Survey-Related Inadequacies

I recently participated in a survey of higher education professionals about various aspects of the job. It was very clearly designed by and aimed at scholars in the humanities and social sciences, to the point where answering questions honestly made me feel like a Bad Person.

For example, there were numerous questions about teaching methods that just aren’t applicable to what I teach– things like learning through community service. while there is some truth to the old cliche that you never really learn something until you have to teach it, something like turning a bunch of would-be engineers from our first-year mechanics class loose on a local middle school isn’t really going to help anybody. Similarly, the hot trope of the moment, interdisciplinarity, really doesn’t come into play when the main task I face is teaching a bunch of first-year students about Newton’s laws. While you can sneak in the occasional biology or physiology-related example, those are pretty much physics through and through.

Still, as I went down the list checking “No” to each of the areas they chose to highlight, it was hard to avoid feeling like I was horribly inadequate as an academic. When, in fact, it’s just that the survey isn’t a good fit for the sort of thing that we do.

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There’s More to Science Than Evolution

The National Science Board made a deeply regrettable decision to omit questions on evolution and the Big Bang from the Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2010. As you might expect, this has stirred up some controversy.

I wasn’t surprised to learn this, as I had already noticed the omission a couple of months ago, when I updated the slides for my talk on public communication of science– the figure showing survey data in the current talk doesn’t include those questions, while the original version has them in there. I noticed it, and thought it was a little odd, but it had no effect on the point I was making with that slide. In fact, the graph works better, for my purposes, without the evolution question in there.

While I absolutely agree that this is a stupid decision, and hope that future reports restore discussion of what is one of the most important issues for science education in the United States, at the same time, this is indicative of one of the most frustrating problems in talking about public communication of science. While evolution is undeniably a critical issue in science education, there is a whole lot more to science than evolution, and it dominates the discussion to a really unhealthy degree.

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