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The leak in the science pipeline: It’s the culture, stupid!

July 26, 2006, 1:06 pm

After spending most of yesterday hammering out five-year plans for the dual-degree engineering program I’m in charge of creating, I found this article from InsideHigherEd this morning to be, well, pretty disheartening, in an informative sort of way. The article seeks to understand why a smaller and smaller portion of American college and university students are majoring in math, science, and engineering. This quote in particular is surprising:

Data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles show that, in 2004, about 9 percent of freshman students nationally planned to major in engineering, and 2 percent planned to major in physical sciences. Those numbers are pretty typical for the last two decades, and what is also typical, according to National Science Foundation data, is that it is not uncommon for fewer than half of those intended majors to stay the course.

Like I’ve said before, engineering is a hard sell. It takes a certain kind of person to stare down a five-year plan of math, science, and engineering courses and say, "Wow! Sign me up!" That is to say: It takes a certain culture to produce such a person.

The article mainly pins the blame for this decline on two things:  The fact that students tend to get better grades in non-science fields, and the fact that class sizes are too big and and impersonal and have a concomitant "weed-out" mentality to them. Maybe. But unfortunately the article neglects the all-important cultural factors that make grades and large class sizes problematic — factors such as nerd stigma. the totalitarian rule of grades in the lives of students, and the prevailing culture in which college students grew up, which mainly tells them that being smart is for losers, especially so if you’re smart in math or science. (One can find lots of amusing examples of this culture in the so-called "back to school" sales going on now, where t-shirts with sayings like "Homework is a Crime" are being sold to budding scholars everywhere.)

The article also wants us to believe that students are systematically being given lower grades than in other subjects — by, I guess, the evil cadre of math and science profs whose only pleasure is other people’s failure — without considering that college success in anything is a two-way street. Math and science classes should set appropriately high standards for performance and offer students plentiful opportunities for help; but students have to take advantage and work hard, and stop expecting things to be effortless.

And the "work hard" side of the equation is often rendered problematic by the culture. We can’t expect changes for the better in this area unless the culture of academia and of America at large begins to change, so that excellence in these areas is good and no longer bad.

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