Scientists and policy makers in the United States have argued for years that science and math education needs improvement to produce capable citizens of the 21st century.
Having studied American public schooling, I wholeheartedly agree. However, when it comes to fostering a scientifically savvy public, we face a graver, more pressing problem: A majority of college students with adequate to excellent math and science backgrounds, who are not majoring in either field, decide at some point that those skills are no longer relevant to their lives. They claim and even boast to have forgotten basic concepts — which should never fade if learned properly — as if social standing were inversely proportional to mathematical prowess. If you think science is too hard, then you’re cool. Even — and especially — at Yale.
All undergraduates arrive at Yale with strong preparation in the sciences. We got As in our classes, did science league and math team and even tutored peers in both. About 75 percent of students achieved at least a 700 on the SAT math section. Over 25 percent earned 790 or 800. As children, many of us had parents who made us calculate tips in restaurants and the change in stores.
When I was little and saw something interesting (a shooting star, a large bridge or slime), my dad would ask, “How do you think that works?” in order to engage me in the process of scientific inquiry. By high school, Yalies had internalized the question-asking, and we were doing our own research. When it comes to the sciences, Yale freshmen arrive on campus curious and able.
But suddenly, it all stops. A good friend of mine took many science classes as a freshman before changing his major. In his junior year, he was asked to find the derivative of a function for a class but had forgotten how. I have another friend who excelled at math in high school and wished she could learn about quantum mechanics to connect it with her philosophy classes. But when I offered to teach her, she refused, saying that it would be too hard.
A third friend once stayed with me in a hotel room with a leaky shower. When I mentioned that it would be simple to estimate the amount of water wasted, she thought the calculation too complex. This same friend did science research in high school, excelled on her AP calculus exam and almost went to a top engineering school.
There are certain skills we can agree that all citizens should have: a knowledge of history and current events, the ability to speak and write and a certain degree of cultural literacy. But science is often considered esoteric, far removed from the practicality of the day-to-day. Some think it should be reserved for geniuses who lock themselves in laboratories to cure cancer or to find a black hole. But if we simply let ourselves be ignorance about global warming, pollution and nuclear energy, it may eventually kill us.
Now I ask you, why do we all suddenly lose our math and science abilities at the close of two decades of life? Out of vanity, we claim to have lost our capacity to comprehend nature, not to mention the ability to split up a bill at a restaurant. Perhaps it’s out of fear — the sciences are often (inaccurately) pegged as too difficult for a commoner. Perhaps it’s because they’re poorly taught and so often seem uninteresting. Perhaps it’s just old-fashioned peer pressure among humanities students. But whatever it is, it needs to change.
And I promise you won’t automatically become a nerd if you happen to retain mathematical faculties past the age of 20.
Elissa Dunn is a junior in Berkeley College. She is a physics major.