I am told that I was out of line a few evenings ago when, in conversation with a lady next to me at a formal dinner, I brought up the subject of the Canadian Government’s undeclared war on science. Apparently such talk implies that I support climate change arguments. Getting from the withholding of real census information, to the sacking of civil servants whose job it has been to ‘defend plants’ (the literal translation from the French), to the suppression of talk from marine biologists, and from there to climate change...is a strange leap, especially for a lady who is scientifically trained herself.
It reminded me of the weird world we have got ourselves into and how science and engineering seem to be have been relegated to second-class status for so many. We make a lot of noise about how few women are seeking careers in the sciences, but that is only the tip of the iceberg; the truth is that in developed countries science is becoming too tough a path for the vast majority of graduates regardless of gender. The numbers speak for themselves: the National Academy for Engineering (NAE) says that in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) 21% of graduates in Asia qualify for the description and that number falls to 11% in Europe, and an extraordinary 4% in the US.
The NAE was founded in 1964 and is a private non-profit that has two classes of members: full domestic members who are elected by other members (you cannot apply on your own behalf), and international associate members. These elitist numbers do not reflect very well on the overall engineering profession, but they do some good work and their research should not be ignored. The percentages of graduates that the quote does not take into account are those that fail to complete their courses. That, in itself, is a considerable percentage of those who enroll in college-level STEM programs.
For some reason the blame for poor STEM take-up is attributed by the National Research Council (NRC) – which, like the NAE, is another member of the National Academies – on poor science education in school from grades K through 12. In an attempt to redress that belief the NRC has produced a K–12 Study guide, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (published by Academies Press, February 2012, ISBN 978-0-3-0-21742-2).
According to the NRC, this text proposes “a new approach to K-12 science education that will capture students' interest and provide them with the necessary foundational knowledge in the field.” It also suggests that it can “apply scientific knowledge to the iterative task of design in engineering.” (That one boils my blood: iterative, indeed!) These goals seem at some cross-purpose with the “overarching goal…for all high school graduates to have sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues, be careful consumers of scientific and technical information, and enter the careers of their choice.”
Whatever that all means is not clear to me in terms of producing engineers and technologists for the future. There are, unfortunately, many people out there who think that they can enter discussions about science – mostly by raising their voices – and there is certainly not enough in this proposed school curriculum to allow for really educated, intelligent conversation about STEM materials. I am even doubtful if the basic tenets of scientific exploration with peer sharing and review can be properly understood before you actually live in that environment.
Education in science may well fall short of desirable levels in secondary schools, but even after students take an interest in – and show an aptitude for – STEM subjects, the level of retention at college level is woeful. From my perspective too many enter engineering courses, in particular, with inadequate mathematics education. There are also major problems with the curricula at many university-level establishments. It all makes the STEM majors seem too hard to cope with for too many bright people. I have heard a lot of stories about undergraduates who simply go upside down after being subjected to a first year of lectures in what is an unnecessary push to memorize formulae and proofs that have no real relevance to anything that they are allowed to do hands-on.
We have reports of more than 40% of STEM undergraduates switching to less demanding courses after the first year at college, or simply dropping out, and up to 60% of pre-med students looking to other majors. President Obama has already indicated that the US needs 10,000 more new engineers a year and there are no indicators that this is going to happen, especially after two decades where it was simply not "cool" to consider engineering as a career.
What is needed is something that we did at college forty years ago. You push solution engineering from day one in year one. Hands-on in the lab is the only way to get students to realize their dreams that they really can make things, can improve things, can invent. When design is a dreary textbook exercise – alas, often because the instructor has a dreary textbook experience of the subject – the odds that you will produce bored parrots are very high. When you give students the chances to make mistakes, and then engage them in those mistakes, you make engineers.
In our electronics world of semiconductors we are fortunate to have many programs that now allow undergraduates to experience real-world engineering in the companies that they may one day end up working for. These internships – which we should more honestly turn into official apprenticeships, if we can without making them sound too blue collar – are the best way to complement lab teaching techniques.
Overall, however, STEM education is at a colossal disadvantage over other academic majors. It costs a lot of money to build, equip, and staff labs for the education of our next generation of technologists. University education is an expensive proposition as it is; STEM education has even higher, scarier price tags. Somebody, preferably government, has to pick up a large proportion of the bill for the playing field to be equalized.
If university attrition rates are to be trimmed, whatever the changes that are made in K–12 education, there has to be an assumption that the world of engineering is not one that the majority can simply walk into and get superb grades. The way you learn in high school is not how you will learn engineering. MIT has always been cautious about grading in the initial days of undergraduate courses, and maybe that approach should be made a universal one. Yes, at some point your work has to make the grade, but don’t denigrate those willing to learn too soon…
And I promise in the future not to start conversations at formal dinners about science and government – it’s obviously much safer to talk about politics and religion.