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Math and Science Popular With Students Until They Realize They're Hard 580

Posted by timothy
from the luckily-I-skipped-out-early dept.
First time accepted submitter HonorPoncaCityDotCom writes "Khadeeja Safdar reports in the WSJ that researchers who surveyed 655 incoming college students found that while math and science majors drew the most interest initially, not many students finished with degrees in those subjects. Students who dropped out didn't do so because they discovered an unexpected amount of the work and 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," says 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." The authors add that the substantial overoptimism about completing a degree in science can be attributed largely to students beginning school with misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science. ""If more science graduates are desired, the findings suggest the importance of policies at younger ages that lead students to enter college better prepared (PDF) to study science.""
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Math and Science Popular With Students Until They Realize They're Hard

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  • by houbou (1097327) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:16PM (#44255787) Journal
    hard is merely the fact that often, the theories and equations taught are quite abstract. It is very important to have a solid grasp of concepts, but in the end, the material could be improved with visual and/or tangible results which have some values and/or association to the abstract concepts.
    • by Rockoon (1252108) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:17PM (#44255815)
      Whats needed is good educators, like Richard Feynman was. What passes for "good educator" these days is pathetic.
      • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:26PM (#44255903) Homepage Journal

        Whats needed is good educators, like Richard Feynman was. What passes for "good educator" these days is pathetic.

        We could certainly do with a lot less people going around saying Math is hard. That's defeatist thinking. Math is easy!

        • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:33PM (#44255945)

          No. Math is hard because it's like running long distances. Few people actually like running, or any kind of exercise. Many people do it for utilitarian reasons while hating it. Some people like it inherently, though. I had a gym teacher once who was addicted to running to the point that it was bad for his health.

          • by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:47PM (#44256657)

            Or because running long distances requires a constant amount of effort. You can't show up to a marathon 13 miles in, think it's over in less than 4, and expect to win anything or even get a sense of accomplishment.

            Math and science build, it starts very early, and it keeps building up. By high school most people are already severely disadvantaged. By college, the game is over but for the most dedicated. I will give these people a little credit, I think they truly want in and see the value, but get lost in college material and pacing, and don't even understand how they went wrong, They end up with retarded cop-outs like "i'm dumb at math" or "science makes no sense", which sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies. They have to be approached like a physical fitness program: you start out easy or you will hurt yourself, and you work up to the serious stuff. There's no cramming for it, you can't jump in and be awesome, it takes a long time.

            Most of the other subjects covered in that article can be easily picked up to "beyond the average bear" levels by just reading some books for a few weeks. It's not a surprise then if you're looking for a piece of paper in 4 years and you do not already have some skill in STEM, you go for something easier.

            • by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Friday July 12, 2013 @12:58AM (#44258537) Journal

              Hmm, go a bit easy on the frustrated comments of people who might be looking at a change of major!

              I'm right in line of all this. High School science was different. It's hard to say, but it was "fundamental" enough. If you grow up prowling around the pop-sci section of a bookstore, it's not delusional to think "well gee, maybe I'll study science". So I made it through Freshman year in college still kinda enthused.

              Then over summer break I got hold of discard-copies of old versions of the textbooks and collapsed. The combination of Calculus and Organic Chem (and then beyond!) sunk me. Plus I suk at anything spatial involving curves. But the un-sung third point is that I didn't want to spend nine months in a lab recording tedious results and then produce one crispy little paper, and then do it all over again.

              So I went back as a business major. I'm clever, but most of y'all here are brighter than this ol' humanities bird. But also it felt "Closer to the ground". Pay a bill in AP. Close a Monthly period. Post Stuff to a contract. "Stuff" gets "done" and it sticks.

            • by jandersen (462034)

              I have thought a lot about this subject over the years, and I think it goes a bit deeper than that, although I agree with what you say - that it is to some extent a question of learning how to pace your effort and keeping it up.

              I think a large part of it is simply that the ones that study science at university are very intelligent - so intelligent that they have breezed through school and high-school without having to make an effort. I mean, I turned up to my high-school exams without ever having opened the

            • While I would like to agree with you my practical experience has shown otherwise. BTW I am an ME, wife is EE, and 60% of my family is in technical field.

              1) Teachers are too often humanities teachers. This means the route of memorization is used, instead of the logic approach.

              2) Math and Science are way too abstract. They are taught without any relation to reality. As one of the other commentators posted, "you see something come in, then go out and it makes sense in business school." Where is that in the mat

        • by fredprado (2569351) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:40PM (#44256019)
          Math is the most difficult subject known by humankind. Basic math is very easy, college math is reasonably easy, engineering school math is quite hard, mathematics graduation math is considerably harder, and math research is ridiculously hard.
          • by ebno-10db (1459097) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:50PM (#44256109)

            Math is the most difficult subject known by humankind.

            Care to offer some evidence for that assertion?

            • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:56PM (#44256177)

              I have a most wonderful proof of that assertion, but sadly the limited character set of the slashdot text editor will not allow me to present it!

            • by khallow (566160) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:04PM (#44256243)
              Well, there aren't many fields with well-defined problems that have solutions which can't be found without many human generations of effort. And many math problems are known to be intractable. For example, the Halting problem [wikipedia.org].

              I mention that example because there is probably a Turing machine with input that can be fully described in modest time by a human, but which can't be determined to halt even using the entire resources of the known universe converted optimally into a computer and run for the rest of eternity.
              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by ebno-10db (1459097)

                Well, there aren't many fields with well-defined problems that have solutions which can't be found without many human generations of effort.

                Does the fact that the problems are well defined mean that the subject is easier or harder?

            • by Iniamyen (2440798) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:10PM (#44256315)

              Care to offer some evidence for that assertion?

              Of course not! He was talking about math, not science!
              I guess technically he needs to provide a proof.

            • As another poster pointed the vanguard problems in math, which are basically the problems the professional mathematicians pursue, usually require many generations to be solved or even to be proved unsolvable. That is proof enough of the hardships.

              At the top science's hardships are mostly linked to the difficulty to test hypotheses. Math's hardships on the other hand are linked to sheer mental effort and at a level of abstraction that most of humankind simply isn't capable of exerting.
              • That is proof enough of the hardships.

                I never said math was easy, but you asserted that "math is the most difficult subject known by humankind".

                Ok, I'm busting chops, and that was likely hyperbole. But this is Slashdot!

            • I'll present this as evidence: List of unsolved problems in mathematics [wikipedia.org].

              Although I will say that it is not very helpful to call any science harder than another. You will only end up in an endless argument of whether physics is the base of math or math is the base of physics and how everything else is just either math or physics.

          • by grizdog (1224414) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:28PM (#44256477) Homepage

            The problem with math, if problem is the right word, is that it changes its character, and the kind of thinking that is required at each level is quite different. It helps to be painstaking, but that is true in many fields. The skills required in arithmetic, algebra, calculus, discrete math, linear algebra, and number theory are all quite different, and students who think they are good at math move to the next level and find something quite foraign and quite unpleasant.

            Along with this is the problem of grade inflation in high schools. I spent most of my career as a college math professor, and I ran into students every year who thought they were good at math because they had gotten good grades in it, but when I handed out problem sets the first week which reviewed prerequisite material, they could not do them at all. Math is pretty standardized nationally - f you have completed Intermediate Algebra or Precalculus or Calculus 1, there is a standard collection of problems that the student ought to be able to solve - you can find them in any standard text. And since it was the first week, it wasn't because I was a bad teacher - they had barely been exposed to me. But even though their transcript said they had received an A or B in the course, they couldn't solve the problems at all. So suddenly they get to college and a subject that previously didn't require a lot of work, now requires a great deal of work. It happens all the time

          • Obligatory XKCD (Score:4, Insightful)

            by rwa2 (4391) * on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:42PM (#44256617) Homepage Journal

            http://xkcd.com/435/ [xkcd.com]

            Up through Engineering math isn't that bad, as long as you don't fall behind the rest of the class.

            Good math classes are self-paced (more so than most other subjects, since there are so many dependencies), so everyone can rise to their level of ability.

        • by expatriot (903070) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:45PM (#44256065)

          Feynman was fantastic at inspiring people and giving them an intuition for physics with simple drawings.

          Do you think he understood partial differential equations, functions in a complex space, matrix math, group theory? Sure he did. If he wrote some of that on a blackboard in a 60 minute talk, would the audience struggle to keep up?

          I am still not sure I understand using 4x4 matrices to do transforms in three space. I can write the code though (slowly).

          My wife (English and Drama) said the biggest party people were the liberal arts students because they did not need as much time to study. And when they were studying they mostly were reading.

          A good educator can make learning calculus better than a poor one, but there it is still hard (well for me anyway).

          • by Rockoon (1252108)

            Do you think he understood partial differential equations, functions in a complex space, matrix math, group theory? Sure he did. If he wrote some of that on a blackboard in a 60 minute talk, would the audience struggle to keep up?

            No, they wouldn't have struggled to keep up. The genius of Feynman was that he used things like blackboards productively. [youtube.com]

            If you think that writing equations on blackboards is equal to education, then you've already gotten screwed over by a disastrous education system that only did that for you.

          • by UnknownSoldier (67820) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @08:06PM (#44256817)

            > I am still not sure I understand using 4x4 matrices to do transforms in three space. I can write the code though (slowly).

            That's just proof that you had a bad/crappy teacher. :-( Here is one explanation:

            In 3D computer graphics we use a 4x4 matrix to conveniently and compactly represent _two_ things:
              a) orientation, and
              b) location (or position) within a single variable.

            M = [ R 0 ]
                [ T 1 ]

            Where:
                R = 3x3 orientation matrix, and
                T = 3-dimensional position vector.

            To understand how this comes about let us start with something a little more basic: 2D Affine Transformations. Namely: Rotations, Translations, Scaling.

            Given a point P = we can write it in matrix form as either [ x y ], or
            [ x ]
            [ y ]

            How would we write the equation for a point that is rotated around the origin (or z-axis.)? We will eventually want to write a matrix equation where the matrix represents a change in orientation. That is by definition:

              x = R * cos(A), and
              y = R * sin(A)
            x' = R * cos(A+B), and
            y' = R * cos(A+B)

            Where:
              R = radius of the angle,
              A = initial angle,
              B = the relative change in the angle,
              A+B = the absolute final angle

            We don't always know R, so let us rewriting these in terms without R:
            x' = R * cos(A+B)
              = R * {cos(A)*cos(B) - sin(A)*sin(B)}
              = {R*cos(A)} * cos(B) - {R*sin(A)} * sin(B)
              = x * cos(B) - y * sin(B)

            Similarly we do the same for y.

            Now, we would also like to write the equation for the Translation of a 2D point:
              x' = x + dx
              y' = y + dy

            Likewise Scaling is pretty straightforward:
              x' = x * sx
              y' = y * sy

            These 3 different operations require 3 different functions and order of operations! This sucks. It sure would be nice if we could unify these operations into one equation! We actually have two choices for how we could write/calculate this:

            a) Pre-multiply the column vector (ignore the '.' it is whitespace due to /. being lame.)

            [ x' ] = [ m p ] * [ x ]
            [ y' ] . [ n q ] * [ y ]

            b) Post-multiply the row vector

            [ x' y' ] = [ x y ] * [ m p ]
                                  [ n q ]

            At the end of the day it doesn't matter which convention you pick just as long as you are consistent.

            Since /. is lame and doesn't like an _informative_ MATH post I'm breaking it into two parts...

          • by UnknownSoldier (67820) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @08:20PM (#44256917)

            > I am still not sure I understand using 4x4 matrices to do transforms in three space. I can write the code though (slowly).

            Part 2 since /. ecode formatting is still so gey I am including a bunch of whitespace filler text '.' to align things up in columns.

            Now, expressing the Rotation equation in Matrix form. Remember we ended up with these two equations:
              x' = x * cos(B) - y * sin(B)
              y' = x * sin(B) + y*cos(B)

            We can literally "transcode" them from algebraic form into matrix form without too much difficulty. We end up with this:

            [ x' ] = [ cos(B) -sin(B) ] * [ x ]
            [ y' ] . [ sin(B) .cos(B) ] . [ y ]

            And expressing the Scaling in Matrix form:

            . [ x' ] = [ sx 0 ] * [ x ]
              [ y' ] . [ 0 sy ] [ y ]

            Likewise expressing the Translation in Matrix form:

            x' = x + dx
            y' = y + dy
            x' = (x*m + y*p) + dx*1
            y' = (x*n + y*q) + dy*1

            The problem is that a 2x2 matrix form won't do! We need to extend the problem from 2D to 3D !

            [ x' ] = [ m p dx ] * [ x ]
            [ y' ] . [ n q dy ] . [ y ]
            [ 0. ] . [ 0 0 1. ] . [ 1 ]

            The exact same _principle_ is used for 3D. We extend a 3x3 matrix (orientation) to a 4x4 matrix so that it expresses BOTH a orientation AND translation.

            [ x' y' z' w' ] = [ 4x4matrix ] * [ x y z 1 ]

            Hope this helped!

      • by bmacs27 (1314285) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:34PM (#44255955)
        That's true, we need more educators like, oh... say.... one of the top 5 physicists of the last century. The point of the article is that the kids aren't prepared for when the Feynmans of the world (university faculty) get a hold of them. I can vouch for this. The extent of student ignorance is often shocking. It makes it hard to predict why something is difficult for a student to understand, and thus to educate them. One kid spent hours completely baffled about one problem, only for it later to be made clear he didn't understand the concept of graphs. Not this particular graph, but the general idea that data can be visualized by plotting on an axis. My wife had another kid that wasn't understanding "sex-linked" disorders. It ultimately became clear that he didn't know he had a Y chromosome. It's scary.
        • by PRMan (959735) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:53PM (#44256143)
          On the flip side, I had professors who would teach material so badly that the class average was 28% or 35%. Even the best student in the class that already had the book memorized since infancy got a 75% because the test was worded so badly he couldn't understand the question. But hey, rather than actually teach anything, just use a curve and its all fixed.
          • by yurtinus (1590157)
            I'm sure we've all had a class like that. In all cases I know of, it was a new professor who really was still learning how to teach. One or even two professors like that is not going to ruin your education unless you let them. At my school, there were two professors like that which I can think of, and by the time I graduated their class averages had gotten up to the normal range and they were generally well regarded.
        • by Rockoon (1252108)

          That's true, we need more educators like, oh... say.... one of the top 5 physicists of the last century.

          While Feynman may have been one of the top 5 physicists of the last century, the other 4 weret/arent good educators. You arent actually making a point here.

          • It kind of exemplifies the point that good educators are very rare. You have to have vast knowledge of the topic and you must also have a vast knowledge of how people think and great intuition about what a specific person is thinking. Things that very rarely happen on their own and nearly never all together.
      • by slew (2918) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:09PM (#44256299)

        Whats needed is good educators, like Richard Feynman was. What passes for "good educator" these days is pathetic.

        I'm not so sure Richard Feynman would agree that he was a "good educator", although he was a great scientist. By many accounts, he mainly enjoyed teaching as an exercise to keep his own mind fresh and as an excuse to re-explore things that he knew very well and hopefully stumble upon a new way of looking at things. On his famous lecture series, he himself stated "I don’t think I did very well by the students" and by some accounts was generally depressed by average scores on the tests the year that he was teaching that class in introductory physics from which the lectures were recorded.

        It's not to say that really smart folks can't benefit from learning what he could teach, but that even he would probably recognize that if the students aren't learning, you need to have some different approaches to teaching to truly be a good educator.

        FWIW, Having sat through a couple of his lectures (right before he passed away), I can say you come out feeling that you know exactly what he's talking about until you actually put pen to paper and realize, he just made it seem so simple, not that you learned what you needed to learn (I apparently was NOT one of those gifted enough to get it on the first pass). Certainly it takes a great talent to make something so complicated seem so intuitive, but at the same time, that doesn't necessarily make a good education plan.

        • I'm a bit young to have bragging rights like actually taking Feynman's class, but I did watch some of his taped lectures in college. It was like the cherry on top. I had already taken most of the standard engineering physics and math courses, and that let me follow him without getting lost. But the fact that he had the talent for making things look intuitive without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail is what made me really understand those courses.

          It's probably true that a chicken in every pot and
      • What's needed are less helicopter parents and less public and high school teachers who are more concerned with not hurting students self esteem, than about about teaching core fundamentals and ensuring that kids are graded so that they can know when that isn't happening. Then students will be better prepared for college. Yes good teachers are essential. But on the whole, the current batch seem to be less than stellar. Or on the other hand, teachers can continue to focus on students' self esteem so they fee
    • by icebike (68054)

      Given the current way that most schools and universities operate, the hard work servers merely as a filter, to get rid of those they find unsuitable.

      There is probably less interest in teaching anything of real value than there is in finding a way to dump a large percentage of the masses that they don't think will make it anyway. All pretense of making sure students learn and understand disappears somewhere in the middle of high school.

      From then on out, schools and colleges act as society's steering committ

    • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:24PM (#44255885) Homepage Journal

      hard is merely the fact that often, the theories and equations taught are quite abstract. It is very important to have a solid grasp of concepts, but in the end, the material could be improved with visual and/or tangible results which have some values and/or association to the abstract concepts.

      I've had dozens of college profs and the ones which stood out were the ones who were good listeners as well and perceptive of what students struggle over. Generally I found when I thought a course was 'hard' I knew 80% or more of the material or concepts, but I was struggling over one or two things which blocked conceptual understanding of things further on.

      Subbing, as a TA once in a programming class I was perplexed how people couldn't wrap their heads around the idea of a Variable (think of it as a name on a bucket, into which I add or remove apples, yet they were still stumped).

      Things do tend to be more 'hard' when the student spends more time listening to their nay-saying peers than their instructors. When you actually believe Math, Chemistry or Physics is 'hard' your belief is your own largest obstacle to learning.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463)

      In high school, your grades are primarily a reflection of how hard you work.

      In college, your grades are primarily a reflection on how smart you are.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by PRMan (959735)
        Not true. I have a very high IQ and got some Ds and Fs in college. The best students routinely fall in the 120 to 130 IQ range. Smart enough to get the concepts but not smart enough to be outraged at the futility and waste of time and money that college is.
      • In college, your grades are primarily a reflection on how smart you are.

        Not even close. Your college grades are determined by:
        1. Understanding the material.
        2. Part marks.
        3. Knowing the professors.
        4. Planning.
        5. Reading old exams.

        I still remember in one signals class, the guy next to me asked how I did for one of the homework questions, and I told him I didn't do it because it looked awful. He told me it took him several hours to solve.

        "[First name], it's worth 1/2 of 1%."

        "... you son of a bitch."

        But hey, what do I know, I've just got an engineering degree on my wall here next

        • by Ash Vince (602485) *

          I still remember in one signals class, the guy next to me asked how I did for one of the homework questions, and I told him I didn't do it because it looked awful. He told me it took him several hours to solve.

          "[First name], it's worth 1/2 of 1%."

          "... you son of a bitch."

          But hey, what do I know, I've just got an engineering degree on my wall here next to my PE certificate.

          Of course you are right, that is how you pass exams. I was actually quite good at by the end as I would make several passes through the paper going for the stuff I found harder and harder on each pass. The first pass would really just be a skim read and quick answer of the stuff I found easy, the last pass would probably be just going for one question that bugged the hell out of me.

          I also never made any secret of this as my answer books generally had all the questions in the order I answered them (eg, 5,2,1

      • by benf_2004 (931652) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:10PM (#44256311)
        I found the exact opposite to be true. I put forth minimal effort in high school (rarely studied, frequently daydreamed during classes, ignored lots of homework assignments) and graduated with honors. I tried to do the same thing when I started college and I was on academic probation after the first quarter. I learned then that I was actually going to have to put forth a reasonable amount of effort if I wanted to graduate.
      • by yurtinus (1590157)
        I'd shift that a bit... In high school, your grades are primarily an indication of how awake you were. In college, they're primarily a reflection of how hard you work (with a bit of brains thrown in for good measure).

        As others have mentioned here, though - while you're in school there is an over-emphasis on grades which don't really matter once you're out. We need to do a better job of managing expectations. If a student is used to getting As in high school and gets Bs or Cs in their early math or engine
        • by wierd_w (1375923)

          I actually found college to be delightfully refreshing.

          In highschool, the teacher staff has a kind of "paranoia" about students failing, due to the inseperable link between the school's federal funding, and their performance on standardized test scores.

          As a result, highschool teachers institute a LOT of unnecessary bloat in their curriculum. Like those fucking "agenda books". I spent more time putting bullshit in that fucker than I did doing actual school work, so that I could then document doing school w

      • by onkelonkel (560274) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:28PM (#44256473)
        In high school a very smart student can get honours marks with minimal effort. In high school an average student can get honours marks by working very hard.

        In engineering school a very smart student needs to also work very hard just to get by. If you are diligent about doing all the problem assignments, hand in all the labs, study efficiently (in a small group really worked for me), be very strategic about obtaining all possible marks, you can do reasonably well. In engineering school an average student can't get by on hard work, because the workload is too high, and will likely fail.
    • by tylikcat (1578365) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:48PM (#44256087)

      I think there is something of a grades / work problem for many students. And I suspect that if bright students were more accustomed to classes where they could work fairly hard and not make As, undergraduate science classes would be less of a shock. A lot of the kids I see* turning away aren't doing badly - they're just used to doing so much better with so much less effort. Which is more or less what they've been trained to expect, after all.

      And people commonly attribute far more to talent than to hard work. So many kids look at the first physics exam where they've gotten a 67 (which is the lowest grade they've ever gotten in their lives, even if it was the third highest grade in the class) and become convinced that they're just not good at this stuff. I mean, their friends who are psych majors are pulling 4.0, and there they are with a 3.2 even though they spend an order of magnitude more time on their homework. Meanwhile, their parents are asking why their grades have fallen so much since highschool. (Okay, while all these are examples from people I know, they're not all the same person.)

      * I teach biology and neuroscience.

      • One of the mandatory math classes at my alma mater had (still has?) a 70% failure rate. I got a D the first time I took it, which put me in the elite top 1/3 of math there. My (now ex) wife didn't see it that way, it was more of a "YOU SHOULD GET As ALL THE TIME!!" Seriously, of the four co-op students I was on term with, I was the only one that passed that class.

        There was an expression going around when I was in school: "shoot for the stars and you might get the moon." I added "aim for the moon and try

    • by mill3d (1647417)

      I had a heck of a time with the more abstract math concepts I learned in high school and college until I saw them at work while using Maya ; then it just all made sense.

      Using modeling and animation software to illustrate the math concepts might be a good way around the abstraction problem.

  • by 0100010001010011 (652467) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:17PM (#44255813)

    A lot of it has to do with "Engineers make good money" or "My dad's an engineer, I'm smarter than him". I remember seeing it all the time back in college.

    Then they realise it's hard and transfer to a different major.

    • We laughed when they announced the Liberal Arts graduates.

  • by Valdrax (32670) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:18PM (#44255829)

    My alma mater used to have saying that summed this up quite nicely for the freshman physics weed-out classes:

    "E-mag, Re-mag, Three-mag, Management."

  • All of these garbage political/social projects to supposedly increase American kids' achievement in science are just that: feel good garbage. Lowering standards only goes so far until real work and real achievement are required.
    • All of these garbage political/social projects to supposedly increase American kids' achievement in science are just that: feel good garbage. Lowering standards only goes so far until real work and real achievement are required.

      Yep. I've said it before and I'll say it again - infotainment and edutainment and meaningless feel good "science" projects are doing a vast disservice to a whole generation of students. They don't actually learn anything and they don't learn how to learn. When the history of curre

  • by Yergle143 (848772) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:23PM (#44255871)

    The Onion [theonion.com] has reported on this ground breaking finding exhaustively.

  • by kheldan (1460303) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:25PM (#44255897) Journal
    From TFA:

    "If more science graduates are desired, the findings suggest the importance of policies at younger ages that lead students to enter college better prepared (PDF) to study science."

    In other words, this is the price everyone is now paying for public schools sucking so much ass: A generation full of kids who will end up working at McDonalds or something equally meaningless, because they weren't given a decent foundation in grade school and high school.

    • by HornWumpus (783565) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:50PM (#44256105)

      Not so much. It's just the usual complaints that future PHBs can't be made into engineers no matter how young you start.

      America's top 25% of kids ranks with any nations. We fall flat (on average) because of how badly we do with the mouth breathers. Frankly they don't matter, an educated

    • by Nemyst (1383049)
      Obviously, when students aren't allowed to fail, they never really learn. The good ones will go through, but the ones that would've greatly benefited from taking more time to understand something will end up lagging behind and getting dragged on by the system. Instead of trying to be gentle to them, all it does is catapult them to university, where all of a sudden we don't give a shit whether your feelings are hurt and you need to pass the courses to move on.

      The step is very steep and many just give up.
  • Arithmetic is hard. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold. I consider myself extremely fortunate that I had a few in my career. Sadly, I don't know how we can change the system to get many more. If I could, Nobel Prize baby!

    • by PRMan (959735)
      Easy. Teaching salaries for Math and Science need to double. If that happened (and I could make my same salary teaching high school or college level programming), I would switch in a second.
      • by PRMan (959735)

        I taught programming as an adjunct professor while my wife was finishing up college (worked there in the IT dept too) and I LOVED teaching. But it was BY FAR the most work for the least pay of any job I have ever had including minimum wage. ALL of my students ended up in IT careers, despite the school not having that as a focus. The least was a high school math teacher that became the math department head in her second year as a 23-year-old because she was the only one who knew how to use the computers.

  • Grades (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sandwall (1459951) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:30PM (#44255939)
    How about teaching children grades don't matter as much as they are meant to believe. Science undergrad with sub-par (2.7) GPA, still made it into graduate school and currently make six figures (with my degree's). Clearly remember, straight A students crying over B's and other straight A students switching to easier majors to maintain unrealistic GPAs. No one gives a shit about your 4.0 five years after the fact. Actually, no one gives a shit now. Too many believe they're learning the material in the book, they're actually learning *how to learn*
    • I was a C student. Given the number of raises I've had in the last 9 years, I'm going to suggest I'm a pretty decent engineer. There were a couple of times when I was explaining what some semiconductors were doing and how the electrons travelled through the system and I just got shocked faces.

      "Wait, you actually know what's going on?"

      Everyone thought I was a slacker that should have flunked out. I just never cared about grades.

  • Everyone Wins (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SuperCharlie (1068072) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:33PM (#44255949)
    Its the last 20 years of coddling and telling kids thay can do anything, handing out prizes to everyone, and boring the crap out of anyone with an extra IQ point above average that makes the mentality that well, of course you can dear, all you have to do is work hard and you can do anything.

    Then you get a classroom full of people who expect a prize every time they do anything.

    / old grump rant..
  • by ebno-10db (1459097) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:36PM (#44255969)

    Why does the WSJ hate American students? Technically I shouldn't jump to that conclusion, since it is phrased conditionally. FTA:

    “If more science graduates are desired, the findings suggest the importance of policies at younger ages that lead students to enter college better prepared to study science,” the researchers write in the paper.

    Why would we want more STEM graduates? There is no objective evidence that there is a shortage of them, and quite a few indications that, at least in some fields, we have a surplus. Moreover US policy is, and for many years has been, to import STEM students or graduates rather than get Americans interested in these fields. We know this policy is essential because Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and other very wealthy STEM dropouts tell us it is.

  • by mothlos (832302) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:36PM (#44255971)

    Of course it couldn't possibly be that classrooms are frequently designed for the efficiency of the institution over the educational needs of students. Lecture-based education, unaccommodating clasroom policies, instruction and assistance provided by persons with almost no professional education training, uninformative grading systems, a culture of shape-up or ship-out, none of these could possibly be changed without compromising the integrity of the program. The industrial organization of education can efficiently educate students well only by reducing the diversity of student learning requirements and that is most easily accomplished by rejecting input units which fail to meet specification. Don't you dare criticize this structure as to do so would only be dumbing things down and that is unacceptable.

  • by m00sh (2538182) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:36PM (#44255975)

    The main problem is that large parts of science and math are skills. But, they are taught as other subjects with a lecture and homework. You wouldn't learn swimming by listening to someone talk about it for an hour or learn to play the guitar by looking at someone playing it for an hour.

    Seriously, there is even a saying among people that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Sitting in class and listening to lectures is the wrong way to learn something.

    • by Georules (655379)
      While I agree, getting students engaged enough to attempt to teach something is terribly hard. There is not a winning model for back and forth teaching/learning that works beyond just a few students in the room. Lecture/homework is the lazy solution for mass instruction.
  • by Gavin Scott (15916) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:40PM (#44256001)

    In almost any skill that has to be learned, there's often a fairly rapid and abrupt transition from "I can't do that" to "I CAN do that and since I now know how to it's actually easy".

    I think a lot of people get discouraged when they're unable to get through that transition on their own the first time they try it, and "I can't do that right" can be appear to be an impossible mountain to climb, even if you're not far from the top.

    I think we need to be challenging kids from an early age to learn things that are "hard" so that they become intimately familiar with this progression from impossible to trivial. Too often I see kids these days try something that looks interesting to them a couple times and then decide "nah, that's too hard" and quit.

    It's not specifically teaching perseverance, but more about learning to recognize that progress is almost never linear toward a goal and many times you won't recognize you've reached your goal until you're actually there.

    Additionally, we ought to be able to get better at helping people fight through these places they get stuck, rather than just leaving them with a failing grade in a math class and a feeling that that they're not up to the task. Early recognition of students who are having difficulty and focused tutoring and other help getting through the hard parts to the point that they achieve their needed breakthrough.

    I don't think any undergraduate subject should be so inherently difficult that anyone who can get into the university in the first place shouldn't be able to do well in it.

    G.

    • Damn, a comment on Slashdot that makes sense and isn't about tooting your own horn. Are you in the wrong place?

      I agree. My experience in tutoring people in math is that mathophobes are thrown by the fact that they don't understand something the first time they see it. That's different from say, a history class. That's not knocking history, which also a very important subject (and a personal favorite), but it does mean that learning math is different. I always tell people that of course you don't understand

  • Effort vs. Reward (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Nethemas the Great (909900) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:40PM (#44256017)
    Here's a really crazy thought. A thought based on something that really pissed me off all through my schooling. At the end of the day, kids (which may or may not themselves be stupid) that took stupid, easy courses would earn better grades than those that busted their butt taking challenging courses. An "A" grade in physical education, or introductory algebra should most certainly NOT mean the same thing as an "A" in biology, or Calculus. It's unfair, and discouraging to those students that are truly accomplishing something. Why try so hard when you're surrounded by dumba**es taking slacker classes and pulling off better grades than you.
    • by slew (2918) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @08:01PM (#44256787)

      Rather than be pissed-off, you should see school for what it really is, not a competition between students, but an opportunity to get educated.

      If you look back at it, it's rather bizzare to think of education as a contest. So if you happened to be so smart that you didn't have to study and you still got better grades than everyone else, would that matter a bit to your preparation for a future college course (or life). Or in contrast, finding the best opportunities to put in your best effort regardless of the competition, you will perhaps learn better your own strengths and weaknesses as preparation for the future.

      Life is really what you make of it. It generally is not what everyone else is doing (or as some might suggest, a race to die with the most ribbons and toys, or that success requires others to fail). The truth is that eventually, nobody really truly cares what you did or even what you are doing, so who are you trying to impress? The answer is generally yourself, so you might as well try as hard as will make you happy or you will live to regret it (a fact that many looking back who do not try as hard as they could will often attest to).

  • ...Between what the research proves and the conclusions drawn from the research. I missed it the first time in the summary, and think this deserves highlighting:

    The research concludes: "While math and science majors drew the most interest initially, not many students finished with degrees in those subjects...The students switched out [of math and science majors] because they were dissatisfied with their grades."

    The author concludes from the research: "“If more science graduates are desired, the findings suggest the importance of policies at younger ages that lead students to enter college better prepared to study science."

    That's quite the spin. If I could be so bold as to suggest a different conclusion...

    Kids these days don't understand the meaning of the word fortitude.

    • The author concludes from the research: "“If more science graduates are desired, the findings suggest the importance of policies at younger ages that lead students to enter college better prepared to study science."

      That's quite the spin. If I could be so bold as to suggest a different conclusion...

      Kids these days don't understand the meaning of the word fortitude.

      Actually, I don't see a great difference between the author's conclusion and yours - he just phrased his more diplomatically. It's quite possible that the development of intellectual fortitude is one of the things that needs to be encouraged to better prepare students to study science.

  • So, these scientists did studies on science and found one simple thing: "math is hard". Congrats.

    And the "solution" is to train six year olds harder. Again, well done.

    Perhaps, just maybe, there might be a better solution.

  • How does this differ from the past? The article doesn't address that at all. In the past, did a smaller percentage of STEM students dropout or switch to non-STEM majors? In the past were STEM graduates a larger or a smaller percentage of college graduates, and were they a larger or smaller percentage of people of a given age? Is there any objective evidence that there is a shortage of STEM graduates?

    Without that information, this article is the usual "OMG, crisis! American education sucks!" hysteria that we

  • by yurtinus (1590157) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @06:50PM (#44256103)
    Make sure you include the requisite grain of salt. The blog is based on a study from over a decade ago - performed at a liberal arts college. Quickly perusing the school's website, I do not see a strong emphasis on STEM programs (I don't even see a B.S. offered, even the CS degree is a B.A.).

    Not that I entirely disagree with the premise, but I think a study at a school with a broader academic base would provide more worthwhile results.
  • by Cyrano de Maniac (60961) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:10PM (#44256309)

    While my intuition tells me that high school grads are, on the whole, not as well prepared as they should be, there is certainly some improvement that could be done at the college level.

    One problem I faced on the path to my EE degree was that in mathematics classes and some engineering classes (particularly electromagnetic fields, communication systems theory, and stochastic signal analysis -- which of course are some of the most math/calculus heavy of the EE curriculum), was that I lacked an intellectual model of what the mathematics was accomplishing. While concepts like derivatives and integrals made a degree of sense because they could be related to velocity, acceleration, position, area, and volume, when I got to the point I was dealing with eigen-this and eigen-that and hermetian-something-or-others I had lost any real-world connection, and my understanding suffered as a result.

    The most frustrating and poignant instance of this was the first day of my linear algebra class, which I was taking only as a pre-req for CS class on GUIs, which only needed it to the extent that rotation, translation, and scaling using matrices was involved, and I already knew that much. Anyway, the mathematics professor walks in and announces "I do not care, even one little bit, what this material is used for in the real world. I am here to instruct you in mathematics alone." I looked around the room. In a class of about 25, I believe there were 20 science/engineering students, 4 math students, and one photography major (she was one of those brilliant types who took upper level classes in sciences, math, philosophy, or anything else just for fun). I was somewhat incredulous at the professor's utter disregard for his students' background, abilities, and interests. And just as I expected the course was utterly miserable and tedious, and then there were the bad days.

    I contrast that with the math classes I took for Calculus II-IV, and Numerical Systems Analysis. The professors (thank heavens I avoided graduate students) who taught those classes were totally on top of the situation, and made it very clear what we were trying to accomplish with real world examples, or at least didn't veer too incredibly far from intuitive models. I think it helped that in Calc II-IV I had the same professor all through, and he was teaching a pilot course that integrated calculators into the material, so there was a lot of approachable material throughout. This was a stark contrast from the previously mentioned Linear Algebra as well as the Differential Equations I courses.

    To this day I hate Linear Algebra and Differential Equations, and I'm 100% convinced it's due to the terrible instructors I dealt with. Which is a shame, because I loved mathematics in high school, and would go beyond my coursework to explore what I could on my own without much additional help from my (incredible) high school teacher, and I had a blast doing it. If I hadn't developed a strong interest in aeronautics and computers I most likely would have pursued a math degree.

    The biggest problem I faced throughout my mathematics education, as well as many engineering classes, is that as the course would progress it was building taller and taller upon a shaky foundation. While my arithmetic was bedrock, my algebra was concrete, and my trigonometry was 2x4 construction, the rest was a lot less solid. Calculus felt a lot like building with Tinker-toys, and by the time I got to anything past that it was toothpicks stuck together with Sticky-Tack. As more and more material was piled on top, a lot of it kept slipping off because the stuff underneath it was crumbling. I would have benefited greatly from either better construction (i.e. better instruction), or a lot more hands-on experience with those shaky bits such that they were strongly reinforced.

    • Amen.

      When I started my degree for the second time, I had about 15 years in IT/Support/SysAdmin roles (or all 3 at once).

      I had done quite well in CS and math/Calc classes, but had to start from ground zero (Algebra 1 on up) to get into calc,
      because while I had the ability, I lacked the skills/exp.

      EE was my goal, after being an AT in the Navy...but calc was a brutal first go, but I *GOT IT* the second time around to the
      point I could do volumes of irregular shapes and implicit differentiation so well it was ..

    • by Beetle B. (516615)

      While you have a point, I'll make a counterpoint:

      First, a lot of mathematics majors get a poor mathematics education when teachers teach to the demographics in these classes (which is mostly non-math majors). As a result, a number of mathematics professors have gotten irritated and they'll insist that their courses exist to serve the mathematics students, no matter how few, and if the engineers want something more applied and tied to reality, then the engineering department needs to step up and offer a cour

  • It's not so much that it's hard, but that it takes longer to complete a science degree. Figuratively speaking, 1 credit hour in libral arts is like 0.1 hours in STEM courses. I think a lot of people come to realize that a degree is just a key for opening doors, and opt for the easiest degree that will accomplish their goals.

  • by jo7hs2 (884069) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:12PM (#44256339) Homepage
    I started in college as a comp sci major. I already knew how to program in BASIC, C, and C++ with reasonable proficiency and was excited about the major. However, I had a string of lousy math teachers until high school and struggled with algebra. Oddly, I was always fine with trigonometry and statistics, and I never had issues with the logic part of programming (I'm an attorney now). I was drastically unprepared for college mathematics. Because comp sci majors weren't even allowed to take major-required coursework until they had various math prerequisites, I started behind. After I nearly failed a mid-term in math class I barely understood with a TA I literally could not comprehend, I dropped the class and the major. I retreated to my safe zone in history and eventually ended up in law school.

    While I'm not disappointed with the way things worked out, since my hands give me trouble just with the typing I do for my job now, I do wonder how different my life could have been if one of my math teachers caught on that I was struggling before my senior year of high school. I finally had a good teacher that last year, and she pulled my aside after class and turned a D to an A, but it was too late by then. I just lacked the skills.

    From my perspective, the biggest issue in math education, and really education in general, is grading with no follow up. If a student isn't getting it, failing them doesn't make them get it, and passing them with pity is even worse. This flaw in a lot of education was really hammered home to me in law school when a professor got frustrated her ENTIRE class failed an exam. If the whole class fails, it isn't the students...

    Ironically, I always had amazing science teachers. They were always engaged and excited. I usually got good grades. But, one science teacher was the only teacher I ever had who picked up on the fact that I was being teased and then tried to do something about it. And, my aunt is a science teacher, so I may be biased.

    My rambling point...they need to be catching the kids who are struggling in second to fifth grade. My math issues started with multiplication in elementary school. I was behind, and no one ever caught it because in our school system you could basically still pass if you didn't understand, provided you just got enough questions right and showed effort...and passing was all that mattered.
  • This is a great money making opportunity for a savvy university. Offer a 2-year Pre-Science curriculum to prepare them for the following 4-year Bachelor of Science. Wouldn't be much different than Pre-Nursing, Pre-Med, Pre-Law, etc. If you happened to come from an awesome school system, then you will have no problem testing out of Pre-Science and go directly to your standard 4-year program.
  • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @07:41PM (#44256605) Homepage Journal

    Funny, marriage is like that, too.

  • by memetech (1482135) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @10:31PM (#44257771)

    Feynman had a wonderful statement in his precursor lectures that I found inspiring. I don't have it on hand but I think it should be taught to all incoming university students. So here it is paraphrased:

    Most of you here went through school being the top one or two in your class. But even after that, Caltech must limit how many students get in. So those of you that are here now are the best of the best. Yet in this group, at least half of you are below average.

    So there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that for the next four years you are going to have this feeling that you're not the best, and that's not something you're used to, and you have to learn to deal with that.

    The good news, is that four years from now you'll be thrown back out into the real word, and lo' you will find yourselves number 1 again, and all will be right with the world, and in addition you'll always feel that your Caltech education has stood you in good stead.

    Upshot: it's worth the struggle. Stick it out.

    Also, from the books Feynman was disappointed in the quality of the solutions to the physics exercises that his lecture series students could perform (understatement). So let's not just assume he was the world's greatest educator :)

  • 500 students (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fsterman (519061) on Thursday July 11, 2013 @10:46PM (#44257871) Homepage

    My pre-calculus course at a major research university had nearly 500 students. Lab/section consisted of an underpaid graduate student with poor English. I'm all for the US attracting top minds from other countries and we should fund it, but not with undergraduate tuition. That class brought in over a $1 million for that department. At 500-$1,000/credit, you can afford private one-on-one tutoring sessions at $40-$50 every day for the entire quarter. The only difference is that "student aid" (aka taxes in the form of debt) won't pay for a tutoring! On top of that, the professor also told us to expect devoting 50-100% more time than the normal credit/hour ratio.

    I dropped the class and took it (in two quarters instead of one) at the local community college, where I had a class of 25. If you were lucky enough to be an honors student in HS (yes, lucky enough to have a normal childhood and good teachers) and you get on the honors track in college, you will be rewarded with small class sizes, a smaller selection of higher quality professors, scholarships, and projects instead of rote memorization.

    So yes, if you give us poor grades on top of a shitload of homework and a terrible education we will be very unhappy.

  • by drolli (522659) on Friday July 12, 2013 @02:18AM (#44258801) Journal

    I studied some time (15y) ago (and stayed in academical research for a while) and i find the findings more than just plausible, even if if affects only a certain fractions of the students.

    In principle it is very reasonable to readjust your plans after assessing the difficulty of the path you want to follow. Have seen too many who did not leave but got unhappy, frustrated (even with the degree they wanted), or ending up with a failed life (10y+ trying to get a degree which they did not get in the end). It is very reasonable to stop studying physics if you fail at math.

    What is special for science is that there is no way around seeing your limitations. You solve the equation or you dont. Your are able to measure something or you are not. You are able to understand a certain theory or not. Sometimes you may take 1week to understand a few pages of a book, which you should understand faster to finish it in time.

    IMHO the problem is not that the subject is difficult (which aplies for many subjects if you do them right), but the problem is that there is no way around the difficulty.

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