Thursday, October 04, 2007


Thoughts on the 50th Anninvrsary of Sputnik

Although we captured at the end of WWII a few dozen of the upper management of the A-4 program (what we called the V-2), including the big tuna Wernher Von Braun, the Soviets captured Peenemünde where the big rockets were manufactured and a lot of the middle management including the engineers regarding propulsion.

When we worked on our own rockets in the decade after the end of the war, it was if we were doing a miniature program with very very fragile parts and little throw weight. Our rockets carried payloads the size of a can of soup and often exploded on launch.

The Soviets made good strong motors and could launch a big, for then, payload--about the weight of a man and the size of a small refrigerator. So they beat us into space in a big way and we took that as a wake up call that we needed more scientists. I think we were successful to a degree. We got to the moon (very briefly) just under a dozen years later. No one else has ever been to the moon but a select group of now very senior Americans, those that survive.

So where are we with our program to have sufficient scientists and engineers? In my mind not so good. Here are two signs. What do we call guys in high school who are interested in science, including computer science? Geeks, nerds, toolies, etc. The science teachers I had and my children had in grade and high school were nearly uniformly awful. I can't think of a good solution, but I think I recognize the problem and I fear the next sort of Sputnik wake up call.


What can we do? We can use math curricula that actually work in our primary and secondary schools.

Science is nearly all based on math. The lousy crop of constructivist math programs (think "Whole Language" for math) act to throttle down the number of kids that actually understand math well enough to be scientists. The worst of that is that the decision to disqualify these kids is made without the knowledge or consent of either the kids or their parents. In most cases, those kids and parents will never even understand why it is that they "don't like" and "don't get" basic mathematics.

"I just never understood reading. But what good is it in real life, anyway? After all, I've got a TV and books on CD."

If you saw that at the same frequency that you see the equivalent statement made about math, you'd be calling for the heads of anyone responsible. Consider this my call for the heads of those who have done this to math.

(Did I mention that I contribute to Kitchen Table Math?)
Agreed. My limitations in math kept me from going into science in college. I did however have a great math and calculus teacher in high school. All my fault.
By the time you get to HS, it's probably too late to remediate the problems that arose in the previous decade or so (even if Newton himself were teaching). The usual technique is to teach three or four different (and largely incompatible) techniques for each mathematical process. None of these techniques is practiced to mastery, so whichever the student uses, he will need to use a substantial portion of his working memory and processing capability.

By the time the student reaches calculus, all his capacity is being used for these basic techniques, leaving insufficient capacity for more difficult tasks.

Math is brutally cumulative. Unless you learn your basics cold, the more advanced stuff is foreclosed, as is any career that requires that stuff.
No, I'm blaming myself on this one. But I see exactly what you're talking about.
I'm w/ Doug, although my experience was different. I had the basics down pretty well. I seem to recall I got a 707 on my math SAT. I then ran into a dreadful teacher in Algebra II and struggled after which I was donne w/ math.

Sometime shortly after Roger and I matriculated through elementary and middle school. tracking children was abandoned in favor of a more egalitarian approach. I continue to think this was a mistake and many of the ills of public school can be traced to this decision.

I am not against giving children w/ learning disabilities educational opportunities. I just wish a fraction of of the resources that are devoted to those children were devoted to children who are gifted and talented, particularly in math and science.
Tony and I don't agree on a lot of educational matters, but tracking is one on which we do agree. I also think that a successful school has to be able to get rid of guys and girls there not to learn and who disrupt. Where they go other than to the public school is something I'm still working on.
There was a time when vocational education was the answer to that conundrum. Metal shop, wood shop, auto shop, whatever.

Those classes are very hard to find anymore. And the skills are both necessary and well compensated.

Plus, they're useful even to those that don't end up working mostly with their hands. (If nothing else, they can provide a practical example of thermal conductivity; it turns out that if you weld on one end of a steel bar, the other end will be ... warmish. Not that I would know anything about that, of course. 8-)

None of this is news to people who didn't graduation from one of our schools of "education". In education (and contrary to the pronouncements of ed school denizens), everything is simple, but even the simplest things are very difficult.

How about if we try not to add unnecessary complications?
Or "graduate", even.
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