Archive for the ‘College’ Category

Should You Push Math and Science?

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Media pundits and policymakers have been telling us for years that we need to graduate more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students, because our companies just can’t get enough qualified workers. I wrote a little bit about this perceived “Sputnik Moment” last year.

But now there is a new report by the Economic Policy Institute that blasts a hole in that story. After crunching all the numbers, it seems that the U.S. has more than enough STEM graduates. In fact, for every two STEM graduates, only one is able to get a job in his or her field. This seems to match the reports I have been reading over the years in the “American Society of Engineering Educators” newsletters, which suggest that many of our engineering graduates are having trouble finding jobs.

Percent of high school graduates going to college, graduating, and then entering a STEM job.
Source: Economic Policy Institute

This report also challenges the critics who say that U.S. schools are failing because our students don’t score as well as China, Canada, and other rivals on international tests. While it’s true that on average, U.S. students only score in the middle of the pack, some analysts say that this is a very simplistic and misleading summary. It makes a good sound bite, but raging over our seemingly weak performance completely misses other more positive information buried in year-to-year trends, socioeconomic indicators, and test methodology. In fact, the U.S. has a lot of highly qualified students who score in the top tiers of these types of tests.

The emphasis of the report is really on clearing up misconceptions about our STEM labor market as it influences foreign guest-worker and immigration policies, but I’ll let someone else fret over that.

What concerns me is the whole idea of pushing certain career fields on kids, even for reasons that seem noble on the surface. Whose interest does it serve? If kids choose a STEM field because everyone is telling them how desperately our country needs them, which implies job opportunities, and then it turns out not to be true, then those kids just lost out on 4 years of their lives which might have been better spent studying something they really care about.

Policymakers worry  that too many kids drop out of STEM fields while in college, but the EPI report claims that, in reality, more kids transfer in to STEM fields from non-STEM fields while in college, so the net result is usually more STEM majors at the end of 4 years than at the beginning. It seems that we are bemoaning a problem that does not exist.

Why do we give so much attention to engineering a work force that suits the needs of industry? If we only focused on what’s best for each student, I believe there will still be plenty of highly qualified and motivated individuals in every field, because all students quite naturally have different interests. With a student-led curriculum, the only thing we might have a shortage of is mindless submission.

It’s important to expose kids to lots of different things, including math and science, but they need to have the space and freedom to follow their fascinations, even if you can’t imagine how they would ever make a living doing that. If they later decide to pursue a career for monetary or security reasons, that’s up to them. Just make sure their expectations match reality – and not someone else’s agenda.

Path from “What do you want to be?” to Reality

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By John Kolko at MyEdu Corporation

By John Kolko at MyEdu Corporation

An online educational service called MyEdu recently published a study called “The Academic Journey,” which neatly summarizes their research, based on surveys of 300,000 college students, on the decision making process students use to finally settle on a career after graduation.

I found this very interesting, because the study highlights how stressful it is for students to choose a major, and then possibly change their major. A lot of kids just don’t know what they want to do. They’ve spent their high school years just trying to get in to college, and once they get there, the choices can be overwhelming. It seems that liberal arts colleges are well aware of this though, and try not to force a decision until just before a student’s Junior year. Until then, students concentrate on their General Education credits, taking classes in a variety of basic subject areas. But even then, how is a person supposed to know the best fit for them if they have only taken courses such as English, College Algebra, and Psychology?

I understand why liberal arts schools do this, because it helps to create reasonably well-informed citizens with higher level thinking and communication skills. But it takes time and a LOT of money to reach that graduation platform . . . then what?  Get a job? Go to graduate school? What if that new graduate still doesn’t know what he or she wants to do?

The problem is that our public school system works hard to get kids through the conveyor belt to a productive career. There are classes that must be taken, grades that must be earned, tests that must be passed, and extracurricular activities that must be done to prove one’s worth. It is a system that takes a lot of time, and ironically, the kids who do it well may be the ones who are most lost at the end. These kids worked so hard to please everyone else that they may have forgotten what it feels like to follow their own instincts.

Just look at all of the books and programs available to help us figure out what our talents or interests are. It’s kind of weird if you think about it. Why should any of us need help to figure out what would interest us? Yet we do need help, because we have forgotten. And all of those programs attempt to return our thoughts to a time before we cared what other people thought of us, before we were conditioned to follow the system.

I wonder how things would change if every kid had 3 more hours a day and the freedom to pursue their own interests? One of the findings of MyEdu’s study was that the students who had the opportunity to partake in a “Non-Traditional Academic Experience” seemed to find it very helpful. Here’s what they said:

“Some students described a non-traditional experience that dramatically changed their outlook on life and their academic trajectory. This experience – an internship, or a semester learning abroad in another country –seemed to either reinforce a good decision to change majors, or prompt a fresh set of introspection.”

This is the sort of thing that helps kids step outside the system, even for a short period of time, and experience real life. This is the sort of thing you can do anytime. Homeschooling, if led by the child’s interests, gives kids so much more time to be themselves. The system will still be there, and you should be aware of it, but live outside it. I mean really live – go places, meet people, read books, work, volunteer, take long walks, make things – and let your kids tell you who they are before anyone else tells them who they should be.

I’m not guaranteeing that self-directed learning will help every kid choose the right life path from the beginning. Sometimes kids will have to choose between several good options, or maybe they just need more time or experience, but at least they’ll have a head start.