School finishers and undergraduates ill-prepared for research careers

22 05 2014

bad mathsHaving been for years now at the pointy end of the educational pathway training the next generation of scientists, I’d like to share some of my observations regarding how well we’re doing. At least in Australia, my realistic assessment of science education is: not well at all.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but only now decided to put my thoughts into words as the train wreck of our current government lurches toward a future guaranteeing an even stupider society. Charging postgraduate students to do PhDs for the first time, encouraging a US-style system of wealth-based educational privilege, slashing education budgets and de-investing in science while promoting the belief in invisible spaghetti monsters from space, are all the latest in the Fiberal future nightmare that will change our motto to “Australia – the stupid country”.

As you can appreciate, I’m not filled with a lot of hope that the worrying trends I’ve observed over the past 10 years or so are going to get any better any time soon. To be fair though, the problems go beyond the latest stupidities of the Fiberal government.

My realisation that there was a problem has crystallised only recently as I began to notice that most of my lab members were not Australian. In fact, the percentage of Australian PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in the lab usually hovers around 20%. Another sign of a problem was that even when we advertised for several well-paid postdoctoral positions, not a single Australian made the interview list (in fact, few Australians applied at all). I’ve also talked to many of my colleagues around Australia in the field of quantitative ecology, and many lament the same general trend.

Is it just poor mathematical training? Yes and no. Australian universities have generally lowered their entry-level requirements for basic maths, thereby perpetuating the already poor skill base of school leavers. Why? Bums (that pay) on seats. This means that people like me struggle to find Australian candidates that can do the quantitative research we need done. We are therefore forced to look overseas.

Then there’s that most irritating of peeves – poor writing skills. It’s a little embarrassing to say that many undergraduate students – and a fair whack of beginning PhD candidates – have only a vague understanding of adjectives, nouns, pronouns or … (add any other grammatical term you choose). This is the legacy of decades of little to no grammatical training in school that has left the current generation of would-be Australian scientists in the dust of their international counterparts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been gob-smacked by Australian university students’ rudimentary command of the English language.

Science is a method to reduce subjectivity when answering questions via the careful measurement of phenomena, the control of confounding conditions, and replication to reduce the chance of falsely ascribing trends to random patterns. Measurement yields numbers, and the discipline that deals with numbers is mathematics. The results of these mathematical treatments must then be transformed by language into a coherent story so that the results can be understood, repeated and critiqued. The two MOST IMPORTANT skills a scientist must possess are therefore mathematics and good writing.

No, the prognosis is not good, but there are few things we could do to alleviate the problems. Apart from the obvious necessity of voting out the current idiot politicians intent on ruining this country, I have some simple recommendations:

  1. As a scientist, please volunteer at least one afternoon per year to go into a school and tell students how important maths and good English grammar are for becoming a successful scientist.
  2. As a teacher, place more emphasis on grammar and maths in your curriculum. If you are weak in either of these areas, do something to improve your own skills.
  3. As a university administrator, reinstate high-level mathematics and English prerequisites for entry to undergraduate science programmes.
  4. As a parent, encourage your children to seek additional training in these two areas via online or extra-curricular activities.
  5. As a lecturer, instil in your students an appreciation of these necessary skills early on in the curriculum. For example, the more and earlier biology students understand that they need great maths and English skills to become good biologists, the more the system will become self-selecting.

CJA Bradshaw

 


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4 responses

27 05 2014
Craig Morley

A similar thing is happening here in NZ. The only countries seeming to be doing well in producing quality graduates are those that focus on the “basics” like mathematics and a language (note I didn’t say English as this problem is even occurring in other countries where English is not their native tongue). I also think that spell-checkers (in programmes like MS Word etc.), texting, and the internet have a lot to do with this. I note that many of my students rely too heavily on computers “correcting their work” and the false illusion that they will solve all their language and mathematical errors, they don’t. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” springs to mind.

25 05 2014
Robert Lawrence

I think your summary of scientific method is excellent in this post. I regret not having a better knowledge of statistics; I managed to get through university without studying it.

I would say that the thing that helped me understand grammar was studying languages. I studied German and Latin at Elizabeth High School. I realised that English takes so many short-cuts that one does not get the bigger picture of grammar without a broader knowledge of other languages.

23 05 2014
Eric Nicholson

I could not agree more with your assessment Corey! It is for these very reasons I am in the midst of completing a Masters of Teaching, so that I can become a primary/middle school teacher. I desperately want to help rectify the problem of poor numeracy and literacy skills in Australian schools.

23 05 2014
CJAB

Good on you!

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