In 1990, Shelia Tobias published “They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier.” Billed as “An occasional paper on neglected problems in science education,” the book was published by Research Corporation, a foundation for the advancement of science. I vaguely remember reading the book around 1998 at the beginning of my teaching career; however, after deciding to leave academics, there was no need to think about the topic. Until last year, when I met the author at a national meeting focused on Professional Science Masters programs, and I decided it would be interesting to revisit the book.
Anyone who is preparing students for college should read this book – particularly, if your students are in the typical “college prep” track course work in calculus, physics, chemistry, etc. The book not only attempts to address why able students don’t pursue careers in science but also why students leave the sciences and pursue other studies.
The methodology was unique with seven recent, non–science graduates hired to “seriously audit” first–year chemistry and physics courses. The practices described by the participants are in line with my experiences as an undergraduate science major, with my observations as a Teaching Assistant in graduate school, and as faculty at a state university. As I started my teaching career 20–years ago, making changes to the status quo was not overly encouraged and this was one factor in my decision to leave academics.
So what’s happening today?
Unfortunately, in some areas, not much has changed. Although my impression is akin to someone looking through a single, transparent pane in a broad framework of stained glass, discussions with both my daughters during their first-year chemistry courses indicate the primary focus is still on problem-solving. To be successful, you need to recognize the problem and have the right tools in hand to solve it; asking “why” is less important than asking “how.” Why is it important for citizens to understand science? Why do scientists challenge the status quo? Why is the scientific method important? However, on a positive note, the uber–competitive environments of the past seem less so, and student collaboration is encouraged. (Maybe, over encouraged.) Additionally, the number Department, University, and online resources allow students to learn the topic in ways that better fit their learning style, although making students aware of these resources is difficult.
That college students from 1990 were turned off by the teaching pedagogy was my main take away from the reading. The importance of strong math skills being the second. I don’t believe a revolution occurred during my absence from the University classroom; furthermore, the need for strong mathematical skills is still important and should now include vital digital tools such as spreadsheets and graphical analysis. Reading this book only reminded me of the enormous amount of work still needed to improve science literacy and participation in our country.