Saturday, February 11, 2012

Math for the Masses

The president has made remarks in several speeches this year about promoting education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM Education). He's mentioned yhe idea of a technology expert as a Cabinet post. This is all well and good in theory. I have some thoughts on it as follows. He then made some noise about forcing people to go to high school until age 18 (presumably allowing one to graduate younger than that but not explicitly stated). This, I think is madness. There are better things we can do for people that aren't successful at high school that hold them in a failing stasis for more time. Here goes!

Reasons why education in science, technology, engineering and math might flounder in the upper levels, from someone who successfully graduated from from MIT.
1) STEM courses are cumulative.  If you learn 12 concepts and only master 10 of them, you could be floundering in your next course. Then you either have to do extracurricular studying to catch up, retake a class, or you're unable to complete the work at higher levels. If you partially fail at an english course, the concepts and skills are still cumulative to some extent, but a "C" level writer can continute to be a "C" level writer in their next course, and has some hope of improving to a B.  A "C" level mathematician is more likely to be a "D" level mathematician in the following course.
 There's some ability to choose to continue where your interests and talents lie, but sometimes you get tested on things your brain just doesn't want to wrap itself around. (My nemesis is electron tunneling. I've seen the equations to work it out but cannot reproduce them with any understanding of what I'm doing.) Two courses down the line, either you've caught up, chosen a path to avoid your problem areas, or given up. 
2) Status. STEM = geek/nerd.  If your chosen university doesn't reward STEM students with some sort of social status, only the most dedicated will pursue these degrees.  At MIT, you can geek out to your heart's content and be socially rewarded for it. Also, in that environment, failure in one STEM track can lead to a different STEM major. (My Bio major roommate hated Physics more than any English major I know.) But at most universities,  the social structure does not reward sticking it out in STEM, but in transferring to a more socially rewarding major. 
3) Money.  Our current high paying jobs are in finance and "business".  I make a decent living as an engineer, but am doing nowhere near as well as I expected to be.  Many of my contemporaries have gone on to get MBAs because it's the only way to break into the jobs where you make top 10% money, and it's hard to live in a major city and feel successful if you've excelled at school your whole life and are only earning a median salary for all the effort you put in.  A colleague used to reminisce about trudging home with his engineering text to go do problem sets and passing his business major friends already at the bar.  Upon graduation, the business majors earned more than he did, and spent more time at the bar drinking with clients.  It turns out their college bar time was preparing them for life on the job after all.  He felt a little cheated.
I know a fair few STEM PhDs. Unless you love, love, love it,  I don't recommend it.  You live pretty far into your adulthood on a paltry stipend in substandard housing, with no guarantee that things will substantially turn around later. (One silver lining is that STEM graduate studies are more likely to get funding than humanities students, who have to pay out of pocket.)  Contrast that with doctors who make the same upfront sacrifice, but have much higher earning potential down the road.  At least one friend completed a PhD in biology at one of the top 5 universities in the country, only to find that this qualified her to be a glorified lab tech.  She felt a little cheated.
Both of those "cheated" friends went on to get MBAs and nearly double their salaries.
4) Encouragement. At least one study has shown that women continue in the STEM courses if they are excelling; men continue in STEM courses if they are passing.  So women who are getting Cs and low Bs are either likely to conclude that they are not good at this and go do something else, or there is less support for them to continue, or they have false expectations of how good they need to be in school to be successful in industry.
If we want to successfully get students to stick with STEM educations, and I think we should encourage more to do so we need to:
1) Acknowledge that one doesn't have to be good at all science or math to be good at some branch of science or math.  We need current practitioners to talk to younger students about the diversity of available options.  
2) Give more chances to succeed.  Start science classes earlier - like 4th or 5th grade, when kids are really curious.  Even if they don't do so well the first time, by the time they hit the standard bio-chem-physics in high school, they've already had time to become familiar with the concepts, if not the details, and are much more likely to succeed in building on established foundations.
3) Monetarily reward STEM majors. Right now, engineers are cogs in the machine that can often be outsourced to India.  Before outsourcing, the big thing was to fire older engineers and replace them with 2 new college graduates who would work 80 hours a week for 40 hours pay.  Even people taking these jobs knew it wasn't a great idea - the older engineers are often more efficient, getting done in 40 hours what it takes 2 new engineers 80 hours to do because they don't have the work experience - not because of technical qualifications.
4) Socially reward engineering.  Right now, it's assumed that engineers are people lacking social skills.  And they're right a lot of time time.  So how do we convince social people to major in engineering too?  A presidential focus is a good start, a cabinet member for technology is a good start, but I don't know how we fix it.  Maybe other readers have some ideas.
On a related note, the longer I went to college, the more I realized it wasn't for everybody. I think we should be rejuvinating more vo-tech programs that produce capable people through more applied fields starting around age 16.  And the training should include fields that primarily attract women as well as men. I don't want to go back to the days of exploiting child workers, but adolescents are not incapable. Instead of doing straight classwork 8 hours a day, why not offer half days with accredited apprenticeship opportunities. These would start as, perhaps, unpaid for school credit, but move to being paid so kids aren't hitting the college years, or their first apartment with pocket change and a placeholder fast food job.


farmwifetwo said...

As one who holds a BSc(Eng) in Water Resource Engineering (Civil) I agree on a number of things. But, if they want to have more engineers, first they have to ditch that crap math program in Can/USA and actually go back to teaching mathematics. Understanding math will get you know where when you are doing calculas and applied differencial equations in Univ. First you need to master the basics and that includes rote learning.

I've never used my degree. I came out in the 90's recession, worked wherever I could find a job (at low pay... which is why I don't sympathise with the Occupy crowd) and then went back to take Accouting at college. Where of course I exempted everything but the core courses.

I discovered accounting and math were more my thing than engineering and science.

Ont has also implemented the "must finish highschool" creed but at the same time is attempting to put back in all those apprenticeships they decided were not necessary and everyone should go to Univ. Now, they are screaming for skilled trades... only one problem.. apprentices want to be pd the same as the guy with the tickets.. don't think so.

School isn't for everyone.

Oh, and first year... they put the engineers with the arts students in residence... wasn't the smartest thing to do.

farmwifetwo said...

Should have editted it better... problem with rushing :) Know better...

S said...

I don't think the problem is increasing monetary reward, so much as finding some way to reassure students that the field they are going into college loan debt for will be a career they can get jobs in 5, 15, and 30 years down the road. Not true for too much of STEM these days.

Based on the outsourcing I see these days, I wouldn't encourage a student to go into biology or chemistry unless it was for an undergrad degree and they're planning a medical graduate degree.

CrankyOtter said...

I have a few typos myself, but will leave them stand.

They do need to treat basic math like basic reading. Spelling and grammar drills are to reading what times tables are to math. You need the vocabulary before you can speak the language. With a solid foundation, you can go anywhere and start breaking rules.

S. Totally agree on the bio/chem. Of course who makes up most of the bio/chem PhD's? Women. The message these days is that engineering is a job to get you into management and sometimes that doesn't work out either. Thanks for the insight.