What Barriers Keep People From Pursuing STEM Degrees?

Quora
The best answer to any question.
March 11 2014 11:40 AM

What Barriers Keep People From Pursuing STEM Degrees?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Jessica Su, computer science Ph.D. student at Stanford:

Advertisement

Lack of math skills from high school.

My father is a professor of engineering and routinely sees people mess up fractions and the distributive law. I tutor a high school junior with engineering aspirations, and he doesn't understand why increasing and then decreasing a price by 20 percent doesn't keep the price the same. Of course these people have a hard time in harder classes and have to give up their pursuit of science and engineering.

If I had to guess why students were like this, I would cite at least three reasons:

Algebra is hard. It's very easy once you understand that the concepts are supposed to make sense and you're not just supposed to memorize how to do problems. But that usually takes longer than the year students are given to learn algebra. Especially since:

  • Most of their courses prior to algebra are memorization-based and not conceptual.
  • Most homework problems in textbooks are exactly the same as the examples, which encourages people to memorize specific cases instead of grasping the general concepts.
  • The concepts are not always emphasized or explicitly explained.

Because algebra is hard, many teachers shy away from teaching concepts and proofs, and instead they teach mnemonics so students will pass the tests. My precalculus teacher taught us limits by having us memorize rules for "big top" and "big bottom." This memorization teaches nothing but is the easiest thing for teachers who don't understand the concepts themselves or students who are so far behind that their teachers have given up on teaching.

Students do not do enough practice. It's really hard to understand higher-level classes without sufficient practice with lower-level material. My high school precalculus class assigned maybe 10 problems per section. That's just enough for students to learn how to do the problems and then forget once they've passed the test.

I am fortunate that my father had me go through math textbooks and do all the problems in the book, thus ensuring I would never forget high school math. Without this, I wouldn't see a lot of tricks necessary for more difficult problems, such as completing the square when convenient, multiplying and dividing a fraction by the same number, or expanding and collapsing telescoping sums. I wouldn't be able to integrate cosine squared because I wouldn't remember my half-angle formulas. In my physics classes, these were absolutely critical.

More questions on Computer Science:

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.