science as well, the upper-level courses are populated primarily by a small number of dedicated majors who really are there out of love for the subject. That is why professors generally prefer teaching those courses over introductory courses. It is not that professors dislike presenting beginner-level material. It is that the attitude of the students in such courses can be hard to take at times.

Concerning Ms. Sun's remaining questions, I think she is being a bit hard on her fellow students. The reason pre-med students care so much about grades is that the medical schools they will eventually be applying to care a great deal about them. But a desire to squeeze out every point they can on an exam does not imply that they don't also care about the subject. Caring about grades and caring about the material are not mutually exclusive.

As a college student I experienced some of the same frustration Ms. Sun describes. I recall one night being up until three in the morning desperately trying to solve the last problem in a homework assignment that was due the next morning. One of my well-meaning suitemates, concerned about my lack of sleep, informed me that I shouldn't worry about solving the problem since getting it wrong was not going to affect my grade very much. I was perfectly aware of that, of course, but it was not concern for my grade that was keeping me up. I hadn't gone to sleep because I really wanted to solve the problem! I think my friend found that idea amusingly eccentric.

I am sorry that Ms. Sun was discouraged by her science classes. It would probably help if more science departments offered courses intended for people who wanted a broad and serious overview of the subject, but were not intending to major in the field. Many math departments already offer such courses. Sadly, there are often practical reasons (not enough faculty to teach such courses, not enough students interested in taking them, not enough money in the budget to offer them) for not offering them.

3 Comments:

At 8:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Caring about grades and caring about the material are not mutually exclusive."

No, but they sure don't correlate with each other.

 
At 11:55 AM, Blogger gravitybear said...

While reading Ms. Sun's words, I felt like just telling her to grow up! There's no reason why other student's attitude toward the material should affect her own.

"...courses intended for people who wanted a broad and serious overview of the subject, but were not intending to major in the field." A good idea, but the math courses such as you describe at my university were also filled with people who were just fulfilling a requirement, just those who wanted to do as little math as possible.

 
At 3:18 PM, Blogger MDS said...

I predict that Ms. Sun will go far in life. Someone who goes to school because she wants to learn, and not because she wants to get good grades, will seem out of place, but she'll also accomplish great things.

 

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