Joys of Youth

First, we have to acknowledge the leadership of the former republic, now great state, of Texas. According to the latest Kids County study conducted by the Annie E. Casie Foundation, Texas has an annual teen birth rate of 0.063 per year. [Link] The national average is 0.041 per year.

Lets put that in facial terms. If you have a teenage daughter and you live in Texas, there is a better than 0.12 probability of your daughter getting pregnant this year. In the nation as a whole its better than 0.08.

Wait, you say. Where did those numbers come from? Well, first, boys and girls are about equally distributed in the teenage population but the count, as reported, is per thousand of the teenage population. Hence a factor of about 2 to correct for the biological reality that while it takes a boy and a girl to make a zygote, it takes a girl to make a baby.

The distinction between zygote and baby is deliberate. The “more than” comes about because some pregnancies are aborted, either naturally – miscarriage – or by intervention – abortion and all that are being counted in the study are, again, births.

And if you have a teenager and haven’t thought about this already you are either incompetent or misusing controlled substances. If you have thought about it and have realized that there isn’t a lot you can do about it, welcome to the world of real parenting.

Now, if you live in a rural area and your children attend a rural shul, you’re fortunate. Or perhaps better said, your children are fortunate. Another recent study, this one by the Education Department, indicates that rural shul students do better on science tests – presumably the standardized kind – than students in urban shuls. This is attributed to the shuls being smaller and the student:teacher ration being smaller.

I suspect the actuality may be a bit different. The smaller the shul the less regimentation of the curriculum, the more leeway for teachers to teach and not just rote follow the study plan, the more room the students have for being individuals and not robots, or whatever the Czech word is for student instead of worker. Also, because the student population is smaller there are going to be fewer “gangs”. Lastly, there are fewer distractions, at least in theory.

The bad news however, is that this doesn’t have much to do with these kids turning into scientists or engineers.

When I was a bairn, science courses were about as bad as my other courses, at least through primary shul. I later, as an undergraduate, found this was because primary education majors take two courses in science, usually biology, occasionally chemistry, almost never physics, and maybe two courses in maths. That’s eight, maybe fourteen semester hours of science and maths. No wonder the teachers can’t explain simple stuff like competition (biology), ionic versus covalent (chemistry), or force. Primary science courses were no different from history, just substituting numbers like the size of Tellus for dates, and taxonomic lists for names. If it hadn’t been for my father’s Yankee navy correspondence course math books and neat programs like Science Fiction Theater, which my mother was convinced caused me to have nightmares – it was really her cooking, I would have lost interest in science the same way I suffered spelling.

Once in high shul the situation changed. In those days education certification was much less rigid than it is today. My science teachers in high shul actually had degrees in the science they were teaching. If they could get past the veil of teenage hormones, they actually had some science to teach us. Sadly, based on what I see today, much of this is missing and seems the primary cause for our sagging failure to produce new scientists and engineers that actually care about science or engineering, both callings as much as professions. But at least we can hope for those rural kids.

This seems to be somewhat confirmed by a recent survey by researchers at Harvard-Smithsonian Center and U Virginia. [Link] They found that taking high shul maths courses added points (statistics here) to their freshman science grades. Chemistry grades were improved more than biology grades, which in turn were improved more than physics grades.

I have to admit to being somewhat surprised by that progression. Admittedly it has been forty years since I have been a freshman so there may really be more maths in freshman biology than there was when I went through – I had a microbiologist as professor and all he talked about was in essence chemistry, which I had had several courses in by that time and so stood me in better stead than the poor education and arts majors who were satisfying their two science course degree requirement with the “easiest” of science courses.

There is obviously a lot more maths in freshman physics than chemistry, but there are also two different flavors of freshman chemistry – calculus and non-calculus based. And the assumption in both, at least when I was a freshman was that you really knew your maths, at least algebra, trigonometry, and calculus (for the calculus based course). In my undergraduate days, the maths competency expected of freshmen was higher than the average high shul student was prepared for. This may explain the difference between freshman chemistry and physics grade increase but I am still wondering at the biology piece.

The other thing was that taking high school biology/chemistry/physics moderately increased the grade in freshman biology/chemistry/physics but there was no observable crossover. This doesn’t surprise me. In fact it pretty well fits with my own experience, microbiology professor in biology class included. If you just take the scopes of what is taught in these freshman courses, they are pretty much exclusive. The physics course is pretty much dominated by “classical” physics, mechanics and electricity and magnetism and the like, with a little bit of modern physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, that is mostly taught as superficial rote stuff because even in a calculus based course freshmen don’t have the maths to do anything much with the material. Indeed, until one has been exposed to tensor math, one doesn’t do much with relativity.  So you mostly get involved with things like cannonball trajectories (in vacuum) and charges on and in things and that’s the bulk of it.

Freshman chemistry is mostly about transport theory and some quantum and statistical mechanics. Again however, freshmen, even most graduating chemistry majors, don;t have the maths for this stuff, so it is taught as superficial rote stuff, mixed with some historically traditional things that make chemistry partly an art as well as a science. The same sorta holds with biology, unless you have a biochemistry professor teaching it who dwells on things that someone with about junior standing in chemistry is comfortable with. But since most freshmen lack that chemistry background, and perhaps todays some maths?, the course pretty much becomes superficial rote stuff that is taxonomic and historically traditional in structure.

Hence the disciplines don’t begin to overlap for the students till they are at a more advanced level.

Which reminds me that my theory that we should teach physics, then chemistry, then biology to high shul students means that the content of the courses would bear some sizable departure from rote. But at the minimum it seems a rather nasty indictment of all high shul science and maths courses – too simplistic and irrelevant to college.