YAHANDA: De-thorning the STEMs

The University should do more to foster interest in science and math-related courses

Preparing American students for STEM fields — that is, subjects falling under the categories of science, technology, engineering and math — has become a major preoccupation for the Department of Education. Currently, only 16 percent of high school seniors are both interested in a STEM career and considered proficient in mathematics. Given the rapid increase in STEM jobs estimated for the next decade, American high schools need additional help in order to raise interest in and train students for STEM fields. There are programs at the University that may offer such educational opportunities.

Admittedly, the aforementioned 16 percent statistic may not accurately portray the dearth of students who will ultimately enter a STEM field. College is a time for academic exploration, and many students may find themselves more drawn towards math and science than they anticipated. That being said, my experience as a science student has demonstrated that most students who are pursuing science at the University were interested in STEM disciplines before arriving on Grounds. One does not apply to the engineering school if he or she is not interested in math and science. And taking one of the notoriously challenging introductory science classes in the College seems more likely to deter someone from developing a newfound fascination with science. Indeed, I have seen more people driven away from science by the University’s introductory biology, physics or chemistry classes than I have seen brought towards those subjects.

What, then, can be done to foster more interest in STEM disciplines? As a small step, the University could begin offering more science classes that may be appealing to students who are not sold on a STEM career. An example is the popular How Things Work class taught in the physics department. This course theoretically offers a nice alternative for those who want to become better versed in science while not having to compete with pre-med or other pre-professional students in the more populous introductory classes—even though it is frequently used as an easy way to fulfill the College’s science requirement. Letting students establish a baseline attraction towards science without the pressure of a cutthroat science class may show some that science is fascinating and worth studying.

Offering more entry-level science classes at the University, though, will only do so much, and it would be unreasonable to anticipate a spike in STEM majors because of classes that seek to lure people towards science. STEM majors would still have to devote most of their schedules to science and math, which requires harder upper-level courses. The University may successfully increase students’ openness to science, but may not boost interest enough to inspire those students pursue science as a career. Instead, the University should try to promote STEM education to those students who are not yet in college.

This semester, I am volunteering at Monticello High School as part of an independent study biology course. The course is comprised of several other science students, and is offered for credit. We are assisting high school students who have expressed interest in STEM fields. We mentor them through their classroom learning as well as help shepherd them through research projects. The biology department officially sanctions the program, a decision that more science departments at the University should emulate.

Programs like this one are a two-way street: college students do their best to teach high school students and in turn learn from those students how best to foster an understanding and love of science. As any scientist knows, being able to teach, explain and communicate ideas and findings is an integral part of scientific education. It makes sense that this volunteering opportunity is for credit, as we students are learning a practical, real-world application of our knowledge that is not taught in the classroom. In fact, similar programs in chemistry, physics or math could also operate along the same lines.

The University already has community service outlets through which students can tutor others in science and math. But to my knowledge, no other program offered in the core science or math departments allows students to teach science by placing them in a high school classroom. The allure of earning class credit in this and potential future courses could result in more students being available to assist high schoolers. Even if the students that we are teaching will not attend the University — or attend college at all — having college students who are pursuing STEM careers associating with students who are considering those fields can only foster interest in math and science. More programs should be created to bring college and high school students together. The earlier that interest in science and math can be solidified, the more we can increase the number of students who will enter STEM fields.

Alex Yahanda is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.

Published February 4, 2014 in Opinion

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