# Tag Archives: United States

## Eliminating STEM majors in the name of efficiency?

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Thanks for bearing with me during a little hiatus on this blog. I’ll be back into semiregular posting habits starting now.

Problem: There’s not enough qualified candidates with degrees in the STEM disciplines for the STEM jobs that are coming on the horizon, particularly those that require US citizenship such as government jobs. So you would think that the solution would be to try to drum up more students to go into, and stay in, those disciplines. But Missouri State University has chosen to take a different track: Start eliminating STEM majors because they are “low producing programs”. From the article:

Gov. Jay Nixon directed the agency to review academic programs that do not appear to meet the Coordinating Board for Higher Education’s productivity criteria.

“Low-producing programs” are defined by CBHE policy as those producing fewer than 10 graduates per year at the baccalaureate level, five majors per year at the master’s degree level, and three majors per year at the doctoral degree level, calculated over a three-year average.

As a result of the program review, which began in September 2010, colleges and universities will terminate a total of 119 programs, or 20 percent of all programs identified for review. Institutions will move 24 programs to inactive status, and 175 programs were flagged for follow-up review in three years.

The four-year institutions will end 73 degree programs, and two-year institutions will end 46 programs. The majors will be phased out over time so students currently enrolled in the degree programs can graduate.

Among the majors being eliminated at MSU are Emerging Technologies Management, Engineering Physics, Technology Education, and the master’s program in Engineering Management. This is all being done in the name of “efficiency”.

I think you could make an argument that while these degree programs are not “core” STEM subjects like Chemistry or Engineering, they are still valuable as second-level STEM subjects that can, if cultivated, produce trained professionals who either produce the STEM practitioners of the future (in the case of Technology Education) or create work environments in which STEM practitioners can do their best work (in the case of the management majors). Therefore these programs have value for the STEM community, and they could be especially good landing spots for university students who like science and technology but also like the business side of things and would rather not double-major. The elimination of the Technology Education major is particularly painful, because this is an area of extreme need in American high schools today.

So if you’ve got these majors that are of clear value to society, and that society suffers from not enough people going into these disciplines, exactly how are we helping ourselves by eliminating the programs? Unless there is some plan in place to grow these programs in a different and more efficient format (say, as an academic minor or certification program) then wouldn’t it make more sense to try to ramp up recruitment efforts first?

## Better testing through “data forensics”?

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With standardized testing occupying a more and more prominent place in American academic life, it’s only natural that cottage industries of all sorts should spring up around it. For example, there’s Caveon Test Security, which is the subject of this NY Times article. Snippets:

As tests are increasingly important in education — used to determine graduation, graduate school admission and, the latest, merit pay and tenure for teachers — business has been good for Caveon, a company that uses “data forensics” to catch cheats, billing itself as the only independent test security outfit in the country.

[...] Caveon says its analysis of answer sheets is the most sophisticated to date. In addition to looking for copying, its computers, which occupy an office in American Fork, Utah, and can crunch up to one million records, hunt for illogical patterns, like test-takers who did better on harder questions than easy ones. That can be a sign of advance knowledge of part of a test.

The computers also look for unusually large score gains from a previous test by a student or class. They also count the number of erasures on answer sheets, which in some cases can be evidence that teachers or administrators tampered with a test.

If you’re going to have this kind of testing at the kind of significance level we give it, then you have to have some security measures in place to make sure the credentialing that comes from the test is actually meaningful. With that in mind, it’s a little surprising we haven’t heard of more of these private data forensics firms popping up. Who’s been taking care of test security on the big-name tests up to this point? Locally appointed proctors? (Here in Indiana that hasn’t worked so well: this, this, this.) The testing companies themselves? Or nobody? (Related question: Who did the University of South Florida’s data forensics, if indeed the threat of data forensics wasn’t just a bluff?)

Possibly more interesting than the existence of data forensics firms like Caveon are the thoughts of John Fremer, Caveon’s founder, about standardized testing. In the NYT article he states:

Fundamentally…testing is a way of ascertaining what you know and don’t know and developing ranks, and the critics go right to the ranks. Well, it does rank, but on the basis of knowledge of the subject, and if you think that’s not important, there’s something improper about the way you think.

I’m going to assume that Dr. Fremer realizes that “knowledge” is only the bottom-most layer of human cognition, and what he’s saying is that knowing whether this layer is sound or not is important, and that testing is a way (not the way) of determining that soundness — and that he’s not saying that standardized tests are the best way to assess subject mastery. But surely there are those who believe this, and the rise of multimillion-dollar industries to ensure the soundness of a very narrow kind of assessment says something about our collective approach to education as well as the level of trust one can place in these kinds of assessments in the first place. When’s the last time we heard of  private firms being contracted to make sure our assessment of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation tasks are working well?

Filed under Education, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

## Student (mis)understanding of the equals sign

Interesting report here (via Reidar Mosvold) about American students’ misunderstanding of the “equals” sign and how that understanding might feed into a host of mathematical issues from elementary school all the way to calculus. According to researchers Robert M. Capraro and Mary Capraro at Texas A&M,

About 70 percent of middle grades students in the United States exhibit misconceptions, but nearly none of the international students in Korea and China have a misunderstanding about the equal sign, and Turkish students exhibited far less incidence of the misconception than the U.S. students.

Robert Capraro, in the video at the link above, makes an interesting point about the “=” sign being used as an operator. He makes a passing reference to calculators, and I wonder if calculators are partly to blame here. After all, if you want to calculate 3+5 on a typical modern calculator, what do you do? You hit “3″, then “+”, then “5″… and then hit the “=” button. The “=” key is performing an action — it’s an operator! In fact, I suspect that if you gave students that sequence of calculator keystrokes and asked them which one performs the mathematical operation, most would say “=” rather than the true operator, “+”. The technology they use, handheld calculators, seems to be training them to think in exactly the wrong way about “=”. What we have labelled as the “=” key on a calculator is really better labelled as “Enter” or “Execute”.

In fact, the old-school HP calculators, like this HP 33c, didn’t have “=” buttons at all:

That’s because these calculators used Reverse Polish Notation, in which the 3 + 5 calculation would have been entered “3″, then “5″, “+”, then “Enter” — and then you’d get an answer. What HP calculators label as “Enter”, on a typical modern calculator would be labelled “=”, and in that syntax lies a lot of the problem, it seems.

The biggest problem I seem to encounter with “=” sign use is that students use it to mark a transition between steps in a problem. For example, when solving the equation $3x - 2 = 10$ for x, you might see:

$3x - 2 = 10 = 12 = x = 4$

The thought process can be teased out of this atrocious syntax, but clearly this is not acceptable math — even though the last bit of that line (x=4) is a correct statement. If the student would just put spaces, tabs, or even a semicolon between the steps, it would be a big improvement. But many students are so trained to believe that the right answer — the ending “4″ — is all that matters, they have little experience with crafting a good solution, or even realizing that a mathematical solution is supposed to be a form of communication at all.

What are some of the student misconceptions you’ve seen (or perpetrated!) with the “=” sign? If you’re a teacher, how have you approached mending those misconceptions?