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Catch a falling engineer

May 23, 2011

CNN International has an article up, why would be engineers end up as english majors. They really mean why they end up as non-engineering majors, but that's besides the point. They follow a student, Amenah Ibrahim, on her journey through her education.

"The first thing the (professor) told us was, 'You should expect to see this class dwindle down as the semester goes on.' It was the first thing they told us," she said.

They article references a study showing that STEM majors take students longer to finish. But it glosses over statistics that show that it's disproportionately a deterrence to underrepresented minorities:

Thirty-six percent of white, 21% of black and 22% of Latino undergraduate students in STEM fields finished their bachelor's degrees in STEM fields within five years of initial enrollment.

I think most of us in engineering would agree that a lot of the academic rigor that discourages people is probably a good thing. As some of the commenters put it, it prepares you for the real world. But more importantly maybe, you want your engineer, or your doctor or a number of other professions, to have gone through a rigorous education. You want the weak to go off to other majors where maybe their real life careers won't have such an impact. Though we know we have a problem that the system is encouragin white people better than it encourages people of other races. And that means we probably need better support systems in place and better university understanding. There's ways of making sure we're not booting out talented people without dropping the standards.

On the other hand, people are focusing too much on the "need" for STEM graduates.

James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, said a big problem is that educators don't often realize the urgency of fostering the next generation of American scientists and engineers.

I'm sure they realize the urgency. They realize that the jobs that were available years before are no longer available. That even before this recession, getting a STEM job was not easy. If we aren't funding science, R&D and infrastructure programs graduating a bunch of scientists and engineers is not going to create a demand in jobs that isn't there. I just talked about this a few days ago, how while engineering is still one of the better employable majors out there at under 70% for 2009 graduates it's not a pretty picture.

The guy at the STEM Education group would be better off reaching out to businesses to start spending more of their reserves on research or to anti-tax politicians to start thinking about how we're going to fund future development in this country. We used to be the world leader in manufacturing. And while some might think manufacturing is coming back thanks to the weak dollar we're no longer the science and space leaders of the world. Like the space program and the interstate highway system that all means spending money. So while that's currently out of fashion, I'm not sure we should be putting the pressure on STEM students and universities rather than where it belongs: business and our politicians.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 5:53 am

    It's interesting for sure. Your links pretty much tells me the same as I've been thinking so I'm for one is happy to know I'm not alone thinking all this….Sorry that I don't have anything better to write at the moment. I'm, especially after a conference and hearing what people and labs are doing, not really convinced it's going to sort out… 'it' being the "science and people". I had hoped to be optimistic about hireing and being valued as a PhD, alas … not really what I hear.

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