Basic science and tech education

by Eszter Hargittai on February 23, 2004

Ed Felten has posted a call for science/tech books we’d like all students to read. Ed is disturbed by the low number of science- and technology-related books that appear on the “must read” lists of an international group of college presidents. (Note that the response rate to the survey was quite low at around 25%.) Another interesting result is that very few contemporary books are on these people’s lists.

This is not the first time I’ve thought about the lack of basic science education and knowledge of such areas. Given that both my parents are chemists who have written several books about prominent scientists in the past few years, this has come up in our conversations often. I am reminded of what my father writes in the preface of his book on Nobel Prize winners :

Arthur Kornberg (M59)[1] noted that American children are made to learn the names of their presidents, as British and French children have to learn about their respective kings, queens, and presidents, but much less about the great scientists. The same is true for the rest of the world. Our students, our children, the general public, all of us would benefit from knowing a little more about science and how it comes about because so much in our modern life depends on it.

I wonder if it would be more helpful to allocate some of the time that is spent on science education in the traditional sense – e.g. learning about the physical/chemical properties of our world – to learning about the history of science. Of course, one could argue that such material should be included in the history or social science curriculum not in the science curriculum. An interesting and important related approach would be to focus on the social aspects of creativity and innovation. [pdf]

fn1. Kornberg, A., interview in Hargittai, I. Candid Science II: Conversations with Famous Biomedical Scientists. Imperical College Press, London, 2002, pp.50-71.; M59 stands for 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine



coder 02.24.04 at 12:16 am

Pretty much any of Isaac Asimov’s science related non-fiction.


Chris Bertram 02.24.04 at 12:24 am

Just followed the link to those recommendations from college presidents:

bq. Considering Plato, Homer, and Aristotle together, Greece did better than any other country among the top picks. The Americans had no author in the top nine books but the United States could claim several authors in the eight-way tie for 10th place including: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay who wrote The Federalist Papers, Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick, and Thomas Friedman who recently wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

…Thomas Friedman who recently wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree.


Tied for 10th in a greatest books in world history contest!???


Matt 02.24.04 at 12:45 am

As it happens, a wonderfully readable book about real science has just been published– Thomas Eisner’s ‘For Love of Insects’. Since Eisner’s specialty is the discovery and description of how insects ‘do’ chemistry, there’s a lot of both physical and biological science. A must read.


limberwulf 02.24.04 at 1:21 am

I would tend to agree that more focus on the great minds of our history, beyond the philosophers, artists, politicians and discoverers and into those that discovered things other than land. I would not want this to detract to greatly from the study of science itself, but perhaps a history class relating to science and, not only its great names, but the processes they used, could be put into curriculum, at least for those that intend to study the sciences closely. Many mistakes have been made in scientific history, as have many successes. It would behoove us to pass such information on to future generations.


Gabriel Rossman 02.24.04 at 1:31 am

In my humble opinion, an emphasis on history of science would further weaken high school instruction on the scientific method. What pass for experiments in most high schools are really demonstrations. I remember very few lab exercises in high school where we weren’t told in advance what the results would be. This of course conveys the message that science has something to do with pyrex rather than something to do with hypothesis testing. The television show “Mythbusters” actually does a much better job of demonstrating the scientific method than most high school classes. A bunch of stories about Coppernicus would only worsen things.


Adam Kotsko 02.24.04 at 2:14 am

I recommend Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

I’ve often thought that math instruction in specific would be much improved by a real effort to teach the history of math — perhaps it would be easier to pay attention if students understood why someone came up with (or discovered) trig identities. I reached this conclusion after two weeks of substitute teaching in a trig class and realizing that all of the students viewed what went on in the class as rather arbitrary and inscrutable.


Omri 02.24.04 at 3:06 am

Given that all of the textbooks used for classes
like Physics 101 are sold to captive audiences, it
should come as no surprise that they are too mediocre to wind up mentioned by the survey respondents.


Danny 02.24.04 at 3:13 am

I’m not sure that teaching the scientific method and teaching the history of science are mutually exclusive. It seems to me as if the scientific method might be best taught in the context of its historical development.


Tom 02.24.04 at 3:20 am

Plenty of terrific books have been writen about science. I think of The Second Creation by Crease and Mann and The Growth of Biological Thought by Ernst Mayr. (The latter is even by a scientist.) And I’m not thinking very hard. But there’s almost nothing in the teaching of science that would lead anyone to read these.

My experience says that English and philosophy professors know how to teach introductory courses that are serious and useful for majors and non alike. But science professors teach completeley different intro courses to the two audiences, and the kinds of course are bad for different reasons. Only advanced students get to take good courses.

The sciences are obviously less book-oriented than English or philosophy, but even the good courses are even less book-oriented than the fields.


john 02.24.04 at 3:36 am

Seconding Chris, I guess I’m not entirely surprised, but isn’t it embarassing how bad some of these choices are? Stephen Covey? Fukuyama? Tuesdays with f****** Morrie?!


DJW 02.24.04 at 4:14 am

Thank God these college presidents are shoring up Tom Freidman’s ego. Lord knows that’s a worthy cause.


Kieran Healy 02.24.04 at 4:17 am

Tied for 10th in a greatest books in world history contest!???

Hey, it could have been The Lord of the Rings.


Will 02.24.04 at 4:17 am

Kuhn, C.P. Snow, Feynman.

Heh… no one has mentioned “A New Kind of Science” yet, on this or Felten’s blog.


David Foster 02.24.04 at 4:36 am

I always thought it was interesting that the money in France had pictures of writers & scientists, not just politicians (in the pre-Euro days). More substantive thoughts later.


Mr Ripley 02.24.04 at 4:57 am

Money in Israel ditto.


jonathan 02.24.04 at 5:38 am

I think good historical writing can very well convey the scientific method, in the same way that a well researched true-crime story can give real insights into police methodology. And it’s that method, and the analytical tools that need to be used, that are the absolutely essential things that must be conveyed in science education; the details pertaining to any particular sub-field of science can come much later.

As piece of literature, as well as science writing, Paul de Kruif’s `Microbe Hunters’, a 1926 history of the pioneers in bacteriology, is a terrific book. Less literary but excellent pedagogically is almost anything by Asimov, as an earlier poster pointed out.


David Foster 02.24.04 at 6:13 am

There’s a new textbook coming out which focuses on both history of science/technology and on social innovation–sounds very promising. It’s “Inventing America” (Pauline Maier, Merritt Smith, et al). I have some thoughts here:


chris 02.24.04 at 2:46 pm

“I always thought it was interesting that the money in France had pictures of writers & scientists, not just politicians (in the pre-Euro days). More substantive thoughts later.”

Always thought it was normal, he thought, looking at the picture of Darwin on a £10 (UK) note


John Kozak 02.24.04 at 3:51 pm

Semi-random assortment, unordered:

The Feynman Lectures On Physics
Conceptual Mathematics
The Making of a Fly
How Monkeys See the World
Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs


vkr 02.26.04 at 5:43 am

Some nice math and science books that I remember from my childhood:

1. James R Newman – The world of mathematics. This is in more than one volume and is a beautiful mixture of history, anecdote and serious math (with some original works by people like Euler and Laplace thrown in.).

2. R. Courant and H.Robbins – What is mathematics?

3. George Gamow-Mr Tompkins, One, two, three Infinity. Generally any book by him is great reading, though some of it may be dated.

4. Fred Hoyle – On the life and death of stars. This is one of the nicest elucidations of what happens in stars that I have read.

5. Y.I Perelman – Physics for Everyone, Physics can be fun etc. This is for middle school kids and has some really nice stuff about everyday physical phenomena and cool experiments. Also discusses the science in some of H.G Wells and Jules Verne’s science fiction !

6. For an idea of how science is done and discoveries are made – James Watson’s book “The Double Helix” is really fun reading.

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