My students are science ignorant

(Not enough venom for the Pit.)

I teach at a very selective liberal arts college. Today in my freshman introduction to philosophy class we were talking about the cosmological argument for God’s existence. You know–‘where did the universe come from?’ kind of stuff. I was talking about scientific accounts of the origin of the universe, and was discussing the Big Bang when I noticed a bunch of blank looks. I asked my students to raise a hand if they knew what the Big Bang was. Fewer than half did.

I like my students. They’re good kids. I’m not one of those crotchety professors who thinks students are all stupid and lazy. But Christ, how do you get to be 18 years old and get into a highly selective college and not know with the friggin’ Big Bang is? I mean, I understand that they probably didn’t cover this in any high school class, but how to you get to be that old and not run across the concept? What the hell are these kids doing with their time up until they get into college that they know so little? It really makes me despair at the absolutely abominable state of science literacy in this country.

That is all.

Sigh. C. P. Snow strikes again. Why is it that so many liberal arts types think it okay to not understand science or math, while if science types showed equal scorn for liberal arts they would be considered (quite properly) troglodytes?

Perhaps you need to have a word or two with the admissions department. I humbly submit that if you haven’t at least heard of the Big Bang by the time you enter college, you are either clinically retarded, live under a rock, or don’t speak English (and even then you should know what your language’s equivalent is).

I knew when I was four, for chrissakes. (Not the details, obviously, just that the universe was created by something called a Big Bang.)

Bummer. Can you say “theocratic influence in the schools?” Hope this cheers ya up… :cool:

Unfortunately, the ignorance is not ‘science specific.’ Kids are graduating high school and don’t have the ability to read or write.

No child left behind = the ignorance of our next generation.

I don’t see anything wrong nor “theocratic” in that article. Is that the right link?

Nah, man. Science is, like, really hard, and stuff. You have to be, like, super smart to get that junk, you know? Besides, if you’re majoring in business or poly sci or something, you don’t need all that astrology stuff anyway.

It’s more important now than every for liberal arts types to understand science, what with the importance of scientific findings for policymaking (and the abuse of science in policy debates). Scientific literacy is absolutely crucial in a contemporary democracy. And we’re really fucking it up.

Yep, it’s the right link…my point being that it appears (at least in the article) that perhaps science education is going to be taken a bit more seriously in the future, and that the OP might take heart from that.

Honey? I didn’t know you were a Doper…

Oh, you teach philosophy. My mistake.

Mr. Neville has the same sort of complaints about his students in an introductory astronomy class.

On the opposite side of things, I am a debate coach at a fancy pants private school and not 10 minutes ago I had to write the following on a debate case:

"You cannot define a word with itself. Find another way to define ‘justice’ that isn’t ‘just’. "

It’s not just that I’m at a fancy private school, but the fact that the debate kids (normally, at least, the “smart kids”) fail to realize that saying justice is just is. . . well, not the best way to go about things.


I don’t know that I would assume that they have never heard of the Big Bang at all. In my strictly anecdotal experience, at least 10% of the undergraduate population will never raise a hand in class under ANY circumstances, and the number who will not raise their hands on the first day of class with a new and unknown prof is higher. For all they know, you could be about to call on one of the students who has raised a hand and ask that student to explain the Big Bang to the whole class, and it’s quite possible for a student to have a rough grasp of what it means but not really feel comfortable explaining it.

True; but it’s the third week of classes, and the students are comfortable enough to participate now. Besides, in the context, I was clearly taking a poll, not asking for explanations.

I must agree with Fretful. I’m still in school, starting on a new degree, and I see this every day. It’s partially the students and partially some professors’ inability to to really connect with the students and get them involved. Of the two courses I’m in at the moment I have a teacher who exemplifies each end of this spectrum and the difference in how the classes behave is really dramatic.

You’re not one of those teachers the students can’t connect with and respect, are you?


In eighth grade we were taught about the big bang. Most of us students had known of it for years. It’s amazing that such a large number of students are that ignorant. They spend to much time teaching grade schoolers to be proficient with cut and paste reports, and learning all the functions of a software package. In first grade my sister is mandated that all students spend a certain amount of time using a computer. They have one computer, and students rotate through during the day. She is frustrated that they miss the lesson being taught when it’s their turn.

It’s not always the professors, though; I have two freshman comp classes that I teach in exactly the same way, and the difference between them is like night and day. I think it’s partly the time of day, and partly the way different groups of students seem to acquire this collective personality.

I work for a graduate program in pharmaceutical sciences. We have 37 Ph.D. students 31 of which are Indian or Chinese. Of our 21 faculty 15 are foreign born. None of the young faculty are originally from the US.

I don’t know that the number of undergraduate science degree’s is shrinking in the US. According to several of the faculty it’s hard to find Americans who want post-baccalaureate degrees in science.

It could be the institution, but I doubt it.

Can’t say that I’m surprised. And I’m a science teacher.

We’ve actually written Space Science out of our curricula* (in high school). With no real place to include cosmology, it would not surprise me at all that one of our top students could go to your college without knowing much about the big bang theory.

Mind you, I am pretty much discounting anything they might have learned in grades K-8. I have yet to see any evidence that my ninth graders retain even a shred of what they were taught in 8th grade. Hell, even my juniors who I taught two years ago barely remember what I know for damn sure I taught them, and even remember them doing well on the unit.

*We wrote out space science to turn 9th grade Earth Science (which spent about a 1/4 yr on space science) into Environmental Science so that the kids will have closer to two years experience with Biological science before the all important 10th grade science MCAS. With Enviro for 9th, Bio for 10th, and Bio II, Anatomy, Chemistry, and physics as choices for 11th and 12th, I could easily see one of our grads not knowing what the Big Bang Theory is. Not saying that it’s a good thing, mind you…

Do you really expect them to regurgitate Plato’s Republic? :smiley:

The kids know that they will run up huge loan debt. And that they will have to live on ramen for 12 years of college, to get the PhD they need to do jack in the sciences. And that they will suffer scorn form our society, because if you are 30+ & still in school instead of working, then obviously you are a lazy bum & a sponger. :rolleyes: :smack:

4 years of Business gets you work. The entry level salary for a scientist, after 12 years of school will often be a little less than the Business major will be earning, 8 years after graduation, allowing for raises.

Anybody smart enough for the sciences is smart enough to avoid them. :frowning: