The leak in the science pipeline: It’s the culture, stupid!


After spending most of yesterday hammering out five-year plans for the dual-degree engineering program I’m in charge of creating, I found this article from InsideHigherEd this morning to be, well, pretty disheartening, in an informative sort of way. The article seeks to understand why a smaller and smaller portion of American college and university students are majoring in math, science, and engineering. This quote in particular is surprising:

Data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles show that, in 2004, about 9 percent of freshman students nationally planned to major in engineering, and 2 percent planned to major in physical sciences. Those numbers are pretty typical for the last two decades, and what is also typical, according to National Science Foundation data, is that it is not uncommon for fewer than half of those intended majors to stay the course.

Like I’ve said before, engineering is a hard sell. It takes a certain kind of person to stare down a five-year plan of math, science, and engineering courses and say, "Wow! Sign me up!" That is to say: It takes a certain culture to produce such a person.

The article mainly pins the blame for this decline on two things:  The fact that students tend to get better grades in non-science fields, and the fact that class sizes are too big and and impersonal and have a concomitant "weed-out" mentality to them. Maybe. But unfortunately the article neglects the all-important cultural factors that make grades and large class sizes problematic — factors such as nerd stigma. the totalitarian rule of grades in the lives of students, and the prevailing culture in which college students grew up, which mainly tells them that being smart is for losers, especially so if you’re smart in math or science. (One can find lots of amusing examples of this culture in the so-called "back to school" sales going on now, where t-shirts with sayings like "Homework is a Crime" are being sold to budding scholars everywhere.)

The article also wants us to believe that students are systematically being given lower grades than in other subjects — by, I guess, the evil cadre of math and science profs whose only pleasure is other people’s failure — without considering that college success in anything is a two-way street. Math and science classes should set appropriately high standards for performance and offer students plentiful opportunities for help; but students have to take advantage and work hard, and stop expecting things to be effortless.

And the "work hard" side of the equation is often rendered problematic by the culture. We can’t expect changes for the better in this area unless the culture of academia and of America at large begins to change, so that excellence in these areas is good and no longer bad.

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9 responses to “The leak in the science pipeline: It’s the culture, stupid!

  1. I think you’re correct, and this:

    The fact that students tend to get better grades in non-science fields, and the fact that class sizes are too big and and impersonal and have a concomitant “weed-out” mentality to them.

    is demonstrably incorrect, given that the same is true of business schools, yet there is no shortage of students who want to major in business.

  2. Yeah, but you can, like, make money in business.🙂

  3. Eric

    Bingo. Our culture teaches people that the primary goal of life is to make lots of money and spend it in a spectacularly public fashion. I don’t think that it is surprising that people are willing to face the trials of a business school education in order to “get theirs”, but are not so keen on investing time and energy in mathematics/engineering/physical sciences.

  4. Bingo. Our culture teaches people that the primary goal of life is to make lots of money and spend it in a spectacularly public fashion. I don’t think that it is surprising that people are willing to face the trials of a business school education in order to “get theirs”, but are not so keen on investing time and energy in mathematics/engineering/physical sciences.

    Improving your lot in life is a good thing. However, it still invalidates the point of the HigherEd author.

  5. Eric

    I guess I have two responses:

    (1) “Improving your lot in life is a good thing.”
    What I had in the back of my mind when I wrote my original comment was the excessive pursuit of wealth that our culture seems to place a high value on. I’m not sure how you define “improving your lot in life”, but I’m pretty sure you don’t mean that making lots of money is the only way to do this. Pursuing a career that results in intellectual fulfillment, time with family, stability, minimal number of ulcers, etc… can all be seen as avenues for improving one’s lot. Careers in mathematics/engineering/physical sciences can often provide these things, as well as enough money to be reasonably comfortable. The problem is that current cultural attitudes seem to run counter to this less flashy vision of happiness.

    (2) “However, it still invalidates the point of the HigherEd author”
    I think we can make an appeal to parametric statistical tests for an analogy. Suppose we have an “experiment” setup where our independent variable is what discipline a person chooses. According to the HigherEd article, there are a number of independent variables (which may or may not be correlated with one another) such as classroom size, “weed out potential”, etc…. Now, throw in a “culture” variable as well. When we test for effects, it is quite possible that we don’t see a significant main effect of something like “weed out potential”; however, when we introduce interation effects into the prediction model, something like a culture x “weed out potential” interaction could come flying at you. I think you are correct in saying that there may not be a main effect of “weed out potential” on students choosing a discipline; however, there could very well be an interaction effect running around in there.

  6. I’m not sure what you mean by “excessive pursuit of wealth,” though if it’s what most mean, better that students take responsibility for their own lives than depend on a government check every month. Capitalism works. Marxism kills.

    Yes, you are correct. There could be an interaction effect. However, the author just assumes it.

  7. Eric

    I was trying to get at the idea that our culture seems to place an emphasis on monetary gain as the be all, end all of our existence. I consider that attitude to lead to an “excessive pursuit of wealth”. Don’t read anymore into the phrase than that. Replace “excessive” with “unbalanced” and you’ll probably have a better idea of what I’m saying.

    I completely agree with you in regards to capitalism and people being responsible for their own well-being. I’m about as politically conservative as they come in many respects, which is no small trick where I live/work.

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