In this weekend's New York Times Education Supplement, author Christopher Drew asks "why science majors change their mind," and why "roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree." His short answer, "it's just so darn hard," rings true. So does his observation about "the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors."
It's in his investigation of why science is "just so hard," and what to do about it, that Drew falls short. His focus is a single data point, Notre Dame student Matthew Moniz:
He had been the kind of recruit most engineering departments dream about. He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering.From this one data point, the solution emerges naturally. It is-- you guessed it--a greater emphasis on relevance, aspiration, leadership, and student-centered project-based learning. At Notre Dame, for example,
But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’ ” And as he looked ahead at the curriculum, he did not see much relief on the horizon.
So Mr. Moniz, a 21-year-old who likes poetry and had enjoyed introductory psychology, switched to a double major in psychology and English, where the classes are “a lot more discussion based.” He will graduate in May and plans to be a clinical psychologist. Of his four freshman buddies at Notre Dame, one switched to business, another to music. One of the two who is still in engineering plans to work in finance after graduation.
Mr. Moniz’s experience illustrates how some of the best-prepared students find engineering education too narrow and lacking the passion of other fields. They also see easier ways to make money.
Dr. Kilpatrick [the Dean] has revamped and expanded a freshman design course that had gotten “a little bit stale.” The students now do four projects. They build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.Drew also cites Worcester, which
“They learn how to work with their hands, how to program the robot and how to work with design constraints,” he says. But he also says it’s inevitable that students will be lost. Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.
ripped up its traditional curriculum in the 1970s to make room for extensive research, design and social-service projects by juniors and seniors, including many conducted on trips with professors overseas. In 2007, it added optional first-year projects — which a quarter of its freshmen do — focused on world problems like hunger or disease.Some of this sounds quite reasonable. There's perhaps no subject where project-based-learning is more appropriate than engineering. But how much sense does it make to dilute the course requirements for, say, biology and chemistry with overseas field trips and social service projects when there's so much hard material to cover to prepare students to compete for research & development jobs in STEM?
Besides field trips and social service projects, and also not to be confused with research and development, there's leadership. The University of Illinois, for example:
began this fall to require freshmen engineering students to take a course on aspirations for the profession and encourages them to do a design project or take a leadership seminar.The underlying assumption is that the problem isn't so much that STEM majors are difficult, but that students find the classes boring and irrelevant to daily life, and that they lack confidence. Says Arthur C. Heinricher, the dean of undergraduate studies at Worcester Polytechnique, in reference to its student-centered projects:
"That kind of early engagement, and letting them see they can work on something that is interesting and important, is a big deal. That hooks students.”More generally:
...The main goals [at Worcester] are to enable students to work closely with faculty members, build confidence and promote teamwork. Studies have shown that women, in particular, want to see their schoolwork is connected to helping people, and the projects help them feel more comfortable in STEM fields, where men far outnumber women everywhere except in biology.It doesn't seem to occur to Drew, or to any of his interviewees, to consider a more obvious reason why STEM courses are "so darn hard" for students these days, and why they lack confidence: the decreasingly poor preparation that they are receiving in high school math and science classes. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the No Child Left Behind-inspired dumbing down of the curriculum, to the decline in AP course offerings and ability-based grouping, to the ravages of Reform Math (which begin in elementary school). But among these reasons is precisely the kind of child-centered, project-based learning that Drew and his interviewees are advocating (one need look no further than Philaelphia's project-based Science and Leadership Academy, and its dismal test scores in science). While it often sounds great in theory, project-based learning is an inefficient and disorganized way of learning the core curriculum necessary for college-level science courses and STEM r&d jobs.
Furthermore, if you're ill prepared for college-level math and science classes, and therefore don't understand what's going on in class unless it's hands-on and student-centered,of course non-hands-on courses will seem dry, narrow, borring, and irrelevant to your aspirations.
And of course you will end up dropping out, especially if you face competition from classmates who got their K12 science training overseas, where rigorous math and science classes still abound. Indeed, this explains why, as the article notes, "the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where...the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students." The most selective schools, after all, attract the highest numbers of better-trained STEM students from overseas.
Ironically, Drew begins his article by alluding to "test scores showing American students falling behind their counterparts in Slovenia and Singapore." Isn't the first step, then, to look inside Slovenian and Singaporean classrooms and see what sorts of curricula and pedagogy these countries are using? I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that one would find many more hours of rigorous study of core content, and many fewer hours of leadership, inspiration, and project-based learning.