Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

Are STEM subjects "Just So Darn Hard?" Or, do we make them so?

CJ Westerberg, March 17, 2012 10:51 AM


Why so many college students are dropping
STEM   (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)
 & What To Do About It

"As a result, studying methods that worked in high school,
fail in college
and many students give up rather than
 understanding and making the adjustment.
-Joe Ganem

Why Science is Hard

By Joseph Ganem Ph.D.

A New York Times article, "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard)" published on November 4, 2011, reported that nearly half the students who enter college with the intention of getting a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degree end up switching to a non-STEM major or failing to get a degree. The article sounded an alarm because politicians and business leaders have called on colleges to graduate more students with STEM degrees, which is seen as the only way for the United States to remain competitive economically. But, while earning a college degree is difficult, obtaining a degree in a STEM
field is even harder. As a result, roughly 60% of incoming students seeking STEM degrees either switch to another major or drop out.

The statistic did not surprise me because I observe firsthand the attrition in the introductory science and math courses at my university. STEM careers are interesting, prestigious and rewarding, and as result attract many young people. But, the difficulty of the actual work that needs to be done ends many aspiring STEM careers before they begin.

Science of course, has a reputation for being difficult. But is it necessary that science courses be the most difficult at the university? Why is science so hard? The most concise answer to that question is Einstein's famous, all be it cryptic observation:

"Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist er nicht,"
which translates from German as:

"Subtle is the lord, but malicious he is not." 
Einstein elaborated on this thought by saying:
"Nature hides her secrets because of her essential loftiness,
but not by means of ruse."

In other words, an honest universe with simple, easy to understand scientific principles,
would most likely be sterile. Think for a moment about all the elaborate physical, chemical,
and biological processes that are taking place in your body for you to be able to read this. Think about the eons of stellar evolution, planetary evolution, and biological evolution that
took place prior to your existence. All those complex evolutionary processes were necessary for you to come into being. A universe in which a phenomenon as extraordinary as you exists, must of necessity, have scientific laws that are deeply profound and subtle. Simplistic laws wouldn't do it.

While an education in a STEM field must of necessity be a difficult and challenging undertaking, due to its very nature, does that mean that a high attrition rate for aspiring
STEM students is also necessary? Are we squandering future scientific talent as some
of the educators quoted in the New York Times article allege?

Traditionally, scientists are selected in much the same way that athletes are selected -
through a process of weeding and sorting. This fact might surprise many people who
think of jocks and nerds as polar opposites. But in traditional science preparation, like
athletic preparation, advancement is competitive. To survive "the process," aspirants must demonstrate that they are better than the others.

In introductory science classes this competitive weeding process is accomplished by grading on a "curve."  Professors lecture to large groups of students, and then give difficult open-ended exams that typically yield average scores around 50%, with a distribution of scores resembling a bell curve. Students on the high end of the distribution curve receive the As and Bs, those in the middle the Cs, and those on the low end receive Ds and Fs and typically withdraw from the course. Obviously, attrition is a natural part of such a grading system.

Like an athletic program, the competitive grading system is designed to select for specific abilities.   However, the abilities being selected for are not the ones many incoming freshmen expect to be important. Frequently there is a disconnect between the expectations of the students and those of the professors, which leads many students to feel that they are being treated unfairly.

Students transitioning from high school expect tests for which they can prepare by
memorizing material. But, science professors, who emphasize the processes of discovering and reasoning, give test questions designed to thwart memorized rote responses and  challenge students to think through unfamiliar scenarios. The system selects those with the ability to successfully navigate the unfamiliar by applying known concepts and reasoning to novel problems.  That is what the work of science actually involves. As a result, studying methods that worked in high school, fail in college and many students give up rather than
understanding and making the adjustment.

The traditional method for training scientists, with its high attrition rate, persists because like most teachers, university science professors mimic their teachers. However, the method does have many drawbacks and can be improved. Here are my observations and recommendations:

  • Competitive grading systems discourage recreational interest. This is true in school athletic programs and it is also true for science classes. Just as students who get picked last for sports teams conclude athletics is not for them, students who fail to make the cut in science classes, conclude that they lack the "science gene," and should not even try to understand the subject. But, just as physical fitness is important for everyone, regardless of athletic ability, scientific literacy is important for everyone, regardless of college major or career aspirations.

We must all function in a complex high-technology economy that is dependent on science and that dependence will continue to grow. The most challenging and difficult problems facing humanity in the future - such as developing new energy sources, managing the environmental, and adjusting to climate change - will have solutions that come through science. The choice to be scientifically illiterate is a choice to be a bystander rather than an active participant in the economy of the future.

  • The competitive model for science education, and for education in general, is poor training for how work is actually accomplished. Corporations compete, athletes compete, politicians compete, but the vast majority of working people have to cooperate if they want to get anything done. The stereotypical researcher working alone for years in a laboratory to achieve a breakthrough is becoming harder to find. In modern times, the most pressing scientific questions are exceedingly complex, and progress only results from scientists pooling expertise and resources.

"Consequently, most scientists today work in groups . . ."

Consequently, most scientists today work in groups, and have shared authorship on the publications that result from their coordinated research activities. Many of these groups are dispersed geographically, and even span the globe by including members from multiple countries. Some experimental research groups, such as the one building and operating the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, involve thousands of scientists from around the world. Research papers that result from LHC experiments will have hundreds of co-authors. Various research groups must compete for recognition and funding, just as corporations must compete for market share, but the daily work of most individual scientists requires working cooperatively with others.

  • The traditional lecture format is the not the best method for teaching science. Again to draw an analogy with physical education, lectures are of limited use when the subject being taught is an activity. Science is a means and method for thinking about and interacting with nature. Scientists pose questions to nature in the form of experiments, and nature provides cryptic answers that must be analyzed and interpreted. In this back and forth dialog with the natural world, students will only learn to follow the conversation if they participate.

I am not taking the view, held by some, that lectures have no use in science education. Pedagogies that use "inquiry-based" or "discovery" methods have their place in science instruction, but should not, as some educators have advocated, be the only methods used.  Lectures came into use because they are an efficient method for transmitting knowledge, and the sheer bulk of knowledge needed to be absorbed in order to participate in modern science makes total reliance on "inquiry-based" learning methods impractical.  Science educators must work to balance activity-based and lecture-based pedagogies so that students acquire both the know-how and the know-what.

  • Traditional classroom education does not select for some character traits that are critical for success in science. Patience and above all persistence are necessary personal traits for a successful career in science. Scientific research is not an undertaking for those who need instant gratification, or even frequent positive feedback. I often marvel at how years of scientific work might be summarized with a single figure in a research paper. Real progress is painstaking and slow.

Students should also be aware that the day-to-day work of being a scientist is not that much different than most other jobs. You will have a boss, be expected to show up for work on time, put in a required number of hours, follow directions, and be trustworthy and responsible. Parents of prospective students who visit Loyola University will ask me how students can qualify for summer research opportunities in my lab. I tell them that when choosing research assistants I am not necessarily looking for the best student in the classroom, I am looking for a student with a strong work ethic,  one who can accept direction and feedback, and one who is excited about the work.  A student who tests well but has poor class attendance or who doesn't have intellectual curiosity, is not someone I want to hire.

None of these proposed changes for science education will change the fact that science is hard, or that just having the ability to do science makes it a suitable career choice. To be a scientist you need to have the interest, the ability, and enjoy the work. Even if aspiring science students have the interest and ability that does not automatically mean that they will find the work always enjoyable. The same can be said of any profession. Any professional career is a difficult undertaking and only students passionate about the profession should make the commitment.

A number of years ago I was asked to speak on "career day" to my son's middle school class about being a scientist. I told the students my life story, and the steps that were needed to become a scientist. I talked about taking lots of math and science classes in high school, going to college to study physics, and becoming a graduate student. I talked about the day-to-day work of being a scientist:  from operating equipment in a laboratory, to performing mathematical calculations, to writing research papers and proposals.

During the questions and answers afterwards, the inevitable question arose from one of the students: "Is it hard?"

"Yes it is hard," I replied. "That is why I do it. I have no interest in a career because it is easy. I like being a scientist because it is difficult and constantly challenges me."

As I left that day, the teacher, in private, thanked me for that answer.


Joseph Ganem, Ph.D., (http://www.JosephGanem.com) is a professor of physics at
Loyola University Maryland, and author of the award-winning book on personal finance: The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy. It shows how numbers fool consumers when they make
financial decisions. For more information on this award-winning book, visit TheTwoHeadedQuarter.com.

Originally published The Daily Riff: January 9, 2012
Bold emphasis in post added by TDR editor.

Related The Daily Riff:

Misconceptions about Teaching & Learning by Howard Gardner
 "Students at outstanding universities, who have studied the laws of motion and have done well on standardized measures of achievement in physics, are asked to explain a new phenomenon - one that they have not studied but one governed by the laws of motion. Not only do these star students typically fail on these performances of understanding, but more dramatically, their responses are often indistinguishable from those obtained from students who have never studied physics."

Three Young Women Wow Crowd at Tedx - Winner of Google Global Science Fair

Science Education: The Hidden Benefits - Missing the Larger Point by Joseph Ganem

Fires in the Mind: What Does it Take to Get Really Good at Something?

The Three Myths of Competition: How it Affects Student Motivation - Rick Lavoie videos

Is Learning a Sport? by Chris Wejr

  • Bridgitt Lee

    I think it depends on the person, just because someone suggests it, doesn't mean it's a good fit for everyone and that everyone is a math or science whiz, it's great if you understand it and can apply it. But for people more hands on oriented or into their writing, STEM can be torture and they still fail out, even with studying and tutoring. But for people interested in psychical therapy, teaching, personal training, trades work, it's harder.

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