PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
F21 Class of 2005 Statement
What should the STEM learning experience be in the first two years so that students are motivated to persist in the study of STEM fields, become STEM majors, and pursue careers in STEM fields?
The STEM learning experience in the first two years, indeed the STEM learning experience in the first year and the first semester of the first year, has to engage and enthuse students. Without this, we won't have the students to teach in later semesters.
The problem, it seems to me, with the usual (call it "traditional" if you will) approach to teaching STEM subjects, the way that I was taught as an undergraduate, is that it assumes that students come to us already engaged with our subject. The traditional approach assumes that students have spent their whole educational career yearning to get to college to study STEM subjects. When this is the case, it is fine to start, as we typically start, with very general introductory material that is steadily refined in intermediate courses, which dig deeper and deeper semester by semester, until, by the final semesters of the final year, we are covering something close to the bleeding edge of current research. It is fine because the students' engagement with the subject and enthusiasm for it will carry them over the dry, dull introductory material because they already know where they will get to if they stick with it.
When students are not already engaged with the subject, when, as is increasingly the case, students are coming to college without a strong desire to study physics or chemistry or mathematics or computer science, the traditional approach breaks down. When this is the case, the introductory courses often don't seem to have any point beyond the conveyance of irrelevant information, and simply serve to put students off. This is not because the students in question wouldn't find the later courses interesting were they to get there, and it does not mean that the students would not see the relevance of the early courses were they to get to the later ones. However, because students can't see where the early courses are leading to when they are taking them, they bail.
We see this effect in the current computer science courses at Brooklyn College. We have healthy enrollments for the introductory courses, but a vertiginous drop off following these courses (and a higher drop-off than is warranted by the grades students get for these courses). The way that we are starting to address this problem is one that I believe would work across all STEM courses.
We start by giving students a taste for the possibilities of the subject, the kind of taste that we used to assume students would come to college with. We do this by incorporating into the introductory courses some material from advanced classes --- robotics, multimedia, simulation for example. This taste is intended to enthuse students with the subject, show them what is possible, and make them believe that they can find interesting careers in this area. This is important, but not enough. This glimpse of the promised land won't sustain the students through two years of desert living. So, what we do is to infuse material from the advanced topics into the intermediate courses, building coursework and projects around simplified parts of the advanced material— for example teaching object-oriented programming using simple robots— to continue to engage the students until they are ready to tackle those advanced topics in full detail.