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Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category

Understanding Galaxies Far, Far Away

In Education, Science, The United States on September 6, 2017 at 9:55 am

The 40th anniversary of the Voyager launch was yesterday and the day before that Elon Musk predicted World War III. Because we only post on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I thought I would use Wednesday’s post to talk about science, or more specifically science education in the US.

I am a huge huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I listen to all of the StarTalk podcasts, read his books, watched all the Cosmos episodes on Netflix and of course I follow him on Twitter (and his Tweets are great). He was recently on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah and the interview was, as usual, fantastic.

Science education hits a sore spot with me. I went to a rural high school and our science program was terrible. Our science teachers were terrible. The science curriculum was terrible. I was fascinated by planets, galaxies, black holes and anything to do with outer space since I was a little kid and my high school and those terrible teachers ruined it all. In fact I was almost tempted to get into contact with some old classmates just to get his name and put it on here for all to see but decided against it. How terrible was it? For example my ‘chemistry’ class was us sitting in a classroom for an hour, looking at formulas. He would do zero teaching, pass out the required examinations, and encouraged those who didn’t ‘get it’ to find someone else who did and just copy off them. He encouraged us to cheat, facilitated it, and we learnt nothing. Oh and he was also the Physics teacher.

And it wasn’t until around 14 years later after reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything that I remembered that I loved science.

Ok rant over.

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently stated that science illiteracy in the U.S. is a serious threat. Of the 40 most advanced countries, the US is actually number 38 when it comes to students graduating with majors in science, or STEM degrees (BUT we’re ahead of the Netherlands!). If you compare education systems around the world and test skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students, you’ll see that the US is only slightly above average of the OECD average or even below average when it comes to Math. And though this is using only one test, there are countless others that are used and the results are the same. The US is behind other countries when it comes to STEM education and the trend is not improving.

So why is this happening? Especially when the US is still considered the most innovative country in the world, producing countless numbers of innovative products in Silicon Valley, hosts many of the top engineering schools, and leads the world in scientific research?

There are many reasons for this.

One reason many point to is that STEM has a branding problem. Kids are not excited enough about STEM majors, we still have a culture of calling those who are geeks and nerds and some have argued that schools are not teaching enough science in a creative enough way in elementary school. Students are simply losing interest in STEM when they reach high school and should they hold their interest when they get to college, out of the 40% of declared majors being STEM by college freshman only 16% actually receive a degree in that field.

Another reason is that there is a growing opinion gap between what the public believes to be true and what scientists believe to be true.  Only 1/3 of Americans believe evolution is a myth, and many outspoken leaders in US politics believe that a snowball is proof that climate change isn’t real and vaccines cause autism.

A more telling and perhaps controversial reason is simply the influence that local populations have in dictating curricula in science classes. For example, Florida’s legislature recently approved a bill that would allow residents to question what educators teach students. Idaho removed references to climate change from state’s science standards and in Alabama and Indiana, resolutions were passed to support teachers who include different views on evolution and human cloning. As of May 2017, eleven bills have been proposed that are designed to alter science-education standards in the US.  In short, parents and local communities are trying to influence the curriculum that students have in high school, and it’s not surprising that this is predominate in areas with more conservative and religious demographics.

Look, the US is a big place with a lot of different views on what is fact and what is fiction. The organization of elementary and secondary education has been a topic of debate for a long time and educators, politicians, and the general public generally agree that is has to be improved. The worry for me, as someone currently working in education, is allowing an environment where communities that have little to no academic, practical, or scientific educational experience or knowledge dictate what should and should not be taught on a wide scale. If the US wants to keep its status as dominating in scientific research, education and attracting highly skilled, highly intellectual people and education it needs to fix this problem.

Because I started with Neil deGrasse Tyson I will end with him speaking to Trevor Noah about the benefits of having a cosmic perspective.


German elections – 2009

In Elections, Europe, Germany on August 31, 2009 at 1:59 am

For those of you who missed it, elections are well underway in Germany.

Alex Harrowell over at Fistful of Euros, has a good description of what the heck is going on, as well as a good overview of how the election process works in the country, in terms of coalition building.

I will just shed a little light on a few interesting tidbits.

In the eastern realm of the country, there always exists a pretty good turnout for die Linke (“The Left” – the old communist party of yore) and the NPD (the NSDAP, or so one could argue, in its current form). These elections hold true so far. Die Linke is showing a strong performance in both Sachsen and Thüringen, and also, which is always an interesting case study, in Saarland, giving the SPD a run for their money. The NPD are making an appearance in the election results in Thüringen and Sachsen, which shows that they are garnering enough votes to be counted in the results. This will without a doubt be comparable to the other Bundesländer in the east.

The financial crisis has hit Germany very hard because its economy is mainly focused and driven on exports. Therefore, the rather poor performance of the SPD mirrors the troubles that they are having in terms of identity. The CDU has been leaning left, and it seems the German population views them to be doing it a lot better than the traditional workers’ party.

Local European elections always sort of mirror the main issue on the continent today, or rather two issues at present. The first is immigration and the second is of course the financial crisis. There have been talks of a fortress Europe systematically emerging, which is a debate in its own right, but the fact is that Europe is having a lot of difficulty with integrating its large immigration population. Being a social-welfare state, government institutions are just not built to allow easy movement of peoples between various classes, and social mobility for immigrants is rather low, compared to the United States whose institutions are founded upon it, though they are obviously not perfect.

There have been comments that globalization is the United States, and globalization is Americanization, to use it in the negative sense. Immigration policy is a major reason why the U.S. has benefited quite a lot. It still attracts the brightest students from abroad, and still dominates the globe in terms of advanced education, (though the U.S.’ secondary education is in a dire state) which is a major drive for entrepreneurship that increases its ability for innovation. Though after 9/11 there have been major setbacks in this endeavor, and any non-U.S. citizen wanting to work or reside in the country for longer than three months will be able to attest to the rigorous (and outright embarrassing) application process, nevertheless Europe has a tougher job. It has to reform itself entirely from a country that is based on homogeneous principles, to accepting those who become naturalized citizens, who have newly acquired a European passport, to also be German, British or Italian.

Read Harrowell’s article. But in essence, the SPD and CDU (Angela Merkel’s party)  are going to lose a few seats, but the latter will still be the dominant party. The biggest winner will be the FDP, Germany’s “catch-all” party, which really shows confusion and a bit indifference regarding the state of affairs in the country. Without the SPD being able to fully capitalize on the financial crisis, which truthfully makes it difficult to point the finger at the other party that they happen to be in a grand coalition with, the status quo will be more or less upheld. What is important is how many votes the FDP will acquire, and what sort of direction they will take when the time comes to build a coalition.

Die Zeit is keeping a tally on the scores for the Bundesländer, in which voting is underway. You don’t need to have a knowledge of German to understand the graph and the results.