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“The Colbert Report,” “Conan,” and Science Education

Recently, I had the rare opportunity to be on both The Colbert Report and the Conan show. As you can imagine, we had a madcap, hilarious romp through time travel, invisibility, space warps, wormholes, and string theory (all in a few minutes of air time). Although Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien are both celebrated comedians, they had an ulterior motive, I think, in inviting me on their shows—and this is a concern for science education in the U.S. Although they try to squeeze every joke they can out of their guests, they are also concerned that our society is not educating its students, especially in science and math. After my interview, Conan even brought up the subject, lamenting how poorly U.S. students did in the recent science and math exams, ranking nearly last among the advanced countries. Of course, no comedy program can remedy this problem. But the fact that they even considered using their popular shows to address this problem shows their deep concern.

We are all born scientists. All of us are born wondering why the sun shines, or why it rains, or where we all came from. However, this innocent, child-like curiosity disappears during the “danger years,” i.e. after the age of 14 or so. Or, more accurately, this curiosity is crushed out of our students by the educational system and also by social pressures. Our schools teach science as if it were a dead subject, consisting of memorizing useless facts that have no relevance to students’ lives. Sometimes, we professors lament this and blame the students, insinuating that they are not very smart. However, I think otherwise. I think the students are so smart that they have figured out by themselves that science, as it is taught, is largely irrelevant to their future.

There are also social pressures as well. Our culture and Hollywood celebrate the high school years, creating a myth of a certain pryamid, (with the jocks and beautiful people at the top, and the nerds at the bottom). This pyramid, if it exists at all, only holds for about 3-4 years of high school. After that, the pyramid largely turns upside down. So our culture gives the distorted impression that the heirarchy of high school is permanent, while actually it holds only for an insignificant period of one’s lifespan.

The reality is that our world is geting more scientific, not less. No one is going back to an earlier time when science was not so important. And to meet this challenge, we have to prepare our students better to meet the challenge of a technological future. (And if we don’t do this, our competitor nations will, and leave us in the dust).

There are many complex aspects of this problem, which I will try to address in future blogs. Be sure to stay tuned!

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