A Very Fragile STEM: Why We Are Stifled in the Sciences

This is my first experience writing about something I understood far better in high school than throughout college and career. Not only do I suspect I am not alone, but I believe this is symptomatic of the very point I plan to make. Unlike so many other fields, the sciences tend to sort us early in our lives between insiders and everyone else. Those excluded early—or who eventually drift away from science—are rarely, if ever, welcomed back. As a result, scientific understanding, except for those who make it their career, atrophies over time. The sciences do not welcome late bloomers, career changers, dabblers or dilettantes.

Before high school, I wanted to become a chemist, and my mother lived in fear that I would burn down the house with my Bunsen burner. In high school, I thrived on mathematics, enjoyed solving Euclidean proofs, and loved labs in biology and chemistry. I could connect what I learned in physics with everyday life. Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute was my favorite haunt. Then in college, I aced calculus, instantly forgot what l learned, took biology, but then abruptly and inexplicably ended my science education—and have become stupider every year since. I could have once recited the periodic chart, phyla and laws of physics, and solved complex algebra and chemistry equations—but I wouldn’t have a clue now. As a lifelong learner, fields far more welcoming have enticed me since—but I realize I am far less able to explain even what I observe around me.

Several years ago, I was lamenting this to an engineering dean, and blurted out that if you don’t decide by 17 to become an engineer, you can never do so. You have to select, and be admitted to, the small minority of institutions with engineering schools, take the right courses and excel and forgo tempting other programs in the process. He corrected me. Seventeen is far too late, he said. The critical point is several years earlier.

Pamela A. Eibeck, a former engineering dean, now university president, wrote: “An engineering major is like a train ride with only one boarding station, but lots of opportunities to jump off.” Few get on the train, fewer stay on to graduation and far fewer as adults remain in a technical career path. And rather than welcome others to replace this attrition, we lure scientists and engineers from other parts of the globe to fill our manpower needs. Rather than rectifying a brain drain internally within the United States, we exploit America’s ability to encourage a brain drain from other nations.

The problems and culprits are many. We make science learning deadening and social Darwinian for those tempted, and then a stepping stone for those who opt later into management. Only a small minority of academic institutions offers a full menu in the pure and applied sciences, and a wrong institutional choice, even into a fine college, can be fatal. In Massachusetts, for example, three-quarters of the degree recipients in the sciences graduate from elite private colleges and universities.

Belated junctures to get on the train in “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are rare and uninviting. Adults—no matter how bright, curious and industrious—are not able to circle back to a serious pursuit in the sciences. The problems all lead in the same direction: Future scientists are screened early on, weeded out in their late teens, demoralized in their college years—and never recruited again as adults.

The success of the American system has always been its agility in developing skilled labor to meet new challenges. The rigid linearity of STEM fields, though, is the exception. Our adaptive capabilities are limited, at best, to generate knowledge workers in critical areas. While more and more public policy issues demand an understanding of energy, ecology and geology, few of us know enough to be responsible citizens.

About one-third of all new freshmen declare their interest in a STEM major. They, at least, begin the gantlet. In contrast to their friends studying what they perceive to be less difficult and more fun, they hunker down and delay their gratification, as they endure rigidly sequential foundation courses, often taught in large lecture halls. This initial group is not evenly distributed; it is far more male, Asian-American, foreign-born and from affluent and well-educated families.

The die is cast long before a student gets to college—and altering or reversing that destiny is close to impossible. Of those who start a STEM major, less than half will graduate in a science or engineering field within the following five years. Minorities are even less likely. Even though STEM-starters are more likely to graduate than those entering other fields, many will transfer out to a different pursuit during their college careers. While major-changers are not uncommon among undergraduates, what is unique is the inability to replace those who leave. Of the initially undecided, only 14% eventually migrate into the sciences; of those who change majors, only 7% choose a STEM field. The ability to persist is predetermined by factors that preceded college. High school grades (especially in calculus), SATs, educational attainment of parents, and selectivity of a university are the key predicators of college STEM success.

While we have seen women achieve parity in almost all academic disciplines, and become the new student majority overall, female representation in engineering and computer science have been declining over the past decade.

Part-time, professional education—so often the device to recalibrate careers and respond to new opportunities–rarely accommodates those who want to opt into an applied science. Rarely do professional master’s degree programs welcome those without technical academic backgrounds, no matter how strong their grades might have been, and few programs (especially at more prestigious institutions) are designed for part-time, working adult students. Often the number of prerequisites are comparable to a second major and as numerous as the master’s degree itself. Rarely do technology companies fund tuition reimbursement at the same levels as other industries. Schools of continuing education have little in their portfolios for those who want to reinvent themselves as scientists.

This purely linear, ever-diminishing assembly line approach is not in the best interests of individuals, corporations, scientific advancement or national policy. We should not have a reverse learning process, where all but a few lose their science IQ over the course of their lifetime.


Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University. Halfond will share his thoughts on possible remedies in a future column. In the meantime, he welcomes those of readers.


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