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Is College Science Just Too Darned Hard?

It's a time-honored practice for politicians and educators to wring their hands over how American students have fallen behind in science and technology. Many have pointed out how large class sizes, lackluster teachers, and non-challenging curriculum in elementary and high schools are shortchanging our students and (gasp!) the country's future global competitiveness.

But who's really at fault here? Could the problem actually be on the shoulders of the vaunted American colleges and universities?

Christopher Drew wrote an intriguing article for The New York Times that examine how more and more students are turned off by science at the college level:

... 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.

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. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

It's all a matter of the lack of preparation from high school, you say? Actually those who are better students are more likely to drop out of science:

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] degree.”


I think this has a lot to do with the fact that most high functioning students are generally the big fish in a small pond in high school. This phenomenon generally fades as they ascend to the university level. Rather than confront the fact that being "great" in high school means they are now "average" at a top university, they opt to get degrees in less competitive fields where they think they again can be the big fish.

It's that or kids are just lazier these days...
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Surely if students feel the high school chemistry and physics is easy and the college classes are too hard, that's the fault of the high school level instruction being too easy and "fun" oriented as opposed to the college classes having somehow leapt into being too difficult.

On the other hand, we (as in, American society) really haven't discovered how to teach math and science in a way which will scoop up the students who aren't immediately capable in those subjects, and as a result we leave a lot of people behind when it comes to educating in those subjects.

I suspect it's something between the two -- high school has dumbed down its curriculum in order to help students succeed and graduate on time, while failing to actually educate them to the level where they are prepared to be able to keep up (or even approach the subject matter) in college level courses.

Also, is it that surprising that studying at a selective school is more difficult than at a less selective school? 13% seems like a pretty low number of failures when it comes to the intense level of selection which takes place at these more intense institutions. I wonder what the non-completion rate is when you compare music majors at Julliard to a state college music program.
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If there were actually enough jbs in the US for STEM majors (esp. those with advanced degrees), that might make a difference.

On the other hand, my Chinese, Indian and Taiwanese colleagues in grad school never felt like the work is too hard.

Americans need to toughen up - it's a global contest out there.
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I read somewhere, (maybe a different blog about the same article? ) that the problem is grade inflation in the other subjects. The students get better grades in non-science subjects so they major in the subjects that give them positive reinforcement and don't major in subjects that give them negative reinforcement.

Part of the problem is that as a society we tend to measure the worth of people in numbers like grade point average and net worth, rather than in personal qualities or abilities.
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All their lives kids are taught they need good grades to get into a good college so they can have a successful life (ie make a lot of money). Once they get into college, they have the same problem if they need a post graduate degree for their career.

Why is anyone surprised that students tend to favor classes they get higher grades in. You can say modern students are wimps but it is the fault of the culture if the problem is endemic.
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I've got a bs in math and computer science. I don't know if I'd say they were too hard, but I do think they could be made more accessible and engaging.

My guess is that most people drop out of these majors because they find them difficult *and* boring and the career path doesn't seem to enticing.
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The standards have already been lowered significantly. I've once read lecture notes of German engineering freshmen... no chance ours would understand even one page of it.
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I have a BS degree, and if I didn't I wouldn't blame anyone but myself. People always want to point fingers when they should be pointing at themselves.
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My husband has a doctorate in chemical engineering and his constant complaints in his math and science classes in college were:
1) the teachers (professors) who were incapable of teaching the subjects.
2) They couldn't explain formulas or explain theorems.
3) Some could barely pronounce English words - many teachers were immigrants,
4) Some just didn't even show up to teach,
5) Some taped lectures so you couldn't ask for explanations or further information and, worst of all
6) Some teachers were not even qualified to teach the subjects.

All these things caused many problems for the students and the drop out rate was very high. A lot of unnecessary work went into researching and deciphering what the teachers should have explained in class.
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I went to college in the early 80's, when engineering degrees were at their highest. The first day of classes, I was in a giant lecture hall. The professor said "Look at the person to the left of you, to the right, the one in front and the one in back. Only one of you will graduate." That was pretty strong stuff for a freshman to hear. And it was to a certain extent self-fulfilling. Tell people they're going to fail, and they will.
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Slab your professor stole that famous line from the Navy Seal first day training regime.

I for one would love to see some the arrogant complainers try and teach a course or two themselves. I'd imagine it would be pretty humorous and ironic. You always have a few pompous individuals who think they know better, but no one likes people who quarterback from the couch.
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I'm currently a science major and it's pretty much consistent across the campus that if you're a science major you're miserable and a masochist lol. Why else would we wanna take overcrowded classes with teachers who couldn't give two shits about the class they're teaching
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As with most problems in the U.S. today, there is no single culprit behind the decrease in the number of math and science majors/graduates.

High school science classes do not use engaging activities in order to be "fun-oriented". Projects such as egg drops, bridge building and many more "hands-on" exercises are used because MOST PEOPLE learn best when material is presented in multiple formats. Some people can learn best by reading or seeing, a smaller number can learn from listening (standard lecture format in most colleges), but maximum learning -- and more importantly, *understanding* comes best with kinetic (hands-on/body-involved) learning. When confronted with a primarily-lecture format, they may well find this less-effective teaching method more difficult. That would be even more true in a huge state university with 500 in a lecture class and a promise that only 20% will pass.

As a sub (and a former science teacher myself), I have seen some high school projects whose value I considered suspect, but I recognize that I was seeing, at most, only 1 day in 30, so that impression may have been inaccurate.

Parents, business, and most of all government demand "accountability" to ensure that students are taught critical information. They deem a written test to be the only way to provide this accountability. Given that one's job (and the school system's government funding) is based to some degree on the results of this test, it would be stupid not to TEACH THE TEST. Even if the exact questions are unknown, the topics covered must be public information, so things not covered in the test will not get as much class time. DUH!

At the same time, many parents and students are unwilling to spend large parts of their evening on homework. As small children, this makes some sense as kids need playtime as well as study in order to learn most effectively. In high school, many have part-time jobs, and object to homework because they must choose between school, work, and sleep. (Work does not lose. If sleep loses, they cannot focus well at school; if homework loses, they may not have the practice to help them effectively understand the next topic.)

I don't have all the answers. I do have some ideas that may help. One would be for colleges to look at some of their own research on effective learning strategies and actually implement those techniques. Many college science classes have lab sections; there is no reason why those lab sections could not be used for effective hands-on learning. They're run largely by graduate students, anyway -- it wouldn't even be a big burden on the professor.

We ALL need to re-examine our priorities. If we want our nation to stay in the race (let alone on top) in the world, we may in fact need to pass up some of the income and leisure activities teens (and kids generally) have in favor of more study. We need to look at the media -- what do we see and hear? Triple slow-motion repeats of blood spray when someone is shot, people living down to the lowest common denominator -- and being praised for it, "reality" shows that at best encourage, and usually demand and glorify backbiting and deceit? What in that encourages "biting the bullet" to excel?

It's time to quit whining about how terrible things are, get off our butts and set an example for our kids. Instead of grousing that "the rich" are exploiting everyone else, take control of your choices. Respect the productive people around you, even if they have personal habits you hate, are the "wrong" color, are the "wrong" sex, or worship a different (or no) God. Praise your kids for things they do right, help them learn from what they mess up *without* telling them how worthless or stupid they are.

It might not make a quick turn-around on declining science graduates, but it could be a start.
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