Sunday, April 6, 2014

The real reasons why there are not more U.S. students in "STEM" fields may be just more "boring" than the politics of it

This past Saturday’s edition of the Seattle Times opined about renewed interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses in high school, mainly in the revival of “shop” classes and vocational training. The problem is that this has almost nothing to do with STEM fields, or to prepare students for them. On the front page are female students doing what appears to be some nurses aid-type work; knowing the politics of the Times, this was done to make deliberate gender statement, perhaps to show “encourage” for more females to enter STEM—which, as noted, these “new” programs have little to do with actually preparing students—male or female—for them.

On the politics side, there are complaints that students—particularly female—lack “mentors” or “role models” in STEM fields to explain a relative lack of interest. These fields are also said to be taught in environments that are “unsupportive.” On the reality side is something rather more mundane: Many students—while initially fascinated by the superficial, “cool” aspects of the application of STEM fields—become bored or baffled with the nuts and bolts of the matter.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Education release a report called “STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report.” It revealed that while a modest percentage of university and community college students entered school with the intention of gaining a degree in a STEM field (28 and 20 percent respectively), nearly half of those in bachelor’s degree and nearly 70 percent of associate’s degree programs dropped out or switched to a non-STEM degree program. While this “drop out” rate was not appreciably higher than in non-STEM fields (even lower than in some fields, such as business and health sciences), but in many ways the effect is greater and has longer-term implications.  

The report noted that the factor that had the greatest impact on negative results was not the lack of “mentors” and “role models,” but the greater likelihood of withdrawing from or failing “gate-keeper” or STEM-related courses the first year. Why this is, the report certainly fudges; while admitting that “low-performing” and “low-income” students were more likely to leave STEM fields, it left plenty of room for politics, suggesting that (especially for women), that insufficient “support” and the “competitive nature” of STEM study was at least partly to blame.

But since the study only examined attrition rates and did not delve too deeply into the reasons, beyond the usual “feel-good” rationalizations, one has to look elsewhere for answers. A November 2011 piece in the New York Times suggested the obvious: That for many students, STEM fields are “just too damn hard.” While young kids may find science projects “exciting” and “fun,”

The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.

Those with 800 math SATs are just as likely as those from disadvantaged backgrounds and less than stellar academic qualifications to just blackout during this “death march.” Furthermore, if a STEM student sees no benefit from taking the tougher courses required—such as appearing to have lower grades than students in non-STEM fields—then frustration can easily set in. According to Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A., more competitive universities that supposedly enroll the “best” students should be expected to have better rates of retention in STEM fields, but that is not the case.  “If you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

The Times also noted that “The bulk of attrition comes in engineering and among pre-med majors, who typically leave STEM fields if their hopes for medical school fade. There is no doubt that the main majors are difficult and growing more complex. Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.” Another factor is that freshman classes are too “tough,” and that course work is “dry” and “hard to get through,” meaning “boring.”

Another issue is the previously implied “grade inflation” in non-STEM fields compared to STEM fields which require specific answers, rather than “abstraction” which many students find more attractive. “It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science,” opines the Times, “where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.”

But even among those who are capable of the course work, many simply lose interest. For example, one former engineering student told the Times that there was so much time spent on memorizing equations and hardly anything on application, that he lost all sense of the reasons why he wanted to be an engineer. He found non-STEM courses he had to take more interesting, and thus decided to bail out of engineering.  

The upshot of all of this is that instead of politically-correct rationalizations, the truth of the matter is that either your head is in the game, or it isn’t. This isn’t about being “dumb,” although what passes for being “smart” has more to do with the ability to retain and retrieve information in one’s memory. A higher percentage of female students than males have already decided that STEM fields are not for them—not because they are not “wanted,” because they find other fields more “interesting,” and certainly in the way that allows them to be more narcissistic and expressive of their “feelings.”

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