Tuesday, March 15, 2005

So you want to be an astrophysicist? Part 0 - gettting ready for university

Ok, I promise (myself) that I will get back to discussing some science like thing, like current research issues, and hot preprints. Real Soon Now.

In the mean time, Diane Ravitch has an interesting New York Times opinion article on US education. The basic thesis of the article is to counter Gates recent point on high school education, but countering that the key failure is in the middle schools (this sounds familiar... the universities always insist that it is not their fault, they have to deal with the high school product...). I think she has a good point.

Now, my perspective is as an outsider, I did not go through the US school system, and my kids are not in it yet. So I see snippets from the outside. From that perspective, the elementary schools look to be ok, if sometimes a little fluffy, but for the life of me I can't find out what students actually DO in middle schools. There seems to be no structured curriculum and no progress towards preparing for high school (yes, I know there are several thousand independent and different school systems, but honestly, they're not that different, and if anything I see the better ones). That time needs to be used to move students along, for them to learn more stuff and to push the ambitious and able to get ahead in their strong subjects, or you start losing students, through shear boredom if nothing else.

I disagree that there is nothing wrong with the high schools though, if nothing else the practise of teaching science as year long immersion classes and in succession is nothing short of insane - science needs to be taught simultaneously on parallel tracks over several years - 3-4 minimum - if it is to take, and any actual knowledge to stick in peoples brains. This has been the subject on an ongoing debate in APS journal letter pages. And don't tell me that it is impossible to schedule such course patterns - everyone else in the world does so!

So, a proposed solution is basically to introduce tracking, as is done in much of Europe, there'd be an "academic" track, with presumably 30-50% of students, and a "technical" track (basically vocational education). This works, in the broad sense that it prepares many students better for university, and it prepares many students better for the workforce. I don't see if being effectively implemented in the US for two reasons: it is anti-egalitarian, it removes equality of opportunity and in the US would invite lawsuits. Secondly, there is a critical flaw to it - it only works for other peoples kids...

The problem with tracking is it requires early identification of aptitude, and that is a flawed process; so some kids will be flushed from the system early, and it is very difficult to get back on an "academic" track once that is done. This is a waste. (I know the article says students from both tracks would be well prepared for higher education - they will not be in practise).
This introduces complementary flaws - namely the "activist" parents, college educated middle/upper-middle class who give a damn, and who will insist their kids (not universally, but disproportionately) go in the "academic" track. So you get people forced on that track who are not well suited to it - that is a waste that can be accommodated, and may benefit some of the students. The real crisis comes when the activist parents are told THEIR kid is NOT going on the academic track, that they are tracked to the vocational system. This will not go over well. Trust me I have seen it up close and personal in the quiet realms of north Oxford schools... (the upper class will go private prep, and not give a damn, but they don't give a damn anyway; and if any reader feels that US society can not be divided into upper/middle "classes", then just substitute income levels, they are good proxies).

So, interesting idea, be fun to see an implementation in some large districts, but I don't think the US can afford to wait for the results, the science educated population is already dangerously small.

So, what should YOU do, wanting to get into a good university and an astro/physics major?

1) Take all the math that is offered, and do well in it.

2) Take all the science on offer, and do well in that.

3) Get good grades overall; preferably straight A, but B+ will do. It will get you far enough to have a chance to see if you can hack it at the next level.

4) Do all of this without overextending yourself; university is harder with much more intense workload, you need to be able to step up the pace (and again at grad school).

5) Jump through whatever hoops are needed, try to enjoy the process, or just grit your teeth and do it; the real world is worse that way.

6) Enjoy life.

7) Read. Lots. Of everything.

8) Apply broadly, and aim for good universities, even if teachers and counselors advice you not to. Worry about funding after you find out where you got into, if you don't apply you definitely won't get in.

9) Go to a university you feel comfortable with, but that is academically strong. Reputation does count unfairly or not. And try to get out of your hometown.

10) There's these whacky things calles SATs. Do well on them. The exam sucks, the way they are used sucks, and they can be gamed; so they are unreliable indicators; but, they do correlate with performance (at least in academic mythology) and beancounters on committees love them because they are an "objective quantifiable indicator", you can cut on them and reduce the time spent thinking about peoples life, almost guilt free.

I've seen many criteria used for university admission, and the US fascination with multiple choice exams is the worst. But it works, in the sense of being functional and arguably not much less fair than all the others.


Blogger Adam Solomon said...

Hmmm...very nice! There isn't much advice around for high school students aspiring to be astrophysicists, and I'd know, mainly because I'm a high school student aspiring to be an astrophysicist. Although I guess there isn't much to be said...take a lot of math and science, get good grades, do well on the SATs, do some research if at all possible (as I've been lucky enough too)...Anywho, I've never found an astrophysicist's blog but I've always wanted to, so it's good you've got this one! I'll be reading ;)

4:58 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

You're very welcome.

I can try to address any specific questions or "gaps", the original was somewhat impromptu and could use a more considered discussion, maybe when I get to part 2.0...

11:55 AM  
Blogger Adam Solomon said...

Hmmm...well, honestly, I can see no major gaps, except for maybe specifics on AP courses (Calc, Physics B and C, and Chemistry are extremely important for an astro/physics major) and HS research opportunities. It's insanely popular these days, especially in New York, where I live. Granted, though, this is a very tough field for HS researchers to do meaningful work in (the strong majority of HS students research in biomed)--I'm one of very few students out there taking a lead role in completely publishable astro projects...but it's certainly a good idea if possible. Get some research experience under your belt so you know before majoring in astro so you know if that's what you want to do for the rest of your life! ;)

But yeah--there really is very little to be said for HS students. Research is an amazing opportunity but very rare. Otherwise, math, math, math, science, science, english, science!

And I'm certainly looking forward to the next parts....:)

3:21 PM  
Blogger gYpSi*ChAoS said...

I was just wondering if you have any advice/suggested reading. I am 24 and have been out of school since I was 17. I start college this fall and my main concern is since my "year off" lasted a little too long I fear I'm too far behind to actually be any good at physics so I'm trying to prepared as much as I can. Any help would be appreciated, thank you.

12:15 AM  

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