How Do You Get STEM Students Past the 'Hard' Factor?

All three of my kids struggle with math, and they will tell anyone who asks that it's their least favorite subject. Sometimes my wife and I have trouble helping them understand their homework because we both love math and don't understand what they're not getting about the concepts. Despite her past struggles, my sixth-grader tested into honors math this year, which means she's just struggling that much more with her homework and tests.

Meanwhile, they love science and all the discovery that goes along with it. My only hope is that their difficulties with math won't keep them from pursuing a career in another STEM-related field. In fact, a key reason that kids in grades 6-12 don't pursue STEM careers is that their math and science grades aren't good enough; although they feel certain STEM careers offer the most job opportunities, they're afraid they won't measure up. This is according to a survey conducted by ASQ recently in anticipation of National Engineers Week next week.

ASQ and its membership (more than 14,000 engineers) are concerned about ensuring a skilled workforce with educated engineers. So they wanted to find out what might keep that workforce from developing. What they discovered was that, of those students interested in pursuing a career in STEM, 67% are concerned about the obstacles they would face.

They see three main obstacles to pursuing a STEM career:

  • The cost and time to get a degree in STEM is too high compared with other subjects (26%).
  • Their grades in STEM subjects of math and science aren’t good enough (25%).
  • STEM degree careers involve too much work and studying compared with other careers (25%).

ASQ also surveyed parents of children aged 10-17 to get their perspective. More than half (53%) of the parents who had kids interested in STEM careers also expressed concerns, with about a quarter of them saying that their children are not being prepared enough by teachers in STEM subjects. In addition, 18% worry that their children’s grades in STEM subjects aren’t good enough and that the cost and time involved in getting a STEM degree is too high.

Split them out by gender, and the situation gets even more dire for the girls. Almost a third of the girls strongly agree that math is their most challenging subject, compared with 19% of the boys. And girls interested in pursuing a STEM career are four times more likely than boys to believe that their teachers are not preparing them well enough.

In a later survey, ASQ also asked engineers for their perspective. Yep, study was a challenge. Almost half of them said the amount of work and study needed to succeed was the primary challenge, and another 14% said maintaining high grades in related subjects like math and science was their key challenge. Other challenges included lack of mentorship, poor-quality teachers, selection of engineering degrees available at local universities, and a lack of prep courses in high school.

But—and here’s the kicker—only 3% of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied with their career choice. Their advice? “Study hard and don’t give up.”

“While pursuing an engineering degree has its challenges, it’s a worthwhile cause and one that can lead to a lifetime of satisfaction,” says Jim Rooney, ASQ chair and quality engineer with ABS Consulting. “Students considering pursuing a degree in a STEM-related field should be passionate about it and be prepared to work hard to be successful.”

As Adam Frank posted recently in an NPR blog about learning science: “It is hard. It’s really, really hard. That is not something we should attempt to paper over. It’s something we should celebrate.”

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  • <p>Let's be blunt: It IS hard! That in itself is one of its main glories. Our educational system does our children a great disservice when it tries to make each student "feel good" by not grading, by not judging, by not striving for excellence, by not honestly admitting that worthy outcomes are achieved by perseverance and talent. Think about inspirational stories you know, whether they be real or fiction. The protagonist has a dream and struggles against great odds. He has setbacks, and finally overcomes. The degree of satisfaction in the victory is directly tied to the level of difficulty in its achievement. Failure to offer students the challenge of the difficult STEM path, pushing them to rise to that challenge, is to cheat them of a great satisfaction. Play a child's game, and children will be drawn to it. But if you want men and women of character, then play like an adult.</p> <p>Back during the last Ice Age when I acquired the skills and degree of a mechanical engineer, my opinion of the departmental professors was that they were ruthless taskmasters. They appeared to live by an unwritten code that went something like this: "Not just knowledge, but endurance!" I had the strong impression they wanted to ensure that anyone who left their care bearing a BSME was worthy of the honor, someone who would not bring shame to the profession. Now, several decades, thousands of miles, and ocean and a few occupations later, I can see that they were right.</p> <p>I once considered becoming a journalist. I am so glad that instead I stuck it out for engineering. Wouldn't trade it for the world. My advice to the student wondering about engineering: If you just want "a good paying job," do something else, but if you want to become a different kind of person - one who solves problems, who sees the world differently, who can make things better in concrete ways, then buck up and become an engineer.</p>

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