Last month, the New York Times published an article on their website giving ideas from a variety of people--from experts to beginning students--about how to improve science education in the US. As a student and budding scientist, I've definitely encountered a lot of the issues discussed in this article firsthand, and think that curriculum issues probably contribute to the low retention rate in STEM fields.
A recurring theme in the Times article is that the typical format of introductory STEM classes fails to engage students at all stages of their education. They are focused mainly upon the history of their fields, which are important, but uninteresting. This begs the question--is it important for students to learn all of the dates and names at the expense of them continuing in their fields?
One of the contributors, Freeman A. Hrabowski III (president of the University of Maryland), discusses how this approach can affect students' perceived aptitude in STEM-related pursuits at an early stage of their education:
'When I give talks around the country, I often ask the audience: "How many of you knew you were an English/history type or a math/science type by the time you were in 11th grade?" Almost all the hands go up. And, when I ask why, I often hear, "Because I was better in English."
The question is: How does someone know that at 15 or 16? The way that math or science works in our lives is not always obvious.'
The sad part about the lack of interaction between students and the material they're learning is that young students get the impression early on that lack of success or interest in the historical aspects covered in introductory courses indicates that they are simply not cut out for a career in STEM. I know I'm not the only person who came out of Intro Chem I afraid that I was simply not cut out for my major. Luckily, I talked to upperclassmen, who assured me that despite the material being harder, higher levels of STEM are more interesting and interactive, which can actually make them less difficult than the packed 100-level lectures. Without this kind of support (which students may or may not have found during freshman year), it's easy to see how students become disenchanted with the idea of becoming scientists.
While collegiate introductory courses contribute to students dropping out of STEM fields, it is earlier educational experiences that dissuade them from pursuing a BS degree in the first place. This is especially important for us as female scientists to consider, as there is a marked difference in interest and perceived ability between the sexes beginning as early as middle school. Check out pages 21-23 of this incredibly informative analysis about the lack of women in STEM fields. It is currently thought that a combination of social pressures and biases as well as lack of engagement with the material are some of the biggest contributors to the gender gap in BS degrees and the professional STEM environment. Girls and women tend to perceive themselves as being not as gifted in mathematics, even when they score high in achievement tests. Those with high math scores are still much more unlikely to pursue math-related fields than high-scoring male peers. It seems like perception math and science ability is formed even earlier than high school, and can translate to a lack of interest in these fields.
When I was in high school, I was definitely one of those high-achieving, yet "uninterested" girls. I always saw myself as being unable to do well in science, and simply stopped caring. Luckily, for me, biology very suddenly made sense to me after learning about neurons in AP Psychology. It was the first spark of interest I'd ever had in science, and it happened halfway through my senior year. I can tell you from personal experience that it is difficult to being learning basic biology and chemistry for the first time as one speck in an enormous lecture hall. Many of my peers had taken many relevant background courses in high school, if not AP courses. I came in knowing only Hund's Rule and the names of the stages of mitosis. I struggled through many of the introductory courses despite many hours of studying, not due to a lack of aptitude, but due to a lack of past experience and knowledge. This experience has made me even more convinced that the homogeneous nature of STEM fields is simply because of a lack of early science and math education--no one likes spending time and effort on uninteresting material while still doing poorly in it. Those who are likely to have this experience are students who, like me, lacked prior science education and who also may have been socialized to perceive themselves low in ability. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, and those of low socioeconomic status typically fall into one or both of these categories. It only makes sense, then, that all are underrepresented in some or all STEM fields.
Engaging students in college and high school (and earlier!) seems like the best plan to increase the number of BS degree-earners, particularly the numbers of women. For me, the interest came with the study of how neurons in the brain ultimately influence behavior. What is it for you? What kind of educational experiences contributed (or hurt) your STEM ambitions? I'd love to hear from Scientistas about how the issues mentioned in the articles were present (or not) in your lives.
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