STEM for whom?

On November 4, I saw the headline “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds” in the New York Times, decided to read the article later, and… didn’t.  A few days later, the letters in response to the article appeared, and I found them all intriguing.  So I went back and read the article.  Putting the article and the letters together, it seems there’s lots of blame to go around.  “It’s not just a K-12 preparation issue,” says Mitchell Chang of UCLA.  Yes it is, say Jim Simons and John Ewing (president of Math for America) in the first letter.  Introductory courses shouldn’t be “sink or swim,” said the National Academy of Engineering in 2005, echoing the “Pump, Not A Filter” theme from the MAA in 1988.

In this case, I think everyone’s right.  It seems reasonable to assume that large lecture courses in science fail to inspire some students, that greater grade inflation in other areas makes science and math courses less attractive (though to say that “the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair” in STEM courses is simplistic; I’m grading a lot of proofs this term and I sure wish it were a clear-cut process, and even the English department used to give out more C’s), and that other countries have become more competitive in STEM education.   Of course I’m most taken by arguments that say to learn in STEM fields, students need hands-on practice, which is labor-intensive.

Still (naturally), I’m left with questions.  Aren’t at least some of the students who gravitated toward, say, music better off there?  Is getting to “help professors with research” always a good thing for the student, or are there better ways to experience active learning?  Should we be repeating the Sputnik-era focus on producing professional scientists and engineers, or should we be improving math and science education for everyone, including future musicians and novelists and parents and policy-makers?

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About Priscilla Bremser

Professor of Mathematics Middlebury College
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