03 February 2012

Weeding STEMs

Blunt Object | Is STEM captured by faculty?

There’s this cute thing that non-STEM majors do every once in a while: They imagine that the process of earning, say, a Computing Science degree is essentially similar to the process of earning whatever degree they actually attained. Presumably, they imagine, it begins with a number of survey courses that give a broad overview of the history of the discipline and the various schools of thought and specialization within it, and continues with more specialized courses in those various specializations — and at the same time broadens into possibly-related courses from other departments — and entails the acquisition of knowledge in a more or less organic fashion. [...]

Intro STEM classes aren’t designed to scare people away so much as they’re designed to impart a wide range of utterly fundamental tools in a short period of time — and, yes, to weed out students who lack facility with the basics. This weeding-out is less a matter of elitism than it is of efficiency: If you don’t have a sufficient grasp of calculus, programming, statics, or organic chem to pass the first-year requirements you’ll only find yourself further behind in subsequent courses.
Indeed. I won't speak for all of STEM, but in my CS experience professors don't wash out underperforming first years because they want to get rid of them.*Yes, it's true that they often would rather not be teaching undergrad classes, but reducing the class size isn't helpful. It's the class prep that's the problem in CS, which is con-stant in relation to the number of students. The cost of a marginal student is very low, even in relation to other STEM fields, because most assign-ments are by nature graded automatically. The marginal cost of a CS student is especially low compared to that of a human-ities student, where essay grading seems to be a large component of the workload. They wash out underperforming students because the advanced classes are hard.

There is a fundamental difference between the way we teach STEM and humanities. Upper level STEM classes build explicitly on lower ones in a way that humanities classes do not. That's one of the reasons I could take 400-level electives in history and film and philosophy and keep pace — rather handily, if I do say so — with the people majoring in those disciplines. Professors expectations in upper-level humanities classes may be higher than for the intro classes, but the material is not particularly harder, nor does it require a mastery of the material in the lower-level classes. This is not at all true in 300 and 400 level STEM classes. That's one big reason you do see CS students taking (and excelling) in Arts & Letters classes but you don't often see history majors acing Operating Systems or Machine Learning.

I think there's actually a big value to weeding out undergrad CS students in particular, and that's because too many of them think they're going to get rich without having to put in effort.

Let me explain by way of a digression. I went to high school with a guy who everyone thought of as a musical genius. He won all the talent shows, etc. because he had what amounted to a dead-on Steven Tyler impersonation. Then he went away to a prestigious conservatory to study music and washed out in his first year. Last I saw him he was directing cars in a concert venue's parking lot.

Within the narrow confines of my hometown, the kid was a star. But he, along with many others that sang his praises, didn't realize that you need to put in a lot of effort mastering artistic fundamentals in addition to a having decent singing voice and a large helping of stage presence. There's a lot more to being a musician than being able to hit the high notes on "Walk this Way."

Guys like that show up as a freshman CS majors every year. They're the guy their family or neighbors go to for help with computer stuff, so they're the biggest fish in their pond. And they figure they're going to become a millionaire inventing some app by the time they're 25, because they're the only kid in school who knows HTML. They don't realize there's a world of difference between building a custom template for their Tumblr account and building Tumblr itself. If you let that kid stumble through intro-CS classes without putting them to the test they're eventually going to crash and burn in Algorithms or Data Structures or Compilers or OS. Coddling Mr. I'm-Going-To-Invent-The-Next-Facebook in their freshman and sophomore years doesn't do him any favors.

Mrs SB7's eight graders had visits earlier this week from department representatives at the local high school about the courses they can sign up for next year.  Following the presentation by the technology department all five of her classes had quemments about taking computer programming and getting rich, and none of those people seemed to understand that computer programming is complicated. Granted, these are 14 year olds, but I seee a lot of college freshmen who still have that attitude.

I don't know if other STEM fields have the same situation. I certainly didn't meet many kids who thought they were going to get rich quick by majoring in CHEG.

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