Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"You’re really going to make my son spend a whole year in a subject he will never use so that he can prepare to suffer at a boring job some day? "

The title of this article was copied from a post on a blog of The Washington Post. This particular statement provoked some strong feelings I've developed about basic science education.

We must require basic science literacy of our K-12 students. If we do not, we are not preparing our students to think critically, make informed decisions and harvest all of the pleasure and reward of an adult life. Learning science is about so much more than preparing for a specific job after college or vocational school. It is about seeing how science applies to everyday life and using that knowledge to improve everyday life.

Does anybody know when they are a sophomore in high school what their major will be in college? Maybe a few of us do, but most of us don't. Most American high schools are already deficient in preparing high school students to major in science in college (let alone chemistry which is more difficult than some other science majors).  How can we expect our students to choose a science major at all if we don't require (at least) an exposure to it at the high school level?

A response to this question might be the following: "Shouldn't the kids be able to choose what science they take at the high school level?" My answer is no. An exposure to science includes the building blocks of all types of science; at this point most fields of science are fairly interdependent. It requires a basic understanding of one field to gain a basic understanding of another field. They must have one year of chemistry, one year of physics, one year of biology and a year of freshman science (or something similar). If they take just this much science, it is my opinion that they are not really well enough prepared to major in science at college. To be successful at an undergraduate level in science (especially chemistry) you need to take two years of chemistry, two years of physics, two years of biology plus any freshman science requirement the schools provide. (Some schools have a freshman science class that is a hybrid of science types.)

Based on my assessment of what an adequately prepared freshman would have to take to be prepared for college, one year of high school chemistry is nothing. Nothing at all. It is a bare-bones exposure with a minimum of information. And here is what that year of chemistry will sow in a child's mind:

1. A knowledge of basic elements: what is dangerous, what is benign, what chemical under their kitchen sink must absolutely be removed when babies are born. (namely sodium hypochlorite)

2. An appreciation of where we've come since the advent of quantum mechanics. All of the gadgets, electronic devices and common household items we all take for granted are a result of the quantum mechanics revolution. The digital world has changed the way we function in an absolute way.

3.  A basic understanding of energy: What are energy sources and how does chemistry influence energy sources? How do humans interfere with this process? How is nuclear energy important and what is the basic chemistry of nuclear energy. With the price of gas rising, I'm sure we all agree that international energy resources are critical to the functioning of our nation. Everybody should understand these resources from a chemical perspective.

4. A fundamental understanding of how chemicals affect the human body. Our body is made naturally of chemicals. Sodium/potassium channels, water (H2O) and many other chemicals allow basic processes to allow us to live and breathe each day. How do the chemicals we add from outside our bodies interact with natural human chemicals on a daily basis?  My own grandmother never took chemistry and it was very obvious when she spoke about the drugs she was taking. She had no fundamental understanding of chemical processes in the human body.

On top of all of this- is it really fair to pigeonhole a child into a nonscientific career at such an early age? This is what you are doing by default if you do not require them to take chemistry. Science knowledge builds like a pyramid. Without basic chemistry, a child could never take biology or any of the other classes that apply basic chemistry. (This is why people like me never suffer unemployment- since everybody must take basic chemistry for their major there is never a shortage of basic chemistry courses to teach.)

Kids need science. Our world needs science. Way beyond any career decisions we make later in life - we all need to attain a basic level of science literacy.

Yes, all high school kids should be required to take one year of chemistry. At the very least.