Let’s stem the STEM problem

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The President’s Job Council is meeting right before the start of the college year (very soon) in Portland (OR). The desire is to hear from America’s top engineering colleges to discern issues affecting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curricula. The goal (this is business, as well as political) is to get colleges and universities to produce the world’s brightest workers.

But, I wrote a few weeks ago how we are lowering the bar to engineering education, that, over the past 40 years, the requirements of study dropped by 500 hours to about 2000 (through 4 years of study). The reasons for this are many. However, I fear it’s a reaction to the fact that 40% of the students enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curricula drop out in their freshman year of college.

But, a high drop-out rate is not a terribly new phenomenon. During my orientation to Brooklyn Poly (less than a day, not a whole week as would be true for other schools), I remember the dean asking us to look to our left and our right. He remarked that one of us would not be here four years from now. That was the attrition rate in the 1960’s. Yet, he was wrong. I entered my chemical engineering program with 22 other students; less than half finished with me four years later. My fraternity pledge class numbered 25 ; less than half had graduated after 4 years, with only 2/3 of them finishing in the curriculum in which they entered.

We do have a shortage of STEM qualified individuals; it’s why many companies want to import foreign workers. So, it’s not surprising that STEM graduates make at least $10,000 more per year for the first ten years than non-STEM graduates. That’s the draw to the field. The desire to make more money when one graduates- especially given the cost of education.

Companies actually work to encourage students to enter STEM curricula. Intel sponsors the science fair competitions on a national level. GE is another big sponsor of STEM curricula. Many companies sponsor interns for summers, providing experience (and cash) to eager-to-learn students.

But, by the time students reach college level, many of them have not learned that education is not just filling in the blanks. That it takes hard work to successfully complete one’s studies. The students are simply not prepared. Most of my freshman class had graduated from the elite high schools of New York City- Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. These schools select from the best students in the city, running the equivalent of International Baccalaureate (IB) programs (long before such existed) with plenty of Advanced Placement (AP) courses thrown in. One would think those students were prepared.

So, the 40% drop out rate is a concern- but not something new. And, compared to students entering STEM programs today, the Brooklyn Poly students were prepared. Students entering STEM now have just finished high school, where the questions are reviewed in class, before the exams are administered. Homework is limited (the number of 10 minutes per grade seems to be the standard) and almost all education and review are provided in the classroom.

High school classes last 35 hours a week. College classes then were 18 to 25 hours a week, and now they are 16 to 18 hours. But the same volume of material (actually more) is covered in fewer “class contact hours”. Obviously, this is a rude awakening for most students, who now must spend hours outside of class mastering the materials that were ‘handed’ to them before. That awakening can’t wait to begin during college orientation- we need to have students understand that earlier in their education.

The other difference for my fellow Brooklyn Poly students was that money issues forced most of these students to work part time. For years, tuition at Brooklyn Poly has matched the actual annual family income. That means that students need to work and borrow to cover tuition, even with scholarships. That’s the second issue. Given the state of today’s college tuition, I am fairly certain it applies today to most students.

Mental preparation (we need to work to earn our education) needs to occur during high school, at the latest (I am for making this pervades all 12 years of education).  This is one key to improving STEM graduation rates. Better means for our students to afford their college education is the other key.

I didn’t say there was a simple answer.

Roy A. Ackerman, Ph.D., E.A.

NEW:  Weeks after I first wrote this, and hours after I posted this, MIT (another alma mater) posted a great article by a student, who explained how his first semester went.  And, why he needed to relearn how to study for exams.   Click here if you want to see what he had to say.
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