Stuff They Should Teach in School


I doubt that I’ll get many arguments when I make the statement that the educational system in the United States is not the best in the world.  My main complaint is that students are not, for the most part, taught to think.  By that, I mean that they are not taught to ask the all important question, “why?”.  Why is the sky blue?  Why didn’t dinosaurs and humans occupy the Earth at the same time?  Why did we fight the Civil War?  Why was Shakespeare such a great writer?  There are literally millions of questions out there for students of all grade levels and abilities.

For better or worse I am a product of the American public school system.  Early on I found out that I had a knack for rote memorization.  If I was taught that 5 x 6 = 30, or that Mercury was the closest planet to the Sun, I could easily regurgitate that fact back on a test and get an “A”.  It had nothing to do with being “smart”.  After 12 years of successful regurgitation, I got pretty cocky.  It was only when I started in the pre-med program of a top tier college that I was knocked down a few pegs.  I learned my problem solving skills a little too late.

Recently I’ve found out about the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  In short, this is a worldwide educational evaluation of 15-year-old students. The program allows those with an interest in such things (politicians and other policy makers) to examine and compare educational systems in 65 different industrialized countries.  The test focuses on reading, mathematics and science.

In science, based on results from the most recent testing, Chinese students scored highest with Finnish students placing second.  The United States ended up in 23rd place with a performance indistinguishable from Poland, Ireland, Norway, France among other countries.  Students in the US are not being taught basic fundamentals of science, space, computers, disease, war and atmospherics.  What follows are my ideas on some topics that should be taught to all US students.



Students should be taught about the history of cyber warfare.  Cyber warfare may be described as the politically motivated hacking of a network in order to conduct sabotage and espionage.  Stuxnet is a computer virus (specifically a worm) that targets industrial software and equipment.  This worm was first discovered in June, 2010.  It initially spreads via Microsoft Windows, and targets only Siemens industrial software and equipment.  Specifically, it targets only Siemens supervisory control and data acquisition systems that are configured to control and monitor specific industrial processes (such as the production of nuclear material).

Different variants of the Stuxnet virus were found in 2010 by five Iranian organizations.  The primary target seemed to be centrifuge equipment at  a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.  The virus has since spread around the globe to Azerbaijan, Pakistan and the United States.  Interestingly, the virus is programmed to erase itself on June 24th, 2012.

Stuxnet can be used as a weapon.  It contains code that causes an infected system not to shut down properly when abnormal behavior is detected.  This would prevent operators from identifying serious problems, such as a nuclear core meltdown.  It is worthwhile to note that the reactors located at the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan use Siemens’ controllers.  During the earthquake of March 11, 2011, three of the six reactors at Fukushima did not properly shut down.  This behavior is characteristic of a Stuxnet infection.

The Holocene Extinction


The Holocene extinction is the widespread and sustained extinction of plant and animal species during the current (Holocene) epoch.  This has been taking place since approximately 10,000 BCE.  This time period includes the expansion of the human race and all written history.

Eight hundred and seventy five extinctions of species between 1500 and 2009 have been recorded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  The lost organisms span numerous families of plants and animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods.  This number, however, is generally considered to be a vast underestimation.   According to the species-area theory and based on upper-bound estimating, up to 140,000 species per year may be the present rate of extinction.  Currently, about 40 per cent of the examined species of planet earth are in danger, including perhaps 51 per cent of reptiles, 52 per cent of insects, and 73 per cent of flowering plants.  It is quite probable that organisms we did not even know about have recently become extinct.

The cause of the Holocene extinction has been attributed to global warming, pollution and other human factors.  That said, one can attribute anything to anything.  Scientific proof is another matter. There is no general agreement on whether to consider more recent extinctions as a distinct event, merely part of the Quaternary extinction event, or just a result of natural evolution on a non-geologic scale of time.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease


Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, also known as the easier to say CJD, is an incurable, transmissible neurological disease that is ultimately fatal.  CJD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopaphy.  “Spongiform” means pretty much what you think it means.  The disease turns your brain matter to a holey mass somewhat akin to a sponge.

You might be asking yourself at this point, “Is this the same thing as mad cow disease?”.  No, it is not.  Don’t feel bad, some medical professionals who should know better are not aware of that fact.  In one somewhat well known medical facility in which I used to work I noticed a sign on an interior operating room door which read, “caution:  mad cow”.  This was accompanied by a crude drawing of a cartoon cow figure.  Not cool, people.  I made the staff remove the sign and noted that the patient was there for a brain biopsy to rule out CJD.  I then reminded them that CJD and mad cow (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) are not the same thing.  The last thing we needed was a mad cow scare on the local news because of a misplaced attempt at levity.

CJD is caused by a type of infectious protein called a prion.  Prions are misfolded proteins which replicate in brain tissue by converting their properly folded counterparts.  Since prions are not living things, they cannot be killed.  Because of this, instrumentation must not be reused in a potential CJD patient.  It cannot be adequately cleaned and sterilized to fully remove the threat of cross contamination.

How, you are most likely wondering, do people get this horrible, fatal disease? It can be congenital or acquired.  In the congenital form, it occurs through a mutation of the gene that codes for the prion protein (PRNP).  This happens in about 10-15% of cases.  The defective protein can be transmitted by contaminated harvested human brain products, Immunoglobulins (IVIG), corneal grafts, dural grafts or electrode implants.

CJD is characterized by rapidly progressive dementia. Initially, individuals experience problems with muscular coordination; personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. People with the disease also may experience insomnia, depression, or unusual sensations.  As the illness progresses, mental impairment becomes severe. Individuals often develop involuntary muscle jerks called myoclonus, and they may go blind. They eventually lose the ability to move and speak and enter a coma. Pneumonia and other infections often occur in these individuals and are the most likely cause of death.  I know.  Great.  One more thing to worry about.

Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage


This is probably the main reason we are not all speaking  German today and doing raised arm salutes to the Nazi flag.  As you may or may not be aware, the Nazi’s had some pretty good scientists working for them and they were working on developing a nuclear weapon during WWII.  In 1938, nuclear fission was discovered by a German chemist named Otto Hahn. Nuclear fission is the reaction needed to produce nuclear power and weapons. Hahn is regarded as “the father of nuclear chemistry” and the “founder of the atomic age.” By 1939, Germany had developed an advanced nuclear weapons program. They had a nuclear reactor and facilities used for the production of uranium and heavy water (deuterium oxide).

Heavy water acts somewhat like a “neutron moderator”.  Nazi scientists speculated that it could be used to slow down loose electrons thus increasing their chances of being absorbed and making for a better chance at a self-sustaining chain reaction (explosion).

Needless to say, disrupting the German nuclear program became a large goal of the Allies once WWII rolled around.  The Norwegian heavy water sabotage was a series of actions undertaken by Norwegian soldiers to prevent the Nazis from acquiring heavy water, which could have been used in the production of nuclear weapons.

Germany invaded Norway on April 9th, 1940.  Prior to that time, French Military Intelligence (no comment) removed 408 lbs (185kg) of heavy water from the plant in Vermork in then-neutral Norway.  The managing director of the plant agreed to lend the heavy water to France for the duration of the war.  Secretly, the French transported it to Oslo, to Perth, to Scotland and then to France.  The plant in Vermork was still capable of producing heavy water.

Three operations (codenamed Grouse, Freshman and Gunnerside) were undertaken by the Norwegian resistance (supported by Allied bombing efforts) between 1940 and 1944.  Gunnerside, conducted by Norwegian commandos specially trained by British special forces,  managed to knock the plant out of production in early 1943.  These actions were followed by Allied bombing raids. The Germans elected to cease operation and remove the remaining heavy water to Germany. Norwegian resistance forces sank the ferry, SF Hydro, on Lake Tinnsjø, preventing the heavy water from being removed.

I really don’t have time to get into the dramatic details of the missions, but you history buffs might want to do some research on your own with this topic.  There is plenty of action with cross country skiing Norwegian Special Forces, British glider crashes and, unfortunately, Gestapo executions of Allied troops following the aforementioned failed glider mission.  For those of you more inclined to watch a movie than do some research, there is always the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas, which told the tale of the most successful sabotage mission of the second world war.

There are plenty of other topics that I feel should at least be touched on in American schools today.  I’ll try to get to more of those in future articles.  For now I think I’ll go back to tutoring my son on those extra things he hasn’t yet picked up in school.


The Heroes of Telemark, IMDb

OECD, OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Top ten scores from Shanghai stun educators, The New York Times

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Fact Sheet

Holocene Extinction, Wikipedia

Top ten facts you should be taught in school, Listverse

Heavy water and the Norwegians, Damn Interesting





About Guy McCardle

Guy McCardle is an American science writer and skeptic. He is a certified Infection Prevention Specialist and served proudly as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A devoted father and husband, he offers his unique viewpoints regarding science and the public interest.
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11 Responses to Stuff They Should Teach in School

  1. Henk v says:

    Great article Guy, a sentiment reflected in most of us once we are comfortable enough to remember all the skills we have forgotten.

    Whats going to happen is the relativity in education systems is going to be discussed here.

    I’ll get my two cents in immediately.

    getting a good basis for comparative debate is crucial. Critical thinking skills should and probably are taught at some level at schools.

    The problem is; what happens when somebody leaves school?

    Fundamental concepts in education become inaccesible whilst we do not massage them with a regular revision outside our day to day life.

    Yes we can make education that good that we produce multilingual, scientific and artistic children totally ready for education (from day to day all the way to specialisation). Very few of these will persist into adulthood.

    There is a lot to be said for rote learning (especaily relational). There is no satisfaction like having a one kilogram calculator adjuster (a mallet) for maintaining laboratory quality control.

    Sadly, that is my experience and those in engineering and accountancy crippled with the imposition of the “no math here” policy may agree one day.

    But it would be a retrospective agreement.

  2. AJ Ball says:

    ‘Should’ is the word. School may be compulsory but it doesn’t make it useful.
    I’ll put in my suggestions:

    There should be waaaay more taught at schools on modern technology and how it came to be. I can remember sitting through years of school history and the vast majority of it seemed be about people’s domestic life; Roman baths, medieval plagues, Tudor courts, Victorian slums, and rationing in the Second World War. I went to school in the North of the UK. the heartland of the Victorian industrial revolution, and yet I would have never been able to tell you how a steam engine actually works (I think that was Discovery channel that tought me that). It was only at university that I got around to understanding anything to do with the whole history of computers (valves, transistors, Homebrew Computer Club and all) and that was because we were set a fairly open thesis where we could decide what to write about.

    Science classes focus far too much on theory and solving equations, and not on the practical applications of science. Everybody always claims that physics is the most ‘difficult’ subject but at our school we were fortunate to have a teacher that ‘got’ the importance of telling us why Newton’s Principia (amongst others) was so revolutionary, and who I credit entirely for getting me an ‘A’ on that subject. For me the most baffling subject was chemistry because all we seemed to do for two hours was be set complex equations to solve, the importance of which was never made clear.

    I can’t argue too much with what gets taught in the humanities but it strikes me as a little odd that I sat through years of Shakespeare without ever going to see a Shakespeare play. Live. In a theatre! Surely that couldn’t be too hard of a field trip to organise. And we had our share of classic movies; our English teacher showed us Polanski’s Macbeth (even though we weren’t yet 15…), our religious education teacher showed us ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, our music teacher showed us ‘West Side Story’ -which we were promptly bored rigid by partly because we were fourteen but also I suspect they were on a television. Perhaps on the cinema screen it might have been a bit more impressive, and opened us up a bit earlier to the idea that there’s a world of interesting stuff out there beyond endless repeats on TV.

  3. Guy McCardle says:

    Sounds to me like the educational system in the UK has a lot of the same issues that we have in the US. Is there anyone out there who can give us an example of what they feel is a “balanced” educational program?

  4. James says:

    CJD is caused by a prion. CJD is spread from person to person in transplant tissue or other medical donations. BSE (mad cow) is also cause by a prion. If a person gets BSE by eating nervous system or lymph system tissue of a cow, that person develops a condition that appears identical to CJD. Brain biopsies of patients with BSE and CJD cannot be distinguished from each other. Some people are genetically susceptible to the intracellular stacking action of prions and some people are not. It appears that some people cannot get mad cow disease or CJD.
    In a historic example from mid 1900s a pacific island people who practice cannibalism proved the human – human link by getting CJD from eating brains.
    In the USA from 1970-2005 there have been disease clusters of BSE from apparently different sources. In NY state a cluster of BSE deaths was considered possibly due to pork consumption. In NJ a more recent cluster was called sporadic CJD until the vistims were all traced back to the same restaurant and the cluster was then blamed on eating beef. In the midwest hunters get BSE from eating Elk. With all the overlap it is hard to prove these are different diseases.

  5. Scotty says:

    Hmmm think you made a small mistake here.

    Nazi scientists speculated that it could be used to slow down loose electrons thus increasing their chances of being absorbed and making for a better chance at a self-sustaining chain reaction (explosion).

    I think you mean neutrons. The heavy water does in fact slow down neutrons that are released as the atom splits. That reduction in speed allows for a greater percentage of neutron absorption events, thereby destabilizing atoms causing them to fission. This technique is used in nuclear reactors only. Particularly because the last thing you want is a runaway chain reaction, because of the rapid release of energy results in a massive explosion. There is never any water in nuclear warheads, since the entire point is to cause a runaway chain reaction.

  6. hp says:

    Here’s a lesson which like most everything else, has gone unheeded..

    “but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that the behaviour of some creatures is irrepressible, no matter how they are treated and no matter what the consequences.”

  7. AJ Ball says:

    – Guy,
    the standardised UK ‘National Curriculum’ is a double edged sword. It’s over a decade ago now but I remember one of our English teachers got censured for deviating too far from what and how he was ‘supposed’ to be teaching. And yet I can remember most of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’ because he was a pretty good teacher!

  8. VB says:

    Great article, thought-provoking and comments good too. But I notice it’s all still about knowledge “out there”.

    In my experience of life, one of the hardest things any of us ever does is try to live in the same house as other human beings. Yet it’s one of the fundamentals of happiness in life.

    I’ve never heard of the slightest attempt in the education system to give people social tools to help them with this. We end up in the situation where the only social tools we have is to have broadly similar responses to any situation to other members of our first families. Great if you’ve got a loving, respectful, aware family, tough if there are (as in most cases) some dysfunctionalities. Most of us would rather avoid breakup of our marriages/families, yet it’s an increasing problem. People jump on simplistic cures such as making divorce harder, when the real key is tools for interpersonal communication. Now I would vote for that to be on the school menu.

    Something else I would like to see is teaching people about money, both at the economic and at the household-budgeting level. But perhaps the people who read this blog find my ideas too prosaic? More fun indeed to read (and argue about) the use of heavy water in nuclear facilities.

  9. Phil says:

    I recall seeing a tv documentary on the German heavy water experiment. I have a few bones as to why the Norwegian ferry sinking was not nearly as significant as you think.
    The heavy water was only 1% deuterium. The Germans only had 500 kg of the 10 tons needed. [23] NOVA (November 8, 2005). “Hitler’s Sunken Secret (transcript)”. NOVA Web site. Retrieved 2008-10-08.
    And since this was in 1944 there was no way the Germans could have produced enough deuterium before the war ended.
    Therefore the sinking of the ferry was not the critical factor, but rather the German inability to produce enough deuterium (for several reasons).
    The Germans didn’t give theoretical physics much importance because it was “Jewish” science. Haha suckers!
    The role of Werner Heisenberg. In his famous meeting with Neil’s Bohr, it’s not clear whether Heisenberg was trying to get Bohr to help him build the bomb or to pass word to the Allies that if they didn’t build one, Germany would not build one. So one can suspect Heisenberg either was not trying too hard or needed help.

  10. Peter Mann says:

    To me, the most important thing Not Being Taught in contemporary curriculums . . . is self-education.
    Here i must draw a distinction between collecting opinions {typical & counterproductive}
    and the assembling of a coherent understanding of how things work {rare & sane}.

    In other words, school should be teaching us how to teach ourselves, as a lifetime endeavour,
    something along the line of the truism about teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a meal.
    Learning thus becomes a self-sustaining process that unlocks the potential competence & creativity,
    attributes which do not innately develop while carrying a big brain around.

    For the purpose of self-education, a working understanding of scientific method and clear thinking
    [as distinct from the intrinsicly cynical “critical thinking”] are essential ingredients
    to developing a viable and open realityMap, and for deciding upon a worthwhile lifePurpose.

    Individuals who lack both competence and purpose may be just what Capitalism wanted
    in a factory labourer, consumer and voter, but becoming contributors to a better future
    does not happen by teaching obedience and conformity to children.
    This topic is expounded in J. T. Gatto’s excellent eBook “An Underground History of American Education”.

    Today, the word most often spoken to me is “sorry”.
    Sorry [i intruded in your personal space] . . . a declaration of alienation, instead of “hullo” oR “g’day”.
    Sorry i can’t help you [because i am not allowed.]
    Sorry [but i think you are an idiot {or worse} for not supporting my self-obsession.]

    Pride has been religiously declared a shameful sin, instead of being used to fuel excellence.
    Creating a nation of weaklings systematically trained to spend, borrow and earn,
    while poisoning every interaction with secret conceits and interpersonal cowardice.
    A socialisation that cripples the potential of every citizen to make a satisfying contribution.
    Did we really do this to ourselves ?

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