Want to increase the number of students in STEM? Try grade inflation

There’s been a lot of talk these days about how to get more students to study STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) in college. Of course, one of the problems is that the math/science education provided in many high schools is inadequate. But there are also lots of students with exceptional educational backgrounds who decide they just can’t hack it in STEM. See the article “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard),” by Christopher Drew in The New York Times, from November 4, 2011.

Here’s my half-serious suggestion: use grade inflation. Elite students are used to getting straight-As and stellar SAT scores. Throw them into an environment where they’re suddenly getting Bs and Cs, and of course they’re going to freak out. The humanities have endured grade inflation and survived. Many teachers now use A+s to signal extraordinary achievement. Honestly, I don’t care if you raise grades in STEM or lower grades in the humanities, but there should be some kind of standardization. Why should STEM courses have completely different grading criteria? Teachers can do whatever they want; there’s almost no regulation. If an engineering student is struggling just to get a C and sees his roommate earning an easy A in anthropology, he’s not going to be happy.

Top universities also need to offer more practical STEM courses, not just theoretical. Students who can’t or don’t want to join academia are given short shrift. I had to take a continuing education web design course at NYU one summer because there was nothing like that offered at Columbia. The requirements for STEM majors should also be less restrictive. As a Computer Science major at Columbia, I couldn’t take a lot of CS courses that interested me because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my concentration, and I didn’t have the time or money to pursue them. Instead I had to take a bunch of required theory courses that I detested and never got any use out of.

As a side note, Sesame Street is also getting in on the math/science craze. I’ll be interested to check back in 15 years and see if it made a difference.

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How to Write a College Research Paper

I’m happy to announce that my first guest post for StudentAdvisor.com is now online! Click here to read The Five Rs of Writing a College Research Paper.
In case you’re wondering, the Five Rs are:

  • Read the instructions
  • Restrict your focus
  • Research actively
  • Reinforce your argument
  • Revise, Revise, Revise

Okay, so maybe that’s Seven Rs, but who’s counting? Read more here.

2/8/12 Update:
The Rise Scholarship Foundation has re-posted my article here!


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Re: Not all college majors are created equal

I just posted this on The Washington Post‘s website, in response to the article “Not all college majors are created equal,” by Michelle Singletary. The original article is here.

Sometimes, getting a good education and pursuing what you love are worth more than the immediate economic benefits of an in-demand major. Should you really go into engineering and hate what you do for the rest of your life? Yes, more people should consider going to state schools so they can take on less debt, but you know what, this recession isn’t going to last forever. There will be a time when there will be more jobs out there and English majors and maybe even architects will be able to support themselves. The author wants students to know what they want to do after they graduate. That seems like wishful thinking to me. Can most people really carve their career paths in stone when they’re 18 years old? I can’t even do it now, when I’m… well, never mind. If you do what the author wants, you’ll just have more people starting out in STEM (science/ technology/ engineering/ math) majors, finding out they don’t like it, and switching majors – perhaps even delaying their graduation and costing them more money – or sticking with it and quitting their unfulfilling STEM-related jobs in a couple of years. (See stats here)


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Are we raising a generation of Philistines?

That’s what I thought when I studied computer science. My classmates had trouble understanding basic written instructions. They were outraged when they had to read articles that were more than 10 years old. Most of them looked down their noses at liberal arts majors. Half of my professors didn’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its.” You would think they could at least have done a spell check.

According to Alexander Astin in What Matters in College, engineering majors actually suffer a decline in things like writing ability, cultural awareness, and political participation. I know that STEM classes are becoming privileged in this society, but I fear a world dominated by technocrats.


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Liberal Arts Easier?

The Wall Street Journal published the article “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay,” by Joe Light and Rachel Emma Silverman, on 11/9/11.  A few comments.  I dislike the use of the word “easier” – I know lots of people who find science and technology easier than the liberal arts.  They’d much rather code than write a history paper or read a book.  It’s just more natural for them.  I also disagree with the statement that “introductory courses [in science and technology] are often difficult and abstract.”  In my experience, the introductory courses are the easiest, and the advanced courses are killer.  But maybe that’s just the program I went to.  As for math/science/tech classes taking more time, well, I probably studied more as a history major than as a CS major, because I had hundreds of pages of reading to do every week.  Maybe there are some liberal arts majors that take less time, but history is not one of them.  I know that lots of students are being pushed to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, but we shouldn’t forget that the humanities are important – and challenging – too!


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