Monday, June 11, 2012

Separating the M from STEM

My older son is heading off to college soon, hoping to pursue a major in chemical engineering. It seems a potentially promising field for him, not just because of its generally favorable job prospects, but because chemistry and math were his best subjects in high school. My biggest concern is whether he’ll make it through one of the prerequisites: organic chemistry. I’ve heard from multiple sources--including here on this blog--about how the premeds that predominate ruin this course for everyone else. Their collective eyes focused on the MCATS rather than on intellectual enlightenment, they turn it into a cutthroat memorization fest in which earning a decent grade means sacrificing conceptual understanding for cramming. This is a sacrifice my son may not be prepared to make.

How many potential chemical engineers, I wonder, abandon the field because of premeds?

People are trying in all sorts of ways--many of them misguided--to encourage kids to go into STEM fields. Overlooked in all the talk of science and technology festivals and webstreaming of scientists doing field work in exotic places and testimonials from celebrity STEM professionals about how great STEM is are two things. One, of course, is the need to improve basic math and foundational science instruction in our K12 schools. The other is a straight-forward pragmatic strategy for colleges--one which some colleges are actually quietly considering but which I’ve never heard anyone publicize. Separate the E and S kids from the M kids, and, thus, the cram-fest science courses from the conceptual ones.


Paul Bruno said...

That was not my experience of organic chemistry at all. The premeds certainly studied hard, but if anything that drove me to work harder in the 2nd semester - in part by sucking it up and memorizing more - and I found that 2nd half of the year much more rewarding intellectually. The premeds at Cal were definitely annoyingly competitive in other ways, but that wasn't one of them.

ChemProf said...

There just is a lot of memorization in organic, and your son needs to be prepared for that. Organic has a logic of its own, but if your brain doesn't work that way, you can't get conceptual understanding UNTIL you've memorized a whole bunch of stuff. That said, engineers often do pretty well because they can look for the logic, while many premeds don't think that way and so just blindly memorize.

You should also know that he doesn't need a "decent" grade in organic, just to pass. ChemE's with C's in organic out-earn chemists who got A's.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I thought the M stood for "math" not "medicine" or "memorization". You don't want to separate the math from the science, technology, and engineering.

Katharine Beals said...

Paul Bruno and ChemProf, thanks for your reassuring comments. I'd like to think my son can find the logic in Orgo. (I never took Orgo myself--all my concerns are 2nd hand).

Katharine Beals said...

gwp, you're right! I'm wondering if I forgot what the "M" in STEM stands for because it's so seldom addressed.

"You don't want to separate the math from the science, technology, and engineering."

Yes, that would be a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

I was a chemistry major in college and then went to medical school. Most pre-meds major in chemistry, biology or psychology, so they will be in many science courses. What would the alternative be? Would you have separate whole science majors for kids going into medicine and kids who want other STEM related fields? What if you change your mind? There are many kids who go to college expecting to become engineers or research scientists who end up in medical school, and there are many kids who enter college expecting to go to medical school who end up in other science fields. Healthy competition is good for everyone. Believe me, no pre-med wants to see engineering students in their math and physics classes either.

Katharine Beals said...

"Believe me, no pre-med wants to see engineering students in their math and physics classes either."

Good point.

I'm afraid I'm sounding harder on premeds than I intend. Some of my best friends are doctors! But I have heard a lot of people complain about the presence of premeds in chemistry classes, and some have suggested that this was a deterrent to majoring in chemistry.