His point was it's not only about attracting middle and high school students to these fields, which has long been the focus of many outreach efforts, but keeping the science, math and engineering majors in colleges and universities once they get there. Many of the outreach efforts have been to attract minority students to science and math programs in K-12, through hands-on experiments, making math fun, informal science programs at museums and other venues, and science fairs and festivals. Part of the rationale is if you can get a family to do projects together, then parents will be more supportive of their kids pursuing degrees in these fields.
But the truth is most of the students in math and science magnets, at least in our district, are Asian and diversity is hard to come by. I had dinner the other night with people from one of DC's leading universities, and they were talking about white males as the new minority. Go figure. The problem, as some universities are addressing it, is that the first couple years of an engineering degree in particular, are like the AP courses kids take in high school, all formulas, theory, and a lot of advanced math. My son is in AP Chemistry as a junior in high school, and although he has a solid B, chemistry was his favorite subject until he took this particular course.
Part of it is that they took two years of work, consolidated it into one, and are trying to get the kids to learn and absorb all of it without much of the background knowledge they need to succeed. Cramming it down their throats would be a less polite way to describe AP Chemistry, but that's basically what they're doing. Yes there is tutoring for kids who are struggling and parents were warned in the beginning that kids would have a hard time. But that doesn't mitigate the fact that all I hear is "It's so hard. . . mom."
This is a kid whose father and grandfather went to MIT, and whose grandfather helped build the nuclear power industry in France. The fact that he's interested in science is great and not terribly unexpected. But they are going to lose him this year, with this chemistry class, I'm willing to bet on it.
So if a high school student, who is taking four AP classes and is completely overwhelmed by AP Chemistry, is soaring through humanities and history, what will his college major be? Even if many high school students go into college as science and engineering students, they get a taste of what they are up against in their freshman and sophomore years and change majors. Some higher education institutions are addressing the problem by putting in more labs, internships and projects in year one.
The diversity of work, at least seems to be holding some of their interest. But as a nation which has fallen behind China, India and many others in graduating students in science and engineering, we need to take a closer look at what works. Perhaps this article is a good first step.
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