Thursday, January 26, 2012

Teaching and STEM

One of MR’s top post touts the payoff from majoring in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Yet as this NYT article states, majoring in STEM is just too damn hard. Moreover, Catherine Rampell notes it is less work to just to pick a non-STEM major - by about 4 hours a week. (From someone who has spent about that much time a week in Organic Chem lab for one semester, I can attest to that. Not only that, I came out smelling of chemicals which hot showers didn’t always seem to be able clean out. Needless to say, OChem wasn’t for me.)

The highlight of the NYT article however was the following (emphasis mine):

“We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college,” says Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who has studied the matter. “It’s not just a K-12 preparation issue.”

Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

“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 STEM degree.”

Several thoughts come to mind:
1. If majors are a way to signal ability and I think that this is partially true, do we want to turn major choice into policy? My knee-jerk reaction is no because if it is a signal of ability and we subsidize entry into STEM then the average quality of STEM majors would fall.
2. Peer effects of being in a selective school seems to indicate that the two people with the same GPA and SAT score are not really the same people. One is higher ability than the other if the one in the selective school succeeds. I use ability in a very general sense to encompass resilience, persistence, grit, motivation or whatever quality that allows them to succeed.
3. The article also notes that it is possible that the problem lies in the way selective schools teach STEM (among other reasons). I’d say yes, and not just in terms of STEM but college teaching in general.

This last point is made by Larry Summers (HT:MR) though he does not address STEM specifically. The value of group rather than individual effort could perhaps stem (pun not intended) the outflow from STEM.

…  collaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do. Yet the great preponderance of work a student does is done alone at every level in the educational system. Indeed, excessive collaboration with others goes by the name of cheating.

One approach that has not been getting much press of late is the concept of peer teaching. Ironically, as the article notes, the leading pioneers of this method of teaching are STEM professors. But the hardest thing to change is:

... getting ... other professors to stop lecturing will be a hard sell. Change is slow in the academy, and professors tend to be rewarded for focusing on their research, often at the expense of their teaching.

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