Is math too hard? Or just not interesting enough?

November 8, 2011, 6:52 am

The title of this NY Times article making the rounds in the blogosphere is titled “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)”. But it seems like the real reason that 40% of university students today who plan on careers in the STEM disciplines end up changing into other fields or dropping out is only partly about the hardness of the subjects. What are the other parts?  Read this:

But, it turns out, middle and high school students are having most of the fun, building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion. The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.

The article then goes on to interview a Notre Dame student, with stellar test scores and high school preparation, who started in engineering and then switched to psychology:

“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.

In a former job, my office was located in the student rec center adjacent to the weight room. Every afternoon, I got to hear students come in to lift weights — the grunting and groaning of students pushing themselves to the limit, the clanking of the weights going up and down. I realized something: Students aren’t put off by hard work. They are merely put off by any kind of work that doesn’t appear to be worth the effort. I can’t help but believe that this is the real message here about university students leaving the STEM subjects.

I’m not saying this is a tenable way of running one’s life. In fact I think it isn’t. We have to realize that anything worth basing one’s life on is going to be downright difficult and full of struggle at some point. C.S. Lewis wrote about that phenomenon in The Screwtape Letters:

It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.

At the same time, I also feel like Moniz and other students like him have a point about how the STEM subjects are taught in the university. In their high school STEM experiences, many of these students had excellent courses which managed to be both hard and fun. Moniz seems to have some sense of what engineering is all about — but upon arrival at the university, it was all 400-student lectures and theory without apparent relevance. Students in that situation quite logically conclude that this must be the way science, math, and engineering really are and that the “hard fun” of what they saw before was just an illusion. So they move on.

The promise of higher grades in the “softer” disciplines certainly is also a factor, and not only because it might appeal to laziness. Ben Deaton has a good socio-economically motivated take on that, pointing out that for many students, keeping a high GPA is the only way they can keep the scholarships that allow them to go to college at all.

Aren’t there ways we can get and keep students connecting to the hearts of our disciplines as they move forward? It seems like the engineers are doing the best job of this — take a look for example at what they’re doing at Purdue with the standard first-semester intro to engineering course. There’s no watering down taking place here. Students are doing real engineering design tasks in a real-life setting. It’s hard and it’s engaging, and that’s the secret.

What are some ways that the rest of us in the STEM subjects can try to accomplish this?


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