The City Beat noticed a little item on the agenda of the State Board of Higher Education about some distance learning programs UND had to teach science teachers. It was just going to be a brief story but, after talking with education Professor Lars Helgeson and physicist Kanishka Marasinghe, I thought it warranted a bigger story (Maybe too big. It weighed in at 57 inches.).
A long time ago, when I was in college, I read a book called Rich Nation, Strong Army, about how Japan emerged from World War II to become the industrial powerhouse that it is today. That nation made a conscious decision to focus on technological advancement as a way to enhance its economy and its military power. If it were not for their pacifistic constitution, the Japanese military would be one of the most powerful in the world.
The thing is, technological advancement was what made our economy strong, too. But, as fewer American students go into science and engineering and we spend less on research and development, while competitor nations do more, we become weaker as a nation.
When I interviewed Dr. Marasinghe, he said something striking: "By the time students get to high school level, in a way, they are programmed to think science should be hard and not something they wan to pursue. Or they have been programmed to think science should be easy and they should pursue that. That is something they are programmed in elementary school."
Of course, the former is a lot more common than the latter.
Dr. Marasinghe said he had a discussion with a science teacher the other day in which they observed that parents today get kids involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, such as sports and music when they’re young. But they don’t do that for science, or at least there’s really no organized science activities.
If kids were to have organized science hobbies, they would grow up to be high school and college students that are very comfortable with science, Dr. Marasinghe and the science teacher reasoned.
At one time, I actually wanted to be a biologist. My ESL teacher had given me a subscription to Ranger Rick as a boy and the world of nature amazed me. Alas, I discoverred in high school that have little patience for scientific experimentation and turned, instead, to the other thing I liked, which is writing.
The other reason kids aren’t necessarily comfortable with science is because nobody likes nerds. You can talk about sports and music with your friends and you’re pretty cool but talk about the science fiction book you read and nobody’s your friend except the other weirdos. Many scientists were originally inspired by science fiction, so there is a connection between real science and fictional science.
Even as an adult, I’d talk about something neat I’d read about in Discover or Technology Review and I can think of maybe two friends who might actually have some interest. That’s ludicrous. This is the source of our wealth, our quality of life and our national security and nobody gives a rip.
Dr. Marasinghe said another thing that I thought was striking and that is basic research is just as important as applied research.
Today, many universities, including UND and NDSU, focus on applied research, which is to say they’re looking for inventions that they can sell. That’s a direction that came out of the higher education roundtable from 2000. (See page 22 of roundtable’s report.)
Economic development is important but so, too, is basic research. The difference is that applied research aims for a product and basic research aims for knowledge. Applied research is the global positioning system and basic research is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
We could never have predicted that there was a link between the two, but without E=MC2, we would never have GPS-guided bombs or GPS gadgets.
Dr. Marasinghe explained that the GPS system is dependent upon the precise timing of the signals from a constellation of satellites over the Earth. But that timing is affected by relativistic effects.
The General Theory of Relativity says that the deeper an object is inside a gravity well, for example, the Earth, the slower time flows for it relative to objects outside of the gravity well. The uptick is that clocks on Earth are slightly slower than clocks on a satellite.
The Special Theory of Relativity says that the faster an object moves in space, for example a satellite moving at 18,000 mph relative to the Earth’s surface, the slower time flows for that object, an effect called time dilation. The uptick here is that clocks on a satellite are slightly slower than clocks on Earth.
Adjusting for both relativistic effects, the GPS system recognizes that the clocks on the satellite are running 45.9 microseconds faster per day.
There are other examples I can think of. Without an understanding the subatomic world, for example, lasers and semiconductors wouldn’t have been possible. But they are and that’s how it is that I’m using this laptop to write a blog that you’ll access via the Internet on your laptop. Without the microchip and fiberoptic backbone, it probably wouldn’t work as well.
So how ready are our students to create our future wealth?
But compared against the TIMSS, North Dakota students are pretty sharp, though still not as sharp as some Asian rivals. (See page 68 of this study.)
The other question is, are American students studying to become scientists? I checked some stats on the National Science Foundation Web site and found that, yes, compared to the 1980s, there are fewer American graduate students in science and engineering relative to foreign students, but we’ve managed to hold steady the last few years. (See these tables.)
Still, there’s another report from the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century that says we need more science teachers. Unfortunately, when I called the state’s Education Standards and Practices Board, I was told there aren’t any numbers I can cite. Anecdotal evidence is all we have and it suggests there is a shortage in North Dakota as well.
And that’s where UND’s program will come in handy.