STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

STEM split: Women choose bio, but not physics

Two-thirds of Princeton’s molecular biology majors are female, but 76.2 percent of physics majors are male, reports The Daily Princetonian.

The most female-dominated majors for the class of ’16 are art and archaeology at 92.9 percent, psychology at 87.3 percent and comparative literature at 81.3 percent.

The most male-dominated majors are mathematics at 86.7 percent, philosophy at 77.8 percent and computer science at 77.3 percent. History, politics, sociology, classics, music — and astrophysics — are roughly even.

Students like STEM but don’t succeed

Nearly half of  students say they’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — including health care — when they start college, but few will earn a STEM degree, according to a Complete College America report.

Forty-eight percent of recent ACT takers express interest in a STEM major, reports ACT. Forty-one percent of new four-year students and 45 percent of two-year students choose a STEM major, including health sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Four-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, while two-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.

Most don’t make it.

Among 4-year students, 57% of students who choose health sciences and 59% who choose computer science never complete a credential in that field.  The problem is more profound at 2-year colleges where 58% of health science and 72% of computer science students leave the program without a credential.

Those who stick with STEM complete college-level math in their first year, the report finds. Quitters don’t. They also complete few science courses.

Complete College America proposes scheduling college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in the first year to keep students on track. That will help only if students are prepared to pass college math, which many are not.

Nursing is a dream career for many young women from working-class families. Perhaps their brothers dream of being computer techs. It takes a strong foundation in math and science to turn those dreams into reality.

Is the STEM shortage a myth?


On the Big Bang Theory, physicist Sheldon visits neuroscientist Amy in her lab.

The shortage of scientists and engineers is a myth, writes Michael S. Teitelbaum in The Atlantic.  If there were a real shortage, wages would be rising, he writes. To the contrary, “real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.”

U.S. students earn mediocre scores on international exams because large numbers of high performers are balanced by lots of low performers, he argues. 

. . . there continues to be a large pool of top science and math students in the U.S. OECD data on “high-performing” students suggests that the U.S. produces about 33 percent of the world total in this category in the sciences, though only about 14 percent in mathematics.

“Every high school graduate should be competent in science and mathematics — essential to success in almost any 21st century occupation and to informed citizenship as well,” he writes. But that doesn’t mean there’s a huge unmet demand for scientists and engineers.  

The STEM shortage myth is a myth, responds Robert D. Atkinson in the Washington Monthly‘s College Guide. Science and engineering graduates are finding jobs — not just in tech-based industries — at higher wages.

As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell shows, the earnings premium for STEM skills (controlling for experience, education and sex) has grown from around 22 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2012. Dartmouth’s Matt Slaughter and UC San Diego’s Gordon Hanson found that “the inflation-adjusted wages of major STEM occupations grew over the last decade while real wages for most other U.S. occupations fell.” Hardly evidence of surplus.

STEM shortage denial is rooted in a desire to keep out high-tech immigrants, Atkinson argues.

You can’t go wrong with a computer science major, writes Yahoo’s Rick Newman, looking at PayScale’s 2014 College Report. 

Only two of 288 schools that offer computer science — Indiana University-Purdue and Virginia Commonwealth — produced a return below the median for their graduates. At the top of the scale, meanwhile, more than a dozen computer-science schools returned $1 million or more over 20 years, making this the top-performing field.

By contrast, the return-on-investment for business majors varies depending on the college, he points out. “At nine schools, including Fayetteville State in North Carolina, the University of Montevallo in Alabama and Colorado Mesa University, students studying business actually earned a negative return, according to PayScale. That means they would have done better, on average, if they went to work right out of high school and never spent money on college.”

The earnings data relies on self-reporting, so be wary.

In This is Not Your Father’s STEM Job, Jessica Lahey looks at women who are “forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.”

But are they typical of female STEM workers? Probably not.

Fearing B’s, women reject STEM majors

Claudia Goldin/Harvard University - This chart shows the percentage of male and female students who received a given grade in introductory economics course who then later majored in economics. 

Women should stop trying to be straight-A students, choose tougher, math-centric majors and earn more later, writes Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post.

“The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s,” she writes. Women may be leaving these fields because they’re afraid of getting B’s, two new studies suggest.

Most new college graduates are female, but only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics go to women. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, analyzed how Econ 101 grades affected the chance a student would major in the subject.

She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science.

Duke Professor Peter Arcidiacono is finding similar trends in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women enter college just as prepared as men in math and science, but few choose a STEM major (not counting biology) and even fewer complete a degree.

Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.

Women “want something where the professor will pat them on the back and say ‘You’re doing so well!’,” speculates Goldin. Men have their “eyes on the prize.”

Programming for all?

 Computer science should be a high school graduation requirement, argues Mike Cassidy in the San Jose Mercury News. He wants more girls to give programming a try so they’ll have a shot at Silicon Valley jobs.

In a series called Women in Computing: The Promise Denied, Cassidy focuses on the declining share of women who choose computer science majors: By 2011, it was down to 17.6 percent.

Some colleges have boosted that through outreach programs and classes that persuade women that computing isn’t just for nerds, writes Cassidy.

A Berkeley class called “The Beauty and Joy of Computing” draws as many women as men. In addition to teaching programming, lecturer Dan Garcia explores how computer science can solve real-world problems.

Garcia is training high school teachers to teach computing and creating a MOOC for would-be computer science teachers.

Everyone should take a computer class, says Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. “To allow students to graduate with no real understanding of what is happening and how that is created is really shortsighted.”

Cassidy thinks girls would like programming if they tried it.

Imagine if classes were widely available and that girls were required to take computer science in high school or earlier. They would see how computing often requires teamwork and is a key tool in other areas, such as medicine, environmental science, finance, politics and space exploration — thereby putting a lie to the stereotype that programming is a solitary pursuit in which writing cool code is an end in itself.

A group of “tech superstars” have started Code.org to push state legislatures and school boards to add computer science to the list of core college-prep courses. “Co-founder Hadi Partovi, a Seattle-area angel investor and coding evangelist, says the organization will pay to train existing K-12 teachers to teach computer science,” reports Cassidy. The group wants a class in every high school.

In Rebooting the Pathway to Success, the Association for Computing Machinery calls for expanding K-12 computer science education and making it part of the STEM core.

I’m all for expanding opportunities for young people — female, male, whatever — to learn programming. I took a computer class in high school myself in the days of paper tape readers. (I took it to meet boys, not realizing I’d meet nerdy boys.)

But I don’t think mandatory programming will make significantly more girls — or blacks and Latinos — see coding as “cool.” It’s cool if you’re into logic. I did some programming in college too in a “math for non-math majors” class. I liked it. Everyone else hated it.

And I’m very dubious about adding graduation requirements. If computer science is added, something else should be deleted. Maybe a programming language can substitute for a foreign language?

Why do Asian students rank high?

Asian students outscore Americans on international exams — and it matters, says Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, in a New York Times interview. He’s now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

We live in a world in which our children aren’t competing for jobs against people in the next town — they’re competing for jobs against people in other countries. It’s critical that we understand how our students compare to those students. . . . We now live in an information economy in which what matters are brains and knowledge. So those tests are critically important.

Asian countries ace the exams because they “start earlier,” Levine says. “They work longer. They work better.”

Kids are capable of learning about mathematics much earlier than we thought. Yes, we can begin earlier, but we also need to spend more time on those subjects, and make them more comprehensible to students. We don’t do well in that. We have much to learn from those countries about when to teach math and science, how long to teach it, and the best ways to teach it.

Finland, which also ranks high, limits the number of people who can enter teaching programs, says Levine. Only the top candidates are accepted. The U.S. sets low requirements, then turns out too many elementary school teachers and too few STEM teachers.

PISA: No U.S. gender gap in math, science

U.S. girls do as well as boys in math and science on the PISA exam, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

 In many other countries, the 2012 OECD report notes, “marked gender differences in mathematics performance—in favour of boys—are observed.”

Three years ago, American boys outperformed girls in math on PISA; their science scores were similar.

However, the STEM gender gap hasn’t vanished, reports Erik Robelen.

Take the AP program. In all 10 STEM subjects currently taught and tested, including chemistry, physics, calculus, and computer science, the average scores of females lagged behind males, according to data for the class of 2011.

U.S. girls aren’t as confident as their male classmates, the 2012 PISA report found.

[E]ven when girls perform as well as boys in mathematics, they tend to report less perseverance, less openness to problem-solving, less intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, less self-belief in their ability to learn mathematics and more anxiety about mathematics than boys, on average; they are also more likely than boys to attribute failure in mathematics to themselves rather than to external factors.

Young women are losing ground in computer science, according to Change the Equation: Women earned 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computing in 2012, down from 27 percent about a decade earlier. Of those earning a master’s degree in computer science, only 28 percent were female in 2012, compared with 33 percent in 2001.

What parents want

What Do Parents Want?

Designed by: Vanessa Solis and Linda Jurkowitz | Source: Thomas B. Fordham Institute

More try STEM majors — and quit

More students are trying — and quitting — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, reports USA Today.

Interest is up, says UCLA Professor Mitchell Chang. Persistence is not.

Many students aren’t prepared for the rigors of introductory chemistry and calculus, says Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. Women are more likely to drop the major.

“If women get a B, they think they’re failing. A man gets a B, and he’s happy. They say they’re acing the class,” Cosentino says. “Women who go into hard sciences, they’re very driven, they’re very high achieving, and if they’re not performing at that very top level, they become discouraged, and they think that it is not for them.”

Tough grading in science classes leads to attrition, a 2010 Cornell study found. STEM students realize they can work less and earn higher grades in liberal arts courses.

The S in STEM has been oversold, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

“Employers are paying more, often far more, for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics (TEM),” College Measures President Mark Schneider wrote in his report, “Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others.”

But “evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in biology earn a wage premium — in fact, they often earn less than English majors,” Schneider wrote. “Graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.”

A TEM bachelor’s degree qualifies a graduate for a good job. An S bachelor’s degree usually isn’t enough on its own, though it can be the first step to a medical degree.