other question #3789

Francis, a 42 year old male from Ottawa, Ontario asks on January 27, 2007,


I have been teaching high school science for 16 years and I am interested in knowing what you feel are currently the essential skills, knowledge and behaviors that a student entering a university science program (especially physics) or college science program (especially biology) must have? Similarly what does your panel of scientists feel are the the essential science skills and knowledge for a non science specialist?

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the answer

Jess Brewer answered on January 28, 2007, A:
My personal advice to students at any level:
1. Learn to think for yourself, your own way, but be willing to accept the results of objective tests of your methods, and don't be too proud to "stand on the shoulders of giants".
2. Place honesty and a sincere desire to understand what's really going on at the top rung of your value system, well above any religious or political beliefs. Love ideas.
3. Trust your own judgement above that of others, but make it worthy of that trust by keeping it well informed.
4. Learn to write well. Write essays, short stories, plays and poetry. It is the single most essential skill of a scientist! I'm not kidding.
5. Get comfortable with Mathematics, even if you want to become a journalist. Math is just shorthand for concepts that are useful in any human endeavour.
6. Do {what you do} well, and do {what you do well}. Excellence is its own reward. Anything worth doing will take hard work.
7. Get a Liberal Education even if no one else encourages you to do so. It will make your life more worth living. Going to University to get a degree makes as much sense as falling in love to get a marriage certificate. If you just want to be "employable", you will hate it at university -- I hope.
I could go on, but that will do nicely for a start. As various famous people are reputed to have said, "A formal education is a waste of time, except when it is superfluous." Make sure it's superfluous for you; then enjoy it!
Now, I know this is probably not what the questioner wanted to know; usually people want to know how to deal with all the lazy, disinterested, mediocre students they have to process through an educational factory so they can become lazy, disinterested, mediocre citizens. Well, if I believed these were really the attributes of the students in question, I would say, "Who cares?" But I strongly suspect they are that way because it's what we expect of them. (And, of course, it's what their peers DEMAND of them if they want to be "cool".)  This cultural tradition is so powerful I see no way to overcome it in one generation; each teacher who sacrifices his/her life on the altar of idealism, in full view of her/his students, contributes one tiny incremental step toward a society worth having.
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