Why They’re Leaving

Inside Higher Ed had a piece yesterday about leaks in the science pipeline– that is, reasons why so few students end up majoring in science, math, or engineering these days. The hook for the article is some Congressional hearings on the subject, but the author lists some possible explanations related to the structure of academia (bold headings are from the article, the summaries are mine):

  • Greener Grade Pastures: Students in science and engineering get lower grades than humanities students, and some students choose majors based on projected GPA.
  • Weeding Out: The culture of science presumes that only those “good enough” should make it, and intentionally makes the intro classes difficult to drive lesser students away.
  • Large and Impersonal: Introductory science courses are often taught in huge sections, which students find unpleasant, while humanities courses may be smaller. This ties in with the grades issue.
  • Math and Science Goes Vertical: Math and science majors tend to be hierarchical, with the introductory courses often being hard and boring, before students get to the really interesting material in the upper-level classes.

Some of these are good points (particularly the first and last), others not so much. In the comments, they get a number of other responses, ranging from the thoughtful to “most science faculty are borderline autistic and can’t teach worth a damn,” which is the sort of productive broad-minded thinking we all associate with the humanities. I’m sure there are things that could be added to the list, and ways to address these points, but they make an interesting starting point for discussion.

Comments

  1. #1 Peter Erwin
    July 27, 2006

    The link to the article is currently pointing to something called “www.manleywadewellman.com”…

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    July 27, 2006

    Try it now.

  3. #3 Scott Prinster
    July 27, 2006

    By the senior year of my physics program, I had begun to realize the limitations of the scientific view, and had become disillusioned by the fallibility of my “religion”. I suspect that, if Purdue had required of us a philosophy of science course and acknowledged where the boundaries are, I’d have stayed with it. I went on to become a minister, and am now going back for my doctorate to integrate the two worlds.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    July 27, 2006

    A PhD enters college at age 18 and exits at age 28 with $60,000+ in loans due. A new entry 19-year old cop with a GED earns at least double that of an NIH post-doc. The cop cannot be fired, has massive benefits, a fat pension, union representation, and a concealed weapon carry permit. The cop sums $700+K by age 28. He is golden.

    American zero-goal education creates a maleable and dependent electorate by intellectual starvation, political indoctrination, and psychopharmaceutical intervention. Head Start legislation passed in 1965. In 2007 – four decades and three generations later – Head Start consumes an annual budget 20% larger than that of the National Science Foundation. Even the politically corrupt Department of Education, ANOVA!, cannot entice a palpable Head Start achievement.

    We bought the future we have – political canon celebrating genetic, developmental, and behavioral trash; reproductive warriors, hind gut fermenters, drug addicts, Enviro-whiner Luddites; the stupid, the pathetic, and the Officially Sad.

  5. #5 A. Random Physicist
    July 27, 2006

    The excellent book Talking About Leaving discusses this very subject and is quite eye-opening. I highly recommend it to all college science faculty. Based on my reading of that book, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss points 2 and 3.

    On the other hand, much of the “leaking” happens before students get to college. When I do advising of incoming first-year students, if I ask undeclared majors what they think they might want to major in, the most common answer by far is “not science or mathematics.”

  6. #6 Colst
    July 27, 2006

    Only having read Chad’s summary, I have some comments. First, I do think that they’re good points, as is Uncle Al’s point about money.

    That includes the last point, but it’s not cut and dry. I started college unsure of what I wanted to do. For most of the time I was a double major – English and Chemistry. The Hierarchical nature of the chemistry cirriculum actually kept me going. I felt like I was advancing, gaining deeper understanding, etc. The English classes, however, had very little order to them. Just about any class wpuld have a mix of students ranging from nonmajors of any year working on Gen Ed requirements to senior English majors. Teaching to such a mixed class forces all the courses to rehash too much basic stuff. I got bored with English – after nearly doubling the requirements for a minor I just wasn’t interested in more of the same. For physics, I took an entirely different approach – I skipped most of the intro and some of the intermediate stuff and took the upper-level stuff. Not too difficult to do when you’re at a small school and profs need to “fill” (often 5 people) the class for it to be taught at all.

  7. #7 Wowbagger
    July 27, 2006

    One point the article failed to mention is the significantly higher workload that science courses have. Humanities courses don’t have labs. The time needed to do the readings and write papers for humanities courses is much less than the time needed to complete weekly problem sets and lab reports. Some exceptions to the rule are courses like logic and economics, which also give weekly problem sets. But they still don’t have labs.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    July 27, 2006

    Based on my reading of that book, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss points 2 and 3.

    I’m not dismissing them completely, but I’m not sure that #2 is entirely a bad thing, and #3 really isn’t applicable for my department, where we cap our intro sections at 18 students (and offer 7-8 sections a year…).

    On the other hand, much of the “leaking” happens before students get to college. When I do advising of incoming first-year students, if I ask undeclared majors what they think they might want to major in, the most common answer by far is “not science or mathematics.”

    This is, as noted in a “related story”, partly a function of the fact that it’s socially acceptable to be bad at math or science. But there are also significant problems with science education in high school and earlier, that helps drive students away from math and science before they even get to college.

    The workload point is also a good one, though to be fair, upper-level humanities classes sometimes demand a really impressive amount of reading and writing. It tends to be more concentrated, though, and isn’t spread out in a way that has a clear and obvious impact on the weekly schedule.

  9. #9 bigTom
    July 27, 2006

    I have lots of reasons for the leakiness, however I’d like to point out that the number of jobs, and research grants available is pretty limited, so that if we did patch up the leaks, we would likely find a very large end-pipe spill of new scientists who can’t find work in their field.
    That said, there are many reasons for the high leakage rate.Most science’s nowadays require very heavy background in math, and a lot of people have trouble playing with abstract symbols, that don’t otherwise have meaning to them. Another related area is that that kind of rigour is just really tough psycologically. Also most subjects are taught sequentially, building up the necessary background for future steps. Lack of good mentoring, means that most students will accumulate certain holes in the foundations of the field, and then suddenly find themselves in above their heads.

  10. #10 kstrna
    July 27, 2006

    It is complicated. You have to factor in the type of college into this as well. What level of background/training students had before coming to college. Weeding out is a problem because if done improperly it will weed out those who have the potential to be great but don’t have the same strong background and have more baggage happening in their lives. Those are the ones teachers in intro classes should identify & bring up to speed. Large intro classes and poor teaching make that difficult to do. Weeding out tends to select for those that are like the professors besides being passionate about science and bright. At a small liberal arts college this should be less of a problem where teaching quality plays a larger role in the tenure process than at a large research university.

    I would add the large anti-science mentality that exists in the US also plays a part. Lets face it you put the factors mentioned above with that, why would a student stay in the sciences especially those that have to put up with sexism, racism, classism, etc in addition?

  11. #11 Jamie Bowden
    July 28, 2006

    My personal view on this has a lot to do with watching elementary school teachers who don’t understand even the simple math they’re attempting to teach my kid trying to teach it to him anyway. There are some who can do math, and have no problem teaching it, but most of them seem to be afraid of the subject matter, and pass that on to the kids. The part that really kills me is that we’re talking arithmatic here. This is the basics, without which you have no hope of learning more advanced mathematics. Without that ability in math, you can’t do science.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    July 28, 2006

    I have lots of reasons for the leakiness, however I’d like to point out that the number of jobs, and research grants available is pretty limited, so that if we did patch up the leaks, we would likely find a very large end-pipe spill of new scientists who can’t find work in their field.

    Which is why I say that the “weeding out” phenomenon isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s bad if it’s done in such a way that it removes people who have the ability to be good scientists, but the goal of retaining only the best of the best isn’t a bad one, paricularly given the number of jobs available.

    Another thing that could be done to address this problem, though, would be to work on making more acceptable jobs available. This means not just creating more high-tech science jobs, but also things like improving the pay and working conditions for teachers to make that a more attractive option for science majors who aren’t sure they want to go to graduate school.

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