A must-read for college students and professors

As much as 40 percent of the people who start out majoring in science and engineering end up switching to other degrees. Why? The answers are complex, and the people who drop out are often the best-of-the-best. The New York Times looks at why college students leave science majors and what can be done to change that.


  1. I honestly don’t know anyone that finished the major they started out with. However, most of the people I know were flaky liberal arts majors. Meh, same diff.

  2. I was going to post that this article seemed a bit off-base — I never experienced the “two years of fairly
    abstract courses” in the middle of my college engineering education, and the number of people I knew who switched to a non-engineering major or dropped out was more on the order of 10-15%, not 40%-60%. However, I went to WPI, which the end of the article cites as an exception to the rule.

  3. If you like engineering, you are going to hate engineering school.  I am a graduated (chemical) engineer with a job that I really enjoy.  School was misery.  It was almost nothing but unending math drills.  You spend a couple of minutes picking out the key data in a problem and organizing them.  You spend another minute or two slamming the data into equations.  You then spend the next hour doing stupid human calculus tricks solve the truly malevolent differential equation you have just made.  Rinse and repeat 40-80 hours a week depending upon the classes you are taking (none of which are electives, all of which are math drill classes).  Toss in a good solid 2 hours (if that) of useful theory learned each week as icing.

    In the “real world”, do you know how many times I have had to solve some unholy differential equation by hand?  ZERO.  If you are solving massive differential equations using stupid human tricks by hand, you are doing your job horribly wrong.  So,  you spend >95% of your time doing something that, as an engineer, you will NEVER EVER EVER do, and <5% of the time learning something that will actually be relevant and useful to your job. 

    Now, add into this the fact that as you are busting your balls to do pointless work that has nothing to do with real engineering and isn't fun or interesting like real engineering is.  Every other jerk around you is spending maybe 10% of the time you are on their work, likely doing something that they enjoy, and probably getting a higher grade for their by comparison paltry efforts.  People say that engineers can be anti-social.  They are not anti-social, they are just working all the time and likely to fly off the handle at anyone else who bemoans the difficulty putting together a pre-school lesson plan for their teaching major, or reading a few pages from a book for their business class.

    The problem isn't that we are not math drilling our kids enough.  Guess what?  China and Singapore might have higher math grades or spit out more engineers per capita, but I have never heard anyone make the argument that they are actually producing better engineers in the real world.  The problem is that engineering curriculum has almost nothing to do with engineering.  At best, it is a soul crushing death march that weeds out the weak.  At worst, it is just actively destructive and scaring off potentially good engineers.

    I'm glad I survived the engineering death march.  I REALLY like engineering.  I couldn't be happier with what I have now and I do my job well.  I would do it all over again if I had the chance.  That said, I don't delude myself for a moment.  I got a thimble full of good useful theory from school, and a swimming pool of junk math drills that are only ever going to be useful if I get sent back in time to 1940 and a man puts a gun to my head and tells me to design a petroleum plant by hand with piece of paper, a pencil,  and a calculator (presumably with a pile of batteries).

    1. It’s great that you like engineering, and too bad that you didn’t like your coursework and don’t use it in your “real world” job, but that hardly means it’s not useful.  You spend all of your time practicing the hard stuff because it’s hard.  Surgeons don’t spend most of medical school filling out paperwork, even though that’s probably 95% of what they’ll do as doctors.  They work on the hard stuff. No one is going to quiz them on brain anatomy in the “real world”, but I’d like them to be familiar with it before they try to remove a brain tumor.

      Even if 99% of engineering doesn’t require hard math, some of it does, and that’s the stuff that is advancing the world, making yesterday’s supercomputers fit in your phone today, inventing invisibility cloaks (differential equations, by hand), indexing the web (eigenvectors that your TI-89 isn’t going to help you with).

      1. They work on the hard stuff. No one is going to quiz them on brain anatomy in the “real world”, but I’d like them to be familiar with it before they try to remove a brain tumor.

        No one is going to quiz them on brain anatomy in the real world, but one presumes that they actually need to know it and do use that knowledge.  The same is not true with endless “solve this by hand” math drills that makes up 95% of the engineering course work.

        Even if 99% of engineering doesn’t require hard math, some of it does, and that’s the stuff that is advancing the world, making yesterday’s supercomputers fit in your phone today, inventing invisibility cloaks (differential equations, by hand), indexing the web (eigenvectors that your TI-89 isn’t going to help you with).

        Let me make this very very very clear… if you are doing “hard math” by hand as an engineer, even on the cutting edge, you are doing it so incredibly wrong you need to be fired, or at least have your butt planted down in front of a computer and shown how to use it.  Doing “hard math” by hand is not only stupid and a waste of time, it is dangerous in that it is much harder to check that it was done right, and your chance of making an error goes up exponentially.  I am a MEMs engineer, which is about as bleeding edge as you can get, and I would be strung up if I did “hard math” by hand and used it for anything other than a back of the envelope calculation.

        The larger issue is that when engineering classes are a 24/7 differential equations math drill with some light theory on the side, you are failing to teach things that are actually important.  Every engineer (chemical engineer at least) at least nominally knows how to do a complex differential equation by hand before that knowledge gets tossed in the trash bin of the real world.  Most of them on the other hand can’t do a Design of Experiment (DOE).  Why?  Because we waste so much time doing math drills that we ignore actual important things.  Knowing how to do a proper DOE and interpret the results is absolutely CRITICAL to being a good engineer.  It is easily two orders of magnitude more important than being able to solve some insane differential equation you put together by hand… and most engineers can’t do it because their time was busy being wasted in school.

        I can’t speak for all engineers, but the chemical engineering curriculum literally has not changed in 50 years.  We have chemical engineers leaving school that make a straight line to pharmaceutics, semi-conducting, and polymers (and other materials), who just got done spending at least 4 years doing differential equations drills on problems that revolve around unit processes that were old in the 1950’s.

        The only thing that that degree proves is that you are pig headed enough to go through with it.  You might also have gotten a dusting of basic theory on the side.  Once  you step outside of the university you can safely throw away your books, forget almost everything you learned, and start learning for real.  The argument that more or less boils down to “well, son, it builds character and the skills used to solve endless differential equations are good for you” is a cop-out to the status quo.  If curriculum designers can’t think of a way to both “build character and teach good problem solving skills” while at the same time teaching something useful, they shouldn’t be designing curriculum.

        1. Let me make this very very very clear… if you are doing “hard math” by hand as an engineer, even on the cutting edge, you are doing it so incredibly wrong you need to be fired, or at least have your butt planted down in front of a computer and shown how to use it.

          I think our definitions of “hard math” are different.  I didn’t mean well-posed, solved problems that a computer can do.  I’m sure you are aware that most differential equations do not have closed-form solutions.  Given such a problem, you can’t expect to sit in front of a computer and get a satisfactory answer from a piece of software.  Maybe an approximation, maybe some graphs that give you a feel for what the solution might be, but there’s still work for someone who knows math well here.  A computer is a valuable tool, certainly, and great for checking your work, but it doesn’t replace knowing how to solve problems by hand.  And even when your software can solve a problem, someone has to write the software.

  4. I’m glad someone got around to writing an article like that, because I’ve been wondering if I had suffered alone. I was one of those overqualified youngsters that wanted to do STEM-  rarified test scores, AP credit out the wazoo, often for classes I didn’t even take, state and national science fair wins, which I can see now in retrospect generally entailed graduate-level focus on some little nugget or another, the whole deal. Totally in love with science.

    And I bonked hard in my degree. Not in the run-amok freshman nightmare sense, or that I was underprepared- I was still vastly further ahead and quicker on the uptake than any of my classmates, and I wasn’t expecting some sweetness-and-light Malcolm Gladwell version of science- I was just in a constant state of infuriation and despair at how shitty these classes were.  I had always been learning in this orgiastic state of furiously scribbling on white boards and then breaking things up with my hands and having Socratic banter with my mentors and discovering the blind spots and staying up till four to fill them in from the original papers and then, big slabs of college turned out to be mediocre powerpoints read word for word by unenthusiastic teachers, laden with factoids dropped once, to be scooped up and bubbled in later- and I was paying gobs of money for the privilege. I’d eventually start skipping class to go read journals in the library, of all things, and would then proceed to do middling well on said bubble ins from missing most of the class- go figure. I finally just started spending the weekends front-loading my textbooks into flashcard software and did Innocentive-type competitions for most of the week to keep me sane and interested, and turned the boat around- no thanks to said institution.

    The next step has turned out to be much, much more fun. Real science is a wonderful thing. Science education seems to often get the short end of the stick, maybe out of some presumption that the suffering is to be maximized, not managed. There’s a complementary article in “Discover” this month about how little is retained from the typical, sequential undergrad lecture- it’s on the order of 10%, compared to 70% for better conceived approaches. We can do better.

  5. When I went back for an engineering degree, which I finished,  I remember hearing the younger students always complaining, “this is a weed-out class”.  At some point they realized all the core classes were that hard, and the class sizes started getting smaller. 

    Last night my little girl asked me what was the hardest thing I have ever done.  Without hesitation I told her getting an engineering degree.  It was five solid years of working to pay my bills and intense study.  I still have nightmares about that shit.  But fifteen years later society has rewarded me handsomely for my efforts.

    So how do we get more engineering and science graduates?  I think it needs to start in primary education, with much more focus on computation and memorization.  We had to teach my daughter her multiplication tables, because that isn’t part of  our school district’s curriculum.  She can ace a word problem on a standardized test;  but without memorizing times tables, how will she reduce  X to the fourth power raised to the seventh power without knowing the basics of multiplication?

    As long as people who, in some cases didn’t even go to friggin college, can run for school board and pick some ludicrous curriculum, we are going to be in this boat.  All I can do is vote, and volunteer to judge science fairs, where I  try to personally urge students to study math, science, and engineering.

    1. I agree with your comment on a basic level, but you’re advocating an… interesting… approach which clashes with the general theme in the earlier comments. You want to change primary education to focus more on computation and memorization? Isn’t this what we’re lamenting is too much of a focus in university STEM programs?

      How will your daughter reduce X to the fourth power raised to the seventh power? If she has a real job working as an engineer or scientist… probably with a computer.

      To be clear, I don’t think classes should be “dumbed down” and I lament the loss of basic math skills in the general population – but is the endless done-by-hand high-level math really necessary? Everyone’s different, but… personally I only really “got” higher level math when I was able to work things out on a computer using Matlab-like programming. Doing it by hand seems like it should help you learn it better, according to most people’s understanding of how education works, but I feel that this is an outdated belief.

      When engineers and scientists (both in industry and academia) post-undergrad do nearly all of their work on computers, why is undergrad education so focused on doing things by hand?

      It’s more of a rite of passage than anything useful, and as others noted, professors take it as a point of pride that their classes are so difficult that a large percentage of students drop out.

      1. I did notice the theme in the earlier comments that the rigorous manual computation seemed unnecessary, and isn’t often used in the workplace.  What does get used in the workplace are the logical thought processes and ability to mentally decompose complex problems into solvable parts.  And while I might be able to push a button to set my scope to display the distribution of frequencies in a waveform, at some point in school I had to manually calculate the same thing.  Without ever having had to do those calculations, I would likely not even know which function to select or that it was possible to do such a thing.  Not to mention, the guy who wrote the firmware on my scope had to have a pretty good grasp of that math.  I suspect that most people who have gone through this type of coursework use the skills they developed solving academic problems more than they realize.

    2. I dunno. I got an Anthropology degee and nearly 20 years later, I look back at a (so far) 17 year career in software engineering at Microsoft and in Silicon Valley (later). Seems like I got the same benefits without the PTSD.

  6. For many, many years a high rate of attrition was a point of pride for professors. This attitude has mostly changed and at the best research institutions it is expected, but not always the case, that professors are also good teachers. Nevertheless, the teaching focus is still primarily academic rather than technical/practical which is the aspect that many scientist/engineers actually enjoy.

    My personal experience is that most of what I was taught during my undergraduate science education was a waste of time. My evidence for the above assertion is that I am presently an active (neuro)scientist and I honestly cannot remember more than 5% of my undergraduate curriculum because I don’t use it on a daily basis and never will.

  7. I graduated with a bio degree and changed fields afterward–the right choice for me, even if I enjoyed science.

    It’s common to see laments that enough kids aren’t getting science and engineering degrees, but I think these features ignore the fact that a B.S. doesn’t pay that well or set you up for a great career track on its own.

    Often more schooling is needed, and if you’re not interested in the Ph.D. track, you might find yourself looking at a career of grunty labwork–unless a robot replaces you.

  8. When I read the title question, I was like “because it’s HARD, duh,” and guess what, that was the answer in the TFA too. Only the really dedicated or stupid end up staying in the majors. Because if you are an engineering student and watch your liberal arts peers party every night and/or play video games and get A’s while most engineering students study and barely eek out a C if they aren’t lucky or naturally smart…

    At a cultural level, science and engineering are not very glorified. There’s not much pride in it unless you want typical people basing you as a nerd. And if you hover over the fact that an engineer makes so much more out of college and life-time income versus a liberal arts or other major, then you have the result of people going into the major just for money, which doesn’t work either. You can note the intense rate of Computer Science majors during the dot com bubble and the sharp decline afterwards, and the high dropout rates as well.

    1. I think you men people going for a degree in business. The LA people tend to do a lot of work, albeit what most would describe not hard. The business majors were the ones who skip class, and get drunk every night.

    2. Only the really dedicated or stupid end up staying in the majors. Because if you are an engineering student and watch your liberal arts peers party every night and/or play video games and get A’s while most engineering students study and barely eek out a C if they aren’t lucky or naturally smart…

      Funny, this is the exact opposite to my experience.  I found the drama majors (including me when that was my major) worked hard, long hours keeping up with five classes a semester, while the comp sci students had way more slack time with the same course load to work part-time jobs or party.  Meanwhile the engineers were somehow able to take six or seven courses a semester (which they would insist were much harder than the arts or science courses) and yet they had more time than anyone else to go drinking, and could keep up their grades while attending a sizable chunk of their classes brutally hung over.

      1. Where are you from?

        At my American university, engineers worked hard, played little, and were for the most part, big nerds.  The business school students were the ones constantly drunk with seemingly easy classes. 

        Yet my wife, who went to school in Canada, remembers the engineers as hard-partying jock types who barely had to work and it was the business school kids who were big math dorks who spent all their time doing work.That is, our impressions of engineers (vs. business school students) are entirely the opposite of each other.  I laugh whenever she uses the term “engineer” to mean a hard-partying popular athletic type.  It’s so different from my recollection.

        1. Yes, I’m Canadian.

          I can’t really make a representation on the business students – I didn’t know any personally, and they didn’t have a very visible presence on campus.  They were the ones in crisp suits who looked suspiciously at the sketchy-looking scruffy arts and science types when we were in their buildings.

          The U of S college of engineering fight song goes “We are, we are, we are the engineers / We can, we can demolish fourty beers / Drink rum, drink rum, drink rum to be with us / Oh we don’t give a damn for any young man who don’t give a damn for us”

  9. Funny. I started out in engineering and switched to biology (non-medical). Now 2 years into an M.S. in biology. I switched after a career fair and deciding I didn’t want to go into any of the available careers. Also because my engineering fundamentals class was ridiculously hard, and only 2 credits. First test had an average of 60 I believe, and we were given a 12 point curve. My friends always wondered why I rarely went out, because I was putting 20 hours of work into a 2 credit class. I’m so glad I switched because I love what I do.

  10. Thanks for sharing.  I watched many, many fellow science undergrads bail on the Wildlife/Fisheries degrees we were pursuing.  There were three reasons- BioChemistry (a math class), Genetics (a math class), and Elements of Applied Probability and Statistics (yeah, a math class).  All this math isn’t what most have in mind when they decide they want to go into the natural sciences.

    1. The difference between a degree in Environmental Science and Environmental Studies. Both have a place, but don’t equate them, they speak of different mindsets working to the same ends. 

      (not that you did equate them, just backing up your point, hopefully)

  11. Can someone explain to me why we need to do something to change this?  People are going to universities, entering one major, and discovering along the way that they are more interested in another field.

    Do we need some sort of official campus position of Dean of Joy Suppression, mandated to discourage students from pursuing their passion?

    I wouldn’t want to hazard an estimate of exact proportions, but a significant number of my friends changed majors during school, and many more have gone back to school for a different course of study years later.  Is this the sort of thing we want to prevent?

  12. For a variety of reasons I went back to school in my 40s and took a couple years of math and physics classes. These classes were, with almost no exceptions, taught very badly:  Professors who grew angry when students asked questions, exams with unanswerable questions, math lab projects where the software didn’t work as described in the text, intro classes in vast lecture halls taught by unprepared adjuncts. 

    I quickly learned that the only way to do well was to get the text ahead of time and teach myself. This worked well in fall and winter terms, but spring quarter was always tough.

  13. It helps if you go to an actual engineering college like Rose-Hulman where they actually mix in a lot of fun practical stuff with the dry theory.

    That said, a lot of people still changed majors when they couldn’t handle all the math. The progression down the ladder was: EE, ChemE, Physics, Math majors -> switch to Mechanical Engineering -> switch to Civil Engineering -> Drop out and go to Purdue where it’s much easier

  14. Not to say that what I do is difficult in the same way as engineering, but I’m going the opposite route.  Started out with an undergrad in computer art: 3-d animation, and seven years later wound up in law school.  Fun times!  It’s absolutely brutal, especially as I work two jobs to pay for it out of pocket, but it should hopefully be well worth it.

  15. My experience has been that a lot of students don’t bother to see what they’re getting into. They construct this idealized career in their heads and then get discouraged when either reality shatters their dreams or they realize it’s gonna be a lot more difficult than they expected.

    Usually, the kind of students that liked math and science in high school are not the kind of people who will actually enjoy doing math and science. Maybe high school math and science should try to convey a better idea of what math and science are actually like.

    (As for myself, I hated math in high school, did only slightly above average in the subject on the ACT and SAT, and now I’m a grad student in math. Go figure.)

  16. What’s under-emphasized is that many university engineering departments rely on “weed-out” classes to reduce the number of engineering students.  It’s not an accident; it’s by design, as a matter of policy, based on the notion that failure to pursue such a policy would cheapen the degree, put the public in danger of incompetent engineers, etc.  The crazy, irrelevant curriculum is seen as a litmus test for the kind of inherent ability that engineers need.

  17. Listen to Jonathan B.  This man speaks the truth.

    I did Electrical Engineering, and my god all it was was diff-q over and over and over.  I even opted to take a couple of linear algebra classes just to expand my math base some.  Sure you learn core fundamentals, but like a few of professors taught us, it’s not about plug and chug – it should be about understanding how and why.  If I wanted to do math all day everyday I’d done a math undergrad.

    Here is one of the reasons why there has been a drop in engineering fields IMO:  Freshman year 1997, in some intro to Engineering course on the first day.  The professor asks by a show of hands how many people like Engineering – a few (including me) raised our hands.  He then asked how many people like to make money – like 95% of the class raised their hands.  And I’m just sitting going LOL WUT?  We were told when you graduate, you’ll have your pick of jobs starting at 50k+.   I graduated in 2002, and oh look tech sector imploded nope no jobs, sorry sucks to be you.

    Hell I’ll never forget the fact that most people in my circuits 3 class couldn’t identify a physical part to save their life.  I bet by the end of that class most couldn’t explain the core differences between mosfet and bjt, but I digress.  And I wasn’t anti-social (well okay only a little), I had work to do all the F’n time.  I still remember that business major in my suite complaining about reading a chapter and doing a paper on it for next week….  ALL MY RAGE.  I only have to do 10 problems by hand for Control Theory class – that’ll only take like 6+ hours.  Not to mention my other classes…

    Moral of this story (well for me at least) – I wish I had went to college later in life, maybe a couple of years in the real world would have pushed me to not see college as a place of higher learning and understanding.  Instead I might have saw it as the place to earn a degree that will get you a job, not just teach you something that you love.

    TL:DR – I have a degree in engineering, not that it has ever done me any good.

  18. Oh and BTW just be cause I have a degree in Electrical Engineering does not mean I know how to rewire your house.

    You have no idea how many times I’ve heard that.

    -Well I do know, but I didn’t learn that in school/college.

  19. In the “real world”, do you know how many times I have had to solve some unholy differential equation by hand?  ZERO.

    To put this in perspective, the California Real Estate Board exams never delete old questions, so you have to memorize old, wrong answers as well as new, correct ones.  The California State Cosmetology exams test students on finger waves, which went out of fashion in the 1930s. 

    Education/certification is ponderous and petrified and mired in inertia.  It doesn’t matter if you’re going to school to be a hairdresser or a surgeon.  The process is always controlled by petty bureaucrats who don’t know anything about the subject or by people who got promoted as the only way to get them out of the workplace.

  20. I’m an applied econometrician (ie, I crank data through math and statistic models).  At the Ph.D. level economics (and econometrics) is a ton of math by hand.  It’s a similar story of endless amounts of differential equations (especially in macro).  Sometimes over an entire semester you actually only solve two problems, especially in the first year.  You spend a day or two defining the question, gathering data, and organizing the problem.  Then weeks and weeks of math to solve it.  It seems like an utter waste since there are indeed a number of software packages that can do a lot of it for you in just a few minutes.  But, we learn it so that we know what the software is doing and can recognize when the “standard” way isn’t applicable (as the real world is full of complexities).  I remember a classmate who came from the private sector, and remember how frustrated he was to do all this math by hand.  He’d been doing it in “the real world” for years and didn’t understand the point.  Then, once he got to a high enough level and really understood everything in depth, he came up to me and said, “Wow, I just realized that the vast majority of the work I did for so many clients for so many years was done entirely incorrectly!  They paid me huge sums of money but what I gave back was garbage…it was just garbage that was too complex for most people to realize was garbage.” 

    Now that I do work “for real” there are often times that there isn’t some piece of software pre-written that can handle my question.  

    For example, I’m presently working on a problem right now that, in theory, there are many programs written to solve, but I know (because I’ve had to do it by hand) that they all work by taking an integral over a known parametric probability density function, and that most programs simply assume a particular function by default, but, I know in my particular case, the data differs substantially from that assumed density function and that I’ll have to first compute a non-parametric density function (or, at the very least, assume a different parametric form that more closely approximates reality).  That means writing something new or hobbling together some pieces of other code.  It’s no biggie, but it’s something that could easily be overlooked if I’d never done anything by hand and was instead taught to simply plug data into a program.

    9 times out of 10, the software actually does what I need it to do, but it’s really important to realize when you’re dealing with an exception. One could probably draw an analogy between what I’m saying and all the option pricing models and copula models Wall St. used that assumed a Gaussian distribution of returns that vastly underestimated the probability of bad realizations in the tails of the distribution.  Nothing is scarier to me than people who use programs without understanding what these programs actually do on a really fundamental level.  

    I feel for anyone who was pummeled with pointless math drills.  I was too and it sucked! But I also think I’m a better person because of it.  And I fear that bad things happen when people start assuming that there’s no point to the math drills now that we have computers that can do the work for us.

    1. I agree with that 100%.  Having made it through electrical engineering I’d really like to see more explanation of how the equations we were using actually applied to real world situations.  I remember in our signals class we were doing time domain to frequency domain conversions with various problems.  One of those was applying 8x oversampling to cd audio.  Once I saw it in the frequency domain it all began to make sense of what and why you would need to use it.

      I think students would get a lot more value and connection to the world if they could actively see what they were learning in real world applications.

  21. I went to college with full intentions of majoring in math.  Think of that! I convinced myself that I wanted to stick with something that interested me because I was afraid I’d regret graduating college with a degree in which I’d lost interest.  

    So, after one and a half semesters of majoring in math, I switched.  Reasons:

    1.) None of the math classes were interesting or engaging.  I understand the need to go over new theorems, but we aren’t emotionless robots.  I got into math in high school because I had good math teachers that explained math in terms of contemporary life: he would describe waves, and also show how they help predict oscillations in satellite orbits around earth (ok, I was also interested in all things sci-fi, and space).

    2.) All of the math classes offered were from 8am-930am.  All of them.  Do I really need to explain this reason to any adult who understands the value of the college experience?  I wasn’t about to put myself 25k in debt and go through a painful, unhappy experience.  I’m not a morning person, I didn’t want to take classes at 8am if I had that choice.  

    Call me immature, childish, unwilling to ‘grow up.’  You can’t beat common sense: offer classes later, you’ll have more students willing to attend.

  22. After intermittently taking classes at a community college for the last several years, I transferred to a well-regarded school to begin studying engineering this fall. The first several days of class consisted of slides, apparently cobbled together from a poor reading of the required text, as indicated by the professor’s frequent misrepresentation and outright contradiction of the text which I, in my excitement, had read before classes began. These slides were read, verbatim, in a droning voice, with back facing the room. The only relief, if it can be called that, came when the professor would turn around to make personal asides about the MAD BANK we could all be expecting to make, starting very soon now (eliciting whooping from many students on each occasion). Some academic high points from the following months included a professor who mandated that our radicals and other straight lines outside alphanumerics be drawn using straight edges else our assignments would receive zeros and a TA who routinely mocked students for failing to immediately grasp his incoherent and belabored pseudo-explinations. I stress that these are just two examples of the more generalized buffoonery.

    This semester has completely cured me of the desire I had to be an engineer. This doesn’t feel like being taught, it feels like cultish indoctrination, through suffering and alienation, into a mindset accepting of drudgery. The students who I have noted to be doing best this semester have been those who have accepted what they were told completely, unreflectively, uncritically. That is, those student who are adept at memorizing and applying formulas (frequently without comprehension, based on my questioning of some of my peers) are being rewarded for attitudes which I had always thought were basically the opposite of those which intelligent and educated people ought to have.

    I know this is only one disgruntled student’s invective but based on others’ comments, I think there may be some broader truth on display here.

  23. Because anyone who’s intelligent enough to be a scientist or engineer is smart enough to realize that there is no future in science or engineering in the US anymore. Science budgets are being cut across the board, and the future shows signs of only more of that.  Increasingly, engineering jobs are outsourced, and the future shows signs of only more of that.  

    The only budgets that are increasing are the military and Wall Street.  This country has shown politically and monetarily what it values, and what it values is the military and banks. Any astute student will realize that and avoid science and engineering like the plague.

    For what it’s worth, two degrees in engineering and two in science.  

    My 17 year old nephew asked me if he should go to engineering school, and I told him not if he wants to have any future.  Dilbert is accurate.

    Personally I blame the Wall Street debacle on the cancellation of the SuperConducting SuperCollider.  2000 Ph.D physicists out on the street;  where did they all go?  Even so, as science grant after science grant gets cancelled out from under me, and as I watch colleague after colleague do multiple postdocs then leave the field, it becomes increasingly difficult to resist the siren call of seven figure salaries.  Politicians can talk about STEM fields all day long, but it’s the banksters and HFT’s who get paid in the end.  The ‘free’ market shows what it values.

    (For what it’s worth, I’ve registered for BB comments three times now, but Disqus keeps losing me.  I have records of emails they’ve sent, yet they won’t accept the old password/username, and won’t reset it.)

    1. How are you signing in? And are you registered through Disqus or through BB’s native registration?

  24. There’s nothing new here. Read Sheila Tobias’ They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier.

    I’m actually the only person I know who ended up more or less where I wanted to be.

  25. Boy, this hits home. I survived those “weeding-out” class in science like first year chemistry and organic chemistry. The only way to get a decent grade, or even just pass those classes was to endlessly memorize equations and rules. I could not cope with that, and barely slid through those classes, but I did graduate.

    I always thought that it was unfortunate that lots of creative, curious kids that actually loved science- the kind of people that make the best scientists, were lost, and dropped out. Meanwhile, the pre-med robots that were living in the library studying, had no love for science- they just needed the degree to go to med school- they made it.

    The drone-like ability to memorize equations is not the trait of a scientist. The professors always told us that only the “dedicated” would make it through and you needed that dedication to be a scientist. WTF? You do need perseverance and patience, but if you like what you are doing, that comes naturally. All you do is kill-off the out-of-the-box thinkers. I’m doing my best today to get girls into STEM fields, but I hope things change before they get to college.

  26. Good article, but one thing missing:  competitions are also very powerful stimulants in education.  One of my favorite experiences in school was placing in the MathCounts competition in 8th grade and advancing to the state-level competition with the rest of the team.  BUT MathCounts was only organized for 8th graders, not for any other grade! So we couldn’t compete the following year.  Why?  Sports competitions are organized every year from like 4th to 12th grade.  I had no chance to make the basketball team, but I had pretty good math skills.  Why don’t they allow academic competitions like MathCounts to be organized every year? I was bitterly disappointed I couldn’t compete the following year, and perhaps if it could have been a yearly event in high school, I may have majored in a math or engineering degree.  I became a liberal arts major instead.

  27. I got my BS in computer science (named outstanding graduate for the CS dept), and added a bachelor of music in composition along the way.  Music ruined me for engineering (or perhaps engineering ruined itself).  I interned at a software company, then took 2 years off work to finish the degree, then went back to that same company as a full-time employee.  First day back on the job, I knew it was over for me.  Music is a very something-new-all-the-time field, and here were the same engineers (cool people that I still hang  with, mind you) sitting in the same spot, working on the same project, re-solving the same problems as I’d left them two years earlier.

    I stayed at that job another 3 years, then went for my masters in performance and composition, which I just finished this year, and which I’m incredibly happy with and is starting to pay the bills.

    That said, the technical training and experience is proving incredibly valuable in music, in tons of ways.  One of the biggest laments at the art school where I got my masters was the LACK of math and technical courses.  People wanted to take calc and linear algebra and physics and chem because they’re incredibly interesting and relevant.

    I think that a bigger problem with math and science education in the US is that it’s considered the “smart people” thing.  This has two problems… 1) people who aren’t “academically” smart in the traditional sense will avoid sciences because they’re under the impression that it’s too hard, and 2) people who ARE “academically” smart in the traditional sense are funneled into sciences whether they like it or not.  (not to mention the occasional incompetent nerd that slips through the cracks because he “looks” smart)

    As a result, you end up with people doing things they don’t want because they feel their 4.3GPA (which is partially a measure of your tolerance to sleep deprivation) obligates them to do science, and you end up with people who might be quite good at math and science, but don’t even give it a chance because they’re told it’s “hard”.  PLUS, math and science is often taught so badly (usually by sports coaches, or by people who also don’t understand it) that it’s made much harder than necessary.  I can’t count the times that I’ve helped people with math, who then say “what, that’s IT?  Why did they make it so hard?”

  28. I’m a happy and successful coder 7 years out of college, I’ve been coding since Junior High, I love what I do.

    I barely survived my CS education, and the only reason I made it through was because I knew that despite what was being communicated to me in my classes, my field was incredibly rewarding and fascinating. The people that had not discovered the joys of the field on their own frequently dropped out.

    Our instructors came in three varieties: 

    The clueless regurgitator of the textbook, actually incompetent, never built a thing in their life, shaky understanding of the material. Hanging onto their position for dear life.

    The barely-paid adjunct, demotivated from teaching a difficult subject on a Walmart salary, of varying competence, frequently with an insufficient grasp of English.

    The competent researcher completely disinterested in teaching, only interested in theory, insulted by having to A – actually teach, and B – teach kids how to BUILD things instead of the esoteric theory that was their actual interest. 

    None of these, not once, ever communicated the joy of creation and problem-solving that is what keeps hackers like me motivated. For that, you have to go to MIT, or a few other hallowed institutions, if you can qualify and afford them.

    This was in a famous and relatively well-funded SUNY, which was too broke to hire enough real professors but never too broke to make the campus ever more brochure-worthy or to build new gyms. I still resent the 30k worth of loans that I paid for this privilege.

  29. When I dropped out after two years at a well-regarded technical university, one of my reasons for doing so was the realization I could hit any of my professors in the face and they’d be unable to identify me, never mind providing me with advice, references, or anything like that.  I went to school for Computer Science.  I encountered disengaged, miserable professors who hated teaching in enormous lectures.  Then there were sleep-deprived and barely-functional TAs in confusing, sink-or-swim labs, and ALL the sexism and obnoxious peers.  I can’t imagine encouraging any other girl to go through that experience – or most guys, really. 

    And for what it’s worth, I have friends who went to WPI and still love their fields, including women who identify as feminist.  Far as I’m concerned, they’re the best tech school in the northeastern US, and one of the better places for women in STEM. 

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