I’m likely to become involved in an organized effort to improve the persistence of STEM majors at the University of Oregon. (STEM meaning Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and persistence meaning completing a degree rather than switching to a different field.) Less than half of the undergraduates who start out as intended STEM majors graduate with STEM degrees, and the issue has generated lots of discussion. I’ll describe the program I’m involved with some other time, but for now I thought I’d quickly note down some thoughts on why (or whether) one should care about STEM persistence, motivated in part by a letter that appeared in Nature this week (“Driving students into science is a fool’s errand,” Nature 497, p. 289 (16 May 2013)) that argues, rather incoherently, that one shouldn’t care.
Here are some arguments against focusing effort or funds into improving STEM persistence:
- We don’t need more STEM majors because it’s already hard enough for scientists and engineers to find jobs.
- If there were a need for more scientists / engineers, it would be reflected in higher salaries, which would in turn spur more students towards these fields.
- We don’t need more STEM majors because there isn’t an industrial / economic demand for them.
(The Nature letter especially stresses points 2 and 3.)
All of these seem flawed. Just briefly:
- Point #3 seems weak. Demand for STEM-trained workers is expected to be high in the foreseeable future, as documented, for example, in a well known report from the US Office of Science and Technology Policy (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_2-25-12.pdf; see Appendix D, especially).
- Point #2 is fine, but one could make a similar argument for literacy, or many other educational goals that we impose as being beneficial to society.
- Point #1 I’m sympathetic to. The career paths of graduate students in the sciences is very uncertain, and one could certainly argue that we’re training too many high-level scientists. However, this should lead us to be careful about what type and level (undergraduate versus graduate) of STEM training we try to further develop.
But there are several even more important reasons to push for more and better STEM training, and improved STEM major persistence.
- The fact that so many drop out (in general, either due to poor prior academic preparation or lack of integration into the academic “community,” which I should write about some other time) suggests a large amount of wasted potential — that there are potentially excellent scientists out there who are not contributing to science for preventable reasons.
- There are many non-research oriented jobs for which there is a dramatic need for STEM-trained people. As an obvious example: two-thirds of middle school science teachers have their undergraduate degrees in areas other than science or science education! (http://2000survey.horizon-research.com/reports/mid_science/mid_science.pdf)
- If one believes, as I do, that understanding science, technology, and quantitative reasoning are important to understanding contemporary society and civilization, we need many more science-trained people in all sorts of jobs and careers. Why, in the 21st century, should Congress be populated more by lawyers than physicists?