Today, President Obama gave a speech on the importance of math/science/engineering education, and is starting an program to show young people how “cool” science can be. As an engineering student, I’m happy for all the extra funding we may be receiving, and I think it would be great for more interested students to join the scientific community.
Compared with nations such as Japan, Korea, and China which have over the past several decades, and with immense national efforts, pushed themselves to the forefront of science and technology, the technological supremacy of the United States is falling.
There is one small problem with the President’s plan: the basic study of these subjects is bloody boring.
I realize since I’m an engineer, this may sound really weird to say. Truly, I’m not so masochistic as to pursue a living that bores my soul to tears, nor encourage others to follow me into one (though misery does love company … so maybe I am). Regardless, actual science can truly be bloody boring.
It seems to me, that performing research is very similar to what they say about war, being long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, perhaps with excitement or discovery replacing the terror (although, PhD Comics does illustrate the terror portion well). Years are spent running simulations on a computer, or titrating chemicals, or injecting random concoctions into lab rats before you confirm that perhaps your theory is actually panning out.
Interestingly, in his speech, Obama gives a shout out to the Discovery show Mythbusters team, who were in attendance. Science should be more like an episode of Mythbusters. You ask a question, and answer it in an hour packed with high speed camera footage and explosions. The problem facing educators preparing students for these disciplines is a world filled with instant gratification. No one wants to cram their brain full of theorems, methods, and formula for years and then beat their head against the wall for years longer coming up with some new idea which may or may not be useful or even acknowledged. Granted, research methods, like all things, tend to improve over time, and hopefully let you do research faster. It seems though, that the improved methods have only meant that the complexity of the research tasks undertaken have increased.
My point is, the biggest obstacle for increasing the nation’s excellence in the field of science and engineering isn’t that there’s some kind of stigma against geeks making it seem uncool. I just don’t think most have the patience for it anymore. But if they must do something about it, I vote that they make it much more financially lucrative to do research. Elevating researchers to, oh, say a doctor’s or lawyer’s salary certainly wouldn’t hurt enticing more into the field.