The study of science is hard

The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

Could it be that too many people like being the smartest one in the room?  Or is it some other explanation?:

“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.”

Here is the story, here is Alex’s earlier post.  Science itself is even harder.


That last paragraph certainly sounds like the "smartest person in the room" (or at least not wanting to be in the bottom half) explanation.

It also has some possible implication for affirmative action. The mismatch theory has been made by affirmative action opponents before, but it tends to look at graduation rates alone. What happens if we also look at the percentage of people who switch into (perceived or not) easier majors?

The last paragraph says to me that very little of the effect is explained by people wanting to be the smartest in the room. 13% just doesn't seem like that big a difference to me.

It's it 13 points deducted from the 40-60% alluded to earlier, or 13% of the total?

Milton Friedman nailed it -- this is part of the system professionals set up to restrict supply & exclude competition.

Most of these folks would be fine doctors & engineers. The what is the point of forcing students on a "death march" through formal hoop jumps they won't need in their professional lives to standards which are arbitrary calibrated? The point is to servd the needs of the status of schools and the restriction of the supply of the profession, increasing salaries and status of members.

As someone who has one of these degrees, I may be biased, but the point of the "death march" is that it's not a death march for anyone who deserves the degree. I do not believe that a person will make a fine engineer if they can't pass basic calculus with a C or better. There may be some exceptions, but I am very OK with this rule. Of course I do think students planning to drop engineering from Berkeley should be approach to switch schools rather than majors.

As someone else with one of those degrees, I concur. The classes are tough for a reason, the work is demanding. You might be able to liven the curriculum up, but you can't make it easier and still obtain a top quality graduate.

That being said the biggest factor effecting engineering and science, is relatively low pay. It's a basic supply and demand issue. Raise the pay and you'll have more graduates.

Allow my to provide a counterpoint. I am not a 1%er by income, but I am doing OK in a coastal city people love to hate. I write software. I do consider this engineering, although I don't have professional bodies behind me. (And there are lots of people who call themselves software engineers who, well, aren't. Somehow people keep getting hired, companies keep happening, and the net keeps getting more interesting.)

I was a classic liberal arts major at a suspect, elite school. Turns out that was a mistake, I should have gone to MIT or Stanford. Oh, well. I'm not that unhappy about my choice. Retooling to do what I'm good at works, because it constantly changes, and now, I'm 20 years on with understanding of how software works. I'm at risk of being a Graybeard, in fact, despite neither of those applying. (that's a different story, there is an economic reason to kick out old people, another day.)

Turns out, I can write software for and run Internet scale systems with an academic background in sociology. So you can conclude I'm off the bell curve (capitalize where you like), or that education, background and circumstance in general matters for post-industrial capitalism.

Or, you know, have fun. I am.

Tech electives always sound cool, but you tend to have grad students screwing up the bell curve...

I think Greg has an important but non-universal point. No one is denying that these fields have a minimum level of knowledge required for mastery and there is some resulting base level of attrition. However I think this is obscuring some other important factors at work, specifically inter-school competition.
I believe certain universities are allowing (and in some cases intentionally creating) processes that drive competent students out of certain majors in order to boost their institutional prestige. I expect this effect could be most strongly seen in two areas:

1. Fields where total employment is flat or growing slower than the overall population. Universities are incented to allow only the highest achievers to go on to the next round to increase their visible percentage of success. Medical Doctors are an extreme example of this.
2. Universities that are most concerned with increasing their relative prestige. This would be seen primarily in 'second-tier' schools that have to compete with the Ivies for students and faculty but because of their size and lesser reputation cannot completely accomplish this filtering through admissions alone. Berkeley and UCLA fit the bill perfectly, but the impact will diminish down the 'food chain', with CSU's having less incentive (perhaps 13% less?) and community colleges essentially none.

As for my personal anecdata, my wife and I both attended a 'mid-tier' UC during the mid-aughts. While pursuing my MIS (CS/Econ) degree I felt adequately supported and did not face many over-stuffed classrooms or harsh curves. However, she had many early courses with hundreds of pre-meds. The professors routinely began the first class by announcing what percentage of students they intended to flunk that quarter, usually north of 25%.

In sum, I believe this phenomenon is an outgrowth of the dysfunctional dynamic where universities attempt to pick pre-existing / pre-disposed high achievers rather than transmitting and measuring knowledge more effectively.

John Thacker and others interested in the mismatch issue: there's information in this recent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report about mismatch and switching out of science majors into humanities subjects. See here:

Or it could be that the curriculum at Berkeley is more difficult than the curriculum at Cal State.

Or that degrees at Berkeley are much more valuable than other degrees at Cal State. Though both things are true.

Or it could be the Berkeley profs outsource teaching to grad students who can't speak English worth a damn, and who can't teach they way out of a brown paper bag, while the profs mail in their lectures for a couple hours a week in cavernous lecture halls, if the deign to teach undergrads at all. After all, nobody gets a Nobel Prize for teaching undergrad physics.

I transferred to Berkeley from junior college and majored in math, and my teachers in junior college were vastly better teachers and far more diligent than all but a couple of the Berkeley profs. And the classes at JC had 20 to 40 students, not hundreds, so I'm particularly glad that I skipped past the freshman and sophomore mega-courses at UCB.

That said, Berkeley ended up changing my life, and I'm glad I went there, but undergrad teaching wasn't its strong suit.

Few good teachers? You must have gone to sub-par institutions, har har.

I totally agree with that comment! These foreign professors with their poor grasp of English are screwing it up for the students. Also the student body with their poor grasp of English can't help their fellow students understand either. The only way to learn was to read the material and if you didn't get it from the material, that's it for you. When I was in college, internet material was few and far between. I'm not sure what the excuse would be nowadays.

It's true - students who are most affected by heavily accented English are students whose native language is already not English. A kid from China has a far harder time parsing a Punjabi accent than a native English speaker.

This is not true in my experience. ESL speakers have a far greater tolerance for bad accents and bad pronunciation - having been exposed to a lot of them during their teaching. The Americans in my classes with Turkish or Chinese grad student teachers complained a lot more...

What's hilarious is that when I was on the march, not only are the professors unintelligible, all the textbooks were written by professors and terrible. I finally gave up after Comp Engineering 301, when the guy said he wasn't going to use a textbook and after 2 months, I had no idea what was going on whatsoever.

For the freshman classes, the junior colleges have far, far better instruction than more wealthy research institutions.

You should have majored in Physics. In my upper division classes at Cal there were less than 20 students per class and all were taught by professors who were very passionate about the subject matter. And I can only remember one professor who had a thick accent.

I graduated in 2000, maybe things are different these days.

I agree with this entirely. I had to go to community college for my first two years for financial reasons. I studied electrical engineering technology, with full transfer to university.

To be quite honest, I found the quality of education at community college to be better, and the course material was just as difficult. The instructors were generally people fresh out of the industry they were preparing you for, and they were very accessible. The classes were never larger than 30 people, so everyone knew everyone else, and group study became easy. Because the teachers weren't pure academics but people from industry, they could help give you context, teach you what was really important, and help you learn lots of little techniques that you normally only get from experience on the job. In electrical engineering, that was priceless. I loved it there.

When I transferred to a (very good) university, I was shocked at the change. First, the work load was about half of what I had at college. The humanities courses were trivially easy, and you could sleepwalk your way to 'A's in them by simply figuring out the professor's personal bias and playing to it.

The science classes for the first two years were in lecture halls of hundreds of students, and the professors were generally atrocious teachers and completely unavailable to lowly undergrads for after-class questions.

I remember one prof with agoraphobia who lectured us with his back turned so he wouldn't have to face the students. Another simply had pages from the textbook turned into overhead slides (this was the 80's), and his 'lectures' consisted of his putting a page on the projector and then reading from it verbatim in an accent so thick you couldn't understand him anyway.

Basically, for me the university was just a place I had to go to get the right credential. All my learning was done exactly the way I do it now - sitting by myself with a book, working problems until I understand the material. University itself was almost a distraction, and I got very little value for my tuition.

'The humanities courses were trivially easy, and you could sleepwalk your way to ‘A’s in them by simply figuring out the professor’s personal bias and playing to it. '


100-200 level Psychology courses were pretty much guaranteed A's for just showing up to class. Meanwhile, Calculus, Diff Equation, etc were bust your butt 2 hours a night on homework with a 6-12 study day the weekend before every test.

Of course you get what you pay for.

Well I took Calc, DEs, etc. and got.... big fat long term unemployment.

CBBB, is it really necessary to post 500 comments making sure everyone knows you cannot find a job? Do you think maybe this is a personal problem and not a STEM problem?

Absolutely it's necessary

There is usually a very large difference between the difficulty of math and science courses at top 100 schools and other institutions. I majored in molecular bio at one of the few selective public universities (was lucky to have the option at in-state prices). The classroom competition was palpable, the material is taught in depth, the courses are graded on a curve and many drop out. I compare this to a few math and science courses I took at community college over the summers. The courses at JUCO did effectively teach the basics, but there was no competition, no challenge on the exams and no curve--probably 75% of the students got A's or B's.

At competitive schools, the more mediocre students effectively weed themselves out. Nobody wants to graduate with a C average in a science field because, as some others have commented, you really need to be able to go on to graduate school to make any money (I am excepting engineering here). They instead opt for English, some social science or, dare I say, economics majors. Most do well and go on to law school or some other graduate program. My guess is that many of these students would have been fine engineers or doctors and many of them would have gone through the undergrand STEM programs at other institutions with very decent grades.

The problem is that there is no way to dumb down the coursework. If you cannot find all of the poles of a rational function, or find the derivative of arbitrary algebraic trigonometry functions, you're not likely to pass calc I. Heck, rotational physics killed me in EPhys II. The kids are smart enough to learn the material (as a rule), but they've not been adequately prepared for the work. My calc students objected for my counting a problem as entirely wrong if "all" they did wrong was a sign error. When I pointed out that a sign error in the force of gravity would be catastrophic, they persisted!

"The smartest kid in the room" suggestion is repugnant. In STEM, the schools with the best reputations are the ones with the toughest programs. All the higher fail rates means is that these schools are not adequately screening their applicants.

Many of the best state schools have identitical coursework to the Ivies who are more prestigious.

The reality is STEM especially med school and sciences are winner-take-all markets. Either you get into med school or a good grad program or you will have a hard time competing for jobs. Business and nursing are more forgiving.

This is another reason. Despite what people say there REALLY aren't jobs in STEM (maybe with the exception of Engineering - but a lot of Engineering graduates don't end up becoming engineers). There's a few jobs that are highly competitive and only the top students are going to have a crack at them. This means the average STEM student has to go and look for non-STEM jobs, and what happens is that the average STEM student probably has worse marks then the average humanities, social science, or business student competing for the same jobs.
If you're not the best of the best a STEM degree isn't all that great.

Please provide some data other than your 2-year job search. I do not believe this at all.

It's the reality - I don't have a big data set here but it's not just me a lot of STEM people say the same sort of thing. If there really were this HUGE demand everyone is talking about I think I would have tapped into it by now. If you have 5-10 years experience, sure that's a different story, I'm talking about at the entry level.

No one has data for this because people aren't looking for it. But the jobs available for a bachelor's degree in physics, chemistry or biology are much less than say for nursing, mechanical engineering and business.

I can back that up. It's very difficult to get a job that pays well with an undergrad degree in a STEM subject. According to, the average starting salary with a bachelor's degree in the physical sciences is $31,258. When I was in college, I wanted to be a physicist. I went into computing science after discovering that a bachelor's degree in physics was almost worthless. Starting salaries then for most jobs you could get even remotely related to the field were in the $20,000-$30,000 range - which was less money than I had been making before I went to college.

Over time, a lot of people with undergrad degrees in physical sciences either wind up in jobs that have nothing to do with their degree, or they move into something like computer programming - one of the few fields left that doesn't really require credentials. A physics degree with computer experience gained in college can land you an entry-level job as a QA or junior programmer, and you can build a careeer from there.

But other than that, I can't think of much you can do with a degree in physics without going for an advanced degree.

So why not get paid-for graduate education in chem, bio, or physics? Heck an ME only takes 1 year, an MS two. With an MS in a physical science you could be a patent agent and make good money if you can't find a job in a lab or something. If I was going into science I would plan on a masters at least, but there are lots of engineering majors and plenty of jobs for them. My wife made an obscene amount of money coming out of school considering she has just a B.S. in engineering.

But if you have like a B average you won't be able to get into graduation school - this is whole point. If you graduated and you have like a B average you won't be able to get any job because OR go to graduate school.

The vast pool of postdoctoral scholars would not exist if STEM degree holders had a 'good' job market.

I disagree. I graduated last May with a BS in Mathematics and three excellent job offers from well-regarded organizations. The jobs are out there if you look in the right places.

There's exceptions - such as if you got top marks or went to an elite school, if you're a superstar sure there's jobs. My point is is that if you got through a math or science program ( Engineering is a bit different) and wound up with a B, unless you went to an elite school then the job market is not going to be very forgiving and you might as well have just gotten a humanities or business degree and kick the crap out of the coursework with a lot less effort then the math degree took.
I've looked high and low and I'm use I've hit all the "right" places but there's nothing out there.

The engineering physics and chemistry series I took in JC had the same textbooks and lab books as the equivalent courses at UC Berkeley. Doubtless the students or profs weren't as smart on average as the ones at Berkeley, but I did reasonably on upper-division courses at Berkeley that had these courses as prerequisites, so the courses themselves seemed to cover similar material. And the classes were actually taught by full-time faculty and were about 1/20th the size.

I had colleagues that built entire careers on dumbing down coursework. Their student evaluations were impeccable. They helped boost graduation rates. Deans loved them.

All in the past tense, because I quit that game.


Part of my point is that they pick stuff to teach not because it is useful in the job market, but it is useful to professors and departments to weed out students. It seems crazy that they'd want to weed students out, I have no explanation for it other than my eyeballs.

I think it is self-evident that no college wants to graduate e.g. credentialed civil engineers whose bridges frequently collapse. There is an absolute, objective standard of performance in many STEM fields - and yes, it often includes zero credit for answers that combine complete and total understanding of the problem with a simple sign error. Many people who very much want to be engineers, doctors, and so forth, will not ever achieve that standard of practice. Possibly because they aren't smart enough, possibly because they are smart enough but their brains are wired for a different sort intellectual endeavour, possibly because they aren't willing to work hard enough, or quite possibly because they were unfortunate enough to enroll in a school with a shortage of competent instructors in the field.

Presuming the school isn't simply holding out on the "competent instructor" front out of sheer perversity, there's really only three things they can do with such students: graduate them and pass the buck to a higher educational/certifying authority, give them every chance to succeed and then fail them at the end, or weed them out early. That last option really is the best for all concerned.

It is, of course, useful if one does not in the process weed out people who would have succeeded in the end. I don't think that is presently a major problem, but it is hard to be sure. And the relevant standard is, "would have succeeded in the instructional environment the school actually offers." Improving STEM educational technique is a separate issue, harder than I think most people understand. If someone pulls it off it would then, and only then, be appropriate to recalibrate the early "weed-out" courses accordingly.

This is "one sign error and you get no credit" nonsense is all bunk. That's the kind of standard you set for lawyers. Engineers constantly make mistakes like this. When you're actually doing real world work you have layers and layers of error checking built into your work processes to prevent this kind of problem. A sign error is normally of no great consequence when it occurs at the "let's look at this problem on the white board" level of analysis. And students are demonstrating mastery of concepts, not processes for weeding out errors. That's all highly industry/company specific and not really undergrad relevant material. If you think bridges are held up because nobody in the industry makes sign error mistakes in their hand analysis you have no clue how people actually engineer stuff.

My paycheck and job title would seem to constitute a market signal that I have a fairly good understanding "how people actually engineer stuff". As far as "layers and layers of error checking built into your work", that's specifically what I do now, and there are in practice rapidly diminishing returns after the first layer of checking. There's no shortage of people managing engineers who really believe that sort of thing means all errors are caught - those are the people who sold us the bill of goods that the Space Shuttle was 99.999+% safe and reliable. The reality is that we got Challenger. And, perhaps more relevantly, TERRIERS, Mars Climate Orbiter, and Ariane 501 - spacecraft destroyed by a sign error, a unit conversion error, and an integer overflow error respectively. Please believe me that all of those programs had many levels of error checking, in compliance with the strictest industry standards.

Engineering works, when it works, because a level of error checking is applied to the work of engineers who understand that simple arithmetic errors in their work are simply unacceptable. Similarly in medicine, except that there are more likely to be lives at stake and less likely to be even one level of error checking. If you are going to do this sort of thing for a living, you really do have to get the math right.

Uh... you gave students a zero on problems for getting a sign wrong? That is terrible grading. You are essentially making your grades random rather than based on student knowledge/proficiency. In all engineering classes that I can remember, getting the answer right was a tiny part of the grade received- the process is what matters.

I think math is a little different. In one engineering a single problem took 3 pages of unit conversion and error propagation. It was a statistical certainty of having careless errors.

That's absolutely brutal grading. I'm a bit of a sloppy person and particularly in longer calculation problems I have a big tendency to make sloppy mistakes even if I understand the material/problem completely, so if I were writing this test I would likely get a zero.

Its pretty normal for civil engineering.

Honestly you are an ass if you mark the whole problem wrong for one bad step. The point of a class is to teach, and doing that just breaks down the student. At the end of a class I expect the student to know the material backwards and forwards, but in most science getting a sign wrong on one problem will and should get caught in the process, either that or you have a terrible process, so this is a ridiculous standard.

Like I said, I think you guys are applying a science paradigm to a math problem, and I suspect it's a very different situation.

Anyway, another anecdotal data point I have is that the jobs I've had have always been way easier than the "education" required to attain those jobs. The education could be made much easier with no losses.

This is really a key point. STEM programs are way more difficult then they really need to be for the job market. Engineering programs could really be cut down with no real loss in quality, by the time you hit 3rd year in an Engineering program either you could learn a lot of the further material on your own or you're not really going to remember much of it anyway after you take the courses.

My understanding of an engineering degree is that it shows that you are capable of handling the demanding workload of real engineering and being able to at least figure out where to get information on a certain topic. You are not expected to know everything from every class you were ever in, but you are suppose to be familiar and to have initiative.

But I totally agree my first two years of engineering I didn't really learn too too much. Freshmen year could have been erased from time and I would be arguably the same level of competent.

To whit, in Math, missing a sign does make the answer wrong. In engineering, marking an answer wrong would be a jerk move just to gotcha someone, and they often do!

I told everyone about the lab report (that we had to work on all Friday night because it was due Saturday mornings) where we got docked for comma splice errors.

Some days it was like a troupe of black comedy writers masquerading as professors.

I was a math major (and also graded math hw/exams), and it's pretty standard to ignore small calculation errors as long as your logic is correct in general.

I've heard STEM education compared to exercising for sports. You never need to press 300 pounds in baseball, but you still push yourself that far so you can hit the baseball harder when the time comes.

Then the question is "should we make it harder" and the answer is obviously not. So, the question is "is it just right" and the answer is probably not.

On a differential equations test I got a sign wrong and ended up getting no credit for the problem. I went up afterwards and pointed out that i had set the problem up correctly and just missed a sign, and should get partial credit. The professor looked the problem over again agreed with me that I should get some credit for understanding the problem and proceeded to subtract 5 points from my score.

One of the huge issues with failure in these fields is that a lot of students don't know when and how to get help when they get stuck with something or don't understand why they get something wrong. Especially in large classes, few students know how to meaningfuly take advantage of office hours or to form and use a study group, and surprisingly few of the rest are humble enough to get tutors.

Getting 90% of the questions right, which in theory is an "A-" grade, doesn't cut it. If you don't know exactly why 99% of the answers you got wrong the first time are wrong and master the material, you are going to be in deep trouble in the next course. You have to be absolutely solid in the foundations to engage meaningfully with the more advanced material. If you finish your core math/physics/engineering classes in the first year with a "B" grade you are probably not going to graduate in your major because your grasp isn't solid enough to build upon.

Non-STEM fields almost entirely non-sequential. You mastered the true prerequisites when you were in middle school, and screwing up when you are studying the French Revolution doesn't doom you when you move on to the Industrial Revolution. Outside STEM, the only really make or break issues are study habits and the ability to write well. In STEM, its like jumping into a university where the language of instruction of Greek and you are learning the language as you go.

There's no power like petty power.

I think your students are right. By taking off full credit, you are suggesting that the students demonstrated understanding was they same as someone who had written down nothing at all for the problem. That seems silly across many dimensions.

"the schools with the best reputations are the ones with the toughest programs"

Really? When I as an undergrad I remember hearing that Stanford was hard to get into but easy to graduate from. 'Course, I went to Northwestern and we were all jealous of the schools on the coasts.

Yes, but the work levels could be ameliorated by switching STEM to a 4+2 degree plan which pushes more of the work into the last 4 semesters but grants a master's degree. Part of the problem is that STEM grades are lower but scholarship and student status is not. So if you grade like my uni did, "C is for 'competent'", you are falling behind the expectations of scholarships and other students.

When grading is set as above and degree requirements are not on the "Cs get degrees" philosophy, then you have a severe problem because you are essentially saying that a degree is not a mark of competence (or even mastery) but largely of IQ. That's bad juju.

Isn't that exactly what SAT are supposed to predict?

According to Steve Hsu, whose looked at the raw data and recounted it at his Information Processing blog, the SATs are actually much more predictive in STEM than outside STEM.

Outside STEM the contributions of SAT scores are basically linear. The better you score, the better you do on a more or less continuous basis and an implicit factor he calls "W" for work ethic can be substituted pretty much one to one for good test scores. If you are very bright you can get away with being very lazy, if you are very hard working you can get away with not being very bright.

In STEM there is basically an SAT threshold. Below that score, nobody manages to graduate with a major in the field. No amount of hard work and good study habits will save you. You can't as readily substitute SATs for W and visa versa. Over that threshold, the test score-work ethic-GPA in major relationship is pretty much the same as in other fields. I've certainly never seen someone with near perfect SAT scores and good grades wash out of a STEM major into something other than another STEM major because they couldn't grok the material. But, sometimes very good SAT scores allow one to get away with bad study habits in high school and those people pay the price for their bad habits in college.

What is funny to me about this is, why don't we expect the high school to teach good study habits?

A huge proportion of science majors are studying science in order to become doctors: Isn't at least one problem here the artificial, stupid, regressive, and monopolistic restriction on the number of students admitted to medical school every year? The restriction means that science students at Berkeley, etc., don't just want to be the smartest person in the room--they need to be. It is rational for many students to drop science majors if there reason for studying science--going on to medical school--is hopelessly out of reach after their first forced-curve "B-". I suspect if more people felt they could still have a chance at medical school after their freshman year, we'd have more folks staying in science. Because not all of these people would actually become doctors, we'd get spillover effects into non-medical science as well. I suppose you could argue this would be mitigated by the increase in the number of doctors, but, hey, that'd be great for society as well.

See here ( for discussion of the fact that the number of doctors educated in the US has completely stagnated for 20-30 years. Sickening.

The university could work to equalize GPA distributions. Or, for bonus points they could attempt to have the GPA distributions match the SAT distribution. It's often no good being the smartest guy in the room if your report card says "C+, outstanding!!!" What most people see is that C. I think STEM is objectively hard, and universities misconstrue that to mean they should make it relatively hard. I think they should make it relatively easy because it is objectively hard, relatively speaking!

I was struggling through my XYZ Engineering and I went to see my undergrad advisor. I told him I was thinking of switching to pre-med. He told me that XYZ Engineering was great for pre-med. I wanted to say "You've got to be shitting me" but one doesn't say that in academia does one?

I took a class that was exactly like this; my upper division abstract machines and languages class. It was all proofs, so math majors like me had a bit of an advantage over CS majors, many of whom got D's. I got the highest grade among the undergrads in the class, a glorious C+. Two grad students got A's and the rest got B's and C's (which are the kiss of death for grad students).

The irony is the prof tried to talk me into going to grad school, after zorching my GPA...

Simple fact is, there is a huge disparity in expectations between schools.

Not convinced. STEM majors, especially in math/physics/engineering/chemistry are much more comparable to each other across colleges than non-STEM majors, because failure or success is so much more clear and because the text books used are basically the same. STEM classes are more pass/fail oriented, while non-STEM classes are graded more on a curve and have more subjective grading that is influenced by who is in the class with you.

The only times I've seen dilution of STEM curricula are in classes where most students are studying to be K-12 math or science teachers. Classes like "Abstract Algebra" are taught more rigorously to classes full of future quantum physicists who know they need to understand group theory for a specific application that they'll use their whole lives than for future Algebra I-Algebra II teachers for whom it is simply a matter of general education enrichment.

I completed a degree in electrical engineering. The EE department makes the degree punishingly difficult to finish.

In general, it was my experience in college that STEM teachers often made their courses too difficult with lengthy homework, extensive out-of-classroom lab time, and tests that were meant to fail half the class. And the professors were rarely up to the challenge of teaching the material effectively.

My story is similar to yours. I always felt the teachers were there more to fail me than to teach me.

That being said, I understood this as University policy. There is a need to graduate only the best. The rest continue to pay, just over at the business school. I'm not sure how the major Universities would handle it if suddenly everyone made it through.

It's a status issue. STEM professionals are afraid they are losing status in society (and they are), and they compensate by trying to promote an elitist mindset.

Of course, some engineering problems are legitimately hard and do require the very best. But they can be distinguished after graduation in the market, or with graduate degrees. Also, you can say that about any field, and the liberal arts/business majors don't have similar qualms about letting the market sort it out later.

Status issues are also why there aren't as many STEM jobs and they don't pay as well in real life, as the social planners have described to the students coming in. The migration to other majors is just part of the unpleasant collision with reality.

Grade inflation in the humanities is a big part of it. Suppose you want to be an IP lawyer. A science degree might be great preparation but it will be much harder to get into a top law school with even a small drop in GPA. Thanks to the the way the USNWR rankings are calculated, schools show very little flexibility on GPAs and LSAT scores. So the top law schools are filled with ivy-league grads with humanities degrees.

I started as an engineering major and graduated with a philosophy degree. I'll never forget the brutal math class I took in my first year at college. It was a year long course for engineering and physics majors. I had a decent math background, worked damn hard and still got a B. A friend of mine who is now a tenured math professor also got a B in that class. You just don't encounter classes like that in humanities. The difference in rigor and workload is huge.

Well, you can't be a patent lawyer if you don't get a STEM degree.

You can't be a member of the patent bar. But there are plenty of good patent litigators without STEM degrees.

In my (self-serving) view, specialists sometimes make bad litigators because they find it very difficult to relate to what the judge and jury is really going to understand.

Of course, whether it is a good idea to have patent disputes decided by lay judges and juries is another questions.

"Suppose you want to be an IP lawyer. ... with humanities degrees."

There are very, very few IP lawyers with non-STEM degrees.

Okay but suppose you just want to be a Lawyer or get into some other non-STEM-specific professional graduate program. A STEM degree is really hurtful because of the fact that your marks are likely not going to be as good as the guy with a history degree.

Maybe not a straight-up job with the history degree, but with something that is like the finance FASB and ratiings agencies that just looks at the letters, like med school, yes.

Business Majors are a good example. I know people who majored in business (and these people are not mindblowingly smart by any measure, not idiots but not brilliant) and they pulled off marks in the 90s consistently , because it's mostly memorizing a textbook. You try to memorize your way to 95% in a STEM course and you aren't going to go far. These people didn't have trouble getting jobs after school, high marks were the key to the door.

Dont make me laugh. IF you are a brilliant STEM degree-er you can dominate the crap out of the LSAT. And once you start scoring in the 99th percentile you easily sail into a top law school. And from there your superior work ethic should let you dominate the crap out of lazy lib arts grade inflationists. Unless of course you are full of crap and humanities can be hard too.

Depends what you mean by "top law school." If you want to go to Yale/Harvard/Stanford you better have a very high GPA as well as a high LSAT. I'm pretty sure I would not have got into the law school I did with even a 0.2 reduction in GPA. And, to be honest, I probably would have taken at least a 0.2 hit to my GPA if I'd stayed on track to major in Math or EE.

This is correct

And here's some data. The 25th percentile LSAT score for incoming classes at YLS, HLS and SLS is 171, 171, and 167 respectively. An LSAT of 170 is approximately the 99th percentile for all test takers. So getting an LSAT in the 99th percentile is merely a necessary but not sufficient condition for admission.

The 25th percentile GPA for incoming classes at the same law schools was 3.81, 3.78 and 3.74 respectively. I have major respect for anyone who gets a 3.7 GPA in a tough STEM major. But that person will struggle to get into any of these law schools even with an LSAT in the 99th percentile.

There are plenty of trademark and copyright attorneys without STEM degrees. IP != patents.

The article presents the last point more generously: if you're getting a D in math but an A in english, who wouldn't be tempted to switch majors? It doesn't have to be status anxiety: the class is telling you that you are a bad match for the material. Isn't that what grades are for?

I don't think that's really it. If STEM is just plain harder than English for EVERYONE, and I think that is the case, we should make STEM easier.

One thing that was lost on the previous discussion was that we are not talking about STEM versus liberal arts. We were talking about journalism, which is not really a liberal arts education.

I know many people that rocked STEM classes and did poorly in humanities.

"How does this poem make me feel? It makes me feel like punching the guy who wrote it in the face, that's how it makes me feel!"

I recall someone saying nearly that about TS Eliot in a lit class


+1 was for Mike's point

That may be in some cases, but any time some career counselor came and told us we could substitute our major GPA in place of total GPA there was uproarious laughter.

I'm a math major. I had no problems in my math classes, and I wasn't the smartest guy in the room. I just worked my ass off.

I loved the material in the empirical sciences. I hated the *classes* (physics and chemistry mainly) for two reasons: (1) group work is used wrongly by professors, and (2) the experimental work was contrary to everything people do in research.

Group work was used to improve the class grade average. Weak students were intentionally grouped with strong students to submerge their lower ability. I dropped two physics classes and on chemistry class, because I was doing all the work and all the learning. We talk a lot about grade inflation in the humanities. Well, there's a lot in undergraduate science too.

The "experiments" were a joke. We knew in advance what the outcome of the experiment was supposed to be. The "experiments" were really equipment setup exams. Instead of treading over the historical ground of previous scientists, you just follow the procedure and fudge the data to get it close enough that it looks about right. Disgusting.

If you want to know where the appetite for scientific fraud comes from, look no further than the typical undergraduate science class.

How would these two factors, group work and the teaching of experiments, be different at Berkley and Cal State?

In my experience the purpose of group work was exactly as you describe and also just a crutch for lazy professors who wanted to grade fewer projects. It's always assigned under the auspices of "In the real world you have to be able to work as a team."

Working with people of different abilities is something you're going to do for the rest of your life, so there's something to be said for getting practice at it. I hated it at the time, too, but in retrospect, it was a valuable experience. My problem should have been with the grading of those experiences, not the mere fact that we had them.

Engineering labs were much more realistic experiences than engineering classes. Like in the real world, nothing ever worked until you beat it into working, while in problem sets there's little of that complexity and frustration. But the goal was different from the goal in science labs.

The unrealistic thing about engineering labs was that you were always doing something like "building a binocular vision system," and never debugging the DRAM scrub feature of an ASIC that someone else created before he was fired. It tricks you into thinking you'll always be doing something exciting, something that can be firmly held in the mind of one person, and not a cog in a very big, poorly defined, machine.

Engineering labs do not adequately capture the scale at which modern engineering projects take place, nor do they adequately incorporate the managerial part of the projects, which is a huge part of the real world of engineering.

"It tricks you into thinking you’ll always be doing something exciting,"

Another funny story. We had a lot of undergrad interns for a while. The grad students had to do all kinds of crap work to provide the undergrads with impressive sounding projects.

The engineering equivalent of a sustainable development job is one where you work on mobile robots.

I mean, those jobs exist, but that's not what most people do.

> nor do they adequately incorporate the managerial part of the projects, which is a huge part of the real world of
> engineering.

When I was at MIT we had a significant humanities and social sciences requirement with depth and breadth specified. It amounted to something like 25 percent of your required coursework. Spent on what is basically a bunch of hobbies, like civil war history.

We should not have had that. We should have had an eight course sequence in leadership and management and plenty of lab work, with a writing class (not a creative writing class!) thrown in. That would have been useful for what people actually do. If you were really, really technical, and perhaps destined for academia, you should have been able to opt out. I mean, if you can't be focused at MIT, where can you be?

If not for the requirement to take some social sciences classes, I probably never would have taken economics, and never ended up reading this blog! :P

I've found that the best way to learn to write clearly is to get in technical fights on the Internet.

I think the joke about "leadership and management" is that it was for the Harvard kids. :/

Science classes labs aren't there to teach research skills and make students feel like scientists. They are there so physical phenomena can be observed instead of just reading about them or watching computer simulations.

Except that they no longer do this. Especially in general chemistry, they are idiotic make work exercises.

Thats nonsense.

In my experience, the "smartest guy in the room factor" doesn't really come into play until grad school. At the undergrad level there are people who can hack it and those who can't. The "stars" of the undergrad majors are PhD bound. The non-stars look for other opportunities (e.g. for a math major, operations research or actuarial fields or statistical analysis). All you have to do to get a BS or MS is pass a bunch of courses with received wisdom which anyone who can pass the intro sequences can handle pretty much. To go onto a PhD you have to be able to contribute new advances to the field, and far fewer people have what it takes to make those kinds of innovations.

Well you can't get a job in Operations Research without a PhD any way. Actuarial isn't so great anymore because a lot of people "discovered" it and it's become much more competitive - my friends in the field tell me you need 4 exams now to even be considered entry level (not to mention that's brutally boring material to study).
This is what I'm saying if you're a non-star in a STEM field you're f@#ked.

i dropped engineering (kept it as a minor) because it wasn't challenging and too generalized. i had more in-depth math and science material in high school compared to college. the university program had set the bar really low--"graduate with this degree and you can go work for a big defense contractor, or go on to graduate school." i will accept blame for lacking patience, but it was also largely the program's LACK of difficulty. how does this correlate back to the comments we keep hearing from employers that job candidates "lack preparedness?" i'm not trying to completely contradict the main post, just present another variable that may be in the error term--one that could help explain observations at some of the less selective schools.

You minored in engineering? Never heard that one before.

This sounds wrong on several levels. First, I don't know how you can 'minor' in engineering. Second, I flatly do not believe that engineering math and science was presented at a lower level than what you had in high school.

Engineering is one of the most 'concrete' faculties in college. There's a basic standard of knowledge you must have, and that includes math through differential equations among many other difficult subjects. High School math doesn't come close to the level of depth or conceptual difficulty that an engineering degree requires.

I'm calling Bullshit on minoring in engineering. What discipline? What school? What year?
I also call Bullshit that it wasn't challenging.

Possibly at Webb, although I think that is still a double major Marine Engineering and Naval Arch (those kids are almost all brilliant). SUNY-MC and King's Point may have also have engineering minors at some point.

1. STEM profs make classes arbitrarily hard. I only took a few STEM classes as an undergrad but the highest raw score in the class would often be like a 50 or 60% and that would get scaled to an "A." I'm sorry but if the best student in the class is getting only half of the test material right, that's probably a failure in pedagogy rather than a failing of the student body.
2. I don't believe those attrition rates are necessary. The top kids are better-prepared than ever academically. The Flynn Effect, etc., etc. The article cites a kid with an 800 math SAT, AP Calc BC, etc., etc. Someone like that should be able to get through a STEM program provided he puts in some decent effort. Compare the kids at elite universities today to 1960s-era Harvard and Yale, where the George Bushes and Al Gores of the world were admitted with mediocre SATs and grades. I remember awhile back a Harvard math prof saying the undergrads he gets today blow away where he was as an undergrad. The problem is not the academic rigor; it's the pedagogy. See point 1.
3. The problem is a combination of pedagogy and grading. Most of the STEM kids have ambitions. They realize that today an undergrad degree is not going to be the last stop for them. They have to get out of STEM to salvage the type of GPA necessary to get them into a decent MBA or law program.

That's a big deal too. You can be #1 in an engineering class with a 4.0 - GPA > 0. That's not acceptable to a lot of people. It's almost the opposite of "the smartest kid in the room" concept.

Its not necessarily a teaching issue. They are trying to mess you up and separate the excellent/good/average. My teachers always had wild trick questions on their tests -- always. That's not a failure to teach. That is just being malicious.

I think pedagogy is a pretty big factor.

The pacing of the course work is one key issue.

Another is the failure to recognize the amount of individual attention that should be present - probably 80% of first year STEM students get one on one attention in some form to really thrive, probably 20% get it. Without the tutorial/study group/office hour type of interaction, it is very hard to do well simply by attendin lectures and labs. But, very few programs actively insist upon that kind of interaction and instead almost all see it as "extra fluff."

Third, the GPA in courses model isn't a terribly useful one for these fields. Students need to take whatever time it takes to get near perfect mastery of one body of material and then move on when their ready. If only a small fraction of students are getting perfect scores than the material is going to fast for the rest of the class and the errors compound.

I’m sorry but if the best student in the class is getting only half of the test material right, that’s probably a failure in pedagogy rather than a failing of the student body

In the real world I'm pretty happy if I get half the stuff right on the first try.

I had a fairly rigorous high school education (old-school Catholic-style learnin') so when I went to college to study engineering I was prepared for the sheer volume of work that's heaped on you. Many of my peers, while very smart, were overwhelmed by the workload, especially if they had gone to a high school that tended to reduce coursework senior year.

Now I was less prepared for my first C on a test I studied my butt off for. It wasn't a smartest-person-in-the-room problem as much as a my-best-effort-is-barely-cutting-it problem. Luckily, once I got out of 400-person, poorly-taught intro classes this proved to be less of a problem. I do have a rather fond memory of sitting in Vector Geometry (required, whether you took it in HS or not) with a bunch of other freshman engineering students hours after we had all been destroyed by a chemistry test. We asked the professor (a very nice young guy with a thick Korean accent) when it would get better. He put the chalk down, gazed out the window for a moment, and turned to us and said "second semester, junior year."

It got a good laugh, but I think a little part of all of us died that day. Luckily, I had figured out things by second semester sophomore year, but man, that first year and a half were brutal.

rather then paying any attention to how hard the courses are, or how hard they should be, lets focus in a market oriented way and ask what the customer (hiring agent ) wants and needs.
some of em need rocket scientists (1), some of em dont,
In science, the ability to do math, at least in many areas of biology, is way, way over rated; there are many superb molecular biologists who went as far as freshman calc and no further

I work with a lot of engineers designing prototypes and products. Creativity in getting to a good design concept, which requires understanding a whole bunch of non math stuff, is a lot more important then FEA; you can always hire some math guy for the FEA; getting to a good design concept is hard

In any event, why is the ability to do math more important then the ability to grade a horse that you are thinking of buying ? Only cause technology has replaced horses, but hasn't yet replaced math; just wait a few years, and we won't need 90% of the people with math, you will just ask Siri's grand daughter to do the calculation
hello, JPL, this is perkin elmer in CT; that 500 million dollar spacecraft we built that you just crashed into guys are using english units, right...(looong silence)

I wouldn't trust some one with only math experience to do the FEA because FEA is a matter of applying known structural component models to designs by decomposition which requires little to no math, but instead an understanding of structure closer to linguistics. Structural components were developed from practice into rules of thumb - the mathematical analysis of the flying buttress was done several hundred years after their heyday as a means of reverse engineering them because the design rules were taught through apprenticeship and not from books, leaving voids in the knowledge as other building designs were adopted, or big government stopped funding those big projects.

And avoiding the mixed unit error is a lesson taught in high school intro to physics, so it has nothing to do with math.

For this niche, god created associates degrees. An associates degree in a STEM field is roughly comparable in economic value and rigor to a bachelor's degree in a non-STEM field.

I think math is critically important, even if you never formally solve another equation in your life. Calculus isn't just about teaching you methods for solving certain problems - really knowing calculus gives you insight. You develop an intuitive feel for things like rate of change, the result of exponential growth over time, and many other things. A solid knowledge of statistics in invaluable even for how it changes the way you think about problems and interpret data.

Math is the language of science and engineering. Just because we have modern tools that do the nitty-gritty work for us doesn't mean we can avoid learning the language.

I can understand weeding out STEM students to achieve higher quality graduates to match the job prospects of STEM jobs. I can't see pushing those students into journalism, English, psychology, etc.

When I'm down and feeling low, I do Google searches for people describing graduate school in psychology.

My experience as a mathematics major is that the real "ball-busters" are usually smaller classes at the 300 and 400 level, not the huge lecture hall classes like Calc 1 and Calc 2. At ASU where I attend anyone who wants a BS must take 371, "Advanced Calculus", which is an introduction to real analysis. This class had a 50% attrition rate and has a reputation as the gauntlet through which one must pass. Many people at that point elect for a B.A. in math.

Yes, I certainly do not recall first-year calc or physics as being particularly hard classes. In fact, I thought freshman physics was spectacularly boring. (I never took freshman chemistry, as it wasn't needed for a degree in math or computer science.)

I guess it's possible some schools intentionally make those classes hellish; but if you legitimately cannot handle the material in them, you probably aren't cut out for STEM...

Intro to Real Analysis isn't bad, the worst class I took as a math major was a small 400 level course in Algorithms for Symbolic Computation (essentially the algorithms behind symbolic computer algebra systems like Maple and Mathematica, as opposed to numerical systems like MATLAB). I really struggled in that.

Worst class I ran into as an undergrad was the 590-level Complex Analysis. I can remember hanging out with two other math honors students working together on the homework; we'd work for about five hours and were lucky if we solved one problem. It wasn't incomprehensible or anything, it just moved much faster than I could follow.

The subject material gets hard (and weird) in the upper division, and this is where the grinds are separated from the really brilliant. You can grind your way through calculus, but once you get to abstract algebra, topology, and complex analysis, high school "hit the books" skills that tiger-mom pounded into you aren't enough anymore. Also, those classes were the sort where ten pages of reading meant five hours of pain trying to figure out exactly how the proofs worked. But when you came up with a particularly elegant proof, you felt like you Accomplished Something.

My point above wasn't so much that calc, chem, and lower-division engineering physics was hard as much as it was taught awfully in big, research-oriented schools like UCB, and because it *is* somewhat harder than, say, freshman English or other big, "intro" courses, which are also taught in similar cattle-call fashion, you'll get very high drop-out rates.

As a geologist, ie a science legendarily weak in math, I think one of the problems is that the big intro science classes are often, especially at flagship institutions, set up in a sort of adversarial way. One of the fascinating things is how often we advise struggling undergrads to take things like general chemistry, especially the more quantitative second half, and physics at community colleges. My experience has taught me there is no real difference in result, but not having to compete with all the pre med students seems to really improve student performance.

I really don't think the problem is the students need to be first in the class, but rather the presence of pre med students, who basically need an A, means that the student-instructor relationship gets really adversarial, and this is reinforced by the institution. This creates a high stress environment and leads to a style of instruction that is detrimental to actually learning much of the material. No matter how rigorous a chem class is, we still end up correcting a lot of bad information in classes like geochemistry and mineralogy, because general chem is more of a hazing process than a learning experience.

This is aside from how chem labs seem to be designed to teach students how to commit academic fraud with their terribly designed experiments that teach little about actual chemistry and often demand results that are beyond the capability of student equipment, and taught by completely hands off lab instructors.

As to Calculus, it is hard, really hard, but at least in geology we for the most part allow our students to manage with a B or even a C, probably because the branches of geology that actually require the higher levels of calculus tend to attract the more math inclined students, and getting through Calc 3 at all suggests that you do understand calc 2.

The stories I could tell. Paul Rene Nichols at 2:39 above matches my experience.

My degree is in Nuclear Engineering. I wondered if the 'long death march' I encountered was peculiar to my University - but then ran into another from a different University. He related a calculus final that had 40 questions, multiple choice, no partial credit. The correct answer in 36 of the 40 questions was 'E: None of the Above'. That is just sadistic.

Another fellow related that he switched from MIT where the undergrad courses were taught by foreign TA's in barely decipherable english, etc.

I knew a guy who switched from Berkeley. But that was because he said the day he knew he couldn't go on there he saw two women, one with a 6 foot sub sandwich in her mouth and the other end on the shoulder of the other woman. Both were naked.

Sadly, those who pull such stunts in Berkeley aren't ever svelte sorority babes.

When I was a grad student TA, I had to teach some of those (elementary math) courses where I was told that typically 15% of the students got an 'F'. The university apparently used to take in too many students, and some of the math courses were *meant* to weed students out.

Then there were math courses for which I saw the same student taking the same course twice or thrice and often with a tutor - to satisfy the average grade requirements stipulated by their (typically business) major.
US universities are cruel to undergraduate students - it would have been more compassionate not to offer the "weed out" students admission at all.

STEM professors in my experience work hard to make the subject easy, not hard. Humanities professors try to toughen-up the material, as it is so easy to begin with.

STEM material is hard enough, thank you.

In the first year of my CS major I had trouble, as I had a difficult time coming to terms with these facts:

1. I was no longer the smartest person in the room.
2. I was having trouble understanding material, and I was actually working at understanding it.

Once I realized everyone else in the room was in the same boat as me, it made it much easier. Everyone pretended to understand the material, but they didn't.

How much of the specifics, not the process, you learned to get a CS degree applies to work, and how much did you acquire through experience before or after you studied CS?

And learning computer languages like Java and COBOL is not CS - learning grammar, parsing, reduction, production so you can create a new language or new compiler is CS, but that is done by maybe a thousand people these days in the real world, using methods and techniques that are considered proprietary and thus not published..

> methods and techniques that are considered proprietary and thus not published

One big problem in academic engineering settings is that industry is so far ahead of academia that it's hard for schools to keep up. It's partially because some engineering fields move fast (although this isn't a big deal in, say, civil engineering), and partially because realistic engineering projects are expensive, and so not done in academic settings where $10 million is a lot of money.

MIT and a few other engineering schools have looked into the problems of university engineering programs, which are also certain to be part of the problems in the sciences.

Roughly, engineering before WWII was something taught by older "mature" experienced engineers. These engineers taught the rules of thumb using more formal rules than standard in the field, backed by testing of the rules. After WWII, the Cold War, the booming economy, the GI Bill, created a huge demand for engineering class room seats, so younger engineers, and even engineering graduates, were recruited to teach engineering.

Lacking decades of experience with many projects completed to demonstrate not only mastery of the field, the graduate degree programs were established to eliminate the need to labor at engineering, and instead merely gain tenure by advancing the field through mastery.

Building ground breaking projects that advanced the state of the art before WWII was replaced with lab work to advance the state of the art in increasingly obscure engineering problems since WWII.

The result today with the real world experienced engineers largely gone from universities is engineering degrees are preparation for doing university research in engineering, with virtually no preparation for actual engineering in the real world.

A math major friend of mine dropped out of graduate school because the needed to pick an obscure math problem in an obscure useless branch of math that one of the math professors worked in to get a doctorate. Dealing in the real world math problems, which at the time was in operations research or database operations being advanced rapidly by computer tech that he was most attracted to was out of the question. None of the math professors were interested in computers at all - if they used computers, they were in computer engineering, not math. He dropped out and became a computer systems engineer, extremely well prepared by the rigor of his high school and undergraduate math study which provided the logical thinking and ability to convert reality into abstractions that could be computerized, just like those math word problems.

"Real" computer science is useless most of the time because the subject matter one studies is almost irrelevant to actual computer engineering the the real world - comp sci students who didn't program outside their school work at totally unprepared for working on a computer system project - they lack 90% of the skills needed, especially team work and project management and total system understanding.

The revitalization of STEM must and will occur because all the boomer scientists and engineers working in the real world are going to be retiring or dying, and STEM programs will be producing people to work in the real world instead of producing professors to compete for tenure in STEM programs. For example, after firing tens of thousands of mining engineers and scientists over the past three decades as price declines of imports killed US mining growth, now boomers retiring is threatening even the status quo. The oil industry is so desperate for scientists and engineers, laid off NASA people are being hired by the oil companies to run and improve the sensor technology, data collection, and analysis the oil industry needs today to exploit the high oil prices - most of the NASA people are boomers heading toward retirement.

Figuring out what exists 5000 feet underground requires combining math, geology, computer algorithms, electrical/electronic/electromechanical into a system - how do you work on these problems and get a math doctorate?

Don't get a Math doctorate if you want to work on these kinds of problems. The real problem is there's too much inflexibility between STEM programs - if you major in Math (like me) there's very very few options for graduate school programs, universities have made it much more difficult then it should be to switch to a different field.

We have a grad student at my school who is noe a Hydrogeology grad student because of this, he is goong to be one of the biggest stars in the whole field with some truly revolutionary work, but he couldn't interest a decent math program in his work.

A lot of grad programs don't even consider students who a degree in a different field. I tried to look into a graduate program in Industrial Engineering - focusing on operations research, and I was told by the dean in charge of graduate studies that they basically only consider people with undergraduates in Industrial Engineering, I don't see what the reason for that is but it's the way they do things.

Maybe you should try different schools. It is very commonplace to get a Masters or PhD in a different major than your bachelor's.

That is one good thing about geology, actual undergrad changed geologists are hyper aware of how little ww know in certain fields, there are all sorts of problems we solve with Nomograms and kludges because the actual training we have is as an applied science. Outside of mineralogy we learn the other sciences in order to attack geological problems, so we are delighted when someone with more specialization wants to join us, especially if they want to do it at the doctoral level. Just like medical research it is pretty open to other fields, because what kind of doctor knows about electronics or even molecular biology?

Of course when a high and mighty physicist comes down and makes decrees to us about what idiots we are, we tend to object, because like any applied science, the science is not at all pure, and a physicist is completely useless at an outcrop, unless they are also trained as a geologist.

This is why I enjoyed electrical engineering classes at community college so much more than the ones at university. The community college teachers were professionals hired from industry for their ability to teach what they knew. The professors in college were academics who were more interested in research than teaching.

It used to be very frustrating to take a class in circuit design, ace it, then open up a real-world device and discover that you had no idea why it was designed the way it was. Why is that capacitor there? How come this trace goes around in a circle? That component over there seems to have no function. Why is it there? The answer is that in the real world, you have to design for all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the simplified circuit designs you'd learn in school.

At college, the teachers could tell you, and were available to ask. "Oh, that's a little trick there - the guy who built that used a cap to filter the noise to the next stage, and that round trace is acting like a little inductor at these frequencies, so he's got himself a little filter. This was probably an addition to the design after their first tests in an electrically noisy environment, and the actual values chosen could have been trial and error."

Enough of that feedback, and you'd start to 'get it'. At university, the profs wouldn't even be around to ask, and the TA's would have no clue, because they're only a year or two ahead of you and have never worked in the real world either.

The desire to be the smartest one in the room is part of it. Going from high school where you're probably one of the smartest in the class to a university (especially a selective school) where you're middling is a big shock and is very demoralizing.
In addition the first year of most STEM programs really ARE very very boring and monotonous - sitting around doing calculus and linear algebra problem sets week after week is not much fun. Math and Science have more interesting first years (plus you can take some electives to get a bit of variety), Engineering is the absolute worst because not only do you get no electives in first year but the Engineering versions of Calc, physics, algebra, etc. are devoid of ANYTHING of potential interest - purely utilitarian.

It also didn't help for my confidence that my roommate in first year was a really smart guy who finished in the top 5 of the Putnam Contest.

I would suggest that there is a low correlation between ability at different levels of math. For me, analysis was a big brick wall where I suddenly had no idea what was going on.

Interesting discussion. I never even attempted to major in anything "serious." I started out as a music performance major, which didn't entail taking a whole lot of non-music classes. (I did have to take a math class, algebra 101, which didn't teach me anything I hadn't learned in middle school.) When I switched to pursuing a B.S. in arts management, I had to take a lot more non-conservatory classes. What I found (and this is keeping in mind that I was not at a top-flight university) was that "regular" classes (mostly humanities and business) were a whole heck of a lot easier than music classes. My GPA went up when I started taking classes like macroeconomics and finance, rather than music classes that required many hours of individual practice.

I was a music ed major. I won't say that regular classes were a lot easier, but they weren't a lot harder. Also, I was floored by how many hours performance students put into practicing.

In retrospect I wish I had studied computer science and economics as I'm now a tech entrepreneur.

In regards to the more difficult grading in STEM, another reason this pressures students to move into other majors is the risk of losing merit based scholarships and/or mom and dad pulling the plug on help with tuition. A psychological need to be the best may be a factor in the STEM attrition rates at elite schools, but I never got the sense as an undergrad in Electrical Engineering at RIT that there was some big competition on between my classmates to be the best. Everybody just wanted to graduate and get a job. A lot of the kids who I knew in STEM majors that dropped out didn't seem to struggle with the curriculum as much as they just didn't have the discipline not get drunk all the time or play computer games all day. I don't know if this immaturity is peculiar to STEM majors.

I think the gender imbalance in certain STEM fields is also a major problem, the prospect of being surrounded by a bunch of (frequently sexist) nerds for four years isn't exactly inviting for most young women, and actually it's not that enjoyable to be stuck in classes with the same 25 dudes for four years if you're a man either. Of course, I don't have a coherent explanation as to why the gender gap has vanished or even flipped in some STEM majors and not others.

You know, I got a pretty good scholarship when I went to school but you had to maintain a fairly high average (I think 85%) to keep it past first year (it was a certain amount per year). I didn't do that so I lost the scholarship, but I feel it's unfair if I had majored in some Arts program I would have had no trouble keeping that average.

Well ok obviously a penchant for getting drunk and otherwise screwing around isn't peculiar to STEM majors, I guess what I should have said is I saw an awful lot of STEM majors who basically would have been fine but for the fact mommy and daddy weren't around anymore to make sure they weren't playing Diablo (that's what it was in 2002) until four in the morning.

Yeah I slacked off a bit....I made it through though - not that it helped me in the end. The thing is in arts you can slack off and still pull off high marks.

I hate to say it, but it often is very helpful, but I have found that if you do the work enough you will eventually memorize it anyway, so it is usually a waste of time for undergraduates.

Except in math where it is pretty necessary, if you actually want to use math.


"Going from high school where you’re probably one of the smartest in the class to a university (especially a selective school) where you’re middling is a big shock and is very demoralizing."

But wouldn't that affect all majors pretty equally?

I think there's a bit more pride amongst people who go into STEM, they care more about being the smartest in the room then arts students. Also it's very easy to tell in STEM programs who is smart and who is not whereas in arts courses that's a bit hazier sometimes. And as for me, I always could get good marks in my arts electives ( I got like 98% in a Classics course once) with not much trouble so I still felt like the smartest guy in the room, but not so much in say Topology.

Nobody ever says "Classics in Western Philospohy is a total weed-out class - one third of the students get Fs!'

When it's very hard to tell the difference between someone who is eloquent and someone who is competent, it's a recipe for a soft program.

The other thing is I read as my own personal entertainment, and so someone like can prepare for arts courses just by doing what they do. On the other hand I don't do calculus problem sets for fun.

This is an interesting crusade wondering why people have difficulty with STEM subjects relative to other college subjects. Still, it seems like an exercise in avoiding the obvious. Science and especially math are both harder than other subjects for the majority of people. History, psychology, literature, sociology, and philosophy are all very similar to the sorts of mental work that smart people engage in just by virtue of being smart. This is not true of math. Intellegence is certainly necessary for math, but for other subjects it seems almost sufficient. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of adults have no occasion, let alone oblegation, to use any math more advanced than 7th grade algebra in the course of their entire non-academic life and it is little surprise that few people pursue subjects where this cognitive island is a necessary stop. It is also little surprise that the people that gravitate to it most are those students who have a comparitive disadvantage with the english expression that is ultimately tested in vitually every non-math subject.

How much evidence is there that they do? According to the only large study of grade inflation and GPAs across disciplines that I have ever seen, the lowest average GPA is handed out in natural sciences classes. In the study, social sciences classes actually had a slightly lower average GPA than engineering classes, both of which were about .2 of a grade point higher than classes in the natural sciences. Humanities classes had a .3 of a grade point higher GPA than natural sciences. This relationship has been stable since 1970 for all disciplines. To hear some people talk, engineering schools are routinely handing out Fs while all English majors receive As. Neither is true.

Link here:

When researchers have looked at who drops out of engineering school, the only consistent theme they see is that students with high verbal scores are quite likely to leave. Other things such aggregate SAT and high school GPA have a weak and sometimes non-existent relationship as to who leaves. A discussion of this can be seen in the recent paper, "An Analysis of the Effect of Cognitive Factors on Students’ Attritions in Engineering: A Literature Review" by Xiushan Jiang and Stacey Freeman. The conclusion that I draw from this is that people with other options quickly lose interest in engineering school. Intelligence play and work ethic play, at best, a modest role.

That's an interesting observation: "people with other options quickly lose interest in engineering school." along with people leaving who have higher verbal test scores. Specialization turns on the availability of other options. So, the question is: what would keep students with higher verbal in engineering school. Maybe a joint degree in business and engineering making it a 5 year program? Engineering and economics joint major? Engineering/comp sci and psychology for a major in social network analysis?

In other words, could you do joint degree programs that would keep engineers, and maybe attract non-engineers?

The rewards in most STEM fields are not that great, especially for someone capable of doing the work, yet not excelling in it, who also has high verbal ability. Unless they are very committed the benefits of dropping out and doing something else become very tempting when you reach the point where you start to grind. Suddenly a business degree starts looking pretty good, or even a liberal arts degree. Even just a couple of years in a STEM will give you a huge leg up in many careers when you are competing against people who have not studied anything so rigorous.

I stuck with engineering because it gives the most options, and added 30 credits of finance because it interested me. Anyone can do this.

Not necessarily--many schools limit finance and upper division finance classes to students who have taken all the prerequisites for admittance to the business school. Since I was a math major I was not able to take finance classes at my university (a large, public research institution and member of the AAU).

Will I donate money to my school in the future? Hell no!

So...we're talking about a stat that includes smart, high-achieving students, who bust butt, get into a great school, do a a science/math/pre-med major for a bit, and then switch to something else?

One might want to consider that students at schools like Berkeley also encounter truly thrilling, mind-expanding humanities courses, maybe for the first time. This, at the same time that they finally get some distance from family expectations.

This was me (minus the family expectations, sort of). Part of being ambitious was wanting to keep all my options open, so I was pre-med for a while. I did fine in all that, but after organic, etc., I looked at the time left I had left in school, and realized I cared more about Kafka and constitutions than spectrographs.

Mainly, I'm saying: it would be good to break those data up a bit more before all the deciding on causes + solutions.

Agree regarding the data analysis. You would want to know (1) freshman aspirations (e.g., pre-med) or not; (2) what qualifies as STEM and what are close substitutes that are STEMl-like that students may gravitate to; (3) job market prospects in STEM/non-STEM in junior year when students pick final major; (4) how you treat minors in STEM that may be all but comparable to full STEM degree for some occupations (eg, switch from biology to physical therapy or nursing).

And, besides, we are talking about a 13% difference. How significant relative to sample size in one state.

The article identifies grade inflation in the humanities as a possible cause.
So, maybe they need to grade inflate in the sciences?

This has been studied. All disciplines have experienced grade inflation. The gap between the disciplines has been stable since 1970, with natural sciences ranking the hardest, social sciences and engineering next hardest with an average GPA per class .2 higher than the natural sciences, and humanities ranking the easiest, with the average GPA being about .3 of a grade point higher than the natural sciences. Note that the difference in average GPA between humanities classes and engineering classes is about .1 of a grade point. This is not the chasm that people imagine it to be.

If you went to one of those schools, you'd be able to easily identify who winds up switching from Physics to Music.

It's the person who was a big fish in a small pond in high school, so they had an admissions advantage maybe they didn't deserve.

It's the person who had very supportive parents, but never developed the ability to operate without that support. Often they had a Tiger Mom. The pressure disappears and they self-destruct.

It's the person who got in for a reason other than their competence: affirmative action, athletics, talent, legacy.

It's alcohol or drugs or a really dysfunctional social life.

It's always a person who struggles in Physics. Nobody doing great switches out. Maybe they switch to engineering, but I've never met someone who dropped a major with a job at the end of it, in which they were doing great, for the hell of it. That's what double majors and minors are for.

I'm with J Cain. I went to Berkeley in the 80s and started in Computer Science. But Berkeley is a wonderful place, with lots of interesting things going on. I found that a different CS (Celtic Studies) was far more interesting to me personally. And it turns out that at least in the Bay Area, there's high demand for people who can a) communicate well, and b) understand technology, so getting a job was never an issue.

And I am utterly baffled by the people here who think that suddenly finding that you're not the smartest person in the room is a problem. That's just weird. Most of the people I knew in college thought that was one of the huge attractions of a place like Berkeley. It's a benefit, not a cost.

Okay, best Engineering as hazing stories, start:

The American GPA system is a paradigm of bad design. Scrap it in favour of something more rational.

Like what?

Separating teaching from testing- the universities teach, private institutions like The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (as an example) administer tests. This would solve a lot of US public high school woes as well.

Yes, and stop caring about the grades that freshmen get. They're hopelessly polluted by the sort of school they had attended, by the experience (often) of living away from home for the first time, and by the continuing immaturity of character and intellect. Base your measure of merit on how well they did in their advanced courses - elementary courses could be graded just pass/fail.

Sort out the labs - chem labs, for instance, should be done individually, with practical exams to show that you really can analyse solution A or synthesise compound B.

Separating the teaching and examining functions is a characteristic feature of how Oxford and Cambridge are organised - one of their stronger features, I'd say.

Not necessarily an endorsement, but in New Zealand, an A grade is about 60% out of 100% on their college entrance exams in each field and the average score is what matters. This creates an incentive to be really, really good at one subject, even if it means neglecting other fields quite a bit. If you get an 80% in physics (A++) and a 40% in English (C), this is equivalent to a 60% (A) in both.

To repeat what i said in response to Alex's recent post on education, I see international student breezing through masters degrees in engineering. They say that in their undergraduate degrees they have done a lot of this stuff. The key variable is that they do a lot of rote learning, the kind we frown upon. They literally memorize the bloody formula.

The good news is that they will be very competent worker bees in American industry.

The bad news is that proportional to their numbers, they are hardly likely turn into an Andy Grove, Jobs, or Gates. They lack social skills, and I would not want to hang out with them. Their kids will have good social skills and seriously disproportionate numbers will go off to med school to become non-scientist, rote taught, physicians.

Their grand kids will have good social skills, inter marry, and get liberal arts degrees. Maybe as long as we keep healthy levels of immigration, all will be well.

How is memorizing the formula helpful?

Reading the stats on the link (Why did us engineers have 10% of degrees in the mid eighties? What caused that, it sticks out) , it looks like we're in the same place we were in the 70s.

What I would like to add to the discussion is to ask the question: OK,if one accepts that we like to weed out people who do jobs that can cost people's lives (us engineers can cause massive problems if we make mistakes, obviously so can doctors), but what do we do to ensure that those who were pretty good, but couldn't hack it still end up in STEM type support fields (education, sales, communications) after their GPA takes a whack, or they just stop enjoying the central studies.

"OK,if one accepts that we like to weed out people who do jobs that can cost people’s lives (us engineers can cause massive problems if we make mistakes, obviously so can doctors)"

One of my favorite professors said this at a forum where the humanities professors and students were discussing ways to make math and science students more "well rounded": (not exactly word for word ... it's been over 10 years)

"If you are a theater major and your department waters down the course work and inflates your grades and you go on to act in shitty plays no one cares. If you are an engineer and you graduate as a well rounded but shitty engineer, people can die"

I earned a big fat C in his Aero-gas Dynamics class. That's what I get for taking a technical elective that sounded "interesting"

As a sophomore with a STEM major, I have witnessed washout rates of 60 plus percent. The main cause, far and away, was the lack of strong study habits in the students. Many of these full-time students thought 8-15 hours of weekly studying outside the classroom should be sufficient. This expectation was especially true among American-born students. In my Calculus III course, there are about 5 American-born students in the class of 40. This, at a school where foreign-born account for 20 percent of the incoming class.

Could you identify the school? Very few traditional 4-year colleges have an extremely high presence of international students at the undergraduate level. Harvey Mudd, an engineering school through and through, claims that 4.8% of its students are international. At MIT, which obviously has STEM and non-STEM majors, 8 percent of the undergraduates are international students. Carnegie Mellon, which is the highest I have seen, has 14% international undegrads. At Cal Tech 9% of the undergraduates are international students.

I do recognize that you have used the term "foreign-born" rather than international, but foreign-born is rather misleading. Many "foreign-born" students attended primary and secondary schools in the U.S. and would not generally be considered foreign at all. Many would be U.S. citizens. Considering that the United States has a foreign-born population of 12%, you would expect that quite a few "foreign-born" persons are as American as it gets. What I think we are talking about is students who come to the United States for undergraduate education in STEM subjects.

If you go to any Cal State campus, or the more Asian heavy less prestigious UC campuses this is self evident. First generation immigrants in sciences have an amazing work ethic compared to anyone who is not from that immediate background. It is also more striking the further down the totem pole you get. A student in STEM at a middling Csl State school is either a bit of a screw up or a grind, hopefully the screw ups will figure out how to stop screwing up, but the grinds are all either foreign, foreign born, or children of FOB immigrants.

The schools have to limit the number of graduates in those fields to help keep up their value. This is the same reason top schools don't expand much. To do so waters down their reputation and value. It is not that they couldn't produce more of like quality but that the demand wouldn't exist for them and wages would fall as a result.

Comparative advantage: for me, English, history, music and the like were much harder than STEM courses. Is this so unusual?

Not entirely. My boss says that one thing he looks for on resume is very high grades in STEM classes, and low grades in the others. He says that this points to engineering-minded students, whereas a study-holic/overachiever will have great grades across the board.

In other words, thank god for being able to take some electives pass/no-pass!

This is EXACTLY why getting a STEM degree is worthwhile - there you have it folks 'We don't want to hire the guy who had to STUDY hard to get his grades"


The problem is the squandering of all that enthusiasm. If these people went straight into the workforce, they'd probably have learned all the complicated math they ever needed in whatever job they were in. Now they're scared of it because it's too hard.

Universities just make people feel stupid.

The main problem is the program length. I think in the UK undergrads are 3 years (maybe I'm wrong here), 4 years is too much they just really want to pack as much as they can in but the majority of it is unnecessary especially once you have a solid foundation after the first couple of years it just ends up being an endurance test.

English undergrad used to be usually 3 years - many of the STEM subjects have moved to 4. In Scotland, it's 4 and 5 respectively.

Having gotten an engineering degree and seen a lot of people fall off (mostly freshman year) along the way...

1) Many just couldn't get it. High School is in large part just about showing up. There are a lot of people who got through it with great grades by working hard and memorizing things. When they got hit with Engineering Calculus or Physics II they just couldn't get it. Too conceptual. All the memorizing in the world didn't save them.
2) A lot were lazy, partying, or lazy partying college students. It's just easier to be a lazy slacker in other majors.

Do the science wash-outs transfer to economics?

Yes, quite a few of them actually. Not a bad decision really, you can kick ass in your economics courses and either go to grad school or professional school or you have a better shot at getting a job (because of your high GPA).

Not any more! Economics has proven to be too difficult.

No it's not. Especially undergraduate Econ is a big joke, I took a few classes as electives - including a 300 level one and it doesn't get difficult ever.

You are correct about undergraduate economics. Wasn't talking about that.

The basic problem is that STEM curriculum are too intensive, especially in the first year.

If you go into college taking the "normal" regime of calculus and calculus based physics at the same time for three semesters it is going to be extremely hard, and if you throw in chemistry for majors at the same time, it is even worse. Too much of the material is inter-related, so the penalty for the entire degree program for a week or three of stumbling in any one of the core classes in a critical semester when you're just getting used to college as well is too great because the material is so sequential.

AP Calculus is paced at about half the rate of college calculus and targeted at people closer to the top of their class, and lots of people who take it don't get any college credit. Is it any wonder that doing the material twice as fast with students who aren't as elite causes many to crash and burn?

I was a math major, but I had a couple of semesters of college level calculus under my belt before I took first year calculus based physics and calculus based econ classes as a senior in high school, and came into college with three semesters of calculus, linear algebra and discrete math plus a year of calculus based physics, so I didn't have to worry about stumbling in matters that were prerequisite to later classes while I was getting used to college. When I taught myself calculus, some parts went fast, but sometimes it would take me three or four weeks to master what a college setting would insist that you master in a single week. Learning these fields involves a fair amount of time when you are struck, interspersed with lots of smooth sailing. When classes are stacked on each other so intensely, mishandling any one of the stuck moments dooms your entire career.

Realistically, anyone who starts college without two semesters of college level calculus under their belt with a physics or engineering or math major is already on the almost doomed remedial track. Anyone who wants to do a math or physics or engineering field without that kind of background has a daunting challenge, and would be better off trying something less demanding in terms of pre-college preparation like computer science or biology.

The 60% crash and burn rate for pre-meds is much more surprising. The pre-med core of two years of college chemistry, a year or two of biology and maybe a smigen of math is far less intense than the math/physics/engineering track and the overlap of the first year college material with the high school curriculum is far greater. Somebody who finishes pre-calculus with good grades in high school, a couple of years of high school biology and a year of high school chemistry is well prepared for the pre-med curriculum. My understanding is that most of the pre-med dropout rate is driven by the chemistry requirement and this may simply be a product of pre-meds being people who don't have as good of an idea about the extent of the science basis of medicine as they should.

The focus on inserting more fun and interesting fluff into the curriculum in the linked article is basically wrong. The problem is not that what is taught is too theoretical or boring, it is that the pace is too fast for someone who didn't manage to get a fair amount of it under their belt before they even started.

The study of science may be hard, but there are some incredible possibilities for solving the corruption of power problem that are getting more and more within reach.

"Could it be that too many people like being the smartest one in the room? "

Here's Tyler projecting.

Can you see the reason why the result of this statement in Tyler's post turns on the composition of the OTHER students surrounding the students identified in this sentence:

"“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.”

Figured it out?

Here's a possible explanation of the 13% difference between Berkeley and CalState:

1. At Berkeley, if you take a high performing student, that student is competing with OTHER high performing students.
2. If you take a comparable high performing student at Cal State, that student is competing against other LOWER performing students.

Unless you control for the composition of BOTH populations, you will have this effect, particularly given that Berkeley admits higher performing students.

So, if you want to IMPROVE the performance of Berkeley students and keep them in STEM programs, you should admit POORLY performing students to make the Berkeley students stay in the STEM program.

Another way to do the same thing is to create a "synthetic underdog" with which the students can feel superior to and not get discouraged: for example, saying "You at Berkeley are so much better than CalState so your grade and performance is actually higher than other students in the universe.

Or, you can do as they do at CalTech, is make the first year pass/fail.

Frankly, the synthetic underdog is a better approach, and is probably why folks at some institutions come to believe their school is the best because they were innoculated with this "mental medicine" to prevent them from being too discouraged.

Or just inflate the grades in STEM to match how they have been inflated outside STEM.

But, KLO said earlier that the grades have been inflated to match.

The comments posted so far contain an extraordinary amount of wrong thinking and whining.

The rigour and work demands of non-STEM subjects should be raised until they match that of the hardest STEM courses. This is essentially the case here at Oxford, where in English Lit, History, PPE, or Classics one has to write four or five lengthy essays per week, be able to read major works in a single day and prove one's understanding in one-on-one tutorials where one can be rigorously grilled by the tutor, and have high level technical skills, such as command of multiple languages like Latin, Greek, Old English, or Norse. The failure, transfer, and degree classification statistics are broadly similar across the humanities and sciences (with the exception that sciences have thicker tails of first-class and third-class degree results as it is easier to either completely understand, or completely fail to understand, mathematics or physics, than it is, say, literature).

Blaming bad teaching in STEM subjects for the failure rate is particularly absurd, since anyone with any talent for physics, for example, can pick up one of the many good books and teach themselves a subject like electromagnetism or statistical physics much more easlily, and to a far higher level than is required to ace a standard undergraduate degree course, than if they rely on lectures. In fact a good diagnostic for a likely poor student is their reliance on lectures, rather than independent learning and thought.

The problem is that far too many students are being encouraged to go to university, where they would much better suited to non-university vocational courses. Only students with a true understanding of a subject, the point of an academic education, should be allowed to get a degree.

Pedagogy issues in STEM are comparable to those in foreign languages, which are also highly sequential and benefit immensely from a good head start before starting college, but not in other subjects.

Despite having taught myself a lot of math, bad teaching is a big factor in STEM. But, the bad pedagogy isn't so much about bad instructors (although at graduate oriented institutions with TAs that have poor English skills that it is factor), but about bad educational models discipline wide that are accepted as sufficient and used as a model in almost every college in the country.

Rigor in non-STEM majors is about breadth of knowledge and there is far less of a consensus about what excellence involves. Rigor in STEM majors is about depth of narrow knowledge and there is a great consensus about what excellence involves.

Well Since a degree became the basic requirement for a middle class job those days are long gone in most places. Also I don't think many are complaining about teaching rather then structure, and I'm complaining about program length. And who is going to want to read a book on electromagnetism, the reason I pay for these lectures is because the material is just way too boring to want to learn on your own. Humanities will always be easier for most people because many people are willing to read as an entertaining activity - not many people do calculus problems for fun.
Any way I know someone who went for a DPhil at Oxford, they went there because they couldn't get into Harvard or Princeton.

If you don't find reading good electromagnetism or calculus books fun you should not be doing these subjects. You almost certainly do not have the motivation or talent in those fields to do well, or to take you through the difficult times in your work life. Many bright people are not suited to an academic degree, and choose courses based on a false perception of what will be "useful" for them. A college degree is not necessary to have a successful, happy life. You should listen to Steve Jobs' advice and do what you love. That was one of my points.

Another point was that humanities and sciences can be taught and tested at the same level of rigour. There is no absolute problem with 50% of STEM students failing or transferring out of the subject, as long as 50% also fail in the humanities. This is the way it should be. Of course it is harder to judge absolute standards in some, but not all, humanities subjects. But this is usually not a real problem at undergraduate level where the difference between an "A" or "B" grade essay
is pretty easy to judge.

And by the way, I know people who went to Princeton and Stanford for PhD's because they couldn't get into Oxford. Anecdotal "evidence" is meaningless.

Ah, you're speaking of some hypothetical world that doesn't exist. Many people go to school for engineering for strictly career reasons or accounting, I don't know about the UK but where I'm from you can't become an accountant without an academic degree in accounting. The reality is a degree is a now the absolute basis for any decent career and to tell people "oh unless you're willing to spend hours reading a Thermodynamics textbook and teaching yourself you have no right to do a university degree" - I made it through my program, although I rarely paid attention to my lectures so maybe you have something there.
But let's get real this is no longer the days when you could go without a university degree - more and more professions are become bureaucratized and requiring formal education. This is not a good thing in my opinion but it's the reality. Maybe the UK is different, that's not how it is here.

You're right that now we live in a world where getting a university degree has, absurdly, become a requirement for almost all lines of work. This was not the way it always was, however, and in my opinion we are living through a temporary, anomalous 50-year period where there is a form of "qualifications arms race". Since, by arguments that Tyler himself has made (as well as many others, eg, in Brynjolfsson and McAfee's "The Race Against the Machine") almost all middle level professional jobs, including most of those in accounting, law, engineering, and much science R&D will be elliminated by intelligent systems, the remaining opportunities will be areas where deep understanding or high-level decision-making or creativity are required, or cultural or personal needs are fulfilled. The deep-understanding and decision-making parts of this might need serious degree-level training that still enables a few to out-compete the machines for jobs, but in many of the other areas, maybe excepting a "caring" profession like nursing, I don't see how anything that can be taught by a degree to most of the population will survive the competition from intelligent systems which will learn better and more reliably.

If you accept this thesis then most degrees will become "useless" and not worth the extraordinary expense. Only those people on the tail of the distribution with the ability and desire to withstand the most rigorous training will benefit from a degree. For most people the qualifications arms race will be lost to the machines, and so competition among people will switch to something else.

So we need to think about what, in the long term, will occupy most of the population.

This actually made me laugh, thanks. I know numerous Oxbridge twats at work at not one of them commands multiple languages and their writing skills compared to a kid from Northwest Nazarie University (where?!) is indistinguishable except for the additional 'u's that reveal their English influenced education.

I'm very pleased to hear it cheered you up.

Regarding your Oxford colleagues, maybe they are ill-educated "twats". Oxbridge makes mistakes as do the Ivy League and other top schools in the USA. Or maybe they graduated before the 1990's when the examining system changed and Oxford humanities degrees were much easier to get, and with much less work. The point is that now the rigour of humanities degrees are approaching those of the STEM subjects, and can and should do so in most universities. This would address the most important problem associated with high failure rates
in the sciences, namely the unequal playing field that presently exists vs students in the humanities. So do you have anything substantive to add?

Or just possibly, from the evidence you present, your company likes hiring "c***s".

Again, my degrees have been much harder than the jobs I've had that required them.

Honestly, I don't understand why all this is a problem. Not everybody is cut out to hack everything. For all its faults, US higher education is so diverse that many will find something they're relatively good at. It's not as though we all had to pass the civil service exams in the Chinese Empire! Yes, our incomes will differ. Such is life.

Well first of all many people COULD hack STEM programs if they were designed better, and people want decent jobs with prospects and vanishingly few fields today even give the hope of that.

If the programs were designed right, I could hack them all; And with different designs, someone else could hack them all!

Go forth and compete.

This is neither here nor there any way since I did hack it, the big argument is, however, that contrary to pundit opinion average STEM grads are at a big disadvantage to humanities grads because so much hiring is based on pure grade comparisons.

But for different types of jobs!

Not in all cases: e.g. Med school

And, where it is true, considering the average SAT scores of STEM are higher, is it a good idea to push people from STEM into those other kinds of jobs? Or, should we graduate more STEM vs journalism for example.

It is not like we are going to stop producing people. So, it's not just more STEM or less STEM. It is more journalsts or fewer journalists.

I started at a fairly selective engineering school (Rose Hulman Inst of Tech). After my sophmore year, I found that to get an engineering degree would require work, and swapped to a much easier school and major and didn't have to study (and got hired as a tutor and grade papers not in the same classes).

The quality of life improvement was well worth it, and economics has proven to be a decent career, thus far.

Granted the frequent saying was D=diploma at the engineering school (where grades seem to matter less than getting the degree). It was a pretty major adjustment that I couldn't just listen in class and ace the subject, and it was a very welcome change back to that. Looking back I think the pass/fail first year at CalTech seems like an excellent idea.

My C engineering major friends couldn't get jobs in engineering. One went and sold cars because he couldn't find a job with his degree.

But would they be better car salesman with a journalism degree?

People don't care if they are the smartest in the room they just want the best grades. That's in part because parents and professors (in general) don't have much regard for B and C students. They'd rather lavish attention of A students. If everyone got a message, much earlier on, that being a B student was perfectly fine, we'd have more STEM graduates.

Well this is fundamental problem, I don't know how to change it.

And neither is this a problem: If that's what they want, they can get it! However, the jobs the A's in Women's Studies get will differ from the A's in Microbiology. One hell of a way to purchase self-esteem in my opinion; drugs would be far cheaper. Bu that's none of my business!

Yeah the A's. I'm talking about the Bs. The jobs of the B students in Sciences will be the same as the As in Humanities and Social Sciences - getting an A in the sciences is much more difficult then in the humanities but only the A students are ever going to be considered for the science jobs.

What? Do you know anyone who has applied for CS/EE type jobs? With "bad grades"?

I know a handful of recent grads from my school who made it out with below 3.0 GPAs, some squeaking out barely above the minimum for a diploma. All of them make better salaries that *any* humanities grads that I know, and all of them had *no* trouble finding work, even though they've all graduated in the last 2 years.

"Only A students considered for science jobs" might apply to people looking for jobs as PhD students. For jobs in the industry this isn't the case, in my experience.

Yeah me. Although my grades weren't THAT bad - although I have a math degree, I think Engineering degrees are fine but the idea that all STEM - especially Math and Science are of any value career-wise is largely false (except for superstars). A Math or science degree is basically as useful as a humanities degree but much more difficult.

somaguy - this is not really so. Ph.D. admission hinges most on research experience as expressed in a candidates letters of recommendation. Grades and GRE's are definitely less important.

Anyway, if you're applying to Ph.D. programs in order to get a job, you're an idiot. The programs are harder to get into than most jobs, pay far less and require incredible working hours. Ph.D.'s do not improve lifetime earnings versus working five years in industry instead.

Maybe in engineering employers look at grades. I have not really seen this in biological and physical sciences. Literally nobody has ever asked me about my grades. What has mattered more is the fact that I went through a rigorous science curriculum and that I have learned new ways to think and approach problems.

I'm currently reading Kahneman's new book and it makes me wonder if the Berkeley student in the example does worse because Berkeley students suffer from ego depletion (for whatever reason, maybe the stress of not being the smartest in the room, maybe extracurriculars): they end up not studying because they don't have the willpower reserve.

And I think the "death march" crack lends credence to the theory that college is mostly about signalling. The idea that somehow these students are still deserving of science and math degrees after being washed out by *introductory* science and math courses is, at best, funny. Even the high school preparation doesn't seem to have prepared anyone that much. Probably more signalling.

signalling that our high schools, even our elite ones, are truly awful.

If one is just wanting to be top of the class, they miss the point. It is about gaining knowledge and skills and learning how to apply them.

I received my degree in Mechanical Engineering. I got off to a slow start and I had other challenges as well. I did not come from wealth so I had to work and make money to stay in college. My Dad was terminally ill through much of my college years. It took me a while (~2 years) to learn how to study as high school did not prepare me for the level of dedication required in college. I never thought I was smart. However, I figured out after a few years that hard work (practice) made the difference.

I remember my professor in Fluids Mechanics stated that "the work ethic of students was not where it needed to be." At midterm, I held the top grade of B+ (I still remember my mistake that kept me from an A). I saw 20% of the class walk out of Fluids class that day because they had no chance of passing the class. So from my perspective, I believe the drop out in STEM is due to laziness. There is willingness of a student to take the path of least resistance. Often at the end of each quarter there was talk of who the "easiest" professors were. I took the tough ones because they made me learn and they taught outside of the text book. If I obtained a degree at a highly ranked engineering school, most "truely" smart students should be capable as well. Really, is "smart" what you know or how you apply what you know?

In another case, I was walking with a fellow student who said that fellow students were going to complain about our Calculus Professor who handed out a top grade of a B for the quarter. He asked me to join them. I told him, I got a B. The drop out rate is also due to entitlement thinking. Many students will rather blame the professor than themselves. They don't reflect and make adjustments like I did to my study habits.

I learned so much. I had to give up a big part of my social life (a long distance relationship helped keep me focused) and I endured many sleepless nights as this is when I "practiced" problem solving. Today I work for a profitable manufacturing company where I held the title of Engineering Manager and today I am the Factory Manager. I took the tough professors who taught outside of the text book. I persevered and worked so very hard. Today my wife who teaches college English often uses me as an example when her students make excuses regarding being prepared or not turning in papers on time. She witnessed what I went through. She worked hard as well to get her PhD in British Lit. while having two children during the process. There is very little excuses if you are willing to work hard for it.

The drop out rate is due to the quality of student, nothing more and nothing less.

"The drop out rate is due to the quality of student, nothing more and nothing less."

Yes and no. First you are assuming that ability in class is linear and exactly correlated to ability in the industry. That is not the case. Also, the dropout rate is an arbitrary choice by the department on how many students they want to allow through. It was amazing that all the seats in our classes were always full. Adding 10% in a class of 30 students is 3 more desks. Adding 40% might be another section of the class. They could do this tomorrow.

As an aside, it always irked me how the first couple exams were graded on a curve, then you'd have 20% of people drop the class and then the subsequent exams were graded on a curve with no recognition of the survivorship bias that the bottom 20% supporting the real distribution had left.

For all the worry and debate about improving higher education, here's one thing that is comforting - there's no shortage of ideas for how to do it.

True, but isn't it pretty straight-forward, non-radical, and easily doable that, say 10-20% of the people that are pushed into education (high attrition rate for teachers) and journalism (heard of the internet) might be better off for themselves and for society if they stayed in math and science based courses that they really are capable of but can't get the same GPA as elsewhere on the same campus?

It probably doesn't help that the Al Gores of the world have spend the last decade telling kids that science is nothing more than "blaming corporations for everything, including -- seriously! -- the weather."

Lord knows how many would-be journalism students, driven by their passion to blame corporations for things like parking lots, were diverted into physics courses out of their passion to blame corporations for hurricanes. And then they crushed their skulls against the hard, cruel, realities of math. Ouch. Not for the squeamish, I can tell you.


Yeah because THAT'S what happened.

The question for me is: why are humanities degrees so easy? They should not be. I have seen people ace humanities classes with vast different levels of understanding and work ethics. A college degree should be a difficult thing to achieve.

The question for me is: why are humanities degrees so easy?

Because existing humanities professors are, on average, not particularly smart, so they have courses and scholarly output for others who are not too smart, to produce copies of themselves. Positive feedback loop that can only be broken by saying "enough is enough" and cutting out all the bullshit fluff from universities.

Pardon me, but this is the sort of bullshit that only someone who has not been through a real liberal arts education can spout.

I don't see any numbers for people who drop out of English Lit.

It teaches you to communicate, reason, and understand the background of our society. (Not even talking about my degree, which was different.) We don't do manufacturing that much, anymore. Ops folks are highly valued, but that is becoming winner-take-all, too. Engineers are cheaper in a lot of other places - I know this, first hand.

I'm pretty sure lawyers and educators are next. The best will, of course, survive.

Personally, I spent 20 years specializing. And now I'm generalizing.

[English Lit class] teaches you to communicate, reason, and understand the background of our society.

Pardon me but only someone who has gone through a liberal arts education without ever getting a real one can spout such nonsense. Most people I know who are excellent at reasoning and understanding what's around them have not gained this ability from liberal arts education. To the contrary, most people I know with liberal arts education can barely think for themselves (spouting claptrap propaganda is what they are good at, usually).

Here is a first random example of the research by a random faculty from a random Harvard humanities department:
"Current Project: Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (2010) : a cross cultural exploration of the conceptions of public freedom at the intersection of aesthetics and politics."
Now, WTF could it possibly mean and what are the chances that any of it has any value to a society?

This post, by a professor of non-science, suggesting "smartest kid in the room" explanation, is pretty funny.

1) Since this is an economics blog, is econ considered STEM?

2) Why study STEM where you start lower on the social totem pole (nerds/geeks?) and middle at best on the pay scale (high starting wage but tops off rather quickly), when finance is near the top in compensation and social prestige (even with OWS and the general bank-hating mood). In STEM, if you fail, you lose. In finance, if you win, you win big, if you fail, you also win big.

3) They say there's a shortage in STEM work talent (ask Bill Gates). If the supply is low and demand high, shouldn't there be higher wages? Finance doesn't exactly have a small labor pool (easier to get finance/business degree than STEM), demand isn't nearly as high, yet the compensation is off the charts. Why this paradox?

1) I wouldn't consider Economics STEM

2) Going for a STEM career is (or is perceived to be) less risky. The finance jobs you're talking about are NOT easy to get and are basically only open to graduates of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford. Hiring in high finance is largely based on being the "right" kind of person from the right family and educational background. Sure there are Quants but those jobs aren't at all easy to get either and the typical finance person is not a quant. The vast majority of people majoring in finance are never going to get anywhere near those big Goldman Sachs jobs.
Although this does tie into my point that because STEM employers are so ridiculously picky about who they hire and non-STEM employers care mostly about grades, getting a degree in finance or business is probably a smarter move careerwise then a STEM degree (with the possible exception of Engineering)

3) There is NO shortage, this is a lie that has destroyed many lives. The reason why there's high salaries in finance, however is a much much more complex topic and has nothing to do with straight markets (the bankers were bailed out - compensation on Wall St. has very little to do with actual long-term performance).

There is no paradox because there is no shortage.

Nothing is hard to learn if you like it and everything is hard if you don't. Because we are told math and science majors earn more or because it has higher status, it attracts a lot of people who find it painful to learn and so after a while no matter how smart they are, can not keep up with people who think it is fun.

True story, a guy 'washed out' of our class and went to another major. Later we both went to work for the same company in basically interchangeable jobs. I'm back in academia and he's still a the company. I see him occasionally because he does the campus recruiting.

As a person doing his Masters in Eco, I sympathize with the desire to not do maths.

I don't think anyone has mentioned this, but there is one area of the Humanities that is as difficult and rigorous as STEM: foreign languages. A foreign language class can be graded on a curve (but so can Advanced Calculus), but otherwise there's no fudging the results, and it takes major work to master the material. At the U. of Mich I recall a number of Bright Young Kids whose 4.0s were ruined by bad grades in Spanish, which is generally reckoned the easiest language to learn (and in the US probably the most useful). Yes, there are occasional exceptions-- I'm one, since languages come easily to me (I did both Russian and ancient Greek in college, easy A's for me), but I've found that most STEM-capable types are none too language-savvy. I even had a programmer acquaintance offer to pay me to assume his identity and take a Spanish class for him at a community college so he could finally get his bachelors.

Languages tend to be really poorly taught across the board due to the mindset that drilling students in grammar is the best way to go about it, this is another issue though but I think languages are easier to learn on your own then in a class.
I don't think a lot of humanities programs require second language courses or at least not many of them at all.

Possible reasons for the difficulty of those classes:

1. Weeding out: probability <0.1.
2. Poor teaching by grad assistants: P<0.2 (in my case)
3. Poor teaching by professors who would rather research: 0.5
4. Poor teaching by professors because of poor feedback mechanism: 0.8
5. Classes taught as if students expected to become academics, not technicians (in the broad sense of the word): 0.9
6. Material is inherently difficult: 0.85
6a. Material is inherently difficult and necessary to understand higher level, sometimes counterintuitive results: 0.9
6b. Engineers and scientists need the skills that come with the understanding of the math to be able to analyze designs, i.e. ruthless regard for model limitations, assumptions, correct results, and details (like getting the signs correct) because these things matter *more* in the real world than on the test: 0.98

With respect to the smartest person in the room, I'm not so sure it's a comparative thing as it is a personal need to be able to accomplish things with little effort. The research by Carol Dweck (covered by Po Bronson) indicates that the constant praise in post-Spock (Ben, not Mr.) parenting and teaching models leads students to think that their success is ability-driven, not effort-driven. They therefore avoid risks to their reputation, especially when encountering a subject that requires some effort.

You know what though it's really not that these courses are all that hard (some of them are but mostly it' just a lot of work), it's that getting high marks in these classes kind of classes is hard to do - it'd difficult to get an A. Now you might say not everyone deserves an A and that's true but when you have a job market setup where every employer only wants to hire A students then it's a REAL problem.

science been described in many ways- best is likely science as a method. sup?

One theme I'm seeing here is that pre-med and the requirement to get crazy-high GPA's to get into med school is distorting the STEM fields.

Question: How much of the GPA requirement for med school is the result of intentional efforts to limit the number of people going to med school, and therefore limiting the number of doctors and maintaining high salaries for doctors? How much influence do organizations like the American Medical Association have over GPA requirements for med school admission?

I remember when I was in college, everyone wanted to get into occupational therapy, because the rumor was that OTs had easy jobs and were paid extraordinarily high salaries. And strangely, OT had one of the highest GPA requirements in the college. I remember thinking at the time, "I wonder if that's a coincidence?"

For those who have been to med school, is it really so hard that you need to have a near-perfect GPA in pre-med to survive it? If it's very difficult, is the difficulty due to the fundamental nature of the work, or is it an artificial difficulty meant to weed out people and thin the herd?

As a high school math teacher and tutor, I can attest that the roots of this run deep.

* Few high school math courses are taught with the rigor necessary to pass a college math course. I've seen multiple students elect the AB Calculus course because they did not care to stretch themselves for a weaker grade in BC Calculus, then struggle in their first try at integral calculus in college. Those electing to fight through BC Calculus have had a far easier time. Those sequences that do not lead to an AP exam are watered down even further.

* The high school curriculum emphasizes the use of graphing calculators. Many college courses are still taught without. That is a tough adjustment for students who have learned to reach for technology!

* A grade of 4 on the AP Exam does not necessarily demonstrate proficiency in the subject, at least not at the level demanded of STEM majors. Such students ought to expect to retake the course in college.

Maths is what scares me most in my studies of economics:

Probably a good time to remember that Bill Gates went to Harvard intending to major in math. He dropped out (in the first quarter or two) when he realized he'd never be more than a (relatively!) mediocre mathematician. It didn't hurt that he was also offered a job that didn't require a college degree at all (writing BASIC for the Altaire.)


When I was a freshman at Yale in the fall of 2000, I was a biology major on the pre-med track. I really wanted to do medical research, as I had done at a university lab for two summers in high school.

Unfortunately, I was ill prepared for Intro Chemistry. I had never learned how to study before college. In high school, I had gotten straight As by simply paying attention in class. College was a rude awakening, especially in a large class where most of the other students had already taken AP Chemistry. That course hadn't even been offered in my high school. I got a C that semester.

Over the next two years, I taught myself how to prepare for exams -- mainly by trial and error. Unfortunately, by the time I reached my junior year, I realized that my GPA (3.1) was too low to get into a decent medical school and that I would need to rethink my career. I became an economics major (ha) and went into finance. It had nothing to do with how challenging the classes were -- it was simply a pragmatic decision. Top business schools would accept students with modest GPAs, whereas medical schools and law schools would not.

I have a great career in banking now, and my compensation is probably much higher than it would have been had I gone down the STEM path. I was also one of the top students in my MBA program. Believe me though, I would trade it all for the opportunity to go back with the study skills I now possess. Science is still my passion, but unfortunately my window to turn that passion into a career faded away in those first two years of college.

maybe science teachers try to limit the number of grads, to keep wages for STEM grads high, just like MDs, CPAs etc

Maybe it's just as simple as that it's a tough area to begin with and some are just not cut out for it. And a school that has a curriculum that encourages students will obviously have better results.

Maybe it's just as simple as that it's a tough area to begin with and some are just not cut out for it. And a school that has a curriculum that encourages students will obviously have better results.

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