Students are fleeing STEM degrees

And why they may want to reconsider

Photo by jeremy.wilburn on Flickr

Today, the New York Times suggested that President Obama’s goal of training 10,000 more engineers per year, plus 100,000 more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teachers annually is unlikely to be reached.

For decades, the U.S. has been trying to up its output of STEM students. But the percentage of all students earning Bachelor of Engineering degrees has actually fallen from nearly 10 per cent of the total in the mid-1980s to 5.4 per cent in 2009-10. Computer engineering hit peaks of 4.3 per cent of the totals in 1984 and 2004, but has fallen again to 2.4 per cent in 2009-10. It’s a similar story in other STEM fields too, like biology. As more people are educated, it seems fewer are choosing STEM.

And what’s especially interesting is a couple of studies cited in the article that show the problem isn’t lack of interest in STEM programs, but lack of persistance in science, math and engineering after students start university. Twice as many students leave STEM degrees, either by dropping out or switching to other majors, than are leaving arts or education degrees. One major cause of the flight from STEM is simply that high marks are harder to achieve—fear of failure scares students away.

But whatever the reason, shortage of STEM graduates is a problem in Canada too. That’s why deans of graduate engineering schools have redoubled their efforts to recruit to engineering programs. It’s also why Seymour Schulich’s new $60,000 scholarships are for STEM students only.

But there are good reasons for students to persist through calculus and chemistry. Maybe more would if they realized that all of the Top 10 most lucrative bachelor’s degrees are in STEM.

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