FSU Biology Professor Walter Tschinkel on the state of our students – a letter to the editor at the Democrat, and a post at School Zone

Leslie Postal at School Zone yesterday posted on both my Sentinel op-ed and a letter to the editor by Walter Tschinkel, who is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Biological Science at FSU.  Walter’s letter addressed the magnitude of the task facing Florida’s universities with the calls for increasing the numbers of students graduating with degrees in STEM fields:

It is all well and good to encourage more college students to go into math and science as the governor and others have done, but the sad fact is that even of current students, the great majority are not capable of success in these studies. They have neither the accumulated background knowledge, nor the habits of mind, nor the mental discipline to master science and math.

In my junior-senior level biology courses at Florida State University, the majority of students cannot explain the most basic biological concepts, let alone recall a coherent set of scientific facts to support these concepts. What explanations they attempt are usually an incoherent hodgepodge of half-remembered buzzwords. Why this is so is certainly worth discussing, but it remains a fact, and it is unlikely that after these students graduate you would want them to build your bridges, discover your drugs or protect your environment.

While universities bear some of the blame for this sorry state of affairs, the blame extends throughout society and current culture. Our physics, chemistry, biology and engineering departments are increasingly training foreign graduate students because these students have the drive, discipline and desire to master these admittedly very difficult subjects. The question for us should how to raise a generation that seeks out and embraces the challenge of learning these difficult subjects.

Just to be clear:  We have some excellent undergraduates in the FSU Physics Department, and our recent inventory of where our bachelor’s degree graduates went made that quite clear (more on that later).  I’m sure the same is true in Walter’s Biological Sciences Department.  And many of our excellent graduate students in Physics are Americans.  But Walter is right on point in saying that expecting the universities to crank out more credible STEM graduates without attending to the entire pipeline is, well, a pipe dream.

At all points on the STEM pipeline, the most important element that we can control as a society is excellent teaching.  The State of Florida and its agents should make recruiting and educating excellent math and science teachers its highest public policy priority.  That means redirecting resources in the science and math departments and the colleges of education in our state’s universities while ignoring the siren song of easy FTE’s.  That also means that school districts and policy-makers at the state level have to get serious about doing whatever it takes to bring great young people into math and science teaching careers, including substantial differential pay.  Will that make gym teachers (Governor Christie’s rather ironically chosen example) feel bad?  Perhaps.  But we have to do it anyway because the present system isn’t working – check our NAEP 8th grade math scores.

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