Posts tagged ‘STEM fields’

June 18, 2014

It’s not really a STEM gender gap, but a ‘TE’ gender gap

by Grace

Randy Olson graphed the percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred to women by major.


The only STEM gender gaps are in computer science and engineering.

Surprisingly to me, most of the STEM majors aren’t doing as bad gender disparity-wise as I expected. 40-45% of the degrees in Math, Statistics, and the Physical Sciences were conferred to women in 2012. Even better, a majority of Biology degrees in 2012 (58%) were earned by women. This data tells me that we don’t really have a STEM gender gap in the U.S.: we have an ET gender gap!

If we actually have a shortage in skilled engineering and technology employees, this gender gap matters.

This ET gender gap has severe consequences. Computer Science and Engineering majors have stagnated at less than 10% of all degrees conferred in the U.S. for the past decade, while the demand for employees with programming and engineering skills continue to outpace the supply every year…

Provided that far more women attend college than men, it seems the best way to meet the U.S.’s growing need for skilled programmers and engineers is to focus on recruiting more women — of any race or ethnicity — into Computer Science and Engineering majors. The big question, of course, is “How?” With the constant issues of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) discrimination against women in these male-dominated majors, we have quite a tough task on our hands.

Looking at the historical trends, maybe we have something to learn from Architecture and the Physical Sciences, given that they were in our position only 40 years ago.

Geology, my field of study, has a similar story of declining gender imbalance.

… Between 1974 and 2000, geoscience degrees awarded to women rose from ~17% to 45% (AGI, 2001).

How did it happen?

Interestingly, the rise in women pursuing geoscience degrees coincided with a sharp decline in oil prices that decimated high-paying oil industry opportunities for geologists.  At the same time, an increased interest in environmental issues pushed up the need for geologists to work in that area, often at jobs paid by government dollars either directly or indirectly.  I think more women are attracted to those types of jobs than to the more rough-and-tumble ones in the oil or mining industries.  I don’t see the possibility of a similar change in computer science or engineering where women would become newly attracted to those fields, thus shrinking the current gender gap.

Among the comments at Olson’s post was a suggestion that more female mentors were needed.   And there was this:

When computer science programs incorporate soft skill training into the course content, i.e. communication, inclusion in a group, importance of teamwork, sexual harassment etc, you will see a change. Women have to see what the possibilities are for them in a field long term. If what they are seeing is a male dominated field, with people who do not communicate well, and who do not welcome them to the table, I don’t blame them for not choosing computer science. Women want to work where they are welcomed, where they can use both right and left brain skills.

Extensive group work and writing about math are examples of “soft” skills recently introduced in K-12 education, at least partly implemented as a means of improving the achievement levels of girls in math.  I don’t believe the overall outcomes of this experimentation have been particularly positive, but perhaps it would work better at the college level.


Randy Olson, “Percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women, by major (1970-2012)”, Randal S. Olson, June 14, 2014.

Dallas D. Rhodes, “Generational and Cyclical Demographic Change in The Geological Society of America”, GSA Today, November 2008.

February 18, 2014

Free tuition at New York state universities for top STEM students?

by Grace

The proposed New York State budget includes a provision to offer free tuition to top students who choose to major in STEM fields.

“New this year under the governor’s budget proposal, some students at the top of their classes will have a chance to skip tuition payments entirely. Those who plan to major in a field related to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects would receive free tuition to any SUNY or CUNY institution, as long as they remain in the state for five years after graduation to pursue their careers. The $8 million budget line is intended to help reverse the “brain drain” of the best and brightest from New York State.”

Students must graduate in the top ten percent of their high school class to qualify for the scholarships.

Details must be worked out.

Final budget approval is expected this spring.  Questions have been raised about how the requirement to stay in the state for five years after graduation would affect students who wish to attend graduate school.  One estimate predicts funding is only sufficient for 166 four-year scholarships, so it is possible that demand will be greater than supply.


July 16, 2013

Students know STEM majors are hard, just not THAT hard

by Grace

It looks like a headline from The Onion.

Math, Science Popular Until Students Realize They’re Hard

Math and science majors are popular until students realize what they’re getting themselves into, according to new research….

The researchers found that while math and science majors drew the most interest initially, not many students finished with degrees in those subjects. More students dropped out of math and science majors and fewer students switched into them than any other area of study, including professional programs, social sciences, humanities and business.

They knew it was going to be hard, but just not that hard.

The survey results also showed that the students who dropped out didn’t do so because they discovered an unexpected amount of the work. In fact, students who expressed interest initially anticipated more work than other majors.

The students switched out because they were dissatisfied with their grades. “Students knew science was hard to begin with, but for a lot of them it turned out to be much worse than what they expected,” said Todd R. Stinebrickner, one of the paper’s authors. “What they didn’t expect is that even if they work hard, they still won’t do well.”

One comment from this article made a good point that students often think that they should go with their “natural” talent rather than struggling with a subject that is not their strength.

… the lower curves across STEM majors push students to other majors where the higher average GPAs make them think they’re better. For example, if I get a B in English and a C in Math, then that would encourage me to study English where my strengths are. That’s the key. The average science GPA at my school is 2.9, the average humanities GPA is 3.3. Case closed.

Or maybe they simply do not want to work that hard.

Reminder:  ‘math skills are correlated to higher earnings’

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February 15, 2013

‘Minnesota is becoming a Mecca for robotics’

by Grace

In Minnesota, high school robotics teams now outnumber boys’ hockey teams.

An explosion in the popularity of high school robotics teams has suddenly made it chic to be geek.

Robotics team members are getting varsity letters and patches, being paraded before school assemblies like other sports stars and seeing trophies in the same lobby display cases as their football, basketball or baseball counterparts. . . .

A telling statistic: For the first time ever, there are more varsity robotics teams than there are boys’ varsity hockey teams in the state. There are 156 high school boys’ hockey teams and 180 robotics teams, up from 153 last year, according to the Minnesota State High School League.

The number of robotics teams in the state is expected to surpass 200 soon, growing from just two in 2006.  Tournaments spur teamwork and a sense of competition, particularly valuable for students who may not have a chance to gain that experience through sports.

“Minnesota is becoming a Mecca for robotics,” said Joe Passofaro, one of the mentors/coaches for the Prior Lake High School robotics team, which won the state championship last year. “We’re getting a group here that is coming onto the world scene.”

High school robotics helps lay the groundwork for STEM studies in college.

The University of Minnesota is already starting to see ripple effects. In 2008, two years after the first robotics teams appeared, 12 students with robotics team experience enrolled at the university’s College of Science and Engineering. Last year that number had grown to 76.

Apparently, there is some disagreement on whether we need more STEM graduates:

December 14, 2012

New York proposes two new types of high school diplomas

by Grace

The New York State Board of Regents will soon vote on an initiative that would create two new types of high school diploma, thereby offering more options for different types of students.  One diploma would focus on STEM studies and the other would teach technical vocational skills.

The STEM diploma would include an advanced calculus course or extra science course for an advanced degree in technology. The CTE diploma would have students participate in specialized training programs, which could replace an elective or core course.

Some possible CTE substitutions for students to learn technical skills include a Federal Aviation Administration certification, a Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician certification or a National Occupational Competency Testing Institute Job Ready Assessment, Schumer said.

The editorial board supports this initiative, citing the unwillingness of domestic employers to pay for such training.

Sunday’s “60 Minutes” report on the skills gap — three days later Schumer followed with his own related proposal to the state Board of Regents — noted that many U.S. manufacturers, competing with cheap labor the world over, no longer are willing to pay to train new workers for high-skill jobs; they expect school districts, community colleges, four-year colleges and other taxpayer-supported institutions to pick up all or some of the cost.

If approved, the new diploma programs may be in place as early as next school year.

This proposal appears to be a move away from the state’s recent emphasis on a single path for all students, an idea that was associated with the recent elimination of the less rigorous “local diploma”.  Now there’s recognition that “one size doe not fit all”.

“The Regents understand that one size does not fit all students. Too many of our students are forced onto a single graduation pathway,” Tompkins said. “Their skills and potential are stifled and they end up unprepared for success in adult life.”

Changes are needed for graduates to meet 21st century job requirements.

Schumer said his support follows employers’ accounts of gaps between available positions and skilled applicants. Industrial Support Inc. in Buffalo, for example, often has trouble filling job openings for machinists and welders, skills found along the CTE pathway, he said.

The state Labor Department, meanwhile, projected a 135 percent increase in STEM-related computer and electronic product manufacturing jobs in the Albany area from 2008 to 2018, anticipating the addition of 1,800 positions.

“As upstate New York’s economy switches gears towards the advanced industries of the 21st century, we need our students and education system to keep pace,” Schumer said.

CTE and STEM students would be exempt from taking the “notoriously difficult” global history Regents exam.

The state Education Department has proposed requiring a CTE assessment in place of a global history exam that’s required for students pursuing a traditional diploma. Those on the STEM track would substitute a second math or science assessment for the global history exam.

Students still would be required to pass a course in global history and to pass English, math, science and U.S. history exams.


February 8, 2012

A liberal arts education is good and central planning is bad

by Grace

To the critics of “frivolous” humanities majors and advocates who want our government to push for more STEM college graduates, Virginian Postrel responds that a liberal arts education is good and central planning is bad.

The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino,California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

Chemists Struggle Too

The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.

The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently — how to figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems. Liberal-arts advocates like this argument, but it applies to any field. In the three decades since we graduated, my college friend David Bernstein has gone from computing the speed at which signals travel through silicon chips to being an entrepreneur whose work includes specifying, designing and developing a consumer-oriented smart-phone app.

When he was an undergraduate, he wrote in an e-mail, his professors “stressed that they weren’t there to teach us a soon-to-be obsolete skill or two about a specific language or operating system … but rather the foundations of the field, for example: characteristics of languages and operating systems, how one deals with complex projects and works with others, what is actually computable, the analysis of algorithms, and the mathematical and theoretical foundations of the field, to pick just a few among many. That education has held me in good stead and I’ve often pitied the folks who try to compete during a lifetime of constant technological change without it.” Whether you learn how to learn is more a question of how fundamental and rigorous your education is than of what specific subject you study.

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

January 11, 2012

More jobs for STEM graduates who make technology than for those who use it

by Grace

People who make technology are better off than people who use technology.

That’s one conclusion of a Georgetown University report on College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings.

For recent graduates in Math and Computing unemployment is low for specialists who can write software and invent new applications (6%), but still comparatively high (11.2 percent) for those who use software to manipulate, mine and disseminate information.

The lower unemployment figure is for computer science and mathematics majors, and the higher one is for information systems majors.  All STEM majors are not created equal.

This chart is from Wikimedia.

UPDATE:  After reading Bonnie’s comment, I changed the post title from For job security it’s better to make technology than to use it to More jobs for STEM graduates who make technology than for those who use it.  “Job security” was a poor choice of words, given the cyclical nature of this industry.  In fact, the report predicted a recovery for information systems workers as the economy recovers.  The truth is that economic fluctuations affect all our jobs, although some are more cyclical than others.

November 9, 2011

Again, STEM college majors are too darn hard for kids these days

by Grace

Students are choosing the easy college majors.

… Although the number of college graduates increased about 29% between 2001 and 2009, the number graduating with engineering degrees only increased 19%, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Education. The number with computer and information-sciences degrees decreased 14%. Since students typically set their majors during their sophomore year, the first class that chose their major in the midst of the recession graduated this year.

This student switched majors when she found an engineering lab project too darn hard.

To avoid getting an “incomplete” for the course, Ms. Zhou withdrew before the lab ended. Since switching majors she has earned almost straight A’s instead of the B’s and C’s she took home in engineering.

The issues:

  • … introductory courses are often difficult and abstract…
  • … high schools didn’t prepare them for the level of rigor in the introductory courses…
  • … Science classes may also require more time … math and science—though not engineering—students study on average about three hours more per week than their non-science-major counterparts.

Overall, only 45% of 2011 U.S. high-school graduates who took the ACT test were prepared for college-level math and only 30% of ACT-tested high-school graduates were ready for college-level science, according to a 2011 report by ACT Inc.

One solution is to make STEM classes easier more accessible.

Educators have tried to tackle the attrition problem with new programs that they say make engineering more accessible. In 2003, Georgia Institute of Technology split its introductory computer-science class into three separate courses. One was geared toward computer science majors, another to engineering majors, and a third to liberal arts, architecture and management majors. The liberal arts course cut down on computer-science theory in favor of practical tasks like using programming to manipulate photographs, says computer science professor Mark Guzdial. Since the switch, about 85% of students pass, he says.

I don’t understand how this information supports the point that STEM-related jobs don’t pay enough:

That may partly be because the jobs don’t pay enough to attract or retain top graduates. Science, technology, engineering and math majors who stay in a related profession had average annual earnings of $78,550 in 2009, but those who decided to go into managerial and professional positions made more than $102,000, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

What is the difference between a science grad who works in a “related profession” vs. one who is in a “professional position”?  In almost any line of work, managers and professionals earn more than other workers.

Related:  College students find that STEM majors are too darn hard

November 8, 2011

College students find that STEM majors are too darn hard

by Grace

College STEM students transfer to other majors at twice the attrition rate of all other majors combined.  This is a problem, according to this New York Times article.

 “We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college,” says Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who has studied the matter.

Some possible reasons

Poor preparation in grades 6 through 12 (and I’d also add K-5)  for the rigors of STEM courses.  Could it be that the extreme focus on “engagement” at the expense of actual learning in our public schools is a factor?

But, it turns out, middle and high school students are having most of the fun, building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion. The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.

Related to poor preparation, students are unwilling to work hard.

Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.

Lack of fun projects in lower level college STEM classes is another issue.

Other deterrents are the tough freshman classes, typically followed by two years of fairly abstract courses leading to a senior research or design project. “It’s dry and hard to get through, so if you can create an oasis in there, it would be a good thing,” says Dr. Goldberg, who retired last year as an engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now an education consultant.

And then there’s grade inflation in non-STEM majors.

The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work, like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.

While all these factors play a role, I suspect the heart of the  problem is that students are simply poorly prepared for the academic rigors of STEM majors and have failed to develop good study habits while breezing through the American public school system.  I’ve seen this up close.

By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.

“We’re in a worldwide competition, and we’ve got to retain as many of our students as we can,” Dean Kirkpatrick says. “But we’re not doing kids a favor if we’re not teaching them good life and study skills.”

This  general theme seems to dominate the more than 1,000 comments accompanying this article.  Here’s one of my favorites.

I have been teaching introductory college physics for fifteen years now. My observation is that for the most part students come to college excited about pursuing a science career, brimming with illusions and/or misconceptions about what that really entails, and as soon as they find out that it is not all about gazing at stars or looking through a microscope, that it is a lot of hard work and (ugh) algebra (the horror !) is involved, they run like the wind. Simple as that.

In my opinion, it is all about how they are brought up in High School. The seem to think that if something is difficult, someone should “make it easy” for them, that anything that they do not like (such as calculus) must surely be disposable and therefore should be simply removed from curriculum and never imposed on them again, that all it takes is the desire to do well. And it is very hard to change them by the time they get to college.

I know, I sound like an old fart.

Speaking as an authentic old fart, I would agree.

UPDATE:  Again, STEM college majors are too darn hard for kids these days

August 17, 2011

Romantic thoughts kill STEM ambition in college women

by Grace

The journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin is about to publish a series of research projects … that suggest that when college-age women think about romance, they become less interested in studying STEM fields. College-age men, however, can get interested in romance without any impact on their engagement with math and science.

The research, conducted by Lora Park at the State University of New York at Buffalo, may offer insight into the gender gap in STEM fields.

Another area of research she is pursuing may or may not be helpful to her efforts, Park said. Since the assumptions of many women appear to be that men find female STEM success unattractive, she hopes to find out whether this is in fact the case.

I’ll stay tuned for that.  From personal experience, I know some men find STEM success very attractive.

Romance vs. STEM – InsideHigherEd, August 16, 2011

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