Difficulties of Teens in Math & Science

After three years of teaching high school astronomy, I have come to some conclusions regarding why some teens hate science (and by extension mathematics). The realization came after careful observation, wading through mountains of lack-luster exam responses and the administration of two less than an impressive body of evidence activities. The recognition also came from reexamining the nature of science as a profession. The understanding helped my modify my teaching practices to make the science engaging, challenging and ultimately more rewarding for my students.

Science by its very nature is an interactive process by which we observe, ask questions and design methods to test those questions. Oddly enough, the way most students are exposed to science has nothing to do with asking questions, testing ideas or “getting their hands dirty.” Somewhere along the line, teaching science evolved into an instructor standing in front of a classroom full of students presenting a lecture on an obscure scientific topic for an hour. This would go on for a week or two, possibly with multiple choice questions along the way, and would be followed by a comprehensive examination of 100 points to be graded by machine and returned. Students either succeeded or failed. At the end of the year if they had a semester grade of greater than 70% or so they “passed” and could move on to other endeavors.

Teens often have difficulties in science and math subjectsThis method of “teaching” science goes against not only the principles of the scientific method itself but also against our nature as human beings. We are a curious species, and from our earliest beginnings, we tried new things to see what the results would be. Most science curricula are designed to cram the greatest volume of facts into the students and see if they can regurgitate them on an exam. This method rather aptly named the binge and purge method, is not too different from the eating disorder known as bulimia. While a lot goes in, and a lot may come out, not very much is retained; and just as bulimia is ultimately harmful to the body, so is this method ultimately harmful to the mind.

Sadly, I have to confess to using this method the first semester I taught astronomy, at least in some form. I had one small advantage of being able to use the local planetarium as a teaching tool, but I did not use it to the utmost potential. I was dissatisfied with the responses of my students on their final exam.