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May 24, 2011 AT 3:49 pm

Why would-be engineers end up as English majors

Why would-be engineers end up as English majors @ CNN.com

“Many students want to be in science, but very talented people are choosing other fields. That shouldn’t be the case,” Hurtado said. “It’s important to understand how we close this gap.”

Poor scientific literacy among college students is one reason students pursuing science and math are less likely to graduate from those programs. High school graduates aren’t prepared for first-year science classes in college, Hurtado said.

But there’s another problem, too: Higher education, itself. Science and math programs are designed and taught to winnow down the number of students. University tenure systems often reward professors who conduct research and publish their work, but not those who teach well.


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14 Comments

  1. This is not what stopped my girlfriend from pursuing engineering. She was well prepared. It was the lack of women studying it at the time (mid-nineties). I hope that continues to change, too.

  2. @Adam That’s a bit of a catch 22, isn’t it? She didn’t join because there wasn’t enough women?

  3. It disturbs me when people lump “STEM” into one blob as the thing everybody should study to make the world a better place.

    Engineering & Technology have a fair amount of good career possibilities. If nothing else, you can invent your own opportunities (e.g., Adafruit).

    Science, not so much. You are more dependent on grants and making tenure in academia, and face a pretty major reset halfway through life if things don’t work out well. Phil Greenspun describes it well:

    http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science

    I think it’s a mistake to cheer people on to getting science degrees without taking a hard look at what the actual career opportunities are in those fields.

  4. Also, more to the point of the article…

    At the large state university I went to, teaching undergrads was regarded largely as a nuisance by most faculty in the CS dept. With the exception of one instructor, all the professors were focused on research.

    I was stunned when I visited some folks from Paris Telecom last summer and discovered their professors work side-by-side with their students on some exciting projects (e.g. http://www.glip.fr/ ). Very different than in the US.

  5. My take on this article isn’t so much that it’s saying “we need more people choosing to be scientists.” Rather, what it’s saying is that high-school graduate performance is so abysmal that many students are woefully unprepared to go into STEM subjects even if they wanted to.

    I’ve seen this myself recently. I took a class at a local college this past semester. It was an engineering class — materials testing, in case you’re interested — and I would say that about 1 out of every 3 kids in the class was completely incapable of doing math without a calculator. And I’m not even talking about calculus; this was basic algebra. I really couldn’t believe it.

  6. I know a few people that went with "easier" majors such as english or economics instead of science and engineering because they only thought about the here and now.

    I had a roommate once that was a social science or humanities major. I woke up at 7am for an 8am Friday class, and he was just getting in from partying the night before. I could spend 3 hours on a single electrodynamics homework problem and get nowhere while he completed his writing assignment in 30 minutes.

    Ites also about perception and exposure. We don’t celebrate too many scientists or engineers, so is it really a shocker that today’s college students are less eager to get into these fields? These days not many schools require that physics be taken at the high school level. And realistically, how many high school students would take such a course as a voluntary elective?

    After taking quite a few science, engineering, and mid-level social science & humanities courses, I can confidently say that the same-level science & engineering classes were far more challenging.

    I would say that many interested students shy away from science because they want an easier path short-term and long-term they yearn for a cushy high-paying office job like the stylized ones they see on TV and in movies.

  7. Maybe they say Maxwells Equations and gave up

  8. I mean saw…no wonder I never made it to MIT

  9. I mean saw…no wonder I never made it to MIT

  10. The problem isn’t so much the Universities, it is the poor quality of high schools in the U.S. that’s really the issue. There are rare exceptions, but in most U.S. high schools, the teachers are not prepared to teach science and mathematics. What’s worse, a culture of hatred is encouraged where “Nerds” are looked down upon, and worse.

  11. Also – the style of math used might as well be deliberately designed to be obtuse (er, no pun intended). First, we take the full names for concepts, and using somewhat stilted language, map them into what looks rather like greek (except that it’s all single letters, instead of words), then run it through a somewhat arcane pattern-based transformation, and then expect the student to develop an understanding of the situation based on it. (oh, and hope you didn’t mess it up along the way, too).

    We in the coding disciplines have learned from hard won experience that this approach is poor at best… Readability of code is critical to it’s usability; I’m not really quite sure why this idea does not get wider recognition amongst other science and engineering disciplines…

  12. It does look to me too that Physics courses are designed to winnow down the number of students interested in the subject to those few who are capable of advanced research. I am a hanger-on, because I see what training in Physics can do — I’m working on a project that’s such a mess that all the key people seem to be Physics majors. It’s because Physics prepares you to achieve a fundamental understanding of any complicated system (especially one that’s broken). So I keep taking courses and (I think) getting smarter, even though I will never, ever, work in academia.
    It’s a shame the theory courses are so often emotionally discouraging. I know I’m not the only one who feels stupid for not understanding things quicker.

  13. I left engineering school in part because the curriculum wasn’t tempered by enough of a liberal arts spread of classes. I loved the science and math, but there was more to learn and I wasn’t going to be able to fit it in while pursuing the super-focussed engineering track. it’s a bummer too, because I think a lot of engineers would benefit from non-science/math learning. it would help them communicate better and might get them to question some of the projects they take on that are meant to kill people instead of making lives better. the status quo is a pity.

  14. Tim, I totally agree about a good liberal education. One analogy I heard a few years ago: A lot of people, particularly politically conservative ones, don’t want their kids in hard sciences “wasting their time on touchy-feely liberal-arts stuff.”

    One smart blogger (not blogging now, sadly) pointed out that in Orwell’s “1984”, Ingsoc did a good job of removing context from their world. A really good job. Newspeak, when perfected, would have removed all the context from *everything*.

    The only way you know if your making does good. Gone.

    Unfortunately, there are liberal arts professors that love to make their work obscure and make their students feel small in a way that would rival any mathematics class (been there, both instances.)

    But the need is no less there. The future engineers will remake our society no less than their circuit boards; they will need to be as good in a nondescript municipal conference room no less than in the workshop, and liberal arts will have to help get them to both places.

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