Why we shouldn’t force students to study science

Prof. Pettigrew on students ditching STEM
Science students at York University (Jessica Darmanin)

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal seems awfully disappointed in America’s science students, zinging would-be science grads for switching majors when they learn that science and math are hard.

The Journal cites a new paper that looks at data from Berea College which does, indeed, find that science disciplines tend to be the ones that university students switch out of, not into. Their results accord with my own anecdotal sense: many students start in science but find that it’s not for them and change to the arts or what have you. Moreover, in my experience, few arts students have much academic interest in science per se—and many of them actively fear mathematics—so few students switch into science. This, more or less, is borne out by the numbers in this particular study, for, as the authors conclude:

We find that students enter college as open to a major in science as to any other major, but that relatively few students finish school with science as their outcome. This occurs because, relative to other majors, students are both more likely to leave science (if they started in science) and are less likely to change into science (if they started in a major other than science).

But the Journal piece is a bit misleading in its account of the reasons why students leave. For while it is true that students reported being unhappy with their grades in their science courses, it might be a stretch to say that students didn’t realize it would be hard and even worse to imply that they were afraid of hard work.

In fact, the studies’ authors conclude that it’s not a matter of students being unreasonably aghast at lower grades, but really just a matter of students learning that they are, themselves, not suited to science as a academic field.

All of this raises some interesting questions about the push to get more students into the so-called STEM fields. Doing so is supposed to be a boon for the economy, what with all these scientists and engineers inventing and fixing everything. But it ignores a fundamental question: what if students don’t want to study these subjects?

Of course, there may be a certain number of students who would be more interested, if they had more encouragement in their earlier education. I have no problem with that. But it’s impossible to say how big such a strategy can pay off. And even in a perfect education system, we would still have to deal with the fact that however happy it might make Wall Street, not everyone wants to, can, or should be made to study science.

You can lead a horse to H2O but you can’t force him to understand why a water molecule is polar.

Indeed, it is commonly understood among professors that high schools already tend to encourage their best students towards science, with a naive—and I may say rather insulting—suggestion that science is the “smart” discipline while the arts, well, anyone can do that. I have frequently observed the results of this mentality with many wonderful students finding themselves struggling and unhappy and feeling like failures until— having wasted a couple of years and who knows how much tuition money—they realize they are simply in the wrong place.

One of the brightest students I ever had began in science because, I suspect, she had been told that smart kids like her should be doctors. She battled and battled only to eventually realize that all of the biology and chemistry involved were just not for her. She eventually switched to arts, performed wonderfully, and is now a successful social worker. And her story is not unique by any means. The man I consider the smartest arts professor in our university washed out of Organic Chemistry way back when.

Of course, if science is your thing, you should go for it. Science itself is great. But deciding what students should be studying because of a misguided sense of what is for smart kids or an even more misguided sense of what businesses need causes severe and needless suffering. In other words, it’s evil.

Maybe someone can come up with some hard data on that.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.