|Posted by Dave on November 18, 2011 at 7:20 AM|
Two years into his presidency, President Obama made a big deal out of the need to graduate 10,000 new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors every year, and 100,000 new teachers in these areas. To help get the message out, he held a science fair for middle and high school kids in the State Dining Room at the White House, with all sorts of fun and interesting science and engineering projects on display.
The Obama administration and its predecessors have been hearing from industry representatives clamoring for a way to compete with growing capabilities in countries around the world like China, India, Slovenia and Singapore. Their STEM graduates have increased both in number and quality over the last decade to a point where American businesses have difficulty competing. This doesn’t bode well for the US, where our science and engineering edge has kept us at the front of the pack for the last seventy years.
The push for more and better qualified American STEM graduates started long before the White House science fair, but results aren’t encouraging. While the number of students entering college with a STEM major increased, so did the number of students switching out to other majors or just dropping out altogether. 40%, in fact. With pre-med students, the number is closer to 60%.
Students say they were lured into a STEM major by all the fun they had during their K-12 years, building robots, dropping eggs with parachutes from rooftops, and similar activities. Educators were focused almost entirely on the “fun” aspects of science as a way to catch and hold interest, almost entirely ignoring the fact that most science learning isn’t all that much “fun.”
These students had great SAT scores and high school science preparation in order to even qualify for admission, so what went wrong? Why can’t they cope with the lecture halls? Why are they switching to easier majors or just dropping out altogether?
Simply, because they’ve never experienced learning as work before and don’t know how to deal with it. New college students are faced with a blinding array of difficult subjects like calculus, physics, math and chemistry, mostly delivered in lecture halls – not at all like high school. (1) Many kids say “if it’s not fun, why bother?” The problem is, much of the adult working world isn’t all that much fun, nor is the college education required to get there. Learning complex subjects is often hard work.
You might say “my kids aren’t likely to choose a STEM career, so why is this important to us?” It really doesn’t matter which career path your children choose. With a shrinking workplace and increasing competition for fewer jobs, a strong work and study ethic can make the difference between finding (and retaining) any job at all, let alone one they like.
Today’s kids haven’t learned to experience the simple internal gratification that results from accomplishments, large and small. Hard work can be gratifying, but not necessarily fun. We’ve let their lives get completely out of balance. While all work and no play isn’t good for Jack, neither is all play and no work.
Who’s at fault? Pretty much everyone except the kids themselves. K-12 schools have become fun-centric, with teachers more intent on making their classes fun and entertaining than teaching strong study skills and effective learning habits. School social life trumps academic effort and achievement. Parents, too, focus on the fun aspects of life, perhaps thinking that they want their kids to have a better young social life than their own. The misguided and now largely discredited “self-esteem” craze of the last decade is also to blame.
The stiff competition that exists in college and the working world is almost now entirely absent from K-12 education. Young adults experiencing it for the first time are often left in shock and unable to cope, certainly contributing to the number of twenty-somethings returning to live with their parents.
Our entire pop culture emphasizes immediate gratification, feeling good, having fun and being entertained at all times. More kids today aspire to be famous and rich than to a rich and rewarding work and family life. The strong work ethic that built America and made it successful has been almost entirely lost. Kids have little or no concept of how to work toward a long-term payoff.
Okay, let’s say you’re parents who really get it, and want to teach your children the value of sustained hard work, and to feel and appreciate the personal satisfaction that comes with it. Can you overcome the unbalanced messages they’re getting from school and pop culture? Seem impossible?
It’s not. Many American Asian, Eastern Indian, and Jewish families do it all the time because it’s part of their culture. They simply make sure the message they deliver is stronger and louder than those from outside the family. These families place a high value on learning and hard work and communicate that loud and clear.
They hold their children accountable for behavior, effort, and results. If a child starts slacking off or misbehaving in the classroom, these parents want to know why and look for ways to correct the problem long before it becomes insurmountable. If a child is having difficulty with a subject, they do whatever it takes to get the kid back on track, including conferring with the teacher, hiring tutors, and even learning the subject themselves so they can help.
Make sure your kids get the “education is extremely valuable” message consistently from a young age. Get them involved in learning for learning’s sake. Provide learning opportunities at every turn. Begin with reading to your children daily, and later encouraging them to read on their own. Take them to museums and other interesting places to see what catches their interest, and then enable them to learn more.
When it comes to school, insist on best efforts, and make it clear that slacking off isn’t acceptable. Be firm, be consistent. Treat homework and studying for exams as serious business, nearly always trumping social life. When the work is done, put just as much effort into having fun and relaxing. It's important to keep life in balance - after all, all work and no play....
In the longer term, K-12 schools need to change the way they teach and put some of the hard work ethic and study skills back into the curriculum so as to better prepare our kids for work, college and life beyond. That is, after all, the very reason they exist.
(1) There are also problems with the way in which STEM subjects are taught in colleges, as disconnected theories, formulas and equations to be memorized without putting them into the larger context of the real world. Some colleges are trying to fix this now, but restructuring entire curriculums is a slow process and could take up to a decade to implement.
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