Funding techie undergrads

24Sep07

It’s a bit old by blog standards, but there is a bit of news from last month that Montana senator Max Baucus is proposing free college tuition for students of mathematics and science (“techies” in the parlance of my undergraduate institution). The goal is to provide 25,000 (merit-based) university scholarships to math/science students who teach or work in those fields for at least four years after graduation. The motivation is to help keep the US “globally competitive.”

I’d like to take a brief moment to step onto a soap box and note that there are plenty of reasons why math/science education is an important issue in the US. Here are two big ones for non-scientists:

  1. Economic. A solid science/mathematics education in secondary school and university is necessary for progress and innovation in America’s tech/knowledge-based economy.
  2. Political. Science/math education (at the secondary school level and below) isn’t important for facts but rather for rational thought. I learned more about writing an argumentative essay in a proof-based geometry course than I did in any English class I’ve ever taken. (Ok, maybe I’m a crap writer… .) An education populace capable of rational thought and critical thinking is the prerequisite for a functioning democracy.

Anyway, I haven’t been able to follow up on Senator Bacus’ proposal. It’s not clear if it’s for all American students or just those in Montana… though I don’t think there even are 25,000 high school seniors in Montana per year (the total population is just under million). Anyway, I have no idea how one would enforce such a grant. Especially since most American undergrads have gone to college to `find themselves’ and discover what they want to do the rest of their lives (drink and play video games?). It would be unfair to force them to repay their scholarship just because they found their `true calling’ in poetry rather than molecular biology.

But, despite some practical questions, the proposal has its heart in the right place.

Related: Science Friday: American Girls and math, featuring an interview with Danica McKellar.



One Response to “Funding techie undergrads”

  1. I have to disagree about point 2. Not all sciences inculcate ‘rational thinking’ the way mathematics does. Even physics textbooks tend to gloss over a lot of sticky logical points (in fact, it is only by doing this that we get any physics done at all — nothing in physics is or can be precise). And logical structure becomes even less obvious when we get to chemical and biological theories. So other than mathematics and possibly computer science I would say none of the other natural science or engineering disciplines are particularly helpful for inculcating habits of rational thought.



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