Sunday, August 29, 2010

Campfire Stories

Here's another horror story about the educational system for you. This time, it's about college.

One of the teachers was acting as an examiner in another college for the B.Sc Chemistry students. They were being asked to do a titration. Each would go into the chemical room and come out with a little pile of white powder. When asked the mass, they would reply that it was 23.1457 g.

When multiple students came out telling her the same weight, or similar weights with an odd number for the last digit, she became curious. All the balances her own college had were two-pan balances with the smallest measure being 0.2 mg. So she was curious what kind of balance they were using that could go down to 0.1 mg. Most colleges don't have that kind of balance.

Neither did this one. In fact, this college didn't have any kind of balance. The students were going into the chemical store room, where some guy was handing them spoonfuls of the compound. They knew the number they were supposed to say, and so they said it.

So how did they do titration without knowing the concentration of their solution? Same way. They would do whatever they were doing with their burettes, then come up to the teacher and say, "Ma'am, I got 15.3 mL," which would be the correct answer. There was absolutely no real titration going on.

For the vast majority of the students, this practical exam was probably the second time in their lives they had touched a burette, with the first being probably no more than a week before. All the practicals are often crammed into one week before the test, and then forgotten, if they ever were learned to begin with.

It's ridiculous to even contemplate teaching science this way. No wonder companies don't want to hire graduates that know nothing and need to be trained from the beginning, which makes finding jobs difficult for science graduates, which makes people less likely to go with the science track after 10th which makes for less funding for these colleges. It really is a vicious cycle.

Part of the problem, I think, is that research and teaching have been uncoupled. The electrons (ideas, capital) might be flowing in from the government or industry in the research world, but ATP synthesis (college lab) has nothing to power it. Plus half the protons (money) flow right back out the pores of corruption.

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