As an entrepreneur, a big part of my job is figuring out what people want and building products that meet those needs. Even if I think a product is really cool, I’m not going to invest time and money making it better if the market doesn’t seem to care. There’s a slim chance that I’ll fiddle around with the product long enough that I can get people to understand what they didn’t know they needed, but such is a fool’s errand unless there’s a clear path to success.
Unsurprisingly, people with backgrounds in iterative software development aren’t running education in America. It’s a shame, really, because I think consumer web startups could provide some good lessons to improving K-12 science education. Let me start with one premise: Our nation’s cultural values, especially in middle and high school environments, are strongly aligned against science and technology. And most distressingly — and has Dean Kamen has recognized — this is contagious. When a student’s most respected peer is the football captain, they are likely to realign their interests away from science and education and towards things that are less productive to society.
Yet like an entrepreneur without a good grasp of the audience, we continue to focus on shifting the product — fiddling around with different ways to present information — rather than the market. While there’s certainly value in iteration and superior presentation, I can’t really envision a secular change in performance and output taking place without a fundamental change in the market’s attitude toward science. We have to make science sexy to high-potential K-12 kids. All the product iteration in the world is for moot unless we can figure out a way to make smart students actually care about science, math and engineering.
Logically, there are two ways to make this happen:
Change the attitudes of society as a whole. This is Dean Kamen’s strategy with FIRST — turn science into a sport, engaging larger segments of the populace by framing science students in the same verbiage as football players.
Change the attitude of a subset of society, and immerse qualified science students in that subset. This is a controversial one, and — other than a few specialty schools such as TJHSST — isn’t commonly employed in a meaningful way.
While I love what FIRST is doing, I’m not convinced that the former is feasible. Getting hundreds of thousands of high school students engaged in competitive science — as FIRST has done — is awesome. But it’s not changing our culture’s attitude toward science as an unpopular, unsexy, geeky, male-dominated field. And there’s a decent argument to be made that such stereotypes are hard to dispel because they’re true. Fixing that problem — well, that’s another debate. Regardless, I don’t see brilliant science students gaining the fame, notoriety and sexiness of their peer athletes in my lifetime. And if you rely on the societal change model, this is a massive problem: science and engineering students have been promised a reward in exchange for their work that they’re not going to get. In other words, FIRST could be selling a lie.
Disturbingly, our best bet to stay competitive as a nation may be to ghettoize high-performing students, placing those with real potential to be our nation’s next generation of scientists and engineers in environments where their interests won’t be misaligned by the skewed perspectives of a nation fascinated by D1 college football and Justin Bieber. There are a lot of downsides to this proposition — namely, the fact that a majority of students are stuck in downward-spiraling groups of non-qualifying kids. But is this significantly different than our nation’s current private school structure, except with academic performance as opposed to financial means as the selector?
Regardless of the method used, I’d love to see our nation’s policymakers and educators focus a bit more on the market they’re trying to reach.