Last November I delivered a lecture on complex-system economics at a world-famous institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I also attended a conference on science education in the same city, along with a physicist from Turkey who was visiting there at the time.
The conference, aimed at improving mathematics and physics education in the United States, was organized by David Pines, co-director of the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matters, and attended by university and high-school teachers, writers, directors of science movies, computer engineers and many others. The subject was how to prepare a teaching program on superconductivity for junior- and high-school students.
I spoke of my experience as the author of a math textbook, “Let’s Study Math” (not approved by Japanese censors). The idea behind the book — providing children with a text for self-study — received a favorable response from the audience.
The Turkish physicist Ali Alpar, a professor at a newly established university in Istanbul, reported on education there. According to him, Sabanci University (named after a Turkish businessman) requires humanities students to study math and physics as well. In the case of sciences — physics, chemistry, biology and geology are organically combined. Generally, the first three subjects are taught in that order over a period of two years. Biology is taught last so that students can learn some of the latest developments in life science, as in genetic engineering and brain science.
All this illustrates that the university’s founding committee conducted exhaustive discussions to create an educational institution in the true sense of the term. It is easy to imagine that students at Sabanci University are as excellent as those at prestigious universities of long standing.
By contrast, science education in Japan seems approaching a crisis. University students in the humanities have little knowledge of high-school-level sciences. Even some science students have no experience studying physics and biology in high school or lack an ability to make the grade. So universities are left to make up for these shortcomings.
One reason for all this lies in the the way that high-school science education is provided. According to a survey by Katsuhiro Arai, professor at Tohoku University, only 12 percent of students complete physics studies (category 2), less than the 16 percent of high-school graduates who enter universities’ science departments. Those who similarly study math (category 3) represent about 20 percent, about the same percentage as those who enter natural-science departments.
What this means is that many high-school students not good at math take up science and engineering courses at universities. With a large number of students failing to complete studies in physics (category 2) and math (category 3), those who do complete have a relatively low level of scholastic ability.
The waning interest in math and physics is not a new problem. The official response to this has been to alter the system so that students do not have to study difficult subjects.
To raise Japan’s technological level it is necessary not only to spend more time teaching science-related subjects, but also to increase the number of high-school students attending science classes. By doing so, students interested in science should be motivated to enter science departments. For this to happen, systemic changes are needed so as to make high-school science lessons easier to learn.
At present, the science curriculum is divided into a variety of subjects, such as “basic sciences,” “general sciences A,” “general sciences B,” “biology I” and “biology II.” Since the divisions are largely artificial, study is made unnecessarily difficult.
Science studies in high school will become much easier if only four subjects — biology, chemistry, physics and geology — are taught. In fact, that was the case in the 1960s, when high-school students learned most of the basics about these subjects.
At Sabanci University, physics, chemistry and biology as well as geology are taught in an integrated manner, incorporating their basic elements. Biology has a fast-developing branch that requires knowledge of physics and chemistry. By the same token, knowledge of biology and geology is essential to an understanding of global environmental problems. Basic to this are chemistry and physics.
Physics should be studied first because it is a more basic and logical branch of science. That should make it easier to understand more applied subjects. That is also an efficient way to study a number of science subjects. At least high schools preparing for university entrance exams, if not all high schools, should provide such guidance.
In the past, as many as 80 percent of high-school students studied “physics I.” Now, however, less than 30 percent complete the course. This is hardly the way to build a technology-oriented nation.
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