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10,000 More Engineers per Year!

Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)

(tip o’ the hat to Lynn D.)

While President Obama and the country’s industry leaders claim we need to turn out 10,000 more Engineering graduates per year and 100,000 teachers with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) backgrounds, Engineering and Science departments across the USA are scratching their heads on low retention rates versus the need for rigor.  David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, says the president’s chances of getting his 10,000 engineers is “essentially nil.”

The problem:

  • Roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree
  • That number increases to as much as 60 percent with pre-medical students
  • Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.
  • The proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors.
  • Grades in the introductory math and science classes are among the lowest
  • “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,”  former Notre Dame engineering student, Matthew Moniz (SAT scores: 800 math , 700s in reading and writing.)
  • What is frustrating education experts is how long it has taken for most schools to make changes.
  • The National Science Board warned us in the mid-1980s “losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place. “
  • Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates.
  • “Treating the freshman year as a ‘sink or swim’ experience and accepting attrition as inevitable,”

The Solution(s)?:

  • Problem Based Learning!  Research shows students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures.
  • Freshman design and project courses: At Notre Dame Freshman engineering students now do 4 projects: students build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.
  • The University of Illinois began this fall to require freshmen engineering students to take a course on aspirations for the profession and encourages them to do a design project or take a leadership seminar.
  • Seek summer internships or take semesters off to gain practical work experiences.
  • Adjust your grading policies to reduce some of the freshman pressures.  MIT has long given freshmen only “pass” or “no record” grades in the first half of the year while they get used to the workload.
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