Responding to the universally acknowledged need to teach more students more science, Stalking the Second Tier proposes reform at the college level. Sheila Tobias sets out to identify able, motivated college students who, although they enjoyed or performed science successfully in high school, do not choose to pursue science in college. A number of statistics indicate that while many high school graduates "survive their less-than-perfect precollege education with their taste and even some talent for science intact" (p. 8), the number of students who study science in college drops off drastically at every pass: those who enroll in some introductory college science courses, those who elect science majors, and those who remain in the major to complete a degree. For example, the proportion of college freshman planning to major in science and mathematics fell by half between 1966 and 1988.
Tobias, a social scientist, has been studying and publishing in the field of math and science disability and anxiety since 1978. Her 92-page book is highly readable and will be of interest to students, parents and educators, offering both a shrewd analysis of the problem and concrete, convincing recommendations for educational reform in science and math.
Some of Tobias's most interesting observations are the fruit of her outside position with respect to the scientific academy. Criticizing the latter's emphasis on pre-college reform, for example, Tobias reveals scientists' assumption that scientists are born, not made. By locating the problem outside their own institutions, scientists betray their expectation that each generation of science workers will rise "like cream to the top" (p. 9). Scientists assume, in other words, that those who will do science successfully do not need to be recruited, encouraged or supported.
The scientific temperament, Tobias thinks, may partially account for such smugness. Because scientists are good researchers, they prefer situations in which variables can be isolated and controlled. It seems more logical to them "to begin with pure substances (the nation's six-year-olds) and uniform initial conditions, than to flounder in the messy bog of motivation, attributes and prior training exhibited by postsecondary students in their early years at college" (p. 9).
Scientists are also prone to a kind of self- reproduction that may prevent them from identifying many potential good science students. Such a tendency sends a disturbing message to all but a favored few: "Unless they are unusually self-motivated, extraordinarily self-confident, virtually teacher- and curriculum-proof, indifferent to material outcomes, single-minded and single-track, in short, unless they are younger versions of the science community itself, many otherwise intelligent, curious, and ambitious young people have every reason to conclude there is no place for them in science" (p. 11). Thus the low representation of women as well as some racial and ethnic minorities in science "may not be the result of social discrimination per se," but of too narrow a vision of the kinds of attributes and behaviors the "true scientist" displays (p. 11).
To explore the possibilities of recruiting college science majors from the "second tier," a hypothetical group of students who choose not to pursue science in college, Tobias recruited a small sample of college graduates whose learning styles and interests might represent those of students populating this imaginary tier. These seven subjects had majored in fields as diverse as anthropology, creative writing and classics, and they had demonstrated motivation and ability in their chosen fields. Each had avoided science in college but had had the necessary high school background for college science courses.
The participants were asked to seriously audit an introductory course in chemistry or calculus-based physics. They attended classes, submitted homework, and took exams. In addition, they were asked to keep a journal of their "personal encounters" with the subject matter, and, as well as they could, those of their fellow students. In particular, they were asked to focus their attention on what might make introductory science classes "hard" or alienating for students like themselves.
With one exception, the participants did well in these courses. But even given their success, only two of the seven said that they would continue in science if they had the choice. Tobias assumes that these students' experiences can provide clues to the reasons why students like them prefer other fields and what strategies might be employed to encourage them to choose science.
The participants' responses to various factors in the "classroom culture" were remarkably uniform. All felt keenly the lack of an intellectual overview or larger context for the principles or formulae they were learning. They wanted some insight into the connections between the course material and the larger world, and they resented what they perceived as their professors' emphasis on students' mastery of mechanical skills. In addition, the subjects missed the classroom discussion and sense of community they knew in their chosen fields. They cited a negative atmosphere of fear and competitiveness in the science classes.
By reviewing the findings of several other studies (one of Harvard-Radcliffe students' concentration choices), Tobias is able to broaden both the pool of hypothetical second-tier students and the scope of her recommendations. One important finding is the extent to which students who chose non-science careers may have needed, but not have been supplied with, a sense that science would offer them employment possibilities, satisfying work, and monetary reward. To counteract the effect that lack of information might have on potential science students, Tobias suggests hiring department- specific personnel to act as "science advisors" who would monitor job opportunities for science majors and provide the "missing human contact and community," in a variety of ways, for those students to whom it might well make a difference.
message is that we need to extend our notions of who can do science and
why. Science faculty need to welcome and support non-traditional science
students by supplying opportunities for these students to enjoy science
classes, particularly by offering intellectual stimuli or challenges other
than those satisfied by the development of problem-solving skills.