Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Creativity on the Decline?

A common theme I come back to when I think and write about education and our school system is creativity. A growing consensus amongst educators, CEOs, scientists, and others is that the key skill/characteristic/trait one needs for the 21st century is creativity. But there is evidence that today's students are actually in decline when it comes to the ability to develop creative solutions to problems. This is outlined in a recent Newsweek article (many thanks to Linnea for pointing this out to me).

I can especially relate to the anecdote the author tells about an American visitor who is in China:

"Plucker recently toured a number of such schools in Shanghai and Beijing. He was amazed by a boy who, for a class science project, rigged a tracking device for his moped with parts from a cell phone. When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’ ”

I understood this when I met with Singapore educators back in 2004 at Northwestern University. They were studying how the American system worked, and how, that's right, creativity was taught or included within a student's studies. With No Child Left Behind, I fear that we have prevented a generation of students from learning how to be creative in all disciplines. Neuroscience suggests creativity can be taught, and that it can be practiced. We have moved to a point where teachers are working with students about how to take a test, rather than how to do true problem solving and taking risks as to how they solve complex problems. Let's hope we realize this and do not repeat the mistake with the final version of Race to the Top.

The Drs. Eide have picked up on this same study. Their post is at

Monday, July 12, 2010

Is There a Shortage of Scientists, or Science-Related Jobs?

For some time, there has been a deep worry in the U.S. that we are quickly losing our lead in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) fields of study to up-and-coming foreign rivals, particularly Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, India and, the one that gets the most attention now, China. China, for example, has been producing hundreds or thousands, if not millions, of scientists and engineers over the past decade, as their economic growth has been on a steep ascension for many years. The U.S. has been producing tens of thousands of scientists and engineers. Certainly, simply looking at the 'production' numbers, we have a need to worry about the future prospects of the U.S. maintaining its clear lead in STEM areas since World War II.

Furthermore, the 2005 report from the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, was a tipping point for policy makers to lead a new charge into pushing for the production of more STEM graduates and a larger workforce to keep up with developing nations. But while the production numbers of the U.S. cannot compare to those in a country like China, is this the right number to be concerned about? Do we have a shortage of STEM talent, graduates, and workers, or are there other data to help mold a more accurate picture of where we are at the top levels of STEM fields to remain competitive and in a lead position for our economic growth and national security?

An analysis of such questions is done in the Miller-McCune story, The Real Science Gap. It argues that, if one looks at the whole picture, we do not have a shortage in numbers of PhD level STEM graduates, but rather we have no system in place to ensure that these graduates have appropriate research jobs when they graduate. For example, many are now saying there is, in reality, not nearly enough tenure-track faculty positions in American universities to accommodate the graduate students and postdocs in the pipeline. Such positions are the goal of most students who enter PhD programs, and such positions largely drive the pure research that takes place in the country to make scientific advancements. For the relatively small number of tenure-track positions that open up during the course of a year, many hundreds of candidates apply for those jobs. What used to be 1-2 year postdoc positions now extend into 3-6 year postdoc positions. I am familiar with several cases of this as I came up through a PhD program some fifteen years ago, and met a number of postdocs who were having trouble finding faculty positions. It is clear that many industry jobs for STEM graduates have been lost to out-sourcing and to the economic issues of the recession. A question becomes, will STEM jobs lost to the recession still be there as a recovery takes place? That remains to be seen as companies reorganize and develop updated strategies for their future research and development efforts.

There was a second report published by the National Academies in 2005 that I was not aware of, entitled Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Researchers in Biological Research. This study reported that the average age of scientists who won their first NIH grant, went from the high twenties several decades ago to 42. This is a telling signal that many scientists are not becoming faculty with their own labs until they are significantly older than what used to be the case. And there is an argument to be made that an age such as 42 is already beyond the most productive and creative intellectual ages of one's twenties and thirties.

Here is a telling set of statistics from The Real Science Gap article:

"In fact, three times as many Americans earn degrees in science and engineering each year as can find work in those fields, Science & Engineering Indicators 2008, a publication of the National Science Board, reports. The number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded annually in the U.S. rose by nearly 60 percent in the last two decades, from about 19,000 to 30,000, the report says. The number of people under 35 in the U.S. holding doctorates in biomedical sciences, Indicators note, rose by 59.4 percent — from about 12,000 to about 19,000 — between 1993 and 2001, but the number of under-35s holding the tenure-track positions rose by just 6.7 percent, remaining under 2,000."

What seems to be lacking, in my opinion, in this discussion and debate is any sense of targeting fields individually. Some fields have a surplus of PhD students, with limited job opportunities within the field. My specialty field, high-energy physics, is likely one of those. Many Americans in this field have to go overseas to the CERN facilities in order to do their research, and one finds that the limited number of faculty positions that open up have those hundreds of applicants. In fact, Miller-McCune article states only nine faculty positions were hired nationally in particle physics last year! There are many hundreds of graduate students in the pipeline. However, if one thinks about fields that are likely to see growth, and will need highly trained STEM workers, think about a field like nuclear science and engineering. If the U.S. begins to build numerous new-age nuclear power plants, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear engineers needed to design, build, and maintain those facilities. This will also be a multiple decades area of growth. The need to study nuclear waste disposal, as well as be involved in nuclear no-proliferation work around the globe, will continue to fuel the need for more workers in these areas. Environmental engineering and positions related to the energy industry will need growth, as those appear to be the job-creation mechanisms in the global economy.

To generically say "we need more scientists and engineers" appears to be a misleading message to send to students who are interested in STEM fields. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to develop a system that accurately reflects specific needs and projected areas of growth in order to guide the education system and its students, so they can pursue degrees that will actually result if jobs related to those degrees. As a high school teacher, I know we do not receive such specific information or guidance that will help us advise and guide interested students into fields of growth. Part of the reason for this is a lack of communication in general between the K-12 and university levels of education, as well as a disconnect between the STEM industrial complex and K-12 education - we need to know something about the jobs prospects in order to help students pursue degrees where there is a more likely payoff at the end of four years or at the end of ten or more years if a student pursues a doctorate degree. It also would help for high school teachers to be aware of the numerous jobs that branch off a primary STEM degree. Again, I have experience with this as I went into high school teaching rather than pursuing a university position after earning my doctorate. Thinking about and planning for a student's STEM future needs to find its way into his or her high school education.

As for the American K-12 education system, I do want to once more re-state my position that our top students can compete with any other nation on the planet in STEM areas. And one aspect of this issue that is often overlooked and ignored, precisely because of an obsession over test scores, is that American students are among the most innovative and creative thinkers in the world. Because our students have nearly unlimited access to information, because they study the arts and history, because there are opportunities to begin doing research while in high school and participating in numerous competitions in STEM fields, they have been encouraged to learn from mistakes and take chances to 'think outside the box,' or as I like to tell students, to 'think outside a textbook,' when looking for solutions to tough problems. I will gladly take a hit in test scores where students have to regurgitate information, if those same students are creative problem solvers and thinkers, and are capable of communicating and collaborating with each other in the most diverse society the world has ever seen.

There is a reason we are the lone superpower. There is a reason American scientists and engineers have produced the most patents, publications, and won the most Nobel Prizes. Our K-12 system really does play a role in that, and I hope the effects of No Child Left Behind and the upcoming Race to the Top does not hurt the creative side of education and problem solving too badly because of the need to assess students and districts strictly by snapshot testing that drives the system. Producing students who have the creative and technological skills and foundational knowledge base to feed into the top university system in the world, with a more focused sense of what degrees to pursue that will lead to related jobs, can help keep the U.S. in the elite group of STEM nations for decades to come. Students also need to be aware that there are more, diverse opportunities outside of becoming a professor, both in academia and in the private sector. I am confident we will continue to produce the best-trained students in STEM, and continue to have the top intellectual infrastructure on the planet for many years to come. We just need to use some of that creative brain power to build a system to ensure jobs are available to encourage interested students in pursuing technical fields.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Choice in Education - No Silver Bullet

Some anticipated studies have been released concerning the two main 'school choice' options many are advocating as the fixes to our education system. Those options are charter schools, which are receiving a lot of attention from the Obama administration and the development of Race to the Top, as well as in a recent talk given by Bill Gates, and voucher programs, long a favorite of the political right. Charter schools are public schools where children in the hosting district may apply via lottery, and these schools generally have themes around which they build their curriculum - it could be the arts, science, the environment, or others. Voucher programs will take monies from the public school district, give that money directly to parents, and then parents have the choice to use the money to send their children to any school, including private schools (regardless if they are secular or religious private schools).

The studies conclude that there are no statistically significant differences between those students who went to charter schools or were recipients of vouchers than their peers who were in the public school system. The charter study looked at a variety of charter schools across 15 states, and when students who won the charter lottery are compared to those students who did not win the lottery and had to attend the public school district, no significant differences in math and reading are found. The voucher system that was studied was the Washington, DC, program, which is the first federal program ever tried. While graduation rates were better than the public school rate, achievement was, on average, no better than what students achieved in the public schools.

This does not surprise me, as it does some others I know. Anyone who is involved in education understands that there is no silver bullet. We are dealing with students, who are human beings, and each individual student comes with his or her own 'baggage' from outside the school. Until we learn how to get effective and efficient with more individualized instruction and learning, it will be very difficult to achieve significant increases in student achievement across the board for the vast majority of students. There is no single model of education that will work for all students, just like there is no single physical health regimen that will work for all people. We go and see our doctors for our physical health and progress and treatments on an individual basis, simply because every body is different. We will not fix our children's mental and intellectual health until we 'see them' on an individual basis in schools, simply because every brain is different. Yes, there are great individual charter schools and great individual private schools who are involved in voucher programs, but there are also poor charters and private schools, too. Keep in mind that there are great public schools, too...I would put my students up against students from any other school (and in fact do in a variety of competitions), and they normally shine at the local, state and national levels. But there are also poor public schools.

But bottom line is, we are not there yet in education, and charters and vouchers programs are not, in and of themselves, the final solutions to our education problems.

Monday, July 05, 2010

H.B. Phillips - Forseeing the Future of Technological Progress

I came across a truly interesting quote from a mathematician, H.B. Phillips, who, in an article published in October of 1948 in American Scientist, said:

Advances will be most frequent when the number of independent thought centers is greatest, and the number of thought centers will be greatest when there is maximum individual liberty. Thus, it appears that maximum liberty is the condition most favorable to progress.

Phillips understood, as does every scientist and academician, that science and academia revolve around communication of ideas. When trying to solve the toughest problems in the most difficult realms of human thought and experience, even the Newtons and Einsteins of the world need to 'stand on the shoulders of giants' who lived or worked prior to themselves. Knowledge, ideas, problem solving, and innovation are mass produced industries - individuals can spark new, original ideas, to be sure, but to do anything with those ideas requires support from others. Even brilliant individuals need to learn about their area of work and interest, and learn what has already been done. This requires access to knowledge and previous thoughts and ideas about the subject (although the other avenue to discovery is the 'accidental' discovery).

In Phillips's day he would have had access to journals, book, conferences, personal correspondence using traditional 'snail' mail, and some telephone, telegraph and radio communication. The phone and radio networks, however, would have been more limited, of course, prior to global hook-ups and networks. Large information packets would have taken days or weeks to be passed along between individuals, as whole books and articles would have had to been physically delivered. He did not possess the Internet, fax machines, teleconferencing, virtual anything, or global satellite communication. But he understood the concept that is at the heart and soul of academic, technological and theoretical progress. Difficult problems involving complexity need multiple brains working on them to make progress in figuring out the complexity. His term 'thought centers' is, in my mind, a broad statement that presently could refer to any one of a collection of entities: individuals on the Internet, think tanks, research groups, R&D departments of industry, academic departments in universities, blog groups, and generally any type of grouping of people who are collaborating to figure something out.

The Internet provides unprecedented access to information. And anyone can plug into that information. Strangers communicate and bounce ideas around every day and instantly with each other. Information and progress have, as a result and as Phillips foresaw, exploded exponentially as the number of 'thought centers' increased. And what is perhaps most important, the free exchange of information and ideas that the Internet provides has been key to this progress. Innovation, creativity, and problem solving now have tools available to anyone with access to the world wide web to see rapid and original progress, as interconnectivity runs to all regions of the planet.

As crazy as the rate of progress has been over the past decade (as personal computing has blossomed), there is room for even more progress. The second condition Phillips talks about is 'liberty.' This would seem to indicate that there is a need, in present times, for individual freedom and access to information, as well as the continued free exchange of that information, outside any type of censorship or restrictions to information. We see such restrictions to access and to personal freedom in many countries around the world, with the obvious major example of China. What will happen when China alone gets to the point where some 1.6 billion more people have unfettered access to the Internet, journals, and other forms of information access, trying to solve the plethora of problems the world is facing? Time will tell, but I do appreciate when deep-thinking individuals identify trends and 'see' where the future is headed.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Examining the Beginnings of Modern Science

I am reading a very interesting book, "The Science of Liberty" by Timothy Ferris. Mr. Ferris argues that science was the thrust to liberal democracy, and while about a third of the way through, he presents a strong case for his thesis.

Beyond his main theme, I am also enjoying the history behind the founding of modern science thought and its process. This history includes the two most famous giants, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. But some others, who most forget about, include Nicolas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, William Gilbert, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke (a contemporary and good friend of Newton),and Robert Boyle. There are certainly a number of other important early scientists, but I find this group the most intriguing.

For centuries the Aristotelian approach to thinking about the physical world dominated. Logic and perceived common sense were the 'tools' through which one should reach conclusions about why things work the way they do. The classic example is dropping a heavy object along with a light object. Of course, without knowing anything about basic physics, most would think the heavy object should hit the ground first. Makes sense, in a logical frame of thinking, since gravity is obviously pulling harder on a heavy object. And that is the end of the discussion. For whatever reason, which is so foreign to modern thinking, no one simply picked up two different sized rocks and dropped them...no one did the experiment. At least there is no documented instance of this happening prior to Galileo's famous experiments. Tradition (especially religious), respect for past genius, a mindset that what was in books was the final word on a subject, and a culture that did not yet appreciate the notion of some process resembling experimentation, kept limiting advances in human thought, at least when it came to the physical world. Part of the reason for this was the fact that there was no formal public education for the masses. Smaller groups of the 'elite' and privileged, both aristocratic/governmental and religious, dictated life, kept the masses in a static intellectual state, and worked to maintain the status quo.

Liberal democracies did not exist in those times, up until the scientific revolution had begun through the work and sacrifice of the names listed above. Science is based on facts, physical evidence, open minded thinking, and the ability to test ideas and observe results of those tests. Science is a collaborative process. It relies on the exchange of ideas and findings, and allows curiosity to cross geographical and geopolitical borders. Science does not care what one's socioeconomic status is, but rather whether one has done careful, thoughtful and thorough work that leads to evidence that supports one's conclusions. It is a mindset, a process, and a culture all in one. There is no single leader, for everyone's work is put through the ringer of independent tests and possible rebuke by the rest of the scientific community. If a better idea or theory arises based on new experiments, then old theories are abandoned. Even the great Newtonian mechanics in Newton's Principia, which was the greatest singular piece of work in science history (for it formally established the power of the scientific process and showed the world what science was capable of), met its match with Einstein's relativity theories.

Wherever the word science is used in the above paragraph, substitute in 'liberal democracy.' Does it fit into such a description of characteristics? Largely, yes. Democracies depend on ideas being exchanged. Ideally, it depends on large educated groups of citizens and followers. It is a mindset, a culture and a process. There is no singular leader, but when someone else comes along with a better idea and can convince the masses that he or she is correct (and preferably with evidence that it is a better idea), then that person becomes the new leader. The founders of the early democracies, for example in the United States people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams either were scientists or endorsed the scientific process. The early Founding Fathers were all highly educated and committed to the principles first introduced and practiced with good results in the scientific revolution that began in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Liberal democracies did not exist prior to the science revolution, which still persists today. These are Ferris's arguments in his book.

One quote that sticks with me is from William Gilbert in 1600:
"In the discovery of secret things and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from pure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators...Men are deplorably ignorant with respect to natural things, and modern philosophers, as though dreaming in the darkness, must be aroused and taught the uses of things, the dealing with things; they must be made to quit the sort of learning that comes only from books, and that rests only on vain arguments from probability and upon conjectures."

This approach and way of thinking is precisely what jump-started the science movement and revolution that followed. Galileo and then Newton took this approach and ran with it, along with others who are not as well known, and world history changed forever. In keeping with this relationship between science and liberal democracy, we still hear about the "Great American Experiment" which is our own democracy. Science, and therefore democracy, is not static, but instead dynamic and evolving. If something works, it lasts, but when evidence shows it is not working, the machinery is in place to make change. Only time will tell where we will end up.