When in Doubt, Choose “C”

Two weeks ago I eliminated all multiple choice assessments. Mind you, this was a double-edged sword. Both the test prep and the grading for a written assessment puts an enormously time-consuming strain on my already bulging-at-the-seams schedule. Still, the more the students protested, the more confident I was in my decision. Students have been taught how to take multiple-choice tests; they can work backwards from the answer choices, the quickest among them can “guess” the right answers, and the least ethical always seem to “find” the right answers. Students and well-intended test-teaching “gurus” often tell me that, when in doubt, choose answer “C.” Of course, in written assessments, there are no answers from which to choose, and no letter “Cs” to bubble in.

Rather, the answers must come from within the students themselves.

One student whom I usually see brazenly copying someone else’s homework at the beginning of each class period told me how he spent three hours studying for the new written exam, thinking his effort alone could convince me to bring back the beloved multiple choice. Rather, it strengthened my resolve.

I estimate it will take me eight hours to grade all 120 written exams, whereas a multiple choice exam grades itself and makes for happier students (and often parents). The path I have chosen is the path of fools, I know. After all, most students don’t care about chemistry. They care about the grade.

But the thing is, I care about chemistry. And not in the way you may think. Yes, it’s both scientifically and spiritually satisfying to realize that you, I, and all the stars are made up of the same handful of elements -- carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a preponderance of metals -- which differ only in the number of positively charged protons housed in their infinitely tiny nuclei. The difference between hydrogen and helium is just one proton, and yet a rigid airship made of the former resulted in the Hindenburg disaster, and an airship made of the latter continues to hover over sporting events advertising tires.

But it’s not about chemistry, really. Rather, it’s about what chemistry teaches. Chemistry teaches you to work methodically through problems whose level of difficulty at times rises exponentially faster than your ability to solve them. Chemistry teaches you to stay the course, make daily effort, even when the effort seems to be fruitless. Chemistry teaches you to show up, be willing to be wrong, and be even more willing to learn from your mistakes. Chemistry teaches you that error is not something to be embarrassed about, but quantified, and learned from. Chemistry teaches you to struggle without the guarantee of ultimate victory. And chemistry teaches you that, if you do show up daily and work through the struggle, the challenge, the failure and the uncertainty, you will master a life skill that no multiple-choice exam in the world can assess, not even letter “C.”

Because the answers must come from within the students themselves.

Which, as we all know, is the only place to find them.

Failure IS an Option

As summer vacation ends, teachers observe the annual ritual of returning to school days ahead of their students, to be indoctrinated in the school district’s goals for the new year. The latest education fad is tossed out and replaced with newer education initiatives, which are usually older education initiatives spiffed up and redressed under new acronyms. After all, no matter how far we stray, we always return to the fact that improving reading, writing and arithmetic can cure most educational deficiencies.

A handful of years ago, while participating in one such “welcome back” ritual, I was introduced to our newly-adopted district-wide motto, “Failure is Not an Option.” A fitting corollary to No Child Left Behind, “Failure is Not an Option” was to inspire us to succeed with each and every student, so that no student would fail, literally. Of course, no one ever required or asked us to give all students a “passing” grade, but as teachers, we were expected to give each student unlimited opportunities to pass. And regardless of the district’s gentle shove, most teachers will do almost anything to get a student to show up, pay attention, do the work, struggle with the material, and learn, and pass.

But something funny happens when failure is taken off the table. Success falls right off the table with it, along with true and lasting learning. Watch any child learn to walk, and you see that child fail again and again. She first learns to pull herself up to her feet, using a table or the side of a chair or sofa. She lets go, and she falls. She tries again. She may cry. Yet she tries again. With a little practice, she gets good at standing while holding onto something. Soon, she attempts to move her feet, still holding on. She takes two steps forward, and falls backward. She pulls herself up again. She learns from the last fall what not to do this time. Soon, she is walking unassisted, though she still falls. She is laughing more than crying now. Because she’s got this. And falling isn’t so bad. And failure is her best teacher.

Fast forward a few years. My son won’t learn how to ride a bike for fear of falling. And my students won’t attempt to solve a chemistry problem without my constant reassurances that they’re doing it “right.” Yes, learning is risky, but these are measured risks. I’m right there alongside them. They may fail, but the fall isn’t so bad. And the learning that comes with it is priceless.

My son is afraid of getting hurt. And my students, of getting a “B.” So they won’t try unless all possibilities of failing are taken off the table. And yet, without the willingness to be “wrong,” and to learn from their mistakes, their treasured “A” remains elusive, and my son never learns to ride a bike.

We are all familiar with Edison’s purported retort to the reporter asking him how it felt to fail 1000 times, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention of 1000 steps.”

Any scientist can tell you that learning is slow and arduous. And, in scientific research, there are no “right” answers at the back of the book, because the book hasn’t even been written yet. As my teacher and Nobel Prize recipient Roald Hoffman told me, “It is always piecewise knowledge, hard-won, and you don't see the totality until a couple of years later. There are often not single ‘Aha’ or ‘Eureka!’ moments, there are little pieces of understanding that slowly fall into place.”

It took 100 years since Einstein predicted their existence and twenty-two years after construction began on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) to find the compressed squiggle, the telltale sign of gravitational waves, on a computer screen. Sometimes it takes more than a lifetime of failed attempts to find what you’re looking for.

Learning anything new requires risk, frustration and the occasional “B.” And yes, failure, and plenty of it. Because, when it comes to learning, failure is not only an option, but a prerequisite.

Are Teachers to Blame?

I’ll admit it. I’m first in line to fault teachers — English teachers all the more so — on poor grammar, written or verbal, poor spelling, and lack of depth in their subject areas and breadth across others. I guess I got a little of the “teachers are to blame” gene from my mom, who threw a massive fit when I told her, as I was finishing up my senior year at Cornell, that I wanted to take a year or so off from pursuing a medical degree to teach. “We didn’t send you to Cornell so you could become a teacher!” she yelled over the phone, seeing her dreams for me crashing down all around her. But when I published my latest blog post on why students need to work hard to succeed in both comfortable and uncomfortable subject areas — namely math — I got a lot of teacher finger-pointing in response. “My teacher did me a disservice.” Teachers “ignored me.” My teachers “let me down.”

And I’ll also admit, I felt a little defensive. After all, I hear it every day from my own students. “You don’t teach us,” they mutter under their breath, or sometimes brazenly out loud. “No one gets this,” individual students remark beneficently on behalf of everyone. And so I struggle. Every day. Every class. Every interaction. To figure out how to make the complex subjects of chemistry and physics both understandable and engaging to each and every student. To the ones who are staring into their laps, attempting to hide their cell phone usage. To the ones using chemistry class to cram for another class’s test. To the ones furiously copying someone else’s homework so they can get full credit. To the ones getting a jump on tonight’s homework by working ahead. To the ones whose girlfriend or boyfriend just dumped them. To the ones whose parents just announced last night they’re getting a divorce. And to the one whose mother died earlier that week. And, to the most difficult students to reach, the ones who are absent from class altogether.

And I know that, if they just put it all aside for a moment, and fully engaged with the struggle, armed with pencil and calculator, each and every one of them would learn. And I also know that, if they truly attempted the homework, no matter how complicated and confusing it was, and were willing to bask in the discomfort to figure it out, they would grow wings. Yes, wings. Because nothing can stop a child who has learned for herself how to face challenges and work through them. But going to school, expecting to learn without putting in the work, is like joining a gym expecting to build muscles without doing the exercises.

I read a Washington Post article yesterday by a noted psychologist on why telling children they can be anything they want is doing them a disservice by creating undue pressure on them. I totally disagree. The only disservice is making them believe it’s easy. And that there are shortcuts. And “right” answers. The American dream has never been more accessible. To the ones willing to do whatever it takes. To the majority of students, however, it’s just “too many steps.” And they don’t “learn” because their teacher doesn’t “teach” them. So they return to class with copied homework, or blank homework amid protestations of “I don’t get it.” Of course they don’t get it. Because the only way to get from here to there is through, and “through” is an uncomfortable, time-consuming and frustration-laden preposition.

Does a Science Have to be Good at Math?

Does a Scientist Have To Be Good At Math?

The short answer is “It can’t hurt.” The physical sciences, such as Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, all require a great deal of math to master. That is often why these disciplines are referred to as the “hard sciences.” When it comes to high school sciences, however, the level of mathematics knowledge required is relatively minimal. One could successfully complete AP Chemistry with only seventh grade algebra skills and an understanding of base ten logarithms. High school and AP Physics require algebra, plus a facility with the trigonometric functions sine, cosine and tangent. It is only AP Physics C that requires Calculus (AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2, both of which only require Algebra and the trigonometric functions sine, cosine and tangent).

However, it has been my experience that a student who is not at or above grade level in mathematics will struggle in these courses, not because she hasn’t been exposed to the prerequisite skills, but because there is either some aspect of number sense that has not yet been fully developed, or the perpetuated belief that they aren’t good at math. If at any point in his/her elementary years a child is falling behind in mathematics, get her the help she needs immediately. Chalking it up to “not being good at math” is the greatest disservice you can do to your child’s education, and will stunt the budding scientist within her.

There are some fields of science in which math is not paramount, such as many of the biological sciences. Whereas I firmly believe that mathematics facility can only serve a biological scientist well, high school Biology will place few to minimal demands on a student’s math skills. In college and beyond, where research is a necessary component to biology, mathematics competency will prove itself not only valuable buy necessary many times over.

With that said, there are exceptionally successful biologists who claim that good math skills are not a requirement, offering themselves as living breathing examples. Two of whom come to mind are E.O. Wilson and Temple Grandin.

“Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate,” claimed E.O. Wilson in an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. E.O. Wilson, “Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math,” Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2013. “Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the hallway struggling to explain something to a friend, or eating lunch alone. Eureka moments require hard work. And focus,” not necessarily math.

E.O. Wilson explains that is far easier for a scientist to collaborate with a mathematician than for a mathematician to find “scientists able to make use of their equations.”

To Thomas Edison has been attributed the line “I can hire a mathematician but a mathematician cannot hire me.”

“If your level of mathematical competence is low,” explains Wilson, “plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have. Think twice, though, about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include most of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties in molecular biology.”

“For every scientist,” Wilson continues, “there exists a discipline for which his or her level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.”

Temple Grandin, the great animal biologist, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and outspoken hero for autism, attributes her college and graduate degrees to the absence of an Algebra requirement.

“Tutoring me in algebra was useless,” writes Grandin in Thinking in Pictures, “because there was nothing for me to visualize. If I have no picture, I have no thought.”

Grandin barrelled through her required finite math courses with the help of tutors and devoted hard work in order to achieve her science goals.

In short, if math isn’t your thing, then make it your thing. After all, any skill can be mastered through diligence and hard work. Then, whether or not math is an essential component of your scientific career, it will not be your stumbling block.

Is Genius Innate?

There was a famous study in the sixties by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, known in most circles as The Pygmalion Effect. Certain students with normal IQs were identified to teachers as having higher-than-normal IQs – referred to as “spurters” – and could be expected to do better that year than their peers. Not only did the mean IQ of the entire group improve at the end of the year, but the students identified as “spurters” showed statistically significant gains. In other words, children rise to the expectations we set for them. A belief that “I am not good at math” is self-propagating. A not-good-at-math person assumes his math incompetencies limit his ability to succeed in math, thereby avoiding opportunities to learn math and improve his math skills, further eroding his math skills.

The belief that you are not a “math person” is a greater determinant of mathematics competence than some innate gift, or lack thereof.

Intelligence research identifies two distinctive orientations toward intelligence. Incremental orientation says that intelligence is acquired incrementally with increased effort. Entity orientation says that one is born with a fixed amount of intelligence that does not increase with effort. If you believe on the whole that intelligence is something you’re born with, as opposed to something that can be acquired, you absolve yourself of the responsibility to improve your skills.

And it’s an issue somewhat unique to our American individualistic ideals. Noted Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, the guru of the “Growth Mindset,” has devoted the bulk of her career researching, writing and lecturing on how to develop a “Growth Mindset,” the belief that intelligence is acquired, not something you’re born with. In the 2007 Stanford Alumni magazine article “Effort Effect,” Dweck explains how other cultures do not luxuriate in the limiting beliefs of fixed mindsets. A college physics teacher wrote to her explaining that, where she was educated in India, “there was no notion that you had to be a genius or even particularly smart to learn physics. ‘The assumption was that everyone could do it, and, for the most part, they did’.”

And look where it’s gotten us. The 2013 Skills Outlook Survey published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), places young Americans dead last, out of 24 advanced countries, in numeracy and problem-solving skills. Even among Americans who have graduate degrees, Americans performed far worse than their counterparts. Poorer countries recognize math as difficult, just as Americans do, but simultaneously see math as the key to economic advancement. Rather than chalking it up to “I’m just not good at math,” these poorer countries add more courses to the curriculum to move their children to proficiency.

While this is all somewhat convincing, we know from first-hand experience that intelligence is also something you’re born with. We have all met certain precocious children that learn tremendously quickly, read from an early age, and display advanced vocabulary. We have seen, or at least heard of, music prodigies, math prodigies, artistic prodigies.

What we rarely see, however, are the hours and years of work involved in educating a child with a “gift.” Olympic gymnasts, concert pianists, ball players, chess champions have put in countless hours of dedicated training and practice to get where they are. “Gifts” alone only go so far.

“I've always hated the word prodigy,” says chess prodigy Josh Waitzin, author of The Art of Learning. “I think it's dehumanizing. I think that when you're labeled ‘genius, prodigy, wunderkind,’ it denies the human struggle against adversity which is at the center of my relationship to success. I think that anybody can become tremendously successful at what they do as long as they approach the learning processing a way that isn't self-paralyzing.”

An intelligence “gift” may open a doorway, but hard work and perseverance provide the legs to achievement. Further, time and again we’ve seen that hard work and perseverance, without the “gift,” can open doors themselves.

This is all the more true in scientific research. “It is always piecewise knowledge, hard-won, and you don't see the totality until a couple of years later,” describes Roald Hoffman, recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry, “but the process is interesting. There are often not single ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ moments. There are little pieces of understanding that slowly fall into place.”

How “Smart” Do You Have To Be To Do Science?

When I listen to noted scientists Steven Hawkings and Neil deGrasse Tyson, or try to comprehend the immense impact of the recently discovered gravitational waves, I quickly get overwhelmed by both the subject matter and its preceptors. I am in awe of the intense genius that came up with these ideas in the first place, the brilliance of those who disseminate it, and grapple with how far short my above-average mind falls. Scientists must be really, really smart, I think to myself. And if I’m thinking it, you can bet my students are too.

“I’m just not good at math,” they explain.

In the classroom, math mistakes result in low grades. At NASA, math mistakes such as not converting between English and metric units cost the loss of a $125 million dollar Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft. For both students with high aspirations and scientists alike, neither of these consequences is acceptable.

So, just how smart do you have to be to become a scientist?

The better question is, “How hard am I willing to work to become good at science and math?

There’s a belief in the United States that there are two types of people – those who are good at math, and those who aren’t. And yet, studies have shown very few, if any, genetic differences between a strong mathematician and someone “not good at math.” The reason is clear. Everyone has the capacity to be successful at math. However, by labeling ourselves from an early age as either “good at math” or “bad at math,” these labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Sure, on occasion, there have been extreme math geniuses in our midst, but for the most part, math skills are the direct effect of two things – diligence and confidence.

I used to teach in a rural largely Hispanic high school. Halfway through the year, a new student from China joined our Physics class. My students teased the class’s top student that he would now be relegated to second place. Clearly, they were invested in the Asian stereotype, even if they had never met an Asian person before. Joining a new school in the middle of the school year is difficult for any student, especially one with a poor command of the language. I sent everyone home with a new assignment that day, that built on a previous lesson. The new Chinese student asked me questions after class about the homework assignment, making it apparent that he had very limited prior content knowledge. Imagine my surprise when he returned the next day with the completed assignment in hand. It was all the more surprising when only one other student in the class completed the assignment, the “formerly” top student. To my students, the Asian myth was perpetuated, commenting in awe about the new genius in their midst.

From my vantage point, I saw something totally different. I saw a student, unfamiliar with the subject matter or the previous lesson, who did what was necessary to learn the new material and return to school prepared.

In the book Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard E. Nisbett writes about how Chinese, Japanese and Korean educational systems focus more on hard work than on natural abilities. Here are some of Nisbett’s findings.

Children in Japan go to school 240 days a year, as opposed to the 180 days our American students attend. Further, Japanese high school students in the 1980s studied at least 3 and a half hours a day, which is likely to have increased over time. American students, on the other hand, spend more of that time online, using social media and chatting with friends.

Asian students see intelligence as malleable, meaning that it can be acquired. American students see intelligence and aptitude as something you’re born with.

When Asian students perform poorly, they work harder at it. When American students perform poorly, they often blame the test, the teacher, or their own inabilities. Rarely do they attribute poor performance on lack of effort.

Finally, Asian culture values persistence in the face of failure, and criticism as a guiding force toward self-improvement. American students, especially the most privileged, are rarely allowed to fail, thereby lacking the valuable lessons that failure teaches, and ward off criticism as attacks on their fragile self-esteem.

The truth is, assuming you are not good at science or math is a much easier path than the alternative one of hard work. So, how smart do you have to be? Smart enough to know that the only way to get there from here is through hard work, persistence and the ability to pick yourself up after you fail, which is all but guaranteed.

My Son’s New Pokemon Obsession

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Electronics

My son just turned 9-years-old this month and has become recently obsessed with Pokemon. His activity-of-choice at any given time is to play Pokemon on his new Nintendo 3DS. His friend selection is based on a mutual reverence for these Japanese avatars. He recites litanies of evolved forms of Pokemon characters with the same reverence that he used to shower on baseball players, mathematics, Edvard Grieg and the Periodic Table. Somehow, I not only entertained these earlier obsessions, but I encouraged them. I believed fully in their power to develop the precocious young scientist I hoped he would turn out to be. And, until now, I was a strong proponent of electronics. My son has owned a tablet since he was 5-years-old, an iPad since he was 6. I let him take ownership of his tablet, to find and remove apps at will, unless they cost money — then we would weigh the costs and benefits of such a purchase -- and unless it was the “Find My iPhone” app which he deleted more frequently than I would have liked, as misplacing my own device was almost a daily occurrence, explaining that he “needed the space” for some cool new app. None of this concerned me as his favorite apps were most often math apps, board game apps and an app that brought life to the Periodic Table of the elements.

But now, his iPad has been relegated to a depository of YouTube videos on strategies to master certain Pokemon levels and and their opponents. He apparently “fights” in battles — as a single mom, I have protected him from the idea of “fighting,” not allowing even the most-unaggregious nerf gun into the house. He doesn’t want to go anywhere without his Nintendo 3DS, whether it be the grocery store, a birthday party or synagogue. Of course, the response to the latter two is a resounding “no,” but that doesn’t mean he won’t put up a good albeit exhausting fight. He was thrilled to return to his Pokemon after a short excursion to learn how to ride a bike, which naturally resulted in a short-term “fail” first time around, and doesn’t want to go out for Little League Baseball this year because the balls are getting harder to hit. His resiliency and perseverance are waning — in all areas except for Pokemon.

As an educator I have been a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom, but, as I confiscate more and more misused cell phones, and Madden-Football-playing iPads, I wonder if I am on the wrong side of history. Are these devices, with their abundance of educational apps, videos and individualized learning tools still the positive resource I believed them to be, or merely another distraction we as parents and educators need to battle in raising well-adjusted and curious children?

Our Ephemeral Periodic Table

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, better known by its acronym IUPAC, has announced that four new elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 will receive their permanent seats at the Periodic Table, thereby completing the heretofore incomplete seventh row. Things have sure changed since Dmitri Mendeleev and his contemporaries developed the Periodic Table with only a mere handful of 60 elements. Of course, those elements had names. These four new elements, on the other hand, have temporary placeholder names: "Baby Boy" 113 is named "Ununtrium," pronounced "un-un-trium" for its atomic number 113. "Ununpentium" is likewise the temporary name for 115, 117 is "Ununseptium," and element 118, well, you get the picture (HINT: it has an "oct-" in its name).

Before the other elements welcome them in with a slap on the back and a slew of "what took you so long?" queries, let's understand how the scientific process goes from no element to new element to named element. First off, these four elements were synthesized in large particle accelerators, which means that they were made by smashing and fusing smaller atoms together. Scientists don't actually "see" these new elements, but extrapolate their fleeting existence from their decay products. These elements are so "superheavy," that they decay within thousandths of a second after they are formed into smaller, more stable elements.

But before a particle physicist can run half-naked through the streets yelling "Eureka!" at his or her monumental discovery, the scientific machine has to kick in high gear, because an element's existence must be confirmed by two other laboratories before being recognized and placed on the Periodic Table. This process gives us a tangible glimpse into the nature of scientific discovery.

Most significantly, science is much more a process that results in a body of knowledge, rather than the body of knowledge itself, though the size of many science textbooks may attest to the contrary. Scientific knowledge, rather, is acquired through consistent and incremental observation and testing. "Eureka!" moments are far and few between, arrived at, if ever, by decades of tedious and persistent tinkering. Further, as scientific hypotheses are by their very nature falsifiable, it is hubris to think that what we know now to be true will forever remain so. Rather, scientific knowledge as evidenced in the changing face of the Periodic Table is fluid and is unfolding before our very own eyes.

Second, much different than in the days of Mendeleev when scientists worked alone and came to certain conclusions in parallel, twenty-first-century science is necessarily from the very get-go a collaborative endeavor. After all, not everyone has a particle accelerator in the backyard. Case in point, these four new elements emerge at the apex of an international collaboration among Russia, the United States and Japan.

And then there's the business of science. Now that these four elements have earned their keep, they need permanent names. Naming rights go to the discoverer and his funders under certain guidelines -- new elements can be named only after a "mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist." But given the new collaborative paradigm, there may be many backroom battles and bruised egos before the new names emerge.

"To scientists," The Guardian quoted former Riken president and Nobel laureateRyoji Noyori as saying, "this [discovery] is of greater value than an Olympic gold." Perhaps because "Nobel" gold is at stake. Or perhaps far more, because science has done what science does best -- ventured out a femtometer further into the final frontier of the unknown.

As a high school chemistry teacher, my students sometimes ask me fearfully if I will expect them to memorize the Periodic Table. Science, however, is not about memorizing the past. It's about standing on the shoulders of scientists before us to peer into the unknown. No, don't memorize the elements of the Periodic Table. Rather, go out and discover new ones. Which is just what Kosuke Morita, the leader of the Japanese team that discovered element 113, announced his team would do -- "look to the uncharted territory of element 119 and beyond."

Originally Published on the Huffington Post January 6, 2016

More Women Earning Science Degrees

As a high school chemistry and physics teacher, I devote my very being to ensuring that every young woman with the desire and talent has the opportunity to pursue her scientific career of choice. So, when the results of a study coauthored by Erica Blom, Brian Cadena and Benjamin Keys last month tout that every 1% rise in unemployment causes a 2% increase in the number of women pursuing science degrees, I should be ecstatic. But I'm not. On the contrary, I'm concerned. Yes, ostensibly it's good that more women are entering a very male-dominated scientific world. My question is, though, what happens to these women when they finish their degrees and enter the workforce? Do they become the living embodiment of the American dream, or do they soon discover that the American dream is just as elusive as ever?

Case in point. Approximately 50% of all life science majors are women, yet only about 28% of all life science jobs are filled by women, according to statistics given me by Janet Koster, executive director and CEO of American Women in Science (AWIS). Though in the past this drop-off may have been attributed to women leaving the workforce to start families, there is very little evidence that women today are choosing to do so. The exponential growth in the childcare industry alone attests to the fact that mothers today are remaining in the workforce after pregnancy. Further, academia, a traditional career path for those with doctoral degrees, "is not hiring tenure-type professors the way they used to," explains Koster. "Those jobs are a few and far between, and so now you have somebody that's coming out on the other end [and] their education post-docs are getting longer -- some have done a second post-doc -- [and she's] in her late thirties and can't find a job."

And, even when women do get jobs in their chosen scientific fields, research suggests that they do not get paid what their male counterparts do. One reason for this is the gender gap in the scientific fields women and men choose to pursue. Women are still severely underrepresented in the engineering fields, which on average require fewer years of education and oftentimes no more than a bachelor's degree to procure a high-paying job right out of college. This implicit bias that "girls don't do engineering" which we teach our girls at every juncture, coupled with the fact that women tend to pursue socially conscious scientific fields such as public health and environmental science, results in women occupying a far smaller percentage of the private workplace, and a much greater percentage of lower-paying state and local government jobs.

But, before arguing that this is comparing apples to oranges, when we compare apples to apples, a female engineer to a male engineer performing the same job responsibilities, female engineers tend to make from 87 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts do, according to data from a 1995 National Science Foundation survey.

Further, if and when female scientists do find jobs, albeit at slightly lower salaries, the oppressive culture in male-dominated scientific workplaces oftentimes leads female scientists to leave their fields for rosier pastures. "What we see at AWIS is a growing portion of our membership moving off the bench and into a whole host of jobs that aren't necessarily doing science specific to their science. So we see women moving into public policy. We see women moving into communications. We see women moving into patent law. That's a hot new space for a lot of folks. Again, I think it's kind of smart really because, you need to have a degree in biology but then you go on [and get] a law degree and you're making a heck of a lot more money than you are as a biologist," Janet Koster continues.

All things being equal, as mentor to many promising young students at the beginning of their scientific career trajectory, I would much rather have women earning science degrees because that's where their passion and talent lie, rather than it being economically advantageous. Unfortunately, with the implicit bias coursing through our families, our televisions, and in the very words with which our earliest math teachers praise and guide us, far fewer women have the genuine opportunity to discover these passions, let alone pursue them. So, in the meantime, if it's a recession that closes the gender gap, I'll take it. But we've only just begun.

Originally Published on the Huffington Post August 12, 2015

‘Don’t Know Much About Science’

It was difficult to miss all the hype regarding last week's release of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) 2012 study on public attitudes toward and understanding of science and technology. Most cited the fact that one in four Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth. But then again, our American narcissism may be as much to blame for our scientific illiteracy as our education system is -- doesn't everything revolve around us? What hasn't been discussed as much are the seemingly positive and actionable outcomes of the study, such as the encouraging way Americans view science, both as a field of study and as a career; the role education plays in fostering scientific interest; and the disconnect between our interest in and our lack of knowledge of science, scientists and what it is that they do.

One aspect of this study is a survey consisting of nine science questions, such as:

"True or false: The center of the Earth is very hot."


"Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?"

Americans answered 5.8 out of these nine questions correctly, putting the United States on par with other countries, though comparison is limited, as not all questions are asked worldwide. What is noticeable is that other countries are trending upward in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, but the United States has remained more or less at a standstill. And in response to scientific questions that contradict established doctrine, Americans performed markedly worse, unless a qualifying preface such as "according to scientists" was appended to the questions. For example, whereas 48 percent of Americans affirmed that "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," 72 percent answered "true" when the question was prefaced with, "According to the theory of evolution...." Similar results were obtained when surveyed about the veracity of the statement that "the universe began with a big explosion." As expected, Americans with higher levels of education performed better on these nine questions. And, yet again, men performed better than women on the physical science questions (only).

And even though we "don't know much about a science book," the study suggests that Americans value science as a career and the scientific community very highly. We don't know what scientists do -- 65 percent claimed they didn't know -- but 80 percent of parents surveyed would be "happy" if their child pursued a career in science. Furthermore, according to the 2009 Harris Poll quoted in this study, being a scientist was ranked as the second most prestigious occupation, second only to firefighters, and ahead of doctors, nurses and teachers.

"Though we don't know what they do, we'd sure love to have one in the family!"

In short, though we don't possess a lot of scientific knowledge, and though few of us know what scientists do, we think very highly of them and want our children to become scientists. This is great news for a country that seemingly wants to continue being the world leader in scientific and technological advancement. We must bridge the gap between the science we value and where we are now. But we still don't know how to get from here to there. We know that education is the starting place -- improving science education in the schools, and improving access to higher education for all. It's not enough, however.

In the underserved, overwhelmingly Hispanic high school in which I teach chemistry and physics, I reach two to three students a year who have what it takes to become great scientists -- the appropriate combination of desire and capacity -- but I know they will not all maneuver the roadblocks.

The NSF study confirms that the media's coverage and portrayal of science does not mirror the value we place on it. Less than 2 percent of traditional news coverage is related to science and technology, with coverage of Steve Jobs' passing, the end of the Space Shuttle program, Facebook's IPO and the Mars Curiosity rover taking the lion's share.

As far as entertainment television is concerned, between 2000 and 2008, only 1 percent of characters on primetime television were scientists. Of these, 70 percent were men, and almost 90 percent were Caucasian. Just watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory confirms this -- scientists are portrayed as white, male, "smart-as-heck" geeks, and we root for them in spite of their idiosyncrasies, if not because of them.

Young women scientists are still underrepresented in the workforce and the media. I remember how easy it was as a freshman at Cornell to walk away from the all-male physics honors class in which I was enrolled. No one told me I could do it -- definitely not the professor -- and there was no female role model to show me it was possible. It is exponentially more challenging for our Hispanic youngsters to envision such a future for themselves. It's not so much that we don't have youngsters in our schools who are are making the grade, but without role models in which to see themselves, how are they going to navigate the difficult academic and financial terrain of a science degree when the going gets tough?

Until we are willing to promote and portray non-male and non-white scientists, the scientific field will continue to appeal to a diminishing fraction of our demographic. At least two or three students a year have what it takes -- in every public high school in America. If we want to raise a nation of scientists and the scientifically literate, the least we could do is make sure those two or three get to the finish line.

Originally Published on The Huffington Post February 28, 2014