60% of Science/Technology/Engineering/Math Majors Dropout or Change Majors

The New York Times on the problem with training the next generations of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, etc.:

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. [...]

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.

New York Times: Why Science Majors Change Their Minds

Possibly related, 30-60% of college students fail their first computer programming class. I’m a big advocate of people learning to program, but research indicates that it might be impossible to teach most people to program by the time they reach college age. It’s not clear yet whether improvements in earlier education could reduce the failure rate, or whether most people’s brains simply aren’t wired in such a way that they can actually learn to program.

However, many of the students like Moniz mentioned above, clearly have the intellectual capacity for these majors. The NYT notes:

The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates.

Combine the problems outlined above by the NYT with the fact that most students seem unable to learn how to program and the fact that most students don’t learn much in college and we’ve got some serious issues with trying to ever get our population’s science, math, engineering and computer science up to snuff. Hopefully universities will follow the advice of this article and integrate more project work. I have very mixed feelings about my alma mater The Evergreen State College, but I think they’re on to something with project work and interdisciplinary approaches to learning (for example, the Science of Mind course is 16 credits and covers neurobiology, cognitive psychology, statistics and philosophy).

Look a bit further and you’ll discover that our best minds are working on finding better ways to serve ads. Grim times indeed.

3 Comments

  1. People should learn to program MUCH younger than college age; it’s a lot like learning a foreign language. You can learn programming more quickly and more deeply at an earlier age.

    Disclaimer: I started programming at age 9 and have no other perspective.

  2. If I’m reading this chart correctly at wikipedia, less than 20% of the United States had a bachelors degree by the time they were 30 in the year 1960. And less than 60% were high school graduates. That’s the generation that put men on the moon.

  3. If I was doing it now I wouldn’t know where to start to learn to program. Not so long ago, the programming interface was the default state of the machine and all you had to do was to go and buy a book. Nowadays – all you can do is click things.

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