So let me start by saying that I’m not studying science, technology, engineering or math — otherwise known as the STEM fields. So you might be wonder why, as someone much more interested in history and politics, I am writing anything about math and science.
Let me explain.
For the past couple of years, there has been a litany of calls for more STEM majors to fill the halls of our universities and to eventually innovate enough to propel our economy into the future. There have been economic concerns, notably that “only 5% of U.S. workers are employed in fields related to science and engineering, yet they are responsible for more than 50% of our sustained economic expansion,” as business leader Rodney C. Adkins wrote in a 2012 Forbes piece. What is even more worrying from this perspective is that other countries are educating far more of STEM majors than the United States. Ever concerned with the possibility of U.S. decline, politicians at every level have weighed in with a variety of solutions to combat the decline of interest in math and sciences.
This election cycle, we will almost certainly hear just as many if not more of these ideas. According to Michigan.gov, Gov. Rick Snyder called for Michigan to become a leader providing opportunities for STEM education. Snyder backed up these words by spending $3 million and allocating another $2 million in the 2015 education budget for FIRST Robotics — a program that tasks student participants with designing, building and financing robots. The robots then duke it out with other teams’ robots in competition. It’s clear from his commendable actions that our governor is incredibly serious about training more students in the STEM fields.
But, as someone who never seriously considered majoring in the math or science fields, I wondered if these programs or any of the others I’ve heard discussed in the news would’ve done much to sway my interests growing up. While I’m sure that the new push to inspire an interest in the STEM fields is effective for many people, I know that for me, any intervention would have had to start much younger.
In school, I was always better at writing and reading than I was at math and science, even from a young age. While I was never bad at math per se, I was never really good at it either. I grasped other subjects much more quickly and intuitively, even as I struggled with basic computational math, and later, struggled to apply that math to science. I grew to assume that my talents lay elsewhere, and proceed to put much more time and enthusiasm into other subjects.
Consequently, by adopting a hesitant attitude toward math at a young age, I probably never learned the building blocks of the subject thoroughly. When it came time to learn things like pre-algebra, I was already somewhat behind on basic concepts, and learning new ones took much more effort for me than it seemed to for many of my peers. I assumed that this just wasn’t going to be something I was good at. Simultaneously, I experienced success in other academic areas, and so ruled out a career in engineering or the sciences before I had even taken my first chemistry or algebra classes.
Last year, I read an article by Economics Prof. Miles Kimball and Noah Smith, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University, about “the myth of inborn genetic math ability.” To these two (rather credible) writers, the misconception that some people just aren’t good at math posed a big problem, because, “for high school math, inborn talent is just much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.” Which makes a lot of sense … but for 12-year-old me, this myth was my reality.
Intrigued by the article, I interviewed Prof. Kimball about what he thought might be done to improve students’ interest in math (in addition to the suggestions he outlined in another article). He suggested that what we might do is give students more opportunities to do math outside of school, suggesting having “math clubs as ubiquitous as cub scout troops,” where students could go to learn and develop their math skills. He added that “the idea of a math club is for kids who especially like math. But I’m thinking of it … like the Cub scouts.” He elaborated by saying, “parents have their kids their kids go to cub scouts … or Girl scouts … even if they’re not extra interested in camping,” implying that math concepts are, or should be, something that everyone be encouraged to explore. To me, creating a space for children to work on concepts they have (or haven’t) struggled with consistently enough to create progress seems like something that might really help students who don’t believe in their own ability to learn math and science.
Working on difficult concepts in a low-pressure environment, students might feel more free to make mistakes and try new things. I can certainly attest to the fact that everyone approaches math and science differently — I was forever the student looking at problems differently than my teachers expected or would’ve liked. I now recognize that as an asset, but it felt like a failure at the time. Given the time and guidance to work through problems in an environment less constrained by the pressures and the threat of failure imposed by tests, more students, even the ones who didn’t believe in themselves at first, might experience success, ultimately giving them self-confidence and skills for future study.
In classrooms with a structured curriculum and limited resources, that kind of environment and continual practice isn’t always easy to provide. According to Kimball, “even for young kids, school is kind of high pressure.” In an environment outside of or after school, that pressure might be limited, allowing more time for mistakes, and more time to work through and find the right answer.
As I’ve noted from the outset, I’m not a STEM major. Unlike some of our politicians and business leaders, I’m not totally convinced that the fact that so many people want to major in non-STEM fields is quite the problem it’s been made it out to be. However, the reason why some students might avoid STEM education is a problem. The idea that people that might not pursue something — anything — because of an erroneous belief that that they can’t succeed in that area, reinforced by their experiences in school, is something that we’ve got to change. In addition to current solutions, creating an environment where students believe that they can succeed will invariably create more successes. All things equal, that is something worth pursuing.
Victoria Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.