Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Inspiring science

One of the  often heard lamentations is the state of STEM in the US - that this country is not producing enough STEM graduates. (A previous post here.) The following chart shows the percentage of science and engineering degrees as a percentage of all bachelor degrees over time. From a high of 36% in the late 60s, the percentage has fallen to about 31% by 2008. (Data is from the NSF and was not available for 1999.)

It is unclear how meaningful the 4-5% decline is but the trend might be cause for worry. It may also be a coincidence but the percentage peaked around the time of the Apollo missions. The space race was capturing the imaginations of the public and there was perhaps a palpable sense that going into engineering and science really meant something. There has never been another era like that - even the successes of Apple and Google have not matched the same level excitement. The dot-com bubble merely demonstrated that you didn’t really need a STEM degree to get rich - an internet domain with .com was sufficient - as long as you cashed out before the bubble popped. (In all fairness, the proportion of S&E degrees began climbing in the 90s just prior to this bubble.)

As the NYT makes clear, majoring in S&E is hard. And it is no help that students feel pressured to get an A in a hard course. One finger to point to is the S&E curriculum itself. Perhaps because or in spite of distribution requirements, S&E departments feel pressured to separate the wheat from the chaff quickly. One way to do this is to have hard first-year classes so that the less able flunk out. Even though these students may be interested in S&E but are either unprepared or easily distracted, they are dumped by the education treadmill to find something else to do. The signal from the curriculum is - don’t even bother - you’re not going to cut it.

Ironically S&E should be a field that embraces failures. By sending a black and white signal like the above it advances the notion that S&E have clear-cut answers to everything. Has the field forgotten that advancement in science depends perhaps as much on patience, perseverance and trial error as ability?

Drug discovery is one field where there are more dead ends than there are successes (and perhaps there should be a better way.) For the most part, Thomas Edison was self-taught and a tinkerer. It took several years of experimentation with different materials before the optical waveguide reached commercial viability.

One of kids favorite shows is Design Squad. If any show captures the excitement and frustrations of actually building something, this show does it and does it exceptionally well. The kids are well prepared with all kinds of shop skills - welding, sheet-metal work, design - and are mentored by MIT graduate Nate Ball. Even with a lot of guidance, failure is always an option but with each failure come important lessons.

S&E in essence has forgotten its roots. The curriculum perhaps needs to be redesigned. Peer teaching and other mentoring approaches need to be introduced. No doubt about it in my mind. But even with this there will never be the level of interest in S&E as there was in the past. Sadly, the only kind of engineering that students are interested in these days are the financial kind.

And an even sadder statement from Jeff Hammerbacher, former research scientist at Facebook:  "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," ... "That sucks."

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