When I was in fourth grade, I struggled with simple long division. So, I got a tutor: my second-grade brother, Mike. The most important thing that he taught me was that good communication is the key to breaking down any challenging concept. This led me to pursue a minor in science along with my writing degree, because I’ve learned that specialists often have difficulty communicating their skills and ideas.
It was no surprise when Mike was accepted to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) where he currently studies mechanical engineering. After his matriculation, I learned that Mike’s education is considerably advantageous compared to many of his peers’ similar programs. Like Mike, I am interested in science, but I strayed from pursuing a science degree because of an assumption about STEM—that is, science, technology, engineering, and math—held by many of my own peers. STEM has had the reputation that programs in the physical sciences and mathematics are not only memorization driven, but lecture based until at least the third year of college. The rigor of these courses, in conjunction with the lecture style and difficulty, leads to a high attrition rate in most undergraduate programs. It’s no surprise that many STEM majors drop their courses for something more discussion-based and creative, like English or political science.
This is hardly the reputation that college educators and President Obama—who has pushed STEM as a priority in postsecondary education in order to better compete with international engineering efforts—want, because it still strongly deters many prospective undergraduates. However, some schools have recognized that their “sink or swim” style of freshman STEM classes does more harm than good, and others are working hard to combat this with innovative and, frankly, fun STEM courses. Some schools, like Notre Dame and WPI, have taken a more project-based approach and found that not only do their programs get more interest, but students also seem more passionate in their classes. This also has the effect of pulling more women into the field—STEM is dominated by men in all areas but biology—and creating an environment focused on teamwork rather than individual competition. Notre Dame redesigned one of its freshman courses around four projects, which include work on Lego robots and electric circuits, as well as a student-designed project. At WPI, lectures exist for undergraduates, but they are supplemented with project-based courses and extensive lab time, allowing students to put their memorized facts and formulas to use. Additionally, the school has added optional first-year projects, giving students a chance to experience firsthand the work of upperclassmen; at the junior and senior level, students are required to complete social service projects that they must research, design, and execute.
The trend of adding design work is gaining popularity amongst state research universities, and even technical schools are urging students to pursue internships before they graduate. And some schools, like MIT and WPI, have adopted grading policies—like MIT’s freshmen system of only “pass” or “no record” grading—that diffuse pressure on students and encourage them to explore new paths. It’s my hope that more and more schools will pursue these avenues and add the creativity to STEM that it deserves.