I’ve been curious about this topic for some time now… It’s difficult to explain what it is scientists, engineers, and mathematicians do to prospective students of all ages. Among looking for grad school humor I stumbled across a comedian/PhD named Adam Ruben who wrote an article ranting about science demonstrations to younger students: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2010_07_23/caredit.a1000072
I think he’s being a little aggressive to make a point, but it does bring up the question, “What are good demonstrations of STEM work that a) Get students of all ages (especially middle school) interested in engaging in STEM, and b) Provide a realistic view of what to expect?”
I read another article in the past few months that discussed the faults of K-12 math and science education that tends to discourage everybody, so only a small fraction that are “naturally inclined” towards math and science will stick with it and succeed. I can’t seem to find it, but I’ll be sure to pass it along if I do (it should be buried somewhere on phds.org). This one (http://www.access.gpo.gov/congress/house/science/cp105-b/science105b.pdf) kind of hints at similar ideas on page 62.
From what I can gather there are two issues:
1) High school juniors and seniors don’t know what engineers do. I had a difficult time telling other people what an electrical engineer does until about a year and a half ago. Even today talking with people at church there are misconceptions of what ECEs do within engineering. When someone complains about their circuits class and I tell them that I enjoy circuits and I’m usually pretty good with them I get some response back, “Yea you like it so much you majored in them.” The truth is very little of modern EE is about designing circuits, rather it’s about how you transfer information.
2) By the time the choice to study “hard” math and science classes comes students are already uninterested from earlier years. I have to be careful here because I don’t think this is a problem with teachers (I respect and value teachers), but there is something missing from formal education that should interest young students in to pursuing math and understanding of the world. Young kids usually want to be a fireman or a police officer. Nothing is wrong with those professions, but I’ve never heard a little kid say that they want to be an engineer. To be fair, I guess a lot of kids want to be astronauts and that’s kind of close.
I think the long term of building STEM students starts at younger ages than colleges and departments like to focus on (for good reasons, they can’t do everything). Fortunately there are programs like BEST and FIRST that target the younger students at a time when the choice to go deep in to math and science is made. Hopefully they succeed and the STEM fields grow (and more younger girls are brought in to the fields).
On a side note—I think all of last year’s graduating ECE class either had a job within 3 months of graduation or was going to grad school. That has to be a pretty strong recruiting point. Sorry for the huge reply :-)
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