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Tis the season of students wondering about where to to go college, so I thought I would post here my standard set of advice... one size does not fit all, and that is especially true of advice!
Oddly enough, the things from high school I use to this day in my work include things I never thought were important at the time I was learning them:

  the ability to speak on my feet (which I learned in Speech class, a class I thought back then was a total waste of time);

  the ability to present my work in writing and in posters (which I learned not only in the classroom but also working on the yearbook and school newspaper);

  and the ability to handle foreign languages.

If you are to be a successful scientist you need to be able to describe what you did so that other people will understand not only your results, but why they matter. (And why they should give you a grant to do it.) This means, public speaking. Writing. Art.

Writing means reading; you only learn to write well by reading things that are written well. And the exercise of analyzing a poem or a play is exactly the same skill you eventually use to analyze data. Or someone else' s paper.

In this connection, an ability with a foreign language is really useful. It gets you used to looking at things you have taken for granted from a completely different context and point of view. I found when I was teaching physics that my best students had all had Latin in high school. And I don't think it's just because the best students are tracked into Latin classes!

Art! A good figure is something that can make your paper, and your reputation. Furthermore, a lot of scientific work today is presented as posters; learn how to do layout properly. I learned that, working on the Yearbook. Likewise, an artistic training is the foundation for how to make a good powerpoint presentation, as opposed to one full of useless and distracting bells and whistles.

These things are essential for a scientific career. (They're also essential for being a well-rounded human being, but that's another issue.) And you learn them now, in high school. You won't have time to get them at MIT, or any other school with a strong science or engineering program.

Thus if you are serious about being a scientist or engineer, then an important thing to do RIGHT NOW in high school is to get a background in the arts and humanities. If possible, take AP courses in them, to get to the same level that most kids get in college. This will mean that you can afford to spend the time at MIT (or wherever) on the techie side without winding up as some one-dimensional supernerd.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 9th, 2015 04:51 pm (UTC)
Please may I borrow and adapt this? I lecture to students aged 18+ who are constantly moaning about the assignments that we give them (report writing, poster and powerpoint presentations, information leaflets, all fairly standard stuff). It's hard sometimes to get through to them that they need to learn more than just the 'scientific facts'.
Mar. 9th, 2015 04:52 pm (UTC)
Absolutely! Link, or copy and paste and adapt to your hearts' content!
Mar. 9th, 2015 09:31 pm (UTC)
Has that C. P. Snow "Two Cultures" thing faded away? I adore the response, "There aren't two cultures. There are only half-cultured people."
Mar. 13th, 2015 02:42 am (UTC)
This was great advice when my science fascinated youngest was going through "the process" -- he is happy as a clam in college this year and really appreciating having a solid base across the board.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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