Weird Science: Further Thoughts on the STEM Educational Challenge

He was bored and restless by age 42. He had vertically integrated a major media business, insofar as he owned his own publishing company, newspaper and book series, and even aspects of the postal system. He was an acclaimed author and civic leader. He decided to retire early to pursue his true passion and curiosity: his interest in science. His inquisitiveness in how things worked wasn’t theoretical and abstract, but practical and immediate. He always had been fascinated with natural phenomena, and now he would make his mark in oceanography, meteorology and electricity. He solved real problems by noting, for example, that dark colors absorbed heat, that a metal rod can absorb lightning and save lives and property, and that heat can be retained in homes using a wood-burning stove. He famously discovered electricity’s properties and gave us words like battery, positive and negative charges, and conductors, and created inventions that were of immediate benefit to others. Few scientists in his day or since have had such an impact on their world.

Could a potential Benjamin Franklin emerge today? He was a career-changer, a lifelong learner, an uneducated amateur who pursued his passion and made an indelible mark on various branches of science.

But as I noted in “A Very Fragile Stem: Why We Are Stifled by the Sciences” last month, the sciences are now something you must latch onto early and successfully as a teenager, and endure against all odds. This pivotal point requires maturity and even myopia—delayed gratification and voluntary dorkiness—traits not common in the young. Interest in scientific pursuits starts with a small, exclusive group in youth and dwindles over time—as students lose interest, change goals or find introductory college courses too onerous, tedious or uncool. And this club doesn’t replenish its losses by welcoming new entrants.

As a nation, we are losing our hegemony in the sciences. In just the past decade, China quintupled its number of doctorates in engineering and the sciences, Korea and Taiwan doubled theirs, but the U.S. stayed stable. As individuals, we operate more and more contraptions, but understand them less and less. While there is no single solution to the problems of the STEM pipeline—where scientific interest is squelched over time and newcomers are barred from entry—here are a few thoughts.

We need a kinder/gentler approach to science in early years designed to stimulate wonder, not boredom. Curricula should be designed from middle school through college to urge in, not weed out, the future scientist.

New entry points need to be built. Universities should create general science majors especially for undergraduates changing fields too late to take the full menu of specialized courses in one discipline. New part-time professional master’s degrees need to be created to entice those with non-technical backgrounds. But these graduate degrees will only populate if Corporate America cooperates, by sending staff back to school on a part-time basis, with tuition reimbursement, to learn to meet the technical needs of the workplace.

Take a 30-year-old summa cum laude alumna from one of America’s top liberal arts college, now suddenly smitten with technology: Would she even be considered for an engineering master’s degree without first taking the equivalent of the undergraduate major she missed? We need to get beyond the notion that learning is purely sequential, that we retain what we learned last year or even last month, and that to earn an advanced degree one must get through a rigid gantlet of formal prerequisites and hurdles. Father Guido Sarducci satirized cognition atrophy brilliantly in his famous parody of a five-minute university that packages the little we actually remember from our education.

I was recently asked by a senior administrator at one of the nation’s most prestigious technology-focused institutions for my thoughts on ways to generate revenue following a plummeting endowment. I suggested that his school create an online science master’s program, both high-quality and highly selective, in various interdisciplinary scientific fields for those with stellar backgrounds outside the sciences. This could pioneer a new disruptive, game-changing model for adult learners.

We need entry points for career changers who have had an exemplary education and life experience—just not in the areas prescribed for the budding scientist. We need end-runs, new pathways and creative programs that welcome the deviate, the dabbler or the late bloomer.

Finally, we need quality continuing education available for the simply curious, at all stages of life, who may or may not be seeking a new career direction. We have become so adept at enriching lives through culture, art, history and the humanities, but not the sciences. A responsible citizenry, a skilled workforce and eternally inquisitive learners need pathways that don’t squelch interest and opportunities prematurely, but nurture them. Science is too important and fascinating to be left to the programmed-from-adolescence scientist. Benjamin Franklin’s legacy should be the ability for others to emerge and grow just as he did.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.


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