STEM is too hard for most students

Lack of interest and aptitude keeps students out of STEM majors, reports the Washington Post.

Do tell.

Despite higher employment and earnings for technical degrees, only 16 percent of college graduates earn degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Why not?

Mainly, they aren’t good enough at math in high school, and they aren’t interested in STEM as a result. According to a study of high school students performed by the Business-Higher Education Forum (pdf) in December, only 17 percent of high school seniors were both proficient in math and interested in the STEM fields. (Fourteen percent more were not proficient in math but still interested in STEM). In fact, many students — 27 percent — weren’t interested in math or science degrees even if they were math proficient.

Students interested in STEM are motivated primarily by academic and career achievement. Non-STEM students see college as a “general life experience” and may lack “critical academic skills,” the study finds.

About Joanne


  1. Mary Beth Hertz says:

    Or maybe the way we teach Science in schools is boring?

    • I’m with you MB. I hated the sciences in school and loved reading and writing. I had creative and entertaining English teachers and boring, monotone science and math teachers. Today, I teach ELA (shocking, right?).

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    If you passed a law, hypothetically, that decrees that every person shall be executed at age 25 unless they’ve mastered calculus and mechanical engineering, we’d see in short order that attitudes about being “bad at math” mean very little to choices.

    This is all about the incentives. There aren’t enough incentives to get people to do the much, much harder (though perhaps more straightforward) work of the STEM fields. Perhaps most people really *aren’t* that good at math and science; that’s not to say that they couldn’t do it, but that perhaps it doesn’t come easily to them.

    I predict that we’ll see some turnaround on this issue (not that it’s necessarily a defect to have few STEM people… most societies, historically, haven’t) as our hyper-credentialism starts to implode and people start to wake up to the fact that their humanities degree don’t carry the same benefits that they used to.

    Realign the incentives, and you’ll get different behavior. People, contrary to popular belief, actually aren’t stupid. We’re the sharpest, nastiest, most dangerous multi-cellular creatures on the planet.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      If we assume that the Soviet Union was about as hard-nosed about creating scientists/engineers/technicians as we are going to get, then about 1/3 of the population will be able to master calculus at best. At best.

      This is the percentage of students that was finishing Soviet elementary school (which weeded out students with periodic tests) in the late 1950s. Those kids would be ready to take calculus in their first year of college. My guess is that most, but not all, would be able to pass (at least the first semester).

  3. Ignernt person says:

    Mary, that was certainly the case with my schools. I got a sympathy D in chemistry in high school, took time off and went to college when I was many more years mature and dreaded chemistry that I needed to get my biology degree so I could be a pathologist. I got 100’s on the first 5 exams and added it as a second major. The difference was partly added maturity on my part but it was 90% teaching. The freshman chemistry prof was also a professor of elementary education (I went to a state college, formerly a normal school).

    Fast forward to today: master’s degree in chemistry and a great job in the field.

  4. A lot of girls who are proficient enough at the math to study hard science, engineering, or math at the college level decide that the family-unfriendliness of most STEM jobs are a turnoff and instead go into fields that offer better opportunities for balancing career & family- nursing, veterinary medicine, audiology, optometry, physical therapy, high school science or math teaching, etc. The guys I know who did go into STEM fields did not strike me as any better at math & science than the girls who went into health professions or teaching so I think it primarily reflected interest rather aptitude.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    STEM jobs generally require attention to detail, persistence, and a willingness to work through frustration. So, there’s a good chance that some of the “good at math” people who elect to avoid them just don’t want to do that sort of job.

    My husband and I have this discussion a lot– we were both good enough at Math to be actuaries, actuaries get paid a lot….. but, that’s partially because it’s NOT a fun job, so very few people want to do it!

  6. The way math is taught in most schools is weak, at best, and probably fraudulent. The various spiral curricula (Everyday Math etc) are seriously flawed and leave many kids deficient in the fundamentals; STEM fields are basically out of reach by the time many kids enter MS because math is necessary for science. The sciences are often ignored in ES-MS and/or the (discovery) curricula are flawed because they don’t teach the fundamentals. Weak reading instruction in ES-MS also handicaps kids, because they don’t learn the terminology and are unable to handle multi-syllable words and complex sentences easily.

    Ignored in the discussion of how much better Finland, Korea, Singapore etc. are doing is the fact that the best-performing countries don’t expect kids to discover math, science or anything else; they are explicitly taught the material in a sequential way.

  7. PS: I’m not disagreeing that interest is a factor, but it isn’t enough. Any tough field, STEM or otherwise, requires good preparation, interest/motivation/perseverence and sufficient intellectual horsepower to do the work. Better k-12 preparation would help, but it won’t make up for either IQ or interest.

  8. Genevieve says:

    I wonder if another part of the problem is that many smart students aren’t used to working hard. Then to do STEM in college requires work and studying. However, there are many majors that don’t require a lot of work for smart students. Very few people are stopping these students and saying that the degree in humanities or social science isn’t going to be useful.
    I was a high achieving high school student, multiple APs including science and I never had to work very hard. All this changed when I took organic chem and classical physics. I was able to switch from a Biology major to a Political Science major. The political science major was easy, but not very useful ( I was at a state university known for science, ag and engineering). I suppose the joke was on me.

    • No argument; demanding diligence and perseverence from everyone and the concomitant requirement to challenge the top students with more and deeper material taught at a faster pace is something else the k-12 system has abandoned. Let no child get ahead…

  9. Deirdre Mundy says:

    One more note— One reason WHY STEM jobs pay so well is because few people are qualified to do them, and even fewer WANT to do them. That’s how most pay scales work. So, if more people WANTED STEM careers, they’d pay less.

    In my own life, I see the same thing with writiing. Fiction, or even nonfiction with a byline, doesn’t pay nearly as well as anonymous copywriting on very dull subjects. Why? Because most people aren’t willing to write about boring things, or to receive no recognition for their words…. so those of us who WILL do the anonymous and dull thing get paid better.

  10. Cranberry says:

    Mainly, they aren’t good enough at math in high school, and they aren’t interested in STEM as a result.

    I don’t think this summation is an accurate representation of the study. Here are factors which correlate with non-stem students (who can do the math): Among the activities done more frequently by non-STEM stu- dents in the year prior to being surveyed were “discussed religion,” “was bored in class,” “drank beer/wine,” “felt overwhelmed by the workload,” “visited art galleries/museums,” “attended a public recital/concert,” “smoked,” “felt depressed,” “came to class late,” “discussed politics,” and “was a guest in a teacher’s home.”

    Different personal goals, too: The statistically significant personal goals for non-STEM students were to “influence social values,” “influence the political structure,” “have administrative leadership experience,” “become a community leader,” “understand other countries/cultures,” “keep up to date on political affairs,” “create artistic work,” “write original works,” “achieve success as a business owner,” “participate in community action programs,” “raise a family,” “integrate spirituality into personal life,” “become accomplished in a performing art,” “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” and “promote racial understanding.”

    More than half of the students who have the ability to choose STEM fields have no interest in the fields. This is a rational choice for them. They don’t WANT to be STEM professionals. Their desires do not align with the STEM profile.

    There is nothing wrong with that.

    • It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. The thing that leaped out at me from reading the above list was a desire to have a balanced life (time to raise a family, socialize, enjoy the arts, travel, do community service, etc.) Why are STEM jobs set up to be so time-consuming and all-demanding?

  11. There is something, I think, to the idea that engineers are born and not made. I didn’t think this when I was going to engineering school, I thought the opposite. However, over the years I’ve worked with lots of people, both engineers and not, and my thinking has changed.

    Put short, I’ve worked with lots of smart, talented people who were valuable employees that would never in their lives be able to be engineers. It’s a lot of things: a mindset bent towards rigor, an easy familiarity with numbers and equations, a natural talent of understanding how mechanical things work, a good sense of spacial relationships and the ability to visualize complicated things, a deep desire to know how things work and, most importantly, the perseverance to hang in there and keep trying until the problem is solved.

    It’s just not that common for this peculiar combination of traits to line up. This doesn’t mean that engineers are better people or anything, just that they aren’t that common. No doubt the same could be said even more narrowly of professional musicians or pro athletes.

    • Didn’t the Soviet government assign kids to majors, according to ability, with little or no weight given to interest? I don’t want to go there.

      Three close family members, in three different generations, could/can do the math/engineering but didn’t /don’t find it interesting. One changed majors while still in college and the other two worked briefly in engineering after graduation and then made a career switch.

      • hmm… No majors were assigned. But the number of students accepted into a given “major” was provided according to projected need in the field.So If it was projected that Southern Ukraine would need in the next decade about a thousand of new veterinarians to work with farm animals, the vet schools serving the area had to adjust how many students they can take. In my year, 150 students were accepted (12 students per available spot competition). In years before mine, students would also be assigned to a work place after graduation, with a commitment to put at least 2 years there. When I was graduating (1998), it was good enough if you could bring a statement that you have found a place of employment. But my education was free. Now students pay, and free to go after graduation wherever they want… Colleges Also have no limits on how many students to accept, and many get rid of specific on-site entrance exams, taking some sort of the SAT grade from schools. American system…

  12. “If we assume that the Soviet Union was about as hard-nosed about creating scientists/engineers/technicians as we are going to get, then about 1/3 of the population will be able to master calculus at best. At best.”

    The Soviet Union is an interesting example, because they did turn out engineers by the truckful. I don’t know how good they were, but a much bigger chunk of the population than in the US got technical degrees.

  13. Almost all of the above commentary makes sense. I would like to contribute three small considerations:
    1. Every game is as hard as you want to make it. Tic-tac-toe may be a guaranteed draw, but a tic-tac-toe match with a $1,000,000 prize, no limit on games, with the winner being whoever got three games up, a time limit of ten seconds per move, ten minute bathroom breaks every three hours, thirty minute meal breaks every eight hours, and no breaks allowed for sleep, would generate a winner within a week. It may be possible to teach a nematode calculus if you operationally define “teach a nematode calculus” such that some machine generates correct answers to calculus questions if the nematode is in the loop and not, otherwise. I mean, if vials of chemicals can solve problems in combinatorics that are beyond supercomputers, who knows what a nematode could do? Maybe we just need to move with more deliberation for some worms, err, students.
    2. The brain is an evolved organ. Parents roll a giant bucket of dice when they put their kids together, and some kids come up snake-eyes.
    3. Trout (and nematodes) are your cousins. How much is it worth to teach trout calculus?