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Posted by Alexander on September 5, 2001 19:31:29 UTC

You probably know better than me that in international olympiads and other competitions in sciences and math american high school students rank as 15-25 being behind not only entire Europe but behind many Asian nations too. US college education is not much better (I had opportunity to teach in Russia and in US). What american students study in first 2-3 years in colleges is mostly high school curricula in most European countries. Only around master-level classes they start studying advanced physics, math and biology.

I learned plenty of chemistry, physics, calculus, biology in high school in Sumgait, Azerbaijan - typical "communist" city (and a curricular was kind of standart too, although in bigger cities schools had better teachers/facilities thus quality was higher). We started chemistry in 5th grade (balanced oxidation-reduction equations in 7th grade, learned shell structure of atomic orbutals governed by electron quantum numbers in 8th grade). Physics started in 6th grade, and in 7th grade we learned Coulomb and Newton inverse square laws, Ohm law. In 8th grade we learned most of electricity (Amper's, Biot-Savart, and Faraday's laws, etc), thermodynamics (gas state equation, heat flow, entropy, entalpy, etc). In math we studied along with algebra all plane geometry in 7th grade (sin, cos, plane figures and their intersection/combination areas) and 3d-geometry in 8th grade (cones, spheres, pyramides, volumes of their intersections, areas of cross-sections, etc). Most students finish their education by 8 years and then go to industry (as workers) and then get professional training there. Some prefer to go to 9-10 grade in order to go to college after that (we have 10-year pre-college ed in Russia), so last 2 years are college-oriented education. Thus here we have more elective subjects - some take more literature classes, some history, some math/sciences. In 8-10 grade - you may call it high school - we learned calculus I (called mathematical analysis in Russia) - limits, derivatives and integrals, analytical geometry. In physics we learned Maxwell equations and electromagnetism in depth, diffraction optics (ray optics was in 8 grade) and interference phenomena, intro into special and general relativity, beginning of quantum mechanics and of atomic and nuclear physics.

In college first 2 years we studied calculus 2 and 3 (also called mathematical analysis), calculus of complex variables, calculus of variations, and many special math courses. In physics it was general physics (vector calculus based) in depth, and many courses of theoretical physics (by Landau/Lifshits), starting with theoretical mechanics and via quantum mechanics and QED, solid state theory and plasma theory). In higher years - many special courses (optics of radiovaves/antennas, electronics, quantum electronics (theory of lasers/masers and of linear/non-linear interaction of radiation with matter), general relativity, astrophysics/ cosmology, high-temp plasma physics, MHD, nuclear physics, high-energy physics, etc). Also in years 5 and 6 we join research group in chosen by student area (mine was laser plasma physics) to do master thesis.

Colleges in Russia are usually highly specialized schools - we did not study literature or history in my physics college. Instead, we focused on physics/math in depth. Also, colleges are gov sponsored - no tuition fees, all textbooks are free, no dorm fees, free meals, and even a stipend (for A and B students). Also, you do not have time to work while studying in college - classes start at 8-9 a.m. and finish at 5-8 p.m. every day, most are compulsory to attend. And if you do not perform - you quickly out of college and then drafted for 2-3 years. Fear of army, and pressure of 5-15 (per seat) wanna-be students waiting outside of college for any vacancy keeps college students from turning their assignements late.

In US, colleges are mostly commercial enterprizes. Thus they care more about how to pull as much bucks from student parents pockets than about quality of education. Thus they go easy on student, because student can drop one college and pick another - more easy one. Even inside college professors are rankednot by how demanding they are, but how popular they are among students. And because of abundance of entry-level or "history of _______" courses (fill in the blank any word which comes first to your mind), taking "hard core" subjects like calculus, physics or chemistry is considered suicidal for GPA. Thus, almost no one (except foreign students or fresh immigrants)takes them.

Thus, math and physics are considered as a just "alternative description" of processes around us, on equal footing with religion and humanities. Actually even worse: because almost nobody understands math and thus physics, science is considered as "near-sighted" description of world invented by just scientific minority of nerds thus "flawed", self-contradicting and temporal - in contrast to "eternal, coherent and harmonic" religion/philosophical view of universe as being run by various Gods/Creators behind various phenomena, view firmly engraved in the minds of less educated about math/physics majority.

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