Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why Science Majors Change Their Minds

From the New York Times.

Kids drop out of STEM majors because they are hard and non-STEM majors are easy, not to mention the fact that non-STEM courses give higher grades.  The situation even appears at elite schools, such as Berkeley, which, unlike the elite private school thirty miles south, is renowned for its cutthroat academic environment.

Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.
“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”
The economics of competition are simple enough.  The confidence of a student who is used to making As in school can be severely shaken when he receives a B- in a STEM course.  Will that B- prevent him from going to medical school?  Is he even good enough to continue battling for grades with the thousands of other students who are just as smart if not smarter?  Maybe it would be better to, um, fulfill his passions in Asian-American Studies instead.

Professor Chang doesn't cover the entire story as he cleverly directs the story away from the issue of NAMs in STEM at elite universities.  Let me preface this discussion by stating that I know NAMs in STEM that are smarter than me and are more than capable of majoring in engineering and succeeding.  But for the most part, NAMs attempting to major in STEM at elite universities are going to be in for a rough ride, and many of them may just decide it would be better for them to be in African-Studies instead, where you can get an A just for being black (not really, since I've actually seen a student who thought this was how the world worked, but became highly irate at the end of the semester when he discovered that this was not the case at all) .  If you are a NAM at an elite school whose admittance to the school was heavily aided by affirmative action, it is plainly obvious that you are not as smart as the general population of the university.  Yes, a 650 math SAT score is well above average and very good for a NAM, but it is comparatively pathetic once you walk into a classroom where 50% of the class thought the math SAT was a joke and scored 800 while another 45% came pretty damn close to 800.  The chances for your survival are not good even with NAM support systems behind your back.  Society is always complaining about the lack of NAMs in STEM.  Well there might be more NAMs in STEM if we eliminated affirmative action/equal opportunity (Orwellian) at the university level so the problem of mismatching would be solved.  NAMs could major in STEM at universities where they actually have a chance at succeeding.

Forget NAMs for a second.  A lot of smart Asians and whites who graduated near or at the top of their classes from generic public schools and go on to top schools to major in STEM will also find themselves in for a hell of a ride once they arrive in the classroom only to be surrounded by kids from Stuyvesant, Exeter, and Cupertino who didn't graduate even close to the top of their high school classes but are a hell of a lot smarter.  Talk about a collision with reality.  Holy shit, they think, here I was under the impression that I was a fucking genius valedictorian with a 1500 SAT score and a 5 on the AP Calculus Exam, and then I met  my roommate Susie Wong from Stuyvesant who was fucking taking linear algebra in high school!  In high school!  Now how is it again that I am going to make an A in organic chemistry when I am battling for grades with the likes of her?

And then there are the kids who are whip smart but find that they don't have "the engineering gene", "engineering aptitude", or whatever you want to call it.

MATTHEW MONIZ bailed out of engineering at Notre Dame in the fall of his sophomore year. He had been the kind of recruit most engineering departments dream about. He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering.
But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’ ” And as he looked ahead at the curriculum, he did not see much relief on the horizon.
So Mr. Moniz, a 21-year-old who likes poetry and had enjoyed introductory psychology, switched to a double major in psychology and English, where the classes are “a lot more discussion based.” He will graduate in May and plans to be a clinical psychologist. Of his four freshman buddies at Notre Dame, one switched to business, another to music. One of the two who is still in engineering plans to work in finance after graduation.
Matthew Moniz could easily be me.  In terms of academic background, SAT scores, etc, we could have swapped places, and no one would notice, at least in a hypothetical colorblind society.  The author tries to frame the issue to make it seem like the problem rests with the faculty and administrators for not making engineering interesting enough and teaching it correctly, but I think it is more likely that Matthew Moniz, despite his high SAT scores, just doesn't have the chops to become a good engineer and it's probably a good thing now that he's going to be counseling people instead of designing chips or whatnot.  I sympathize with Matthew.  I am pretty fucking awesome at memorizing equations but I stink at application--and I am not sure that any amount of great teaching could change this as I've been blessed to have access to some pretty damn good teachers.  It reminds of a conversation at had with an older gal who majored in engineering/math at a top school and told me that she hardly ever studied because it was all application and she was fucking good at that.   Oh, it's also funny to note how dismissive smart liberals can be of dumb people, but only in the presence of others who they perceive to be smart, a perception usually acquired by educational credentials though not always.  And intelligence doesn't exist.  Right.  I have pretty high bar for who I consider "smart".  It's generally reserved for people who I perceive to be smarter than me, and that's not too many people, though I seem to meet quite a few of them in my social circles.  Of course when wandering outside these circles I get confused when someone refers to someone else as "smart" when in my honest opinion that someone appears to me to be fucking retarded as I am sure I appear clueless to someone with an IQ of 160 or so.  In short, I have high standards.

And then there's the fact that the STEM acronym is a misnomer.  Biology is not a useful subject!  And neither is any STEM subject for that matter if you suck at it.  It doesn't do anyone any good if you major in civil engineering and you build a faulty bridge that kills your girlfriends entire sorority.

You shouldn't major in STEM if you are white racist pig who dislikes the sight and stench of gooks and kaffirs.  Just saying.  Well, just try to stay away from the University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians lest you end up filming yourself in an angry politically incorrect rant on Youtube.

Why do I bother commenting on this piece?  Not being a STEM major, do I even have any authority?  No.  But I hope you like my insight.

No comments:

Post a Comment