One of the many things I wish I had had time to blog about during the just-completed term was the big New York Times article on attrition in science majors. This generated enough commentary at the time that people are probably sick of it, but I haven’t seen anything that exactly matches my take, so I’ll belatedly throw this out there.
The big point of the article is that lots of students who enter college planning to major in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (the “STEM” fields, in an awkward but now inescapable acronym) end up graduating with degrees in something else:
But, it turns out, middle and high school students are having most of the fun, building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion. The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.
This sounds like the sort of thing that I ought to be all over, as I’m on record saying repeatedly that everybody can do science. I’m weirdly ambivalent about this, though, because as someone who sees a lot of first-year college students who think they want to major in a STEM field, I’m not sure that all that attrition is a Bad Thing. Some of it, particularly on the pre-med side, is probably a Good Thing, moving out people who really shouldn’t be in those majors in the first place. Not because they aren’t “smart enough” to do it– many of them will go on to be very successful in other fields– but because they don’t have any idea what they’re signing up for.
I see a lot of this because we spend a lot of time teaching introductory physics to first-year engineering majors, many of whom are coming in as engineering majors because they know that engineers make a lot of money, and either they or their parents (or some linear superposition of the two) believe it would be a good career path. The problem is, that’s often the only thing they know about engineering. They don’t have the foggiest idea what engineers actually do, just that they get paid well, and it involves math.
A lot of those students get driven out early in the curriculum because those intro classes are their first exposure to what real science and engineering involves, and they turn out not to like it. The mental processes involved in science and engineering are things that any human is capable of doing, but it takes a certain personality type to enjoy doing them. If you’re not the type of person who enjoys playing around with things to see how they work (as opposed to always following step-by-step instructions), or figuring out ways to make graphs and charts comparing odd things in a quantitative way, you’re probably not going to enjoy being a scientist or an engineer.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Everyone is capable of doing and even casually enjoying activities that they would absolutely hate to do professionally. I really enjoy reading fiction and history, but I would be absolutely terrible as a scholar in the humanities, because I don’t have the right personality type to do the sort of thing that they do in those disciplines. I have very little patience for raising questions without answering them, which makes many of my interactions with my colleagues on the other side of campus very frustrating for everyone. I’m happy to roll with it for the occasional convention panel or faculty colloquium, but I could never do that for a living.
I suspect that similar processes are at work in the really high pre-med attrition rate– a huge number of students come into college thinking that they’re going to be doctors, because they and their parents know that doctors make a lot of money. They don’t find out until they get to college just how obsessive you need to be to succeed in the pre-med track, and as a result, they switch to something else. Which is definitely not a bad thing, because you really do want your eventual doctor to pay attention to details.
I suspect that there’s probably a similar level of attrition for would-be lawyers, but it’s harder to track as lots of different majors can serve as a starting point for law school. It’s not as critical to keep track of the pre-law contingent, so it’s a bit harder to identify those students who entered college with a vague idea of becoming a highly paid lawyer, but dropped that once they learned how much writing is involved. (See also this post about grades and legal careers, but this is getting off track.)
So, attrition in science and engineering majors is not in an of itself a Bad Thing. It’s absolutely true that everybody can do science, but that doesn’t mean everybody should do it for a living. It’s perfectly fine to have students sort themselves into whatever fields are best suited to their personality– that’s part of what college is for in modern American society, after all– regardless of what sounded like a good idea in their high school guidance counselor’s office.
Of course, there’s an important caveat, here: the sorting by personality is fine provided it’s done on a rational basis. If we’re driving out people who aren’t temperamentally suited to being professional scientists and engineers, that’s probably a good thing on balance, but if we’re driving out people who have the right personality type to be good scientists and engineers because the intro classes are boring and useless, that’s a bad thing. This is the idea driving the various reform curricula in physics, and ideas about active learning, peer instruction, and the rest. Badly done traditional lectures will drive away some people who would be really good scientists, but who have a low tolerance for pointless drudgery.
The Times piece doesn’t really make it clear to what extent the problem really is with the presentation of the introductory material, as opposed to the unrealistic expectations of students. This sort of thing is damnably difficult to sort out, and is probably better measured by attitudinal surveys (CLASS, MPEX, VASS, and so on) than enrollment statistics, student grades, or anecdotal interviews with education reporters.