Friday, November 11, 2011

STEM = hard

In an attempt to find something relevant and interesting to blog about I read a New York Times article about why so many students that enter college with STEM majors end up not getting STEM degrees. You can read it here - no paywall or registration required. Given that I'm currently trying to help my HSS get into a college with an engineering major this was actually pretty darn relevant.

So here's my take-away from the story. Even with motivation to want to go into engineering and a strong background in STEM subjects and good SATs and AP scores, getting through college with an engineering or science degree is hard going. The president wants to graduate 10,000 more engineers each year, but that kind of progress isn't going to be reached with only focusing on K-12 education and helping fund a college education. There needs to be thought in supporting and motivating engineering students through their college careers.

Some of the specific problems detailed in the article were:
  • Non-stem classes have more engaging classes
  • Non-STEM classes have higher average scores, and low STEM scores can push a student out of STEM
  • Because of the amount of technical data needed, too little time is spent on applications which would engage students
  • Engineering professors spend more time on bringing in research grants than designing engaging, relevant courses and labs 
Having gotten my own engineering degree in the 80's I can say that most of these problems seem familiar. I remember there were certain courses that everybody knew were supposed to weed out the weaker students. Even back then it seemed weird to me. Didn't they want a high graduation rate? I knew that learning these topics was hard, but couldn't they have provided more support? I know I took two courses pass/fail, and I passed them, but just barely. I remember one test where the average score was 23. This was a junior level course, so if we weren't prepared for it, there was no one else to blame than the school itself. And the teachers seemed to delight in saying things like "the rest of the proof should be intuitive to the most casual observer." He never got any questions after a statement like that.

One quote from the article that I found especially troubling was that "the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where ... the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students." I have a lot of faith in HSS, but some of the examples they gave, of students dropping out of engineering, they scare me.

On the other hand, I noticed that some of the colleges that we toured were following the directions that this article was pointing towards. There were some great engineering projects in the first three semesters at Drexel. There was a hands-on design and build team project at Lehigh. There was support for engineering students at UMBC. There were senior projects in developing countries or in alternative energy - topics that makes students see the importance of an engineering degree. I'll try to emphasize these things when HSS is trying to pick a college this coming spring.

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

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