Science: It’s Really, Really Hard, And That’s Something To Celebrate
by Adam Frank
It was my high school physics class and I must have been 17, all gangly and goofy, with an embarrassingly ratty “trash stache” (though I recall thinking my black Springsteen concert T-shirt elevated me into the stratosphere of cool). We were doing an experiment designed to measure the wavelength of visible light. At the time I still didn’t get math. It always seemed really, really hard. I was never sure why, or what, I was doing with the calculations. On that day something shifted. All of a sudden I understood why math and science needed to be hard. As the class wore on we took our readings and transcribed them into lab books. Then came the analysis section. First we had to climb a steep hill of trigonometry. Then came a long slog through the muddy ruts of algebra. I kept screwing the calculations up, losing my way. But then, with a bright burst of clarity, the math spoke loud and clear. It gave me the answer. The blue light we were probing had a wavelength of 470 billionths of a meter. I was stunned. For a moment the world stopped spinning. For a moment I forgot about that girl at the next lab table I’d been hot for since 9th grade. For a moment, I forgot everything but the fact that somehow, in spite of its difficulty, the strange language of math and physics had just given me entry into a world so small that a mere moment before I couldn’t not even imagine its dimensions. Now we were intimate enough for me to trace its contours across pages of exhausting calculations. That day I saw that climbing Mt. Science would always be hard but that the view from the peak was life changing. Now, years later, I see that while my experience is pretty common somehow we have lost that key connection when teaching science to the next generation. Much as the nation desperately needs young scientists, we are, it seems, losing some of our best and brightest to other fields. As Christopher Drew of The New York Times reported last year, 40 percent of the students beginning with majors in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and math) will change to a non-STEM discipline. If you include pre-meds the number jumps to 60 percent. That’s more than two-times higher than the attrition rate for other fields. Studies show the reasons for such attrition can be complex. It is clear, however, the sheer fact that “science is hard” plays an important role. Grades tend to be lower in science and math classes compared with other courses on campus. Research shows that STEM students get “pulled away” by better grades received in courses they take in other fields, as well as getting “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors. In addition, the way science is taught in college tends to produces what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” New students must struggle through a first-year avalanche of calculus, physics and chemistry courses in giant lectures that feel more like concert halls than classrooms. This ancient model is almost guaranteed to lose all but the most motivated students. Over the last decade universities have begun to understand the urgency of re-creating the science curriculum. Workshop models rather than lecture-only classes are one innovation where collaborative learning is done peer-to-peer. Project-based classes where students learn by making something, or carrying out their own research, also engage students in a way that lectures alone rarely do. None of these reforms however can, or should, change a simple fact about science. It is hard. It’s really, really hard. That is not something we should attempt to paper over. It’s something we should celebrate. How remarkable is it that we have found a method that allows us to speak directly with the world? In form and content, science is designed to take us past bias, prejudice and preconception to see at least some aspects of the True and the Real. Given that promise, of course science is hard! What else would anyone expect? I never let my students forget that pairing of difficulty with results, because I never forget it. I let them know they are engaged in a sacred task that connects them to millennia of human effort encoded in their genes. If they can fight their way to the truth, the truth will make them free, just as it did for me that day in high school physics. What is true for science is also true for the other great human endeavors. To engage with the world in search of any kind of Truth is an expression of the search for excellence. That, by its very nature, is desperately difficult. There will always be a price to be paid in time, sweat and tears. We should never sugarcoat that reality. We want to teach students more than just how to get jobs, we also want to teach them how to live with depth and for purposes that stretch beyond their own immediate interests. We should never forget that connection. If we do, we are in danger of losing more than just the next generation of science majors.