Tuesday, January 3, 2012

ChemProf, TerriW, Anonymous, and GPC on Why do so many college students defect from STEM?


ChemProf said...

I wonder about any calculation that including incoming "premed" majors. In my experience, many of these students aren't actually interested in STEM fields, but were told by parents that being a doctor was a good goal. They tend to fall away more often than students who want to study science or math.
Also, for a contrary view, see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=does-the-us-produce-too-m

Of course, some of this is an oversupply of bioish majors, where they do seem to have trouble working (and where some students are apparently paying for grad school, which is always a danger sign).

TerriW said...

My local district (which we don't attend, we homeschool) has as their big draw a huge STEM focus (Project Lead the Way, a Fab Lab) ... and they still use Everyday Mathematics.
So. You've got very hands-on-ish engineering lite stuff to make it all seem so fun to gin up interest in the non-hardcore math/science folks coupled with a leaves-something-to-be-desired math curriculum.
What is this supposed to *do* exactly? Say they get some kids to go down the engineering path in college who wouldn't otherwise do so. Can I suppose that they wouldn't otherwise do so because they, perhaps, aren't particularly strong in math? And EM sure isn't giving them the rock solid foundation they need to make it through the wash out courses.

I can't help but think it's a well-intentioned recipe for failure.

ChemProf said...

That fits with what I see a lot, TerriW. We get a lot of students who are excited about science, but when you talk to them about what they like, it is "docent science" like you'd see at the zoo or aquarium. Which is fine, and a great volunteer opportunity, not but a great career path. It seems to be a result of lots of science appreciation but not so much real science (which can be abstract a lot of the time).

Anonymous said...

I just read through the Scientific American article and I have read something along these lines before. What's often ignored is that the scientists and engineers we produce often aren't as good as those in other countries. They are simply far less qualified due to a poorer education at the K-12 level.

Most American companies have canceled projects or plans for new divisions due to an inability to find enough qualified people to fill required jobs. If you need 50 scientists with specific skills and you only can find 20, you will either not go ahead with a project or you will go overseas. So, even those 20 qualified people have lost out on a potential job.

We need to produce more highly qualified scientists and engineers precisely so companies can go ahead with new projects and new divisions that will create full employment for STEM graduates. But that isn't going to happen with the continual dumbing down of education.

GPC said...

A couple of problems jumped out at me from the Scientific American article. First the suggestion that American students don't do as badly on the PISA test as we think. There is no doubt that maybe the top 10-15% of American students are getting a world-class education. The point is that this isn't nearly enough. So, how the top 5% compare on PISA isn't really all that important. How the top 40% or 60% compare is what's important. The top 5% to 10% can't provide all of the qualified graduates that the largest economy in the world needs.

"On tests comparing the U.S., Japan and five Western European countries, for example, white Americans on average substantially outscored the Europeans in math and science and came second to the Japanese. American whites came first in reading by a wide margin."

There is far smaller disparity between the performance of privileged and underprivileged students in Western Europe than in America. We may be producing more elites at the very top but Western Europe is producing far larger numbers of educated people overall. This explains why there is less social mobility in America than in Western Europe. Again, this elite cannot provide all the qualified workers that our economy needs. Of course, there also have been studies done that compared higher performing American students to high performing students in other countries. American students did pretty badly. I would be curious to know more about this particular study because it seems to be at odds with many other comparisons.
American companies are panicking about where their future workforces will come from. They wouldn't be doing this if there was an oversupply of qualified candidates coming out of high school and college. I used to interview people for jobs. I met so many young, white, middle class college graduates who had terrible writing and math skills. They lacked the most basic knowledge of their field. I recently met a middle class white college student doing volunteer work at a library book sale. He had to use a calculator to figure out $3.50 from $10 to give me my change. He told me that he is terrible at math. Yes, there are highly educated Americans. But not nearly enough. This is why the company I worked for had such a hard time filling jobs with great pay and benefits (including 4 weeks of vacation because it was a European company).

Secondly, the article focused a lot on the competition for jobs in academia and research. Are these the absolute only places science graduates can work? There are thousands of middle and high schools in this country that badly need people with science degrees to teach. I have read that more than half of American students are taught science by teachers who don't have degrees in the Sciences. Sure, if science graduates are looking for jobs in a limited number of places, there will be an employment problem. Finance graduates would also have an employment problem if they limited their job options to Wall Street firms only.

Anonymous said...

The Global Report Card (GRC) is a project that uses PISA data to determine how individual school districts perform on an international level. The Pelham School District in Massachussetts ranks in the 95th percentile. So, if you do a comparison using Pelham students, they will obviously outperform the competition. The Beverly Hills School District ranks at the 53rd percentile. So, if you use those students as the basis of a comparison, they would underperform.
According to the GRC, of the 50 richest school districts with populations of 50,000 residents (not students), almost half perform at the 50th percentile or below. Newton, Mass comes in at number 1 at the 80th percentile. I suppose you can break PISA results down in different ways. But the GRC does indicate that we have a crisis even with our more privileged students.

I briefly scanned the SA article. It did seem to focus a lot of Ph.Ds. I assume most Science majors don't actually earn Ph.Ds. I remember an article from a few years back. If I am correct, it was the American Academy of Sciences issuing a warning that America will face a serious shortage of scientists when the baby boomers leave the workforce. According to the article, most of this loss would be in public health, like food safety, water safety, etc. Science majors also go into various healthcare fields. Maybe there is an oversupply of Ph.Ds but I think the point about a serious shortage of science teachers is a good one. If we were overproducing science graduates, you would think there would be no shortage of science teachers. But there is. I could be wrong, but doesn't this suggest that science graduates have many other options available to them?

ChemProf said...

I think some of the problem in any of these discussions is grouping everything under "STEM." And some of it is the peculiar world of academia. The best science/math undergrads are often encouraged to go to grad school whether it makes sense or not, and whether it meets their goals or not. I've encouraged some students to consider high school teaching (and there are some tremendous scholarships out there for science folks; google Noyes Scholarship) but I'm in the minority.

Once in grad school, there is a lot of pressure to only consider jobs as research institutions. I entered grad school wanting to teach at a liberal arts college, but I remember applying to a UC for a job and having my advisor write to me "oh good, I'm so pleased to see this application because I want to see you live up to your potential." Thanks, Dad. Jobs at national labs or in industry are seen as inferior.

And we are actually seeing signs of oversupply in some biology fields (and if you see the most plaintive complaints, you'll see they are from bio people). Saw a former student complaining about her tuition costs for her PhD in plant biology, which is just wrong. Never had a chem student pay for the PhD.

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