Monday, August 11, 2014

The Subtleties of STEM

One common justification for unemployment and inequality that's often trotted out is that there are plenty of jobs, it's just that people aren't studying the right things (id est, 'the economy would be fine if it weren't for the damn people living in it!'). If everyone just got a STEM degree (or the latest STEM-H adding health care), the argument goes, then there would be enough jobs to go around for everybody. If you don't get a STEM degree for whatever reason, well, then it's YOUR FAULT and you deserve to unemployed and paid minimum wage. If you major in art or literature or philosophy, then god help you. But the real picture is somewhat more complicated.
It’s puzzling that so few American students graduate with engineering and science degrees, even though these majors would grant them much higher salaries. Maybe the reason is that these majors require so much homework.

But maybe students will take comfort from a study suggesting that the choice of major may be influenced by the way some people’s brains are wired.

The study used a survey of Princeton’s incoming freshman class of 2014 to examine correlations between major choice and neuropsychiatric disorders. It was conducted by Benjamin C. Campbell, a researcher at Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute, and Samuel S.-H. Wang, a molecular biology professor at Princeton.

Students answered questions about their academic discipline intentions, as well as whether they, their immediate family members or grandparents had one or more of a number of neurological and mental disorders, including Alzheimer’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), autism spectrum disorder, bipolar syndrome, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

Most of the illnesses the researchers asked about didn’t seem to have any relationship with which academic discipline students were drawn to. But a few did.

Students pursuing STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, math) were more likely than other students to report having a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder. (Of the 1,077 students who responded to the survey, 16 aspiring technical majors and four aspiring non-technical majors said they had siblings with an autism spectrum disorder.)

Additionally, students intending to major in the humanities were more likely to say that they, an immediate family member or their grandparent had been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or substance abuse problems.

Intellectual interests, it seems, do have some relationship to mental and neurological disorders. At least one earlier study, based on family histories of 30 creative writers, had similarly found a connection between literary creativity and mental illness. And the findings resonate with high-profile examples of brilliant artists  who suffered from mental illness (Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Virginia Woolf, Edvard Munch, etc.).

Prior studies have also supported the link between autism and familial interest in STEM studies.
College Major and Family Mental Illness (NYT)
Perhaps swayed by statistics about the shortage (and correspondingly high wages) of engineers and scientists in the United States, in the last decade nearly one incoming freshman in 10 have said they expected to major in engineering. (Over all, about a third of incoming freshmen said they planned to major in any of the science and engineering fields.)

But the share who actually complete degrees in engineering has been about half that. Certain demographic groups planning to major in the natural sciences also had relatively high dropout rates.

What accounts for the high attrition rates? Maybe some of it has to do with aptitude, or encouragement, or good role models and mentors. But Philip Babcock, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that a lot of it has to do with homework...

As my colleague Christopher Drew wrote in an article in November, STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have also had less grade inflation than the humanities and social sciences have in the last several decades. Given the study habits shown above, this probably isn’t surprising; courses with higher grading standards will often require students to study harder to get an A.

So maybe students intending to major in STEM fields are changing their minds because those curriculums require more work, or because they’re scared off by the lower grades, or a combination of the two. Either way, it’s sort of discouraging when you consider that these requirements are intimidating enough to persuade students to forgo the additional earnings they are likely to get as engineers.
Why Students Leave the Engineering Track (NYT)
Ralph Stinebrickner and Todd Stinebrickner say lots of kids come into college thinking they want to major in science, but then quit because it's too hard:

    "Taking advantage of unique longitudinal data, we provide the first characterization of what college students believe at the time of entrance about their final major, relate these beliefs to actual major outcomes, and, provide an understanding of why students hold the initial beliefs about majors that they do. The data collection and analysis are based directly on a conceptual model in which a student’s final major is best viewed as the end result of a learning process. We find that students enter school quite optimistic/interested about obtaining a science degree, but that relatively few students end up graduating with a science degree. 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."

This is important to keep in mind when you hear people talk about the desirability of increasing the number of students with STEM degrees. To make it happen, you probably either need better-prepared 18-year-olds or else you have to make the courses easier. But it's not that kids ignorantly major in English totally unaware that a degree in chemistry would be more valuable.
People Don't Major in Science—Because It's Hard (Slate - from the department of 'duh')
Scott Zeger really wants to get away from the idea intro science classes are weeder courses. Jam-packed lectures that about half of all Johns Hopkins students take are some of the most difficult to teach and take, Inside Higher Ed reports today. This stat was startling:

    "At Johns Hopkins, more than 60 percent of incoming freshmen in 2006 indicated an interest in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) career. Of those students, 57 percent earned a degree in one of those fields."

Zeger wants to make such courses more interactive, using tricks like breaking chocolate bars into pieces to illustrate a point about clinical trials, for instance. I certainly remember taking intro science courses. They were boring and difficult and didn’t do much to entice folks like me to pursue a career in science. It could be a way to get more folks into the pipeline to begin with.
One Solution to America’s STEM Problem: Make Intro Science Classes Less Boring (Kay Steiger) 
Summary: Another day, another astonishing bogus crisis (the STEM shortage) in which well-meaning Americans labor against their own interests to further enrich the 1%. The true nuggets of insight in the news media reveal so much, but accomplish nothing unless they spark action.

That the shortage of STEM workers was bogus was quite obvious from the start, as Klein explains. It is Econ 101:
  1.         If there were a big, general shortage of these workers, you would expect to see their wages rising. That hasn’t happened.
  2.         There would be relatively low and declining unemployment rates compared with people of similar educational levels. Hasn’t happened.
  3.         There should be faster-than-average employment growth, which is occurring in some occupations but not others.
Scores of articles pointed out these obvious facts (include two posts on the FM website; see below). But nothing stops the needs of the 1%; we eagerly bow to their truth and march to their tune.
The shortage of STEM workers: another bogus crisis crafted to benefit the 1% (Fabius Maximus) It's a ginned up crisis. If there really were a shortage and we really wanted Americans to have these jobs, we wouldn't charge an arm and a leg for a STEM degree. In fact, we want to confine these jobs to the "right" people, and any shortages can made up by importing people from the global elite labor pool - Americans be damned. The STEM shortage is just another way of blaming American workers for their own destruction by the plutocracy.


  1. I left the engineering track after beating my brains out on calculus and statics. Differential Equations and Dynamics left me feeling pole axed. About my third year of college, I decided I could take 7 more years, struggle to get Cs or I could move over to the English department, get straight As and graduate in three semesters.

  2. A couple of points:
    1. No one's wages except the top 20% have risen in the last few decades.
    2. The difference in starting salaries indicates that STEM degrees are in demand and do pay off.
    3. The lack of grade inflation is a good thing for STEM majors. It means the degree is still a viable economic signal that employers can take seriously.
    4. Humanities and social science degrees will leave the average student in debt with no better prospects at a job to pay off their loans


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