November 19, 2011

"Science is Hard" and Occupy Wall Street

There was an article in the New York Times last week that was forwarded to me by several people.     The article's title is "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)".  My first impression was "this is news?".  My second thought was "I've seen this before" and finally remembered that this theme was in The Onion about nine years ago (link here).  

But sarcasm and parody aside, the article first made the point that science and engineering are hard and then went on to discuss the potential of more effective and engaging methods of teaching.  Why is this considered news when the point at first glance seems obvious.  But then I sat back and thought a little, and realized that the fact STEM education needs reform both is and isn't news to most people.  And this contradiction or confusion is perfectly understandable if you consider not just what makes the news, but how the news is generated.

For years an underlying assumption of this country has been our technological, scientific, and moral superiority.  This assumption drives our foundational narratives, and contribute to our cultural identity.  In an era of where the corporate news media is required to turn out stories rapidly and continuously, it is my perception that the media increasingly bases stories on these foundational narratives.  Given the rapid news cycle, there is less time to reflect on and challenge these narratives and thus they are often reinforced among the great majority of the American populace that are not experts in a given discipline.  Since cultural narratives likely play a major role in identity, challenging these narratives opens one to disbelief and criticism, much of which can be irrational.

If one looks at the Times article there are two other related foundational narratives that crop up in the first two paragraphs:  that the US is falling behind other countries, and the "Sputnik Moment" story.  These narratives are, of course, related.

The "falling behind" narrative is used to underscore or highlight news and relate it to basic human fears.  The fear that the end is near, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the other, and the fear of death.  In this narrative there is an "other" out there that is gaining on us, and if it catches or surpasses us we can expect the future to be worse than the present.  All our hard work will have gone for naught.  In the last fifty years this "other" was first the USSR, then Japan, and now is China/India.

The "Sputnik Moment" is our story of how we overcome this threat.  A pivotal event somehow transforms the country.  A cadre of scientific heroes rise up from the mass of ordinary Americans and through their superior intellect transform society and save us from the "other".

Both these foundational narratives are not new, and form the basis for human storytelling throughout much of history.  But the stereotypes and resultant actions triggered by these narratives can be dangerous if the narratives go unchallenged precisely because they are so deeply rooted in what it means to be human.  Two questions immediately come to mind.  First, is the "other" really a threat?  Second, are there really "heroes" among us that can rise up and save us?  The first question is one that is often asked; I don't really have anything to add to this discussion.  The interesting and most important question, I feel, is the second one...

The importance of the question of whether we can have "heroes", which I believe today are called "entrepreneurs" or "innovators", struck me today when I was down at Occupy DC today with my son and saw this sign:
"I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that.  
Then I realized, I AM SOMEBODY"

The foundational narrative of a Sputnik moment is that critical events result in heroes rising up.  Such moments create heroes.  But we live in a society that suppresses Sputnik moments since they both threaten our narrative of superiority and result in changes to the status quo.  Engineering educators would love to see the engineer as hero again, but this will not happen.  If we wait for heroes we must wait a long time.  We live in an age of cooperative ventures, teams, large systems, and complex problems.  Sputnik created this age, and we must live with its consequences.  And as the protest sign above indicates, we must now all be heroes.

The foundational narrative of the scientist hero sparked the wide-spread belief that science (and by incorrect association engineering) is hard, the domain of a few "super-brains".  Phrases like "It's not rocket science" for what is perceived to be simple imply that rocket science is hard, it is not accessible to everyone.  How much damage has this narrative done to our country?

And perhaps this is the hidden message in the Times article.  Students seek to construct their own narratives where they are heroes or heroines.  As we seek to make engineering rigorous, we deconstruct their narratives; they can no longer maintain the myth we ourselves have created for them.  So they leave.  And the myth perpetuates...