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Friday, November 11, 2011

The Problem with STEM

The new buzzword in science education is STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. In America, there are dozens of studies on how to improve STEM education at all levels—including universities. Leading scientists have signed on.

Here's the problem. "Science" is NOT the same as "technology" and not the same as "engineering." There's a big difference between learning science and learning how to build things. The purpose of a degree in technology and engineering is obvious—it's job training. The purpose of a science education is quite different—it's supposed to teach you how to think critically.

But that distinction seems to have been lost on politicians, the general public, the media, and—most disappointingly—my fellow scientists. A recent article in The New York Times illustrates the extent of the problem [Why Science Majors Change Their Minds].

The author is Christopher Drew and he raises a valid point.
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.
Why do science majors drop out? There are plenty of reasons. In the case of "pre-med" students (whatever they are) the reasons could be as simple as not getting high enough grades for medical school. They were never really interested in science in the first place and once they discover that they're not going to medical school they flee to other disciplines.

But that doesn't account for all the students who drop out. Some students think they are interested in "science" but they're actually interested in technology. Those students are bored reading textbooks and sitting in lectures learning about theory. What they really want to do is build robots and learn how to use DNA to solve crimes. For students like that, the solution is obvious. As Christopher Drew says,
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.
If students enter science programs because they want to become technologists, then the way to keep them happy is to let them play with fancy toys as soon as possible. They're not interested in general relativity, plate tectonics, quantum theory, or evolution. Why should they be?

But if they're not interested in those things, why are they in a science program?

The goal of true science education should be no different than the educational goals in history, philosophy, or English literature. It's to teach students how to think. There are many ways of achieving those goals but the most successful ways involve concentrating on the basic principles and concepts in the discipline. Some of those concepts are really hard (e.g. evolution, relativity), and many of them conflict with misconceptions that the students have acquired before they get to university. Those problems have to be addressed and classroom settings are good forums for these kinds of discussions.

Science students, like all other students, should engage in discussions, write essays, and read books and articles. Students who are genuinely interested in science (not technology) will benefit from all the modern pedagogical innovations designed to improve the classroom experience. (I'm a particular fan of student-centered learning.)

I'm not saying that lectures aren't boring—most of them are. (So are most science labs.) What I'm saying is that the way to improve science education is NOT to provide more hands-on experience in analyzing DNA fingerprints. That's catering to the misconception that "science" is the same as "technology" and "engineering." The way to improve science education is to change the classroom experience and make it much better and more appropriate to the goals we all should share.

Yes, there's room for improving labs and practicals but that should be a secondary objective, not the primary focus of improved science education. Furthermore, all labs and practicals should, whenever possible, reinforce the teaching of basic concepts and principles. Let's not lose sight of the goal.

What about those students who enroll in science programs for the wrong reasons? What do we do about them? We educate them. We teach them that there's much more to science than what they see on CSI. We teach them that there's a real difference between science and technology. That's part of addressing misconceptions—a proven effective method of promoting critical thinking. When we discover that students are bored with theory (principles and concepts) we don't give up on theory and let them build robots. What we do is work on making the theory part of the course better and more exciting because that's the important part of science.

John Hawks has also written about article in The New York Times but he has a different perspective than I do [A reason for practical genomic education].
The irony is that everyone already treats lab experiences as the only serious training for STEM students in many fields. Professors already bring undergraduate students into labs and spend time (and their graduate students' and postdocs' time) training them in lab experiences. They just use the lecture classes as an expensive and time-consuming IQ test to filter those students. But this has a real cost: Instead of developing expertise within the undergraduates, which might get some real work done, and at least allow senior students to train younger cohorts, they learn techniques only a year or two before they depart.
The real cost, in my opinion, is that we are "training," rather than educating, a whole generation of students who don't understand the basic concepts and principles of their discipline because professors don't know how to teach. The sad thing is that we now have a whole generation of educators who can't tell the difference between science and technology. They agree with John that lab experiences are the "only serious training for STEM students."

Science is not technology.
Theory and ideas are important.
Classroom teaching must be better.

Physics is not about sending spaceships to Mars.
Geology is not about finding oil.
Chemistry is not about better plastics.
Biology is not about drugs.
Science is about undertanding the universe and how it works.

[Photo Credit: Graham Stanley]


  1. "Science is not technology.
    Theory and ideas are important."

    Indeed, as much as I like doing experiments I always try to teach our students that an experiment as such isn't science. It becomes scientific by that what happens before and after the experiment between the ears of the researchers

  2. Very insightful post. I didn't agree much with the first NYT article either (written by Goldberg).

    The whole STEM approach is predicated on the idea that activities like building robots will get people interested in "innovation" (which is a poorly understood thing).

    However, as you have pointed out, it isn't really recognized that S- and T- are distinct things (both culturally and practically). If students get turned on by building robots, will they get turned on by building inferential statements?

    I like the idea of theory labs -- actively working with theoretical concepts on whiteboards and studying them in an interactive manner. I agree that theory is often (cynically) taught as a series of "weeder" courses. Perhaps if theory was more tightly integrated into STEM curricula (STTEM?), students would be more inclined to embrace its value.

  3. Yeah Larry- If you want to be a technologist or engineer you cannot wait to be taught to think critically. If you need to be taught to think critically then you need to rethink your future.

    That said successful technologists and engineers are well versed in the sciences- that is they (have to) understand the scientific principles involved in their field.

    Tesla- scientist or engineer?

  4. I agree. Grouping science into STEM keeps it from also being treated as a liberal art.

  5. In my experience, many students trained in the sciences (even at Caltech) don't know how to think scientifically. So it's easy to see how people outside the field can get confused.

  6. I think you made some excellent points. Theory and basic principles are important, and should be the main focus.

    I also agree that the it is so important to know how to think critically. Newton wasn't a good scientist because he memorized the theory taught in school. He was a good scientist because of his inquisitive mind and the ways he approached finding the answers to thinks that aroused his curiosity.

    Ideally, I think this should be the focus of science education. But, contrary to some comments, I don't believe you need to be born with the ability to think critically. (If this were the case, we'd be in a sad state of affairs!)

    Thinking critically and problem solving are also skills that can be practiced. It's not always fun working through problems, whether a word problem or a practical problem presented in lab, but it is necessary for improvement. In every discipline, there are aspects that are not fun. But if you can work through the not-fun part, the fun part becomes even more fun. :)

    Also, I'd agree learning how to use the latest and greatest technology doesn't equal science. Anyone can be trained to combine so many microliters of DNA sample with reagents and put it in a machine, but understanding the polymerase chain reaction is another story.

    Very good post!

  7. Interesting post. A lot of the STEM rhetoric in the UK, and perhaps in the USA as well, is about training people to be useful for short term economic gain.

    It is being used as a battering ram against liberal arts.

    The idea that the first goal of scientific training is to educate people to think critically might be lost if people chase government approval for doing a STEM subject.

    Of course those of us involved in undergraduate teaching should be open to things like student centred learning, but we should argue for the place of critical thinking and the understanding of theory and ideas.

  8. Bullshit. Public pays on a scale that it does (a huge scale - and two ways at that!) only because it treats college education as vocational training. well, "enabling access to jobs" is more like it but the distinction is moot as far as the issue of STEM vs non-STEM is concerned.

  9. STEM is the worst kind of 'reform'. It is a buzzword to add to a grant to get funded. There are plenty of actual issues to tackle to try and improve science education. To make it worse I haven't actually seen anything even remotely novel about ideas floated under STEM banners. They boil down to the same poorly executed strategies that have been promoted for 20-30 years. Show Mr. Wizard videos/demos, then let them play (oh I'm sorry Inquiry), and at some point they'll decide they want to do the very hard work of really learning the science

    1. Gotta disagree. When executed PROPERLY, inquiry education shreds PURE lecture. The problem is executing it properly - asking the right questions, inspiring deeper thinking and CONNECTING to a balanced amount of direct teaching.

      SHOCKING. Balance might be the answer we all seek.

  10. I have to disagree with a number of things:
    First of all, science is unless you have “theoretical” in front of your discipline to a large extent about building things. But compared to engineering you build different things for different purposes with different complexity.
    Secondly I doubt that you can teach people how to think beyond their intellectual capacity. So all you can really do is make people use their full capacity.
    Thirdly science students should not write essays because scientist don't need to write essays. Furthermore it is not particularly interesting to write essays about a topics that thousands of other students have written about before. And this is what it mostly is. This only makes you learn how to plagiarize without being caught.
    Fourth labs should teach you how to do the labwork you need for the research. They should not try to reiterate what you already learned in a lecture. Labs might serve to motivate students by showing some application of the theories but that's difficult to achieve if the student is not already interested.

  11. I teach physics and math at the high school level. Which does not make me an expert on the proper focus of education in science or in mathematics. I think most people, whether young or old have limited capacity or patience for complexity - they want quick answers, and to believe in their own "common sense" rather than to work through difficult concepts (and I include myself, there are limits of course to the complexity that can be understood by anyone). Technology and "cool" applications are entertaining and so very attractive to most - listening to explanations of theory, to the reasons why the results of an experiment are as they are and of how uncertainties work, of the contingencies of experimental work, or working through the math involved in experimental analysis are less entertaining.

    I imagine that critical thinking, evidence based thinking can be learned in technology and engineering courses as well: they need some theoretical background and understanding why equipment or a design fails to work as expected requires evidence based analysis. Really it depends on the person being educated and not the material or the approach necessarily - I imagine Einstein would have been rather successful in many fields and a strong thinker even if he had not entered physics (although I have difficulty imagining him in a different field); someone else has mentioned Tesla, a great imaginative and original designer but not a theoretician.

    Educators and politicians, and scientists eager to promote science, promote STEM and greater experimental work in school, yet we have no certainty that the payback for the large investment is actually there. Perhaps only a certain fraction of us will ever be drawn to theory or to applications and the rather demanding mathematical logic underlying science, and little will change that ...

  12. Thirdly science students should not write essays because scientist don't need to write essays.

    That's plain ignorant if not downright stupid. We write manuscripts on our work. The introductions are essays summarizing a body of knowledge and stating the problem. The results are a critical analysis of the data. The discussion allows us to put our work in context and provides a venue for some larger ideas. We also write endless grant proposals. Review articles, books, chapters.

    You know what we don't do? Fill out multiple choice tests.

    1. HEAR HEAR!

      Writing CAUSES critical analysis. And writing improves communication. Who the hell needs more scientists that can't communicate their work? We see problems with miscommunication of science ALL THE DAMN TIME!

  13. The Lorax said,

    That's plain ignorant if not downright stupid.

    I agree, but my reasons are different than yours.

    You defend writing essays because practicing scientists have to write papers and grants.

    The problem with that defense is that it implicitly buys into the assumption that the goal of teaching science students is to train them to become scientists.

    I reject that assumption. The goal of science education is to teach students how to understand and appreciate science and the scientific way of gaining knowledge. That's valuable knowledge for politicians, lawyers, sales clerks, business employees, and taxi drivers. A large part of that kind of teaching involves teaching about critical thinking and writing essays is an effective pedagogical tool.

    It has nothing to do with whether our graduates will ever write an essay once they leave university. It has to do with whether they should ever be allowed to graduate if they can't write a decent essay that demonstrates the ability to think critically.

  14. assumption that the goal of teaching science students is to train them to become scientists.

    I reject that assumption.

    A typical Ivory Tower mindset that fuels gigantic education bubble. Invariably propagated by those who benefited from public's belief that it is paying in large part for vocational training.

  15. I knew that the “but scientist have to write...” would come up but since Larry made an interesting point I'm going to address that. You want to teach critical thinking by letting the students write essays. The problem is that the rational strategy for a student who has to write an essay is to look up what other people have written about the subject and copy that. And how to do this most effectively is what you teach students by having them writing essays. If you want to teach students critical thinking give them a task that necessarily requires critical thinking.

    1. Really? You've never written an essay on something you've done yourself? An essay isn't the same as a research paper (although students need that skill too, for SURE!)

      Academic writing (or reflective writing) causes you to critically examine the connections between disparate subjects. The critical thinking doesn't come from the quotes themselves: it comes from the connections the students draw between them! Students may choose to copy, and many teachers let them get away with it - that just means the questions weren't good enough.

      (See the comment by another "Anonymous" on November 16th)

      Amazing to consider that educators need to be highly skilled at interpreting what people write

  16. Without disparaging any of the philosophical niceties of the argument, possibly the most important reason for a focus on STEM might be simply to build a critical mass of students that will self identify as having an honest ambition to be exposed to rigorous courses in any of those disciplines.

    At least in the US smaller colleges, the student culture is heavily weighted toward participation in ABC; Athletics, Band, and Choir.

    It is not unusual to find that all academic courses, including labs, are crammed into the time span of 8am to 2pm, for the purpose of making the afternoons open to the athletic coaches.

    If STEM provides a platform for serious students to voice their academic needs to the administration, that is purpose enough.

  17. The problem is that the rational strategy for a student who has to write an essay is to look up what other people have written about the subject and copy that. And how to do this most effectively is what you teach students by having them writing essays. If you want to teach students critical thinking give them a task that necessarily requires critical thinking.
    You mean like a prompt for the essay? If you write a good prompt that forces students to think and weigh evidence to reach a conclusion, they can't just copy and regurgitate.