July 30, 2014

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Changes in elementary education may encourage STEM majors

Flickr/Jeremy Wilburn

A recent news story in “Time” magazine reported Florida is considering freezing the tuition costs of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors while letting the costs of humanities majors continue to rise. This is to make up for the apparent favoring of humanities majors over STEM majors among American college students, and it aims to fix the lack of STEM majors needed to fill jobs over the next decade.

As an immediate solution, I think it would certainly work in encouraging more students to major in STEM subjects. However, whether or not they would graduate is a problem rooted in their elementary education.

I have fond memories of the days I spent in elementary school. While it is true I hardly remember any of them, what I do remember is for the most part pleasant. However, some of its pleasantness was completely unwarranted.

One instance of this was when I received a trophy for participating in my school’s baseball team. Sure, I was hardly coordinated or competent in the game, but that apparently didn’t matter. What did matter was that I was there, and that was I needed to do to be deserving of athletic accolades. I remember receiving the trophy and feeling good about myself as though it didn’t matter that I wasn’t good or that I didn’t even try. I was there, I was myself and that was all I needed to do.

All throughout my elementary school career, it was reinforced that I was special, that I was smart and that I didn’t need to try in order to succeed. That last bit obviously wasn’t part of the curriculum back then, but it arose as a natural consequence of being told time and time again that I was somehow special just by being myself.

Reality would naturally hit me hard in the face when I entered high school. I was mortified to find that in order for me to get decent grades, I would have to actually work hard. Having had been told all my life that I was naturally smart and special made me take for granted my (then elementary) academic success.

Since I wasn’t the only one who received this treatment in my developing years, I had the opportunity to see others react to the academic challenges my high school posed. Some quickly got the message and worked for their grades, while others were dissuaded by having to learn calculus and immediately branded themselves as being too dumb for math. Many of these students were, in fact, quite capable of learning the material. However, they simply weren’t willing to devote time to learning it. While some of this may be attributable to laziness, it was mostly because they thought of themselves as being too “dumb” to learn how to integrate a function.

If we want to encourage more students to become STEM majors, we need to teach them when they’re young that they will find value in hard work, not in being “special.” In life, merely participating does not make you special. We need to close the gap between cognitive dissonance and achievement by way of promoting work as being what it is: the necessary catalyst of self-improvement and success.

Many students who study the humanities might see STEM majors as being beyond their understanding or competence, when it’s possible they aren’t. Unless American students are truly more intellectually inclined towards the humanities (doubtful), they need to learn from an early age that there’s nothing preventing themselves from learning in the STEM field but themselves. They need to be taught how to overcome their own shortcomings, not praise them for the positive attributes they already have.

It is truly unfortunate that this generation has been burdened with the “special” treatment. What used to be attributed to laziness is now being caused by distractions caused by the Internet and the fear of failure. It may be said that what this generation fears is not necessarily hard work, but failure. It is the duty of education to teach us that failure can be productive and essential to the development of the student. The job of elementary school educators should be to prepare kids for the real world, not prevent them from experiencing the bad that naturally comes with aspirations.

Jason Brooks is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at jabrooks@student.umass.edu.


2 Responses to “Changes in elementary education may encourage STEM majors”
  1. Ken Jacobson Adjunct Anthropology says:

    While Mr. Brooks’ analysis is interesting as far as it goes, I find it’s context too limited. As a UMass History major class of 1965, and an Anthropologist, PhD 2003; I strongly disagree that the Humanities and Social Scientists are some how not real science. One problem with education today is that most students when asked “is the goal of science to prove or disprove hypotheses?” will answer incorrectly. The goal of all science,historical, anthropological, biological, chemical, mathematical, or applied is to disprove hypotheses.
    Secondly, the goal of attending a major research institution like UMass should not be to get a job upon being graduated. Rather, it should be for each individual student study in as many disciplines as they can for their own intellectual advancement.
    Student’s goals should be to become confident in questioning received wisdoms; to have confidence in their own reasoning; to approach all data skeptically.
    If those goals were to prevail, then not only would graduates be innovative in whatever profession they choose; but, perhaps much more importantly, they would easily dismiss the propaganda that currently passes for political discourse.
    In my humble opinion, only when today’s students gain that confidence in their own reasoning will they be able to reasonably address and solve the myriad of issues facing our planet.

  2. Kris says:

    ^Has not a real job in not a real field of study

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