Math is Hard

Posted by lex, on November 4th, 2011

The NYT on the phenomenon of college bound students changing their majors from STEM to “other” after the first year’s report card comes in:

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors…

“We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college,” says Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who has studied the matter. “It’s not just a K-12 preparation issue.”

The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work, like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.

Perhaps predictably, the educational emphasis is turning towards more collaborative first and second year science and engineering projects, in lieu of attending the harder core courses which prepare them to actually graduate, innovate and compete. Unsurprisingly, no one is recommending making English majors study higher level mathematics, physics or chemistry, courses that might better prepare them for careers other than in the food service industry, while leveling the academic playing field.

I have an alternative suggestion: According to one study,  “foreign-born students received 42 percent of U.S. engineering master’s and 53 percent of U.S. engineering Ph.D.s nationwide in the 2009-2010 academic year.” These students are typically far better prepared – and potentially at least, far more motivated – than their US-born counterparts. Which would be bad enough, except that our country’s immigration laws, which effectively turn a blind eye to dishwashers, auto mechanics and farm workers slipping across the border, actively prevent nearly all foreign STEM from staying on in this country, and helping us maintain our competitive advantage in the global marketplace. The political need to do “comprehensive” immigration reform, which is unlikely to ever get off the ground in this political environment, prevents Washington from doing the smart thing, such as extending long term work visas to those fine minds whom our own finest have filled with useful knowledge.

So not only do we give away the crown jewels of our educational system to those who come here from other shores, we actively deny them the opportunity to reinvest that intellectual capital here. Not for the first time, I wonder who will be standing at the podia at MIT, Stanford and UCLA twenty years hence.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Neptunus Lex

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