School Preparation Failure

One of my colleagues, Magnetic Inductance Force, sent me a link to an article[Link] in Forbes (?????) by one of his colleages entitled “Planning To Study Science In College? Here’s Some Advice.” Basically it’s an expanded list of what the author – a small college physics perfesser – thinks kids should learn before they get to college if they want to study STEM. The list is:

  1. Learn to Do Algebra
  2. Learn Some Statistics
  3. Learn to Program
  4. Learn to Communicate
  5. Get Involved in Research
  6. Bonus Etiquette Advice: 


I have to admit that I both agree and disagree with the list.

I’m not at all sure how important maths are for disciplines like biology and geology. I don’t know any geologists (any more) and the biologists I do know can’t do maths. They are better than economists who think they can do maths but can’t. But if you’e going to do physics or chemistry and you can;t start with calculus as a freshman in college, move to the business schule.

My problem with students learning stats in high schule is that it’s probably a waste and damaging. IMHO there’s no point in learning much stats until AFTER calculus and what does be needed can be conveyed in one lab tutorial. 

Similar situation with programming. Until you’re doing calculus you can’t appreciate STEM programming. And high schule computer courses tend to either be ‘how to use megahard office’ or some sort of memorization computer science stuff. Fundamentally, STEM programming is about number crunching and visualization. So unless the HS course is about computer game programming, it isn’t very useful and may be damaging.  (And yes, I do all of my programming either in FORTRAN or LibreOffice BASIC (Spreadsheet.) And use some open source SW to do additional visualization. So make sure you learn Linux instead of iOS or Winders.)

You can’t learn communication in high schule. Period. Exclamation! Your grammar/syntax/literature courses are NOT going to teach real composition. Nor note taking, which is the primary aspect of getting into STEM communication. Get rid of the computer. Get a pile of paper and a good pen, fountain preferably, and learn how to write in cursive. Doesn’t have to be any more legible that YOU reading you own but learn it or you’ll not do well in lectures.

But basically, high schule is structured to NOT let you learn to communicate. That won;t come until you get into a less shelter environment. Incidentally you won’t learn in college either but you will start. Communications is something you have to keep learning. And incidentally TED talks are NOT communication. They’re entertainment. Not as good as old Road Runner cartoons but still entertainment.

I am totally blank on how high schule students can get involved in research unless they live in a college town. The only kind of research you do in high schule is library research and that ain’t STEM research ( except a little, a thing called literature search.) If you do science projects and pick projects that aren’t trite and trivial but are really unknown then you can do a bit. The author is right that what you have to get yourself into is a problem that doesn’t necessarily have an answer. And not a moral question. That’s part of being human.

Lastly, etiquette. You can’t learn how to be polite to specialists until you get among them. The rules you have in high schule are such that if you take them to (real, not community) college, you will flunk. College faculty are underpaid and if you treat them differently than they want you will be sent home. So as a minimum find out what degree they have and address them accordingly.  The same applies to laboratories and hospitals and such. Anywhere there are educated specialists. Call them the wrong thing and they will get petty. Because it’s important to them. And thus is important to you.

And ignore what the people in your family/high schule/town tell you. It’s mostly wrong or, at best, dated, like this.