Where science and tech meet creativity.

Help me? (© Veronika Vasilyuk | Dreamstime.com)

Help me? (© Veronika Vasilyuk | Dreamstime.com)

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing lately. I generally just make the excuses, “I’ve been busy” or say “I don’t make money on my blog and need to focus on paid jobs.” These are just excuses though. I can always find time to write. The truth is, I just can’t find it in me to write positively about science and academia when I look around and see so many things that hurt. This has been a rough year for our community. Colleges in California and Arizona have been shutting down a few days a month here and there (euphemistically referred to as furloughing staff). In the UK, 25% of the fellowships and student grants for PhD students and PostDocs are being removed. Everywhere, universities have cut journal subscriptions, travel and seminar budgets have been zeroed, and even chalk is being cut back on. The situation in academia has gotten demoralizing to the point where somedays the only proper response seems to be crying at my keyboard. Astronomy is a field that should be inspiring to the public, but our economically downtrodden public just don’t have the money needed to live, yet alone the money needed to fund astronomy through taxes. I get it. There are too many people too close to me without jobs to not understand the problem.

Today I saw something that made me decide I needed to talk about what has been bothering me all these months. A local high school teacher came into campus to return some equipment she’d borrowed from the center I work in. As she talked to one of the other women, she blinked back tears as she said (as best as I can remember) “They cut everything. They cut all my programs. It’s all gone.” She went on to detail some of the amazing things she’d been doing. If I mention them, she’ll be identifiable, so let me just say this woman was what everyone who loves science wishes for in a science teacher. She was. And she still could be. But science is getting removed from schools.

To graduate from high school in Illinois, you are required two years of science. That’s it: two years. Some students take earth science and bio, and move on with life, never looking back. Sometimes they want to take physics, chemistry, astronomy, and so much more, and their school says “Take earth science and bio and move on with life – that’s all we’ll teach.” It costs money to teach science, and it is devalued in our national standard. While the “No Child Left Behind” program tests math and reading skills on a yearly basis through grade 8 (and at least once between grades 10-12), science is only examined three times in all 12 years of a student’s education. Since the entire nation is tested the same years, and students in bins of grades all get the same test, what reason do schools even have to teach science in years when exams aren’t being given? At all levels cuts are being made. Math too suffers. Here in Illinois, only two years of math are required to graduate. And foreign languages aren’t even required.

This is a devastating problem. Last semester I taught Physics Concepts, a class for non-science majors. Many had never had math above basic geometry. Chemistry and Physics weren’t even offered in many of their schools. These are students from small towns with high schools of under 100 students per class. With no budget due to the problem of no tax dollars (because unemployment is high and people just can’t pay taxes), these schools just can’t afford to teach math and science. But college entrance requirements don’t match what the high schools teach. Here at SIUE, I regularly have students in my classes who are as smart as the students I’ve worked with at MIT and Harvard, but in many cases their high schools simply didn’t offer the classes needed for them to get into an outstanding university.

MIT, a school whose undergrads I hold in the highest regard, suggests 1 year each of physics, chemistry and biology, math through (and including) calculus, and 2 years of a foreign language. My Alma Mater, MSU, as a public school is less demanding, but it still expects 3 years of math and prefers 4, looks for 2 years of foreign language, and 2 of science. And University of Illinois recommends 4 years of math, science and foreign language. This is what floors me, in some cases high schools in Illinois aren’t even making it possible for their students to attend the flagship state university.

Part of the reason I want to stay at SIUE is I know I can offer our students chances they wouldn’t otherwise have. I have outstanding colleagues in other departments who feel the same. We are here to be the difference we want to see in the world. I have NASA-funded programs that allow students to be part of research programs rather then still working at Starbucks, Home Depot, or Radio Shack. These students are in many cases the hardest working I’ve ever dealt with, and not once has someone complained to me that they deserved a better test grade because of how much tuition they paid or who their daddy is (Things I’ve heard at more than 1 other university). I love my students (even in the moments I want to kill them). But every day things are making it harder to function. First it was the journals. We don’t have 1 astronomy journal at SIUE, so I personally subscribe where I can, and where I can’t I beg PDFs from colleagues at what my students call “Real Universities” (do you know how much that hurts to hear from a student?) Then it was the discount chalk – dusty c*** that breaks easily and covers everything in white while not adhering to the board. Then it was zeroing of all travel budgets – even for student travel. Now it is the Illinois legislated hiring freezes. Our university has departments with no secretary, and now department chairs – PhD academics – are struggling to process payroll sheets, inventory orders, and even class evaluation forms all on top of their teaching, and research, and committee assignments and the too many other duties that are the normal, overly busy life of a chair. Departments aren’t thriving, and depression rules.

And it’s only going to get worse. The state of Illinois is $130 MILLION behind in paying their bills. This is $25,000 in debt per household in a state where the average annual household income is only $56,000 (and if you remove Chicago and its surroundings, this number drops significantly). Here is the southern half of the state, this debt is well over half the typical household’s yearly income.

There simply is no money.

For the past several months, about every 6 weeks we have gotten notice from our university president that says (total total paraphrase) “We now know we can pay salary this month, but we don’t know about next month, but if everyone tightens their belt we hope to make it.” In February, after all the students had paid their tuition, we still didn’t know if the university would be able to stay open all semester. Do you know how hard it is to have a student ask, “But what happens if SIUE shuts down? Will we have to give back our student loans? I already paid my tuition on my loan. What can I do?” I didn’t have answers, and all I could say was, “I’m sorry. Let’s hope Illinois comes through.”

And it’s simply going to get worse.

Illinois still hasn’t passed a budget for 2010-2011. A state bill was passed allowing the university to borrow money. We don’t know if the hiring freeze will end. But we know we can’t make life harder on our students: SIUE has frozen tuition and fees at their 2009-2010 level. Our students will not suffer financially for the failures of Illinois. But I worry about academics. The only way SIUE and our sister school SIUC will be able to survive is by increasing enrollment. We are also cutting faculty lines, reducing the number of non-tenure/tenure track professors (I’m not scheduled to teach in the fall, but hope something may still change), and cutting support staff. This means more students with fewer people contributing to their education. We’ll have larger classes, more multiple choice tests, and more digital homework sets. Students will still get a good education, but the one-on-one moments that matter, all those times when a prof and a student just talk in an office, all the times a real learning problem is identified by a prof going over a hand-written homework assignment, all the things that make good profs great professors are going to go away in the face of too much work and no free time.

Providing a great education is difficult with limited resources and too high a teaching load. It is only possible when faculty make personal sacrifices for the good of their students. Most of us will do that, but we are at our breaking point. We love our students. We will fight to give them a solid education. But somedays I don’t know how much longer we can go on fighting.

Today, a high school teacher fought back tears in the hallway. Her programs are gone.

Without education, there is no future. I understand her tears, and for her and all the students who are having doors closed to their future, I too simply want to cry.

An economic earthquake has shaken our state and our nation. There are some buildings still standing, but I’m afraid everyone has been hurt.