Is science too hard or are other courses too easy?

I’ve long been of the opinion that in high schools a lot of student eschew computer science and other hard science courses because they are looking for easier grades. Today I read an article that suggests this is a real problem at the university level as well. It appears that students flock to courses where they can get an easy A to make their transcripts look good. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses tend to have lower grade averages and so become less attractive. There are a number of possible reasons for this difference given in the article. One is that in the STEM subjects some type of rigorous thinking causes faculty to want to weed out “the weak” and those who are not really dedicated to the subject. I’m not sure that is completely the case. Oh sure there may be some like that but in general I think the problem has different causes.

One problem, if you want to call it that, for STEM courses is that there are right and wrong answers. In the humanities there are gray areas. It’s a lot easier to give partial credit or accept an argument as well stated if different in conclusion. Not so in the sciences and math. So it is hard to inflate grades in the STEM subjects. I also think that we don’t teach our lower level courses right. The article points out that:

Math and science are taught “vertically,” meaning students are often made to slog through two years of large, formulaic introductory courses that teach fundamentals before they get any taste of the hands-on work that makes a career in science attractive to most scientists. In the process, students seldom form any bond with the scientists teaching the course.

I think this is true. While we like to think that education is not about being fun the truth is that courses being taught by someone who is enthused about the material and who communicates that enthusiasm well do make for fun teachers and fun courses. All too often, especially at the university level, the first few courses are taught without enthusiasm by professors who would rather either be doing their research or teaching the more advanced (and so more exciting) courses. That is something we have to think about.

Comments (1)

  1. lynn says:

    Interesting. I found that my college courses in Chemistry regretfully focused in on memorization and survey of technique instead of attempting to build a cohesive set of tools for logical deduction. And I have an MS in the subject! It seemed to me that many of the profs I worked for and took classes from had a system of logical deduction in place, but they had a very had time comunicating it or they took their understanding for granted. The curriculum didn’t help either. Most of the freshman took general chemistry which is basically a survery of acid/base/salt chemistry and does a very poor job preparing the student for a deeper understanding of the subject. In a rush to get the student into the ‘game’ of doing checmical reactions, oxidation-based chemistry is used to teach basic chemical reactions. The only problem is the oxidation-based chemistry is a high-level abstraction that work only on a subset of scenarios. (It’s like VBscript.) It doesn’t work for organic chemistry which relies on a better understanding of bonding and chemical relativity.  I would suggest that the introductory curriculum be revised to include an understanding of bonding and chemical relativity at it’s core, and that oxidation-based chemisty be taught as one way to solve a problem. I would include an introduction to organic chemistry bonding in the 100 level courses and teach more advanced deductive patterns such as ‘hard-soft’ acid-base theory. Doing this would equip the serious student with a better pattern for solving chemical problems of today, instead of problems that are 150 years old, without neglecting the rigor needed to produce a success chemist. However, that would take an instutional paradigm shift in the profs for that to happen.