For TAs teaching introductory classes, especially those with students from other majors whose motivation tends to be underwhelming, it’s easy to feel rather apathetic. Why should I care about teaching students who don’t really want to learn and, frankly, probably won’t end up in careers requiring this knowledge anyway?
But at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, that can be a mistake with disastrous consequences. One need look no further than this week’s big election to witness the real need for improved scientific literacy in our society. In recent years there has been no shortage of politicians making uninformed and sometimes willfully-ignorant statements concerning matters of science, and yet it often comes at little political cost. Besides the growing role of science and technology in our economy, a scientifically-informed citizenry is essential if we are to confront critical issues in climate change, healthcare, and energy in the 21st century.
If we hope to change this situation, the responsibility lies with us as educators. It starts in our classrooms, especially the introductory courses that can make or break students’ perceptions of science for the rest of their lives. When you teach these students, think of the attitudes about science you want them to someday pass down to their children, and the attitudes they will hold when they evaluate political candidates and head to the ballot box. Will they be able to discern legitimate science from pseudoscience in the media? Will they be willing to continue investing in the scientific research enterprise that has transformed our way of life forever? Will they make decisions based on evidence and careful reasoning — rather than intuition and ideology — and demand that their political leaders do the same?
Too often we scientists consider these introductory courses, and indeed the general obligation to educate the public, to be less important than pure research and training the next generation of scientists and engineers. But we do so at the peril of our discipline and of our society.