Anyone who has watched the evolution of modern education can readily note the fact that America is lagging (and has for a while) behind other countries in terms of graduating math, science, and engineering students. What is the cause of this divide? Why is America, with undoubtedly the most prestigious and accessible University system, failing miserably to educate its students in the maths and sciences?
While I by no means support the notion that there is anything ‘less’ about a degree in the Humanities (after all, my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in the Social Sciences), we cannot ignore the reality that we are losing an important segment of educated professionals that are instrumental to our success as a country.
Low graduation rates among science and math undergraduates affect how the United States competes globally. Fewer biology and math majors means fewer doctors and engineers later.
UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (UCLA being one of my alma maters) has just published the results of a multi-year study on this very phenomenon. There are many contributing factors, namely lack of access to a good education in K-12 and ill-preparation in high school for college level math and science education.
“I think one of the most disturbing realities about the American educational system is the inequalities that exist within that system. Where you live happens to be important. What state you live in, what district within that state you live in, what school within that district you go to, even what classroom within a given school … it really matters. And what I mean by that is, you are not necessarily expected to learn the same parts of mathematics at that grade level or the same science.”
“One international study of 12th-graders found that for those students in mathematics who were at the highest level — the kids who take calculus, AP calculus or regular college-level calculus — essentially came near the bottom of the international distribution against their peers. In science and physics, we were dead last. So even those students who we think of as our absolute best are not competitive internationally.”
Another factor at the post-secondary level is that students are often not given support and direction; their classes are designed to ‘weed out’ kids who should really be offered tutoring or investment. Math and Science majors graduate in much lower numbers and over a longer number of year (5-6 years to complete an undergraduate degree compared to 4-5 years for Humanities or Arts degree). With the rising cost of college education, those two additional years can spell tens of thousands of dollars of debt.
Science and math programs are designed and taught to winnow down the number of students. University tenure systems often reward professors who conduct research and publish their work, but not those who teach well.
Some new programs, such as the STEM at the University of Maryland focus on providing students with one on one attention between faculty and students.
We in America have accepted that science is just not for everybody. We send messages to students all the time that, ‘This is not really for you,’ ” he said. “One of the reasons American (students) aren’t more excited about science is that adults themselves aren’t excited. Most (students) have been weeded out before they even get to college.”
Hrabowski said many people assume they’re not smart enough to study science or math. His response?
“No. Your teacher wasn’t innovative enough.”
Read more about the problem, new initiatives and potential solutions in this CNN article: “Why Would-Be Engineers End Up As English Majors” and “How the U.S. Lags in Math, Science Education and How It Can Catch Up.”