Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dropping Out of STEM

Here’s a new look at some old themes. Unfortunately, it’s not encouraging.

By now everyone knows that we need more scientists and engineers. Everyone also knows that students who major in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math— are much more employable than are those who major in fine arts, communication or psychology.

You would think that this would be an easy problem to solve. Publicity will bring the message to young people. A few White House science fairs will drive it home.

Voila: our enlightened young people will make a beeline for STEM classes and majors.

This is partially true: More and more students are signing up for first-year science, math, and engineering courses.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that more and more of them are dropping out of these courses and gravitating to less difficult and demanding majors.

Writing in the New York Times Christopher Drew mocks their attitude. He says that they are dropping out of elementary STEM classes because science is “just so darn hard.”

Drew is too kind to say it, but he is implying that we have created a generation of whiners, young people who have lost the will to compete. Worse yet, they do not have the moral resources to deal with adversity, even the adversity that befalls a student who receives a less-than-stellar grade.

Who knows what they were learning in high school, but they cannot deal with the rigors of STEM course grading. At the first glimpse of a bad grade they run screaming into the night, and sign up for Humanities and Social Sciences courses where they can party their way through college and exit with great credentials and an outstanding GPA.

It sounds like a winning formula. The more employers catch on, the more these students will discover that are good for only one thing: Occupying Wall Street.

Drew offers a cogent analysis of the problems: “The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work, like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.”

American students have been coddled into premature senescence. They are tired; they are lazy; they lack energy. One might argue that they have never grown up, but they are also, effectively, like old people. They just want to be taken care of. They have done their time; they have done some work; they have done what they were told. Now the state owes them a comfortable retirement.

The fault lies with the American way of parenting and the American educational establishment.

These young people were raised by parents who wanted them to be well-rounded, who did not want them to do too much homework, who helped them to acquire gobs of self-confidence and self-esteem.

They were sent through an educational system that is increasingly unwilling to offer objective evaluations of the quality of their work.

The closer they get to the real world, the more they discover that in STEM subjects, as Drew explains, there are right and wrong answers, and, “there are no bonus points for flair.”

We all know that it’s happening, but still, it is shocking to see that the education industry is so fundamentally corrupt that it is handing out bonus points, willy-nilly, so that students do not get upset by a bad grade.

The product is a generation of young people that does not know how to deal with adversity. The generation has become mired in bad habits.

When they get to college and they enroll in STEM courses, they discover how unprepared they are. And they do not know how to deal with it.

If you are optimistic about America’s future, you might need to revise your thinking. 

Most of these STEM dropouts scored high on their SATs. Many of them took advanced placement courses in calculus. And yet, they arrive in college unprepared, without the necessary academic background and without the requisite moral character.

Drew explains: “The bulk of attrition comes in engineering and among pre-med majors, who typically leave STEM fields if their hopes for medical school fade. There is no doubt that the main majors are difficult and growing more complex. Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.”

Perhaps the subject matter is becoming more difficult. But if that is true, shouldn’t the students have been better prepared in high school?

If they are unwilling to work hard enough, that can only mean that they suffer from a character deficit, a lack perseverance and grit.

Drew does not offer any statistics, but one suspects that most of the students who stick it out in STEM majors, who are undeterred by hard work, who have received the right preparation, are Asian.

How many of them do you think had Tiger Moms?

For all the caterwauling over the Tiger Mom method of parenting, it seems that the new American way, which values self-esteem over grit, flair over learning, and subjective impressions over objective standards is not working out very well.

Naturally, since modern America has no capacity for self-criticism, it is blaming the academic STEM departments. It is calling on these departments to rectify their approach, to require less rote learning and more hands-on, playful, fun activities.

The arduous slog through classroom work is too much for the darlings. By implication, pedagogical techniques that had worked for students in the past are too demanding for today’s generation.

Of course, one way to engage the interest of young people is to tell them that science is going to save the world, that it is going to eradicate disease and hunger and poverty.

That gets their creative juices flowing.

If it is just a question of building a better bridge or a better semiconductor, of engineering a more efficient energy grid or a better automobile, they are not interested, engaged or involved.

It’s not surprising that they do not care about construction. They were force-fed deconstruction.

And they were also inculcated with the values of guilt. They do not much are about the satisfaction that comes from building something. Their primary motivation is to feel less guilty. If they feel that they are helping to eliminate poverty or to give everyone a flu shot, they  feel less guilty.

They will go out and demonstrate for infrastructure investment, but when it comes to doing the real work of repairing our roads and bridges, they will not be there.

As Notre Dame student Matthew Moniz told Drew, he gave up engineering because it was too hard. He now wants to become a therapist.

As I said, it’s not encouraging.


Dennis said...

I am not sure we should not have a Professional School system thats primary purpose would be to handle STEM students. It would be a step above the Normal university. GPAs would be only compared with like GPAs from Professional Schools.
Since hard work would be the norm the students would be with like minded individuals. It could be said that all work and no play makes Jack dull, but the vice is all play and no work makes Jill unprepared to meet the exigencies of the modern work environment.
It is increasingly obvious that the current educational system does not prepare its graduates for the challenges they must face. Universities need to be second tier educational institutions.
The harder one works the easier one has to work.

JP said...

"The closer they get to the real world, the more they discover that in STEM subjects, as Drew explains, there are right and wrong answers, and, “there are no bonus points for flair.”

This isn't how it often works in law. I majored in engineering just fine. Law is mushy with limited right or wrong answers. In many of my cases, the outcome rides on the name of the judge, not "right and wrong".

Engineering was of no interest to me and it has hard salary caps later in life. Companies are always looking to lay off older engineers and replace them with higher quality younger, cheaper engineers.

By The Sword said...

The answer is not "Tiger Moms" for the kids but rather "Fathers".

Bizzy Brain said...

Why must the choice be between Engineering or the Social Life of Minor 16th Century Poets? I never see business mentioned in these STEM discussions. I have an undergrad degree in Theatre and subsequently worked in the Hollywooed film business. Finding out that was not my cup of tea, I studied accounting and got an MBA, and never had any problem finding a job in the business field. They call it industry security. I's not STEM, but sure resulted in a satisfying career.