Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Innovating with the Best of Intentions

Last week, the New York Times published an article on how some university professors are revamping their curricula to make them more appealing and to keep students from switching majors.

In a brief and non-exact summary, the article states that students defect because science is "too hard" and that they are lured by higher grades in other, presumably easier, disciplines. Others leave because they find their passion in other fields or realize that others will lead more directly to higher paying professions.

One university dean explains that an intensive stretch of theory-based courses during the sophomore and junior years represents a "weak link"in their curriculum. Sigh! ...if students could only make it to their senior year, they'd realize how GREAT science is!! As an example of this, MIT, with a curriculum inclusive of independent projects and international travel, is held up as a beacon of how to do science education "right".

Readers it seems are skeptical. In their letters they suggest that tying uninspiring science curricula to STEM dropout rates is overblown. For example, the authors of one letter remind that science is just as hard as it was 30 years ago and just as hard as it is in India, China, or Germany. They attribute the leakage to "the widening gap (both in compensation and respect) between careers in the classroom and careers in industry" that has proffered under prepared high school graduates. Another says that students actually "wise up" to their future prospects. While in some nations pursuing science is a way out of poverty, in the US, it's likely a way into it. Finally another blames the lack of classroom innovation on the government's use of immigration policy to keep college science classrooms full.

Truth be told the humanities continue to survive despite poor pay and job prospects. And just as a English major convinced that she's the next Maya Angelou won't be deterred, neither will a physics major who is convinced she's the one to one-up Albert Einstein. It's also just as likely that those marginal students concerned by future job security and pay will drop out of a History major (almost) as quickly as they'll drop out of Math.

So, it's my guess that trying to use the curriculum as an instrument to keep the masses engaged, may not make the best policy.

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