Saturday, November 5, 2011

The STEM race

This article from the New York Times details reports showing that 40 percent of college students who set out to earn degrees in science and engineering end up shifting their majors away from those fields or dropping out of school altogether. When you add in students intending to go pre-med, the number increases to a whopping 60 percent -- "twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors." Students who go to more selective schools (and presumably have better scores and records) actually fail to get their intended science and engineering degrees at a higher rate than those at less selective schools.

The numbers come as no surprise to me or my colleagues in Honors education.  The natural sciences account for most of the major intentions of our incoming freshmen, but that number drops precipitously after the first and second years, and the other academic concentrations -- humanities, arts, social sciences -- rise in proportion.  Because our job is stemming the tide of high-ability students dropping out of the university (often because their GPA drops below the level needed to maintain their scholarships), we spend a lot of our advising time trying to get them to read the handwriting on their report cards -- those C's in early science and math courses will not translate into a spot in grad school.  Add to those the students who find the courses grueling -- those who are having their passion for the field beat out of them by lectures, high-stakes machine-graded exams,  and abstracted practice exercises -- and that 60% is within sight.

Interesting, too, how some universities are cutting those numbers down in half: by breaking up large lecture classes, creating project-based learning in the early years (not just at the capstone), and lowering the grade stakes.  That will sound familiar to folks in Honors education.

We don't have an engineering school or a specific pre-engineering curriculum at my university, and that's a boon for my job, since it means I don't have to dedicate a chunk of my energy to warning the brilliant and broadly engaged students in my program away from engineering as a field.  As the article intimates, bright students find engineering narrow, dull, and unconnected to their dreams of improving people's lives. And that's a terrible shame, since the world needs brilliant and broadly engaged engineers.  Unfortunately, the field is best known among undergraduate mentors and advisers like me for its female-hostile workplaces and sometimes proudly backwards attitudes toward the life of the mind.  Have you read about a Doctor So-and-so who is tearing it up on the climate-denial or creationist circuit?  Check to see if that doctorate is in engineering.

We in higher education need to do better.  Some will cluck that efforts to ease the way toward these degrees amounts to lowering standards, but that's patently not the case.  These students are capable and interested, but the way we're teaching them is driving them away.  It's not just because of the global competition for these jobs and this expertise that we need to do better; it's because the problems that face us frequently demand a response from these fields, and without the best minds of the upcoming generation to confront them, we're fighting at half strength or less.

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