Why Are College Students Not Choosing Math/Science?

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From the Wall Street Journal in 2011:

Although the number of college graduates increased about 29% between 2001 and 2009, the number graduating with engineering degrees only increased 19%, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Education. The number with computer and information-sciences degrees decreased 14%

After coming up with the topic for the post, I found this article from 2011 with a similar title and citing the same WSJ story. It argued that the high school teaching environment was not adequate in preparing students for rigorous classes in college. 

In addition, the article includes the argument that in the math and sciences, answers are plain right or wrong, unlike in the humanities and social sciences.

I can agree with these two points, but I want to add a few more, with the perspective of year 2013. Also, I am going to narrow down the STEM group a bit more, to just include math and science. The main reason is that in the past years, the number of CS majors has actually increased rapidly. At Cornell, engineering classes can be massive and there does not seem to be a shortage of engineers. Walk into a non-introductory or non-engineering-oriented math class, however, and you can often count the number of students with your fingers. So even though STEM as a whole is in a non-optimal situation, engineering and technology (especially computer science) seem to be doing fine. So then the question remains.

Why Is America Leaving Math and Science Behind?

I mean this especially with regards to theoretical aspects of math and science, including academia and research.

In this situation, money is probably a big factor. The salary of a post-grad scientist (from one article at $37,000 to $45,000) is pitiful compared to that in industry (which can a median early-career salary of up to $95,000, depending on the subject, according to the same article). Essentially there is a lack of a tangible goal.

There are other factors besides money. Modern math and science can be quite intimidating. All major results that could be “easily” discovered have already been discovered. In modern theoretical physics, for instance, the only questions that remain are in the very large or the very small—there is little left to discover of “tabletop” physics, the physics that operates at our scale. Most remaining tasks are not problems in physics, but puzzles in engineering.

Modern mathematics is very similar. While there are many open questions in many fields, the important ones are highly abstract. Even stating a problem takes a tremendous amount of explanation. That is, it takes a long time to convey to someone what exactly it is you are trying to figure out. The math and science taught in high school is tremendously unhelpful in preparing someone to actually figure out new math and science, and it is thus difficult for an entering college student to adjust their views of what math/science are.

Even the reasons for going to college have changed. More than ever, students list their top reason for going to college as getting better job prospects rather than for personal or intellectual growth.

In addition, society seems more than before focused on immediate gain rather than long term investment. Academia’s contribution to society, especially in math and science, is often not felt until decades or even centuries after something was invented. Einstein’s theories of relativity had no practical application when he made them, but our gadgets now use relativity all the time. Classical Greece knew about prime numbers, but prime numbers were not useful until modern-age data encryption was required. Even a prolific academic could receive very little recognition in one’s own life.

However, with the rise of online social networks in the last several years, you can now see what your friends are up to and what they are accomplishing in real-time. This should at least have some psychological effect on pushing people towards a career where real, meaningful progress can be tracked in real-time. Doing something that will only possibly have an impact decades later seems to be the same as doing nothing.

Considering the sentiment of the last few paragraphs, it might sound like I am talking about the decline in humanities and liberal arts majors. Indeed, while the number of math and science majors is increasing (though not as much as in engineering/technology), it almost seems like the theoretical sides of math and science are closer in spirit to the humanities and liberal arts than they are to STEM. The point is not for immediate application of knowledge, but to make contributions to the overall human pool of knowledge, to make this knowledge available to future generations.

Is this just a consequence the decline of education or the fall of academia in general? STEM is not really education in the traditional sense. It is more like technical training.

In all, the decline of interest in theoretical math/science is closely correlated with the decline of interest in the humanities/liberal arts. Our culture is fundamentally changing to one that values practicality far more than discovery. (For instance, when is NASA going to land a human on Mars? 2037. JFK might have had a different opinion.) Overall this is a good change, mainly in the sense of re-adjusting the educational demographics of the workforce to keep America relevant in the global economy. But, we should still hold some value to theory and discovery.

Additional resources:

  • National Science Foundation statistics – [link]
  • National Center for Education Statistics – [link]
  • Pew social trends – [link]

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