ScienceSTEM

“I’ll never use it again”: A Phrase That Makes Me Sad

Tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar to you: you’re sitting in class in your usual spot, up front but slightly off to the side so you can see the board but not be too obvious about it.  It’s about twenty minutes into the lecture and the white board is now so covered in notes, drawings, and equations that the professor has to start erasing things to make room for the rest of the day’s material.  It’s late spring and there are only a few more weeks left until the end of the semester.  You look up from your notes and turn around because you hear something from the middle of the classroom.  One student is frustrated and can’t understand how the professor got from one step to another.  The professor repeats the step.  The student snaps that she doesn’t understand that math.  The professor backtracks and answers the question, repeating the steps and explaining how exponential values changed when two variables are multiplied.  When the professor turns back to the board, the student rolls her eyes and mutters something to the person sitting next to her.  This was my first calculus class in college, everybody.

There’s a phrase that has been following me around since middle school:

“I’m never going to use it again.”

It’s annoying, it’s like when someone cuts in front of you while you’re waiting in line to get food or you get bitten by a mosquito.  It typically pops up when students find themselves coming to the end of a class that their high school or university sort of forced them to take.  Every high school in the United States has a core program where their students are required to take a certain number of math, literature, science, art, physical education, and language classes.  In contrast, students attending a college or university choose what subject they want to spend the majority of their time on by declaring a major and also have to complete a small set of basic requirements that are designed like high school, so that every university student gets at least a sampling of as many different subjects as possible outside their course of study.  Even schools known for their focus on science and engineering, like MIT, require that their science and engineering students take a certain number of classes in the arts, humanities, and social sciences as part of their degree program.  Likewise, a humanities major at a liberal arts college will have to pass a handful of basic science and math classes in order to earn their diploma.  Different schools will have different ways of expressing exactly why they do this.  Some may do it just for the giggles, but the basic idea is that by mandating that their students be educated in a broad sample of subjects, the students will graduate equipped with a multitude of diverse skills that can be applied to building their careers and interpreting the world around them.

I’m just going to start by using intro-level chemistry as an example.  A student enrolls in Chemistry 101 at Teen Skepchick University*. The class consists of weekly lectures, a lab class every two weeks, assigned readings from the textbook, and homework problems.  As the student reads her way through the textbook, her brain gets used to processing the terminology and a whole slew of new words are added to her vocabulary.  Things like radioactivity and quantum theory are demystified.  She improves on her math and problem solving skills by working through the homework problems.  Since she has never encountered these kinds of problems before, she develops ways of approaching difficult questions that are outside of her comfort zone.  In lab, she puts her new knowledge to practical use by actually manipulating physical materials and forming conclusions based on the data she draws.  Let’s say that the student is an English major who wants to work as an editor for a publishing company, but since she did all of the work and bothered to show up for the lectures, she passes and comes out of the semester with a basic understanding of what chemistry is and how it works.

 

A three dimensiona coordinate system with a teal colored gradiant sphere radiating from the origin, representing the probability density of an electron.

Oh, sure, quantum, that’s just like the iCloud, right?

(Image source: Wikipedia)

 

Years later, the student comes across an article in The New York Times about how the packaging for birth control Plan B incorrectly states that the pill stops a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb when what Plan B actually does is delay ovulation to prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg in the first place.  Whether the student realizes it consciously or not, her brain understands how scientists draw conclusions based on data collected from experiments because she did this herself in college.  She gets that if a lot of different scientists have done a lot of tests and all of them conclude that Plan B prevents a sperm cell from fertilizing an egg, that’s probably what the pill really does.  Reading science journalism like that Times article is also a piece of cake after a semester of wadding through chapters of a dense chemistry textbook.  This is one of the single most import aspects of a science class that is almost always overlooked by people who don’t specialize in science: it’s exercise for your brain.  It makes you more capable of taking on challenges and understanding any difficult concept that you encounter over the course of your life.

In a perfect world, not only would the student reading the Times article have seriously taken a couple of basic science classes but so would the politicians who are now struggling to hammer out policies that have a tangible effect on their constituents lives.  If everyone in the United States Congress understood math or were at least familiar with the Black-Scholes model, I seriously doubt they would have put up with the kind of ridiculous imaginary-money nonsense that caused the housing bubble to burst in 2007.

Real life doesn’t throw at you literal pop quizzes rehashed from your professor’s notes, so if you never take another chemistry class or never raise kids who need help with their high school chemistry homework, I guess you can say that you will never use your honed skills in writing down answers to chemistry problems ever again.  That doesn’t change the fact that every second of every day you are surrounded by forms of matter that are made up of molecules made up of atoms made up of subatomic particles that react and respond to each other in unique and, for the most part, predictable ways.  Our lives are dictated by how we react to this physical phenomenon and everything from the food you eat to the technology that you use on a day-to-day basis comes from what we have figured out about how to manipulate this matter so far.

“I’m never going to use it again.”

No.  No, I’m sorry, you will.  Whether you realize it or not.

Science and math class are rough.  They’re rough even for the students who want to be there.  Science majors are sometimes masochists who are in denial.  I can understand the temptation to blow it off or say things that make the students who are there to take it seriously feel uncomfortable.  If you’re just not into it, that’s okay, no one is going to hold you up at gunpoint and force you to appreciate the molecular composition of caffeine.

 

Two structure diagrams for the caffine molecule (C8_H10_N4_O2).

What’s this?  How did this get here?

(Source: WolframAlpha)

 

There’s just one other thing that you need to keep in mind: higher education can ruin your life.  I don’t just mean that your social life will suffer for a handful of years as you pour countless hours into solving problem sets and writing papers.  I mean that those years can put you in a financial sinkhole so deep that you will spend the rest of your life slowly festering and decomposing in its bowels until there is only a small collection of your mushy bone tissue left to be declared legally dead as the rest of your student debt is inherited by your remaining family members.  It’s not unlike the sarlacc from Return of the Jedi.

 

The sarlacc from Star Wars Episode VI: a hole in the sand filled with teeth, a sharp beak, and tentacles. Not a nice creature.

Pictured above: the college loan system (not scaled to size)

(Source: Wikipedia)

 

If you’re planning on attending college or are currently enrolled, you need to stay on top of things or else you could wind up failing a class that will keep you one or two credits away from graduating.  College is expensive and having your diploma delayed because of a handful of credits is something that could seriously happen, no matter how stupid or unimportant you think the class is.  You need to pass.  Scraping by with the least possible passing grade usually means turning in every homework assignment on time, showing up for class, and taking advantage of every scrap of extra help thrown your way including the professor’s office hours and homework help sessions.  It means showing that you care.  Because you do care, right?  You wouldn’t be in college if you didn’t.

 

*Not an actual university.

Header image is from the website for Northwestern University’s Undergraduate Chemistry Council.

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alyssa

alyssa

Alyssa is a recent liberal arts graduate with a B.A. in physics and a background in wrangling high-vacuum equipment. She is an aspiring science writer who writes when she's not busy hunting for full time work in nanomaterials and renewable energy. She likes to get her energy by drinking coffee and absorbing electromagnetic radiation from the Sun.

1 Comment

  1. June 29, 2012 at 1:46 am —

    Actually, I was a music major and I didn’t have to take any math and science courses in order to graduate (which always bothered me). But I was in a conservatory-connected-to-a-larger-university where it was hard enough to get students to take the same amount of (non-music) arts and humanities courses as the people in the school of arts & sciences, without complaining that they’re “never going to use it” or “at Juilliard they only have to take one Greek mythology course and the rest is music!” Yeah, and that’s why Juilliard doesn’t have a larger university helping them out with their funding…

    It was amazing to me even how some music majors would complain about MUSIC-related academic courses – like music theory and music history – that weren’t immediately relevant to learning how to play their instrument better, and whine that even THOSE were “useless” to them because they were just there to get fast fingers. Well, sorry, I would always say in response, if you want to get a legitimate Bachelors degree you’re going to have to use your brain and not just your fingers from time to time. Our school did have a “Performers Certificate” program that was for undergrads who wanted to just focus on their instrument/voice and not have to take any non-performance classes, so it’s not like these weren’t options.

    Yeah, so, I thought the future pre-meds/engineering majors in my high school who whined that they shouldn’t have to take history or English were annoying, but nothing was as bad as some of the people I encountered in music school. Glad I’m doing musicology (music history) in grad school – a more “academic” music major, obviously – and will likely be dealing with less of these people.

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