How students are becoming disillusioned with their science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses

With dreaded multiple choice midterms only days away, the genuine love for their science, technology, engineering and mathematics subject of choice is likely the last thing on the minds of students at McMaster University.

Canadian and American STEM students are dropping out of their degrees at an alarming rate, all because post-secondary institutions have changed scientific education to conform to what is comfortable.

No longer is scientific study oriented towards an exploratory field that is accessible to those who have a genuine interest in the content and put in the effort. Rather, it has become a numbers game with pieces consisting of a brutal grading scheme. “Weeding” courses, the dreaded mandatories or a synonym for hell. Whatever you call your introductory science and math courses, many students have at least once viewed themselves as “bad” in these subjects.

Whether one is a STEM student, former STEM student, or a shocked observer who would not touch an equation with a 10-foot pole — almost everybody in academia is wearily aware of the difficult reputation of university STEM courses.

As a culture, we are so used to perceiving science and math as a linear process where one is good at it only if they get the right answer, that we have forgotten why we developed a passion to explore these fields in the first place.

As a culture, we are so used to perceiving science and math as a linear process where one is good at it only if they get the right answer, that we have forgotten why we developed a passion to explore these fields in the first place.

It is understandable that university STEM education is intended to ensure that students attain a certain standard of proficiency in the technical aspects of their scientific subjects before they graduate to more abstract classes.

However, I feel that in attempting to use this method to get the highest achieving students in higher-level STEM courses, the current system eliminates the majority of their potential contributions, by the sheer force of academic discouragement.

Is it truly necessary for universities to do this to students? If the ultimate goal of putting students through such rigorous courses is to select the “best of the best” students in one particular course, why is it that we root for a smaller group of students to succeed instead of working to ensure everybody is performing to their full potential?

As a student who looked forward to every single reasonably difficult high school chemistry and calculus class, I was shocked at the nature of university-style scientific learning.

I found that one of the greatest faults with this type of instruction is that simple scientific concepts are taught in an overly complicated manner. This is most apparent with many of the mandatory first-year courses.

I strongly believe that it is not just a student’s fault when they are hit with the stark reality of their introductory classes and drop STEM in its entirety, when in fact the whole system is set up for students to fail. The system is built not to favour scientific advances per se, but to sustain this frankly toxic model we have created and fostered for our own egos.

The system is built not to favour scientific advances per se, but to sustain this frankly toxic model we have created and fostered for our own egos.

Even just a century ago, the fields of scientific and mathematical inquiry were considered a frivolous waste of time due to their inquisitive nature and lack of practical implementation in the lifestyle of the time. How is it that now we have managed to beat and dissuade the passion out of students in an age when scientific innovation is moving forward at the speed of light?

Where we once revelled in our marvellous ability to observe the very rudimentary particles which made us and allowed us to understand our place in the universe, we have merely reduced down to boring lecture videos and practice problems that make us cry.

The question thus remains on how can we as the McMaster community facilitate a trend of paradigmatically shifting away from STEM elitism, all the while preserving the proud legacy of our institution? Whatever the answer is, it is sure to benefit professors, students and our progress as a university.

The pioneers who spent decades discovering the theories and equations we memorize from a lecture slide in one night for a test would surely hang their heads in shame at the current state of our institutions.

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