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.