Sunday, November 13, 2011

STEM is hard, but the headlines are wrong .again.

Don't miss Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard).

It makes some good points, but it also misses some, too. Journalism on a deadline will never capture the complete picture, so this blogger who has graduated with two STEM degrees from Berkeley will fill in some gaps.
Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”
You can't compare apples to oranges. For instance the mathematics curriculum for majors is at Cal State prepares graduates to teach mathematics at the K-12 level. Berkeley does not train math teachers, they train math researchers. It's not due to elitism; the California master plan for higher education defined the roles of the two campus systems. Cal State (CSU) educates for practical professions like teaching and nursing, and the UC system educates more broadly.

The STEM classes at Berkeley and Cal State are taught at a different level and with different texts. We routinely used the graduate texts in mathematics (GTM) series in undergraduate classes. We were taught the theoretical underpinnings to help us perform research, not to go out and teach math right away. To do that, we'd need to attend a Cal State for a teaching credential.

Berkeley math and science majors can complete the core required curricula in just three years and then spend their fourth year on individual studies. Math majors can select from clusters of classes with emphases in different math specialties or interdisciplinary studies in physics, biology, statistics and economics. (I chose mathematical physics.)

Berkeley chemistry majors can also select from specialties and interdisciplinary studies. (I chose physical chemistry and spectroscopy.) Many of my classes counted toward both majors so I could easily complete both majors in four years.

Had I not come from a strong suburban school, I could still have completed a STEM major (though not necessarily two) within four years. I had a friend who was a class valedictorian at an inner city school. She was not as well prepared as I was, but she took advantage of the resources available to her. She took remedial STEM classes her first year and really worked hard. She went to office hours and the professors and teaching assistants helped her. Her grades went from very low to very respectable. She took a semester or two longer to graduate than I did, but she graduated. The last time I talked to her, she was headed for med school.

By the end of our second year, we are told to start looking around for our undergraduate research topics. Some people start on research in their junior year; others wait until their senior year. I started one as a junior, found it was a bad fit, and started on a different project in a different lab the summer between my junior and senior years.

One of my chemistry professors told me that 1/3 of the college of chemistry undergraduates went to med school, 1/3 went to PhD programs in chemistry, and the rest were roughly evenly split between industry and graduate programs in related fields such as epidemiology and public health/public policy.

The undergraduate programs at Berkeley have to be harder than the ones at CSU because they are preparing students for different futures. While one can obtain a Bachelor of Science degree at either university system, the experiences will be very different. Telling a poor kid that they should attend CSU over Berkeley because they are more likely to graduate is selling that student short. Ask them about their goals. If they are unsure, encourage them to aim high, but have a back up plan.

I also want to point out .again. that Berkeley leads the nation in producing female students that go on to earn PhDs in STEM--in absolute numbers and per capita. It's hard, but you are not alone. And, if you manage to survive, you'll belong to an elite sorority that will help you for life.

UC Berkeley also differs from other state flagship universities such as Michigan and Illinois. Those schools offer mathematics tracks for future K-12 math teachers as well as tracks for students heading for PhD programs in math and related fields. You can't compare graduation rates without looking more deeply in the curriculum of the different schools and programs.


  1. Anonymous09:47

    Thanks for your take on that article; they were both very interesting to read!
    My daughter is an 11-year-old who loves art and hates arithmetic. But she also loves to build things, and we encourage her to think about engineering as a career. I'm not sure she will ever develop the discipline and study skills she will need, but if she does, she could do really interesting and creative work.

  2. Very interesting.

    I'm wondering what the STEM graduation rate at my alma mater is. We used to joke about the physics majors who turned into philosophy majors and then into political science majors. (Not to impugn philosophy or poli sci!)

    I was one of the few who went the other way- I entered thinking I'd do history or anthropology, with an outside chance that I might do chemistry. Then I took my first year chemistry class and loved it.

    @anonymous- maybe your daughter just hasn't been exposed to interesting math yet. I personally hate number-crunching but liked proofs. Another possibility is that she hasn't seen its potential as a tool- I was that way with programming. I could never get that interested in it just for its own sake, but as a tool to get something done... I can program.

    I've heard good things about MIT's Scratch environment to show kids the power of what is possible...