Why is there a shortage of STEM majors?

This is an interesting follow up to yesterday’s post on how to help young men do better academically:

The New York Times ran an article recently on the shortage of students in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering & math) in colleges and universities.  Recent research suggests that the problem isn’t that nobody signs up for science and math majors.  It’s that once, they sign up, they quit after a year or two:

[Middle] and high school students [in STEM-related classes] 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. Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.

And later on in the article, we get to the heart of the matter.  It’s not the coursework that is necessarily the problem, it may come down to how that coursework is offered:

The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates.

Problem-based learning, anyone?


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