Encouraging STEM Studies: Don't Just Recruit. Nurture.Encouraging STEM Studies: Don't Just Recruit. Nurture.
College, much to the dismay of businesses in the science, tech, engineering, or math fields, is where STEM careers go to die. About half those who intend to major in STEM fields end up switching to another major. That’s a much leakier pipe than most non-STEM courses of study tend to experience. What happens?
September 26, 2014
By Eric Larson
College is in full swing, and millions of students at universities around the country are choosing courses of study that will determine their first job out of college and, presumably, their careers.
But college, much to the dismay of businesses in the science, tech, engineering, or math fields, is where STEM careers go to die. About half those who intend to major in STEM fields end up switching to another major. That’s a much leakier pipe than most non-STEM courses of study tend to experience.
A number of students, for example, who think they want to be pre-med must first do well in that infamous “weed out” course, Organic Chemistry 101 — and, when they don’t do well, presume they can never treat patients. Also among each frosh class are a good many students who are darn good at math, have strong interest in science, but who still fail to zero in on a STEM career before graduation.
Once upon a time, I was one of those students. I was on the math team in junior high, won medals in Science Olympiad in high school, and considered myself pretty good at computers. Freshman year I signed up for courses in computer programming and second-year calculus (having placed out of first-year thanks to an AP class).
So, of course, I ended up majoring in English.
What the heck happened?
Absolute intelligence vs. relative intelligence
Here’s what: I became intimidated by all the other students who were better than me in those very competitive STEM classes. Malcolm Gladwell talked about this phenomenon in a lecture at Google, showing how it’s the top students at Harvard who tend to go on to excel in their field. Explained Gladwell in one interview: “The best predictor of success … is not your absolute intelligence, but your relative intelligence. It’s your class rank.”
Something else happened to me: The Peter Principle. We all know how people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Well, it happens in college, too. After Calculus 101 you take Calculus 102. And, if you do okay, you go on to Calc 103. If you don’t do well, you assume you shouldn’t be in a technology career, because you just can’t hack the higher math — even though you passed two difficult levels before petering out.
The calculus hurdle
Or maybe you got bored, wondering how calculus applies to the real world of work.
Then there was the Pascal programming class, which became really theoretical, really fast. I thought we were going to code. Instead, we were there mainly to learn how to conceptualize coding. Useful, I suppose, in a fashion. But necessary as a means of producing software developers?
I did fine in those courses — earning Bs, clearly not the top of my class — but things were starting to involve more letters than numbers. Heck, I thought, if I was going to work with letters, I might as well make words with them. That led me to the English department, where the classes were fun, less rigorous in some respects, and where it was less obvious who was a star and who wasn’t. In terms of a practical apprenticeship, I went to work at the student newspaper. My first job out of school was in journalism — a not so growing career path, as it turned out.
But it could have turned out differently. Myself and so many others who figured (wrongly) that they couldn’t have a future in STEM could have been given the message: “Look, you clearly aren’t going to develop into a math professor who is going to solve inscrutable problems like the Riemann Hypothesis. But perhaps you’ve got a gift for using logic to solve real-world problems. Maybe, before you enroll in another Chaucer course, you’d like to learn something about project management, network administration, database admin, or IT channel sales and marketing. Maybe an apprenticeship, co-op, or internship would be a great way to do that.”
Give up or keep going?
Instead of leaving their own career development to the imaginations of 19-year-olds who aren’t that aware of careers in the first place, perhaps companies should do more to work with colleges and professors to identify those students who may have powerful mix of technical interests and talents — before the students change their study paths entirely.
What is your company doing to identify and develop these young people who love STEM and are good at STEM — before college derails those futures?
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