The headline of a recent story in The New York Times tells only part of an important story: "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)." Yes, it can be hard, but universities can also suck the life out of it. (The Times uses "science" here as shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math, or "STEM." Here's the article's money quote: "Some of the best-prepared students find engineering education too narrow and lacking the passion of other fields." There may be a lesson here for K-12 schools, too.
Of course, difficulty and boredom can be co-conspirators in driving students out of STEM fields. If students who did well in math and science find their classes uninspiring, those with a shakier foundation in STEM don't even stand a chance.
The Times story profiles Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which has sought to make STEM more engaging through much more applied learning. In the '70s, WPI "ripped up its traditional curriculum...to make room for extensive research, design and social-service projects by juniors and seniors, including many conducted on trips with professors overseas." (The Times might also want to have a look at Olin College, which is "dedicated to the discovery and development of the most effective educational approaches and aspires to serve as a model for others.")
Traditional STEM programs are notorious for driving people out in droves. RPI seems to be charting a very different course, with 80 percent of its students earning bachelor's degrees within 6 years. (Compare that to 56 percent nationwide.)
So what's the lesson for K-12 schools? Many students get turned off of STEM when they're in middle school. That's when the material gets a good deal more challenging. Research suggests that science classes in many middle schools do little to inspire students to stick it through. According to national surveys, most 8th graders "never or hardly ever" design a science experiment, watch their teachers do an experiment, or write about science projects.
STEM can't be all fun, all the time. We won't do ourselves any favors if we give our young people that impression. But we can do more to help our schools inspire students by making teaching and learning more engaging.
Sure, STEM can be hard, but we have to show students early that it's worth the challenge.