14 August 2006

New American Educational System

As I look back on my 40 years of teaching chemistry I am sad to see the sorry state of education in the US. Tears almost form in my eyes when I think about the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted partially educating our American youth. As a result it is having a profound effect on just about every aspect of American society.

In this short essay I would like to briefly survey the serious problems and shortcomings of education today, and then provide an alternative to the sick and dying system that is in place today. Of course, I do not expect anything to change because our educational system is a big business generating billions of dollars for those who have their fingers in the tills of the schools, colleges, and universities. It is not unlike the symbiotic financial links of the American drug and health care industries. That is another sad story.

To set the scene for my new (old) educational system a little bit of history is order. I was educated from 1949 when I entered kindergarten until 1976 when I received my Ph. D. I mention this only to place things into proper perspective. While I went to school I did not have the use of hand-held calculators, computers, internet links, or any of the modern-day technology. Nonetheless, I know from my years in classroom that I was far better educated upon receiving my high school diploma than most college graduates today. When I graduated from high school I could read, write, and calculate to the level that would support me through the remainder of my life. I was also educated to the level that I could successfully begin taking the college-level courses of the 1960s. Note that these courses have little resemblance to those taught today at about 85% (conservative estimate) of colleges and universities in the 21st century.

During the years of my education the idea of college for everyone was born. Prior to the 1960s college education was for those with strong intellectual and academic skills, really smart students (known as pupils at that time). Most of these students were from higher socioeconomic groups but a significant number were from the lowest economic groups. Many of this second group figured out that to sacrifice, persevere, and work hard would allow them opportunities to pursue their desired careers and to achieve more than their parents (many of whom were immigrants). They realized that it would be difficult and nothing was going to be handed to them. Their education was not a birthright but an opportunity to learn and achieve.

Fast forwarding to our present educational system, we have almost the antithesis of the system in which I was educated. Now the idea is that we can educate everyone and most are worthy of top grades. As a result we have many disinterested students who disrupt classes and consume time that could be spent on those students who want to learn. Today the incorrect idea exists that students will feel bad if they receive poor grades; thus, most students are given top grades if they know anything or not. Poor grades are reserved to any students who may be disruptive. For example I have students in preparatory chemistry classes (a low-level course for students who did not take high school chemistry) who have A averages out of high school but can only score 10 out of 100 points on the first test in preparatory chemistry. This tests their knowledge of the metric system and the symbols of the elements. I should mention that most of the students outside of the US learn the metric system and symbols for the elements in primary school not at the college level!

Another bane to the education of American students is the national and state testing that has been thrust on educators by unknowing politicians who have never taught or been involved in the education of students. An example of one of these tests is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Without getting into the specifics this test is now the focus of the education of students in Florida. Schools are graded according to their students’ results on the FCAT. Thus most school principals in Florida held meetings with their teachers and told them that they would cease educating their students and begin training their students to pass the FCAT test. Yes, they now spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Florida to train students to pass a test. Subjects that are not on this test are marginalized and often not taught. For example, how can you spend time teaching students the fundamentals of history and geography if they are not on the FCAT test? You get the idea.

So what would I do to improve the US educational system? I would almost totally throw out our current system and install a performance-based track system. What is that? A track system would allow students to enter academic, business, athletic, military, domestic, or disciplinary educational pathways. I list the aforementioned tracks as possible examples. Others could be included depending on the needs of society. This means that students from their first day of school would chose one of these tracks to follow. A child has little or no idea when he begins kindergarten what he wants to do with his life. During the first few years of all tracks, students would learn the benefits and difficulties of all tracks. At any time a student could switch their track from one to other or back to the original.

Each track would be further subdivided into many pathways. For example in the academic track a basic science/mathematics pathway could be followed in the early years. This pathway would then divide into physical, biological, and engineering pathways. Another example would be the military tracks dividing into to army, navy, and air force tracks. The military track would be similar to what is followed in a military school.

Our current organization of different grades (first grade, second grade, etc.) divided into elementary, middle, and high schools would evaporate into space. In its place I would have 10 academic levels for each disciple within a pathway. To obtain a pre-college or pre-university degree (akin to today’s high school diploma), a student would have to successfully complete all 10 levels. Note that brilliant students may be able to do this in five or six years and slow students might take 20 years. It does not matter how long it takes because all students with this degree would have the knowledge and skills associated with their desired pathway. As a result, colleges and universities would no longer teach basic classes to essentially functionally illiterate students!

All students would be required to take a full range of academic subjects. They would be exposed to the great works classic and modern literature, art, and music. Students would be required to take physical education throughout their years of study. They would be exposed to team sports, individual sports, and physical exercise programs. An important addition to the education program would be an extensive international education program that would expose students at all levels to the cultures and people of the entire planet. Finally, students would be required to take a minimum of eight years of a single foreign language. Besides the normal offerings, languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, and Swahili would be taught.

To implement such a system schools would be open 12 months of the year. Students could take vacations or celebrate holidays whenever they like because their work will be there waiting for them. Teachers would essentially become tutors for their students. A teacher would teach in his own discipline at a particular level. For example, a ninth-level mathematics teacher would teach students analytical geometry and basic calculus to principally science, math, and engineering students. His/her function would be to educate beginning ninth-level mathematics students to the level where they could pass the tests and show their proficiency to the level that will allow them to progress to the final level needed for their degree, the tenth level.

Thinking of teachers, I would require that they would be well educated and well paid. All teachers of a particular subject will at a minimum have an undergraduate degree in the subject that they teach. Teacher education would be focused on first developing a solid level of knowledge in a discipline followed by a few important education courses. Learning how to teach in this new system will be developed in the classroom.

Students would be required to attend school until the age of 18 or until they completed all requirements for their track. Disruptive and violent students would immediately be moved either to the military or disciplinary tracks where they would remain until they turn 18 or can reenter another track if they have two years of proper behavior in the military or disciplinary tracks.

To conclude I would like to say that this proposal is only a bare outline for a greatly improved US educational system. All systems, even the one that I propose, have problems and limitations. Nonetheless, I feel that my proposal will put education back into our system. This system should produce better citizens who will be more competitive in our global economy.

04 September 2005

Scientific Illiterates

Recent data reported in the New York Times shows that only a small percent of Americans understand what molecules are. Only a third could not identify DNA as the central molecule that determines heredity. Only 10% know what radiation is, and 20% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. We should also not forget those flatlanders!

As a chemical educator this does not surprise me in the least. Science education in American primary and secondary schools is abysmal, and it does not get much better at many colleges and universities. Partly this is due to the fact that many science teachers often do not have degrees in science. For example, about half of the high school chemistry teachers in the US do not have a degree in chemistry. Of teachers in this group, many are physical education teachers because they have a little more science than most other teachers. Of course, they have nothing to teach because many of the physical education classes are now electives. American students can now get an early start on the road to obesity and diabetes when they are young due to inactivity. I know when I was in school we all took physical education three to five times a week! That is another problem for me to discuss.

If our citizens do now know about molecules, how can they know about the atoms that bond to produce molecules? It gets worse. How can they know about the nucleus in the center of atoms or the electrons in organized shells outside the nucleus? How can they know of the quarks that make up the proton, neutrons, and electrons? I will not bore you by continuing and showing how these small particles are held together with the fundamental forces of nature.

How can Americans understand the issues of nuclear power? Mr. Bush cannot even correctly pronounce the word “nuclear!” The scientific knowledge concerning radiation and and nuclear energy is beyond most Americans. How can they evaluate the pros and cons of nuclear power?

How can Americans understand the issues surrounding global warming? Mr. Bush and his gang deny the scientific data that show the planet is warming just like his ideas about intelligent design (psuedoscience) and how it should be taught along side natural selection and evolution (science). I am not a meteorologist but the extra warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico may have increased Katrina from a category I or II hurricane to a category IV or V hurricane. Do Americans know that the North Pole is now an ocean—no ice? What happened to the snows of Kilimanjaro? Gone!

How can Americans understand stem cells and their vast potential to ease human suffering? A person who does not know about atoms and molecules has no way of understanding the complex molecules in living things. Do Americans know that stem cells are not cells? They are the precursors to cells.

How can Americans understand that our earth is finite? Is there an infinite supply of crude oil for thousands of generations to come? Is it okay for Americans, who represent about 7% of the human population, to use 20-30% of all resources from earth including crude oil? Do Americans have any concerns for their children and their grandchildren? Will crude oil be available for them? I think Americans just do not give a damn! Most believe that scientists will rescue them from their problems.

So how then can Americans understand the vastness of our universe, which may not be the only one? We live on a small planet that is part of an average solar system in the outer spiral arm of a non-descript galaxy called the Milky Way. The Milky Way has about 100 billion stars, many of which have solar systems. How many galaxies are in the universe? You guessed it. A good estimate is 100 billion galaxies. Even if you know little about the world, the likelihood that no other life exists in our universe is infinitesimal!

How can Americans understand the big bang and what came before? I will not even comment. I will leave that for another time. For most Americans they can sit in their easy chairs and say “I do not believe it!” This is the end of the story for them. Until we can educate Americans to better understand science and history without the intrusion of mythology, we will continue to decline until we reach third-world status.

15 August 2005

Rules for the Youth of America

Being part of the online world means that people will forward you things that they think are important. Most of the time, these forwarded emails are funny or give good advice. The following set of rules is attributed to Bill Gates who proposed them at a speech to a high school. Since I have lived a turbulent 61 years, 40 of those years as an educator, I feel that I can annotate and expand on these rules. So let’s begin.

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!

Of all the rules that Mr. Gates proposes I think this is the most important for our youth to comprehend. Some how along the way as we grow up, we are given the impression that life is fair. This is ludicrous! One of my favorite quotes is the following by Edward Abbey

Life is unfair. And it’s not fair that life is unfair.

For years I made a sign of this quote and posted it on the wall of my office. If you think life is fair, you are going to be disappointed most of your life. In closing, just try to define the word “fair.”

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

You are not born with good self-esteem. It takes years of positive and negative experiences, intelligence, and a feel for what is expected of you in life to develop good self-esteem. If you are smart you should work each day of your life to help build your self-esteem. If you do so, then no one will ever be able to take it from you.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

You typically will not make $60,000 out of college much less high school. College graduates know that only the best and brightest get the big salaries. For most of the poorly educated people who graduate from American universities today you should be happy to get a job paying any reasonable salary. Many of the top paying jobs are now being done by more highly educated Indians and Chinese who will do a better job and will work happily for a fraction of the salary paid in the US. You may think that this terrible to pay these people such poor wages and that they live a lower-quality life than you. You would be wrong. In India and China people can live great lives on a fraction of the salary paid to an American. This could be a topic for another of my blog entries.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Life is a cruel teacher. I do not know who originally said this but it is true. Your teacher is a poorly paid professional who wants nothing more than to educate you so that you will have a shot of living a decent knowledgeable life. Your tougher teachers are the ones who are most concerned for your welfare. They could just give you top grades and pass you on, but they attempt to better educate you by demanding more, demanding quality in your work, and demanding that you earn your grades. They get the same salary as the teachers who “give you” good grades. Your boss on the other hand has a bottom line to meet. If you do not come through and do what you are paid to do, then you are fired or your job is shipped to India so that it can be done properly.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.

The quality of life that most American kids have today comes from the hard work and sacrifices of their grand parents and great grand parents who probably emigrated to the US and did whatever job they could find to feed their family so that they could work hard to achieve the American dream. Many of the youth of America do not study or know history and thus sit around playing video games and watching TV expecting that this will continue throughout life. It will not.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

We all make mistakes. Mistakes are personal. You made the mistake. Blaming someone else for you mistakes shows that you are immature and not equipped for the modern world. It is part of something bigger—self acceptance. We must accept ourselves for what we are. Many Americans cannot achieve this over a lifetime. They must alter their appearance through hair dye, face lifts, and surgical implants. Then they dress up their bodies with fancy clothing and stylish cars. But in the end, they are just themselves no matter what they do. Accept yourself for who you are and your quality of life should improve.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Many twenty-first century American youth do not appear to “honor their fathers and mothers.” All parents, no matter how bad they are at child rearing, have made sacrifices to bring you into the world, have provided you with what you need, and have attempted to protect you. They spend lots of money giving you the things that they think you want. This money could be spent for their own pleasure but often they spend it on their children who tell them it is not good enough or not what they wanted. Something is sadly wrong with this.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

The modern American educational system is now supposed to prepare you for life and, if possible, give you an education. In the past, the educational system had one principal function—to educate students. That system is long gone. Now schools do neither as so well stated above by Mr. Gates. Schools should return to be educational systems and your family should entrusted with preparing you for life in the 21st century.

It is time for schools to return the grading scale to C is average and is what most will accomplish by hard work. The grade B would be reserved for excellent students who go above and beyond the average. Ah, what about the A grade? It is for the best and brightest. What about the D and F grades? Well, these students should fail and be required to come up to the minimum standard of a C. If we did return to this classic grading system, then the system would have meaning. Grading systems today are totally useless. Note: that the system I propose, or a similar one, is used throughout Asia!

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

I cannot find anything to say that would add to this rule. It is a fact.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Television is great. It is entertaining and allows us to escape from the real world. At the same time TV causes many of the ills that plague our declining society. First many people are fixtures in front of the TV just as the furniture in the TV room. Humans were not designed for a sedentary life. Hence, sedentary TV watching helps accelerate Americans to their state of obesity and poor health. If you were not watching TV, you might be active and actually participating in life. TV watching is a spectator sport. It would be better playing the sport that you watch.

Television watching time could be better spent reading. Virtually all academic disciplines go back to one’s ability to read. I bet that the students who read and do not watch TV achieve better grades and ultimately life more satisfying lives than those who do not read. When I say reading I am not referring to moving your eyes across words. I am referring to the comprehension of the words that your eyes cross.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

The nerds rule the world. As I mentioned in my last entry, all of the leaders of the Chinese government are graduate engineers. They are using their intelligence to quickly move China from third to first world status. The nerds run the research programs in all of our major business and industry. Who gave you TV, video games, wireless communications, jet planes, and drugs that cure your ills? You know the answer—thank a nerd.

11 August 2005

Not-So-Intelligent Design of the Species

The Chinese are ecstatic. As they sit on the sidelines watching the leaders of the USA hurtle the country at warp speed into the Second Dark Age, the graduate engineers who lead the Chinese Politburo Bureau including Hu Jintao, the president of China, sit back, relax, have some quality green tea, and laugh heartily at the decline of the world’s only so called superpower.

What might inspire the leaders of China to laugh at the US besides creating billions of dollars of debt that the Chinese are subsidizing through the purchase of US Treasure Securities ($243 billion in June 2005)? It is something beyond their comprehension—teaching so called “intelligent design” along with the theory of evolution to American youth. It is beyond their comprehension because outside of Christianity no one has ever heard of “intelligent design” to explain evolution of the species or anything for that matter. Chinese students, who are ahead of American students, as measured by international competitions in science, learn modern science without the intrusion of religion. They produce more and better educated engineers (In 1995, China produced 220,000 engineers and the US produced 60,000 engineers) and scientists than the US. Do not take my word for it. Ask Bill Gates who has now opened research institutes in China and India so that he can employ quality scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, who he once could hire in the US.

It is ludicrous to believe that American students, who the majority have trouble with basic arithmetic skills, will have the intellectual ability to intelligently decide between a well-established scientific theory with 150 years of experimental support in peer-reviewed journals, and “intelligent design,” which is nothing more than creationism in wolf’s (no pun intended) clothing. An intelligent American student would ask “show me just one scientific experiment that supports “intelligent design” of the species.” Of course, he will hear the sound of silence because none have ever been undertaken, and no experiment will ever be done to support a religious idea. What about that burning bush? The same student who is still not convinced should ask “who designed the “designer?”

The most common argument of the so called “intelligent design” aficionado is that the evolutionary record has “holes.” Quick American students will realize that science and math always have “holes.” How would they know that? Well, they may watch two or three CSI programs on TV. Just watching one CSI episode will beautifully illustrate that science always encounters holes (gaps in the evidence) that given enough time and money will probably be filled. However, some murders are never solved through forensic evidence no matter how clever and intelligent the forensic scientists may be and how high-tech the instruments that they use.

My recommendation is that the “intelligent design” people should have convention with the Flat Earth Society to decide on a scientific plan to disavow both evolution of species through natural selection and the myth of a spherical earth. That should be fun. I bet they will be awarded many hours-a-day of TV coverage on Fox News!

So what is one solution to this problem—traveling at warp speed to the next Dark Age? We need to just follow the constitution of the US. Religion should be separate from the state affairs. Religion, modern mythology, should be taught in Sunday school. Modern science and mathematics should be taught in our public and private schools. What has happened to “the land of the free and home of the brave?” If we do not do something about this free-fall decline of the American educational system, China and the Asian nations will fill the void.

Bill Gates
Hu Jintao
Evolution of species through natural selection
Intelligent Design

Flat Earth Society

08 August 2005

It's About Time

Now that I created my blog, WorldWideWolfe, what do I say? Do I really have anything to say? Does it matter either way?

Thus, I have decided to pick one of the most difficult of all topics to begin my rants and raves--TIME. For many this is easy and simplistic: a. Time marches on.; b. What time is it?; c. Well, it is years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds.; and d. Stupid, it is a magazine that I subscribe to. Most people have a simple-minded idea of time (or just about everything) because they never have to think about time as long as they have time remaining—the clock is ticking down for all of us.

The understanding of time is one of those things, like most things, that fit into my Onion Worldly View, OWV. Just about everything in our world is like an onion. For those unfamiliar with onions, they are composed of many layers. Peal a layer of onion from the onion and you will find another. If you continue for hours, assuming that you are patient and do not mind a little crying, you will continue to find layers under layers. I think you get the point. Most people for just about everything only understand and comprehend the first layer of the onion. This can be with something abstract like time or it can be cars, football, or anything.

What do most know about cars? It goes like this for first-level onion people: add gas, start car, put it into the proper gear, press one pedal to go, and the other to stop—end of story. Contrast this knowledge to the automotive engineer who has a Ph. D. degree from MIT and 40 years of experience designing and modifying cars for a major car manufacturer. What level of the onion has he/she reached?

With that out of the way I contend that we have to consider that most of us are either at the first or second layer of the onion when it comes to our understanding of time. For example, many of us know that time is relative. What does that mean? It means that time depends on the speed that we are moving and where we are located, our frame of reference. Do not accept what I say but time slows when we approach the speed of light (c = 3e8 m/s or 186,000 miles/s). Yes, if you could see the dashboard clock of one who passes us at the speed of light, it would be ticking slower than our clock. Do we have evidence of this? The answer is emphatically yes. Do you understand what this means? Your time is not necessarily the time for someone else.

What about people who live on the other side of the earth? I just returned from China which is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Savings Time, EDT. They live in the future and you live in their past. Just think about that for awhile. My flight from Hong Kong to Newark was time travel. Those going to the west coast of the US from eastern Asia arrive before they leave.

Even more astounding to me is the perception of time. When I was young an old and wise lady that I loved and respected told me that as I grew older time would go faster. How can that be? Time is time. Did I just contradict myself? Now that I have lived over 50 years since hearing her tell me this tidbit of knowledge, I know she was correct. Now that I am 61 years old, time is flying by just like the scenery I viewed outside of the window of the TGV bullet train that took me at 175 mi/hr from Paris to Avignon. When I was young the scenery passed as slowly when I rode my bike to junior high school—Garrison Junior High School, Baltimore, Maryland.

While I still do not have any conclusive ideas that explain our perception of time, a wiser person than me suggests that time is perceived as a percent of the amount of time you have been allotted. An hour to a five year old is a much larger percent of their life (large percent) than mine having survived 61 years in the best of all possible worlds.

Check out the following links:

Time Travel

Perception of Time

06 August 2005

Welcome to WorldWideWolfe

Drew at Victoria Peak, Hong Kong Posted by Picasa