Wednesday, October 17, 2012

When are opportunity cost arguments most applicable?

Yesterday, a great many chemistry bloggers answered Mr. David Bernstein's question (posed on the Washington Post's education blog) "Why are you forcing my son to take chemistry?" I cannot really add anything to their righteous responses, so I'll send you over to Ash's, Derek's, SAO's and Janet's.

[Won't someone speak up for the joys of memorization? Very first, I assume that Mr. Bernstein is deeply mistaken about general chemistry being all memorization. Second, does anyone actually teach chemistry by memorization? Third, I've always felt that remembering something was the byproduct of actual understanding of the concept. People don't like memorizing things that are "useless" -- like the ordered list of American presidents, their parties, dates of office that I was asked to memorize as a student of AP US History (a special demand of our excellent teacher -- hello, Dr. P!) But it's only a memorized list if... you don't understand the ebb and flow of American politics. Do you memorize the alphabet, or do you understand it? Hard to say. Did I memorize Jeff Saturday's jersey number? (63, btw) Not really.]

I felt the biggest pang of potential regret when I read Mr. Bernstein's final argument:
There’s a concept in economics called “opportunity costs,” which you may not have learned about because you were taking chemistry instead of economics. Opportunity costs are the sacrifices we make when we choose one alternative over another. A family store may be turning a good profit by selling tomatoes, but it would turn a bigger profit if it used the same shelf space to sell cucumbers. There are opportunity costs of selling tomatoes. 
When you force my son to take chemistry (and several other subjects, this is not only about chemistry), you are not allowing him that same time to take a public speaking course, which he could be really good at, or music, or political science, or creative writing, or HTML coding for websites. 
Maybe he will learn something in chemistry somewhere along the way. But he will lose out on so many other more important opportunities, and so will our society, which will have deprived itself of his full contribution.
As someone who routinely uses "opportunity cost" arguments against the "STEM graduate school is good for you" meme, I am concerned that perhaps Mr. Bernstein's argument sounds a little too familiar.

But the opportunity costs of one year of high school chemistry seem relatively low. While Mr. Bernstein seems to have stipulated that it's not just about chemistry, I don't understand how it is chemistry that HAS to be the marginal class that has disallowed his son to not take a course in creative writing or HTML coding. At the same time, the relative opportunity costs of taking a Ph.D. in the sciences seem potentially very high. While we can debate the amount of time Mr. Bernstein's son might spend taking chemistry, we can all agree that a rigorous science graduate program will consume all of one's attention for at least 4 to 5 years. That you could be doing something else during that time seems apparent.

I also think there is also a distinct difference between the life of a high school student (15-18 years old) and a potential graduate student (somewhere between 22 and 28). When you're a high school student, it seems like there are very few options that you should look at and deny yourself. (Perhaps professional athlete or professional entertainer?) When you're in your late 20s, I think you should be thinking very seriously about how you will be making a living, and what your chances of success might be. Denying yourself options in high school seems a little unwise; by going to graduate school in the sciences and pursuing a doctoral degree (and beyond!), I feel that by pursuing one path (academic/industrial science), you are continually choosing not to walk other paths or raise the cost of pursuing them later.


  1. Excellent point here. Huge difference between high school student and older student. Narrowing ones options that early is unwise.

    My situation is a perfect example- I didn't pursue the rigorous graduate education- but I use my chemistry all the time. Both in my teaching and in everyday life.

    I am so glad I was required to take one year of high school chem. And- I think my choices might have been different later on had I been required to take more than one year at that age.

  2. I'm a chemist and I enjoy it, but I think the whole high school curriculum needs to be re-thought. I never made the decision to go into science over engineering; I majored in chemistry because I had no idea what engineers did until I got to grad school. Maybe it's time to get away from the traditional year of biology, year of chemistry, and year of physics that every kid is expected to take, and replace them with semester-long introductions to things like engineering and materials science that some kids might go on to choose as college majors.

    A whole year of chemistry made much more sense back when more kids went on to become chemists - in 2012, it's kind of like asking kids to take a course in coal mining or steel milling!

  3. I continue to find the 'opportunity cost' argument specious as it implies that one can rigourously quantify this. Maybe one can, but I've never seen a financial model that has adequately done so. As a ruthless practitioner of maximizing ROI I just don't see how this idea of a spurious dollars and cents calculation applies to anyone's overall well-being.

    A, smarter than I, buddy once remarked that there were no right or wrong choices, merely choices. This is likely an oversimplification (there are a lot of demonstrably bad choices) but overall I like that way of thinking. I'm pretty sure, financially, that a career as a CPA or lawyer has a greater financial valuation than being a chemist but, man, what a wretched existence.

    1. bboooooya, I continue to appreciate your pushback on this point. I agree that it cannot be rigorously quantified, but it certainly can be quantified (or guessed at, anyway.)

      I liked graduate school a lot and I don't regret going. But if it will take longer than 4 years to complete your doctorate, shouldn't there be *some* attempt at quantifying the cost of that time?

    2. My objection isn't to the idea of opportunity cost so much as the ridiculous impossibility of coming up with a meaningful quantification.

  4. How about starting with an "interdisciplinary science", a kind of "How Things Work" class that basically includes an overview of concepts from physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and math? You could have a chapter on, say, fabric design, and demonstrate how each of these sciences plays a role in it. Then, if you want to learn more about a particular field you follow up with a dedicated chemistry or physics or biology class. That way kids could pick what they like without losing sight of the important role that others sciences are playing.

  5. I think that is what the freshman science requirement is supposed to do. Except that it doesn't work. It ends up being an "easy" class that nobody takes very seriously- an easy A. Of course this was 20 years ago when I was in high school.

    I still think there need to be hardcore requirements- like English or math requirements. You wouldn't forego a year of English or world history, for example. These are required. Likewise, you should be required to take chemistry and physics or chemistry and biology (together preferably). The two subjects are overlapping and you could teach them with corresponding topics. (quantum in chemistry and quantum in physics for example)

    My teachers actually did this with world history and world literature and I feel that is the subject with which I left high school with the strongest depth of knowledge.

    Interestingly, I then majored in chem. Go figure.

  6. Actually, I think there is a lot in the article that is correct. I'm a chemist and it was my high school class that originally got me interested in chemistry. However, it is true that the old school curriculum of forcing everyone to take 1 year of bio, chem, physics is in large measure a waste of time, money, and pointless for a large number of students. We need to implement tracking so that the hard core science classes are reserved for those capable of excelling in them. They should not be a requirement for the average student who has no interest and no ability. Implementing baby science classes that are a full year with a little bit of everything to give broad based science knowledge would be fine, but that's not how the system is implemented right now.

    And yeah, I have to agree with him that many high school chem teachers do, in fact, teach via memorization. My high school teacher made us memorize the first 40 elements of the periodic table, their symbols, their atomic masses, etc. And that was in the first 2 months of the school year. I loved it, but I had good memory skills and of course simply knowing masses off the top of your head helps to do lots of calculations faster than having to look up the table for every problem. That helped me all the way through grad school. But the kids who didn't have good memory (and worse were not that good at math) were miserable as you could well imagine.

    1. It might be that the financial side of things would dictate certain people are excluded. We can't afford to buy all the equipment, lab space, etc to educate all students..... But that is really sad. If people can attain the required math skills for physical science, it really is in the best interest of the United States to train as many fledgling scientists as possible.

      The short survey courses for freshman are really a joke. Our teacher was out of town half the time and obviously didn't want to teach the class.

    2. "If people can attain the required math skills for physical science, it really is in the best interest of the United States to train as many fledgling scientists as possible."

      Yeah, and I bet Bethlehem Steel would come back if we only trained more steel-workers!

    3. Memorizing the first 40 elements? Yeah, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

    4. Memorization is a crutch for lazy teachers. I was horrified at my old grade school worksheets I found cleaning out my parents' basement - they were along the lines of _________ is _________ ________ and we were expected to parrot something back.

      I recall the high school teaching track for chem majors at my undergrad skimped on upper-level chemistry courses to make room for all the education theory BS they have to take, so I question how much fundamental understanding those folks have when they graduate.

    5. I asked a student of mine yesterday what percentage of the class was memorization. Now, keep in mind that I'm teaching an introductory chemistry class that is not technically at college level. Its not really high school level either- (I've had high school students take the class and tell me it moves much faster than a high school curriculum)

      She said 40%. I'm wondering if, realistically, it could be less. I remember memorizing in intro chem. Of course I dove straight into the hard-core, premed, in-your-face chemistry class at "fancy pants university" (I saw this on a blog somewhere). It was cut-throat. The only way to survive was the have the solubility rules and all polyatomic anions memorized the first day. I worked so hard at memorizing I think I slept for two weeks straight at Christmas break. It was mentally and physically exhausting.

      This class is supposed to be more concept oriented before the students dive into the more difficult math and higher-level explanations of a college chemistry course.

      I wish there were a way to introduce molecular equations (dissolved in aqueous solution) without telling students they must just "know" that sulfate has a 2- charge. But- in some cases that is the only way they would know the charge on the transition metal that forms an insoluble compound with say iron or cobalt or something similar. It truly is a pyramid- they can't complete their molecular equations without having certain things memorized.

      Now- if they studied lewis structures this would be different. They could figure out the charge on the sulfate by drawing its electron structure. But they don't get to this until the end of the semester. So- at the beginning we're stuck with memorizing.

      Just some food for thought here.

    6. Julie, thanks for your thoughtful comments here -- they have added to the discussion.

      Fancy Pants University is the alma mater and employer of a number of Chemjobber characters.

    7. Maybe we all took freshman chem there in the early/mid 90's. Small world.

    8. sulfate is a bad example above because it is soluble with transition metals. (The exceptions don't count because they are group 2 metals)
      However, you get my point that charges must be memorized with insoluble ions (phosphate, carbonate) so that the transition metal charge can be determined.

    9. There's no getting around some memorization. I agree that you need to make the kids memorize things like polyatomic ions before they can move on to deeper concepts; my post was a dig at teachers who do things like making the kids memorize and regurgitate the first 40 elements and their atomic weights (I suspect because it's easier than actually teaching).

  7. I haven't seen it mentioned, but there are a number of comments to the WaPost blog which is in regards to the actual Maryland state requirements. His "snowflake" wasn't forced to take chemistry, but chose to take it. He could have opted for another science class, and it really seems like a "buyers remorse" blog post.

    Here is a good summary comment (from the comments section):

    12:30 AM EDT
    Now that it is clear that Chemistry is not actually a required course, Mr. Bernstein is making the argument that it's not about Chemistry, but that its about choice in school.

    But his son DOES have choices. Most HS's have 7 period days. Over four years this means 28 credits.

    The state of MD requires the following:
    4 CR English
    4 Math (Algebra, Geometry and two other subjects)
    3 CR Science (Biology, a Physical Science and one other Science)
    3 CR Social Studies (US, World and NSL)
    1 CR Fine Arts
    1 CR Technology
    1 CR PE
    0.5 CR Health
    22 CR in total

    So only 17.5 of the 28 credits most students attempt in HS are actually mandated and even within those mandates there are often still lots of choices -- ESPECIALLY in the sciences.

    So instead of broad strokes about choice and specific complaints about chemistry, what exactly are you saying the State Requirements SHOULD be?

  8. If there was a Troll of the Year award, Mr. Bernstein would be one of the top contenders for it.

  9. HTML coding for websites! Join this lucrative and growing career field and help create the flourishing World Wide Web! Its 1996 and the future is now!


    1. Oh nuts, scratch that. The DeLorean was acting up again.