Here is Why Would-Be Engineers End Up In Other Fields

Posted on May 22, 2011



I recently ran into an article in CNN titled “Why would-be engineers end up as English majors“.  A rather inflammatory title I would say, but the subject of my writing today is not about that. I’m focusing on the author’s references to the “weeding out” process that take place in STEM fields of study.

I read that article, and after mid-way of it, I’m just thinking “Ok, what’s the point being conveyed in this piece?” What is the objective, what they are proposing as an alternative.

I’m ambivalent about “weeding them out”. There is a certain need to provide some barriers of entries in some STEM fields. Computer Science – my field – is one instance. Barriers of entry have been lowered for the last 12-15 years and now people can actually get a BS CS with simple rudimentary programming skills (without solid theoretical and low-level foundations.) But I digress for this is just one extreme example and not all STEM fields the same degree of watering down.

For all STEM fields, the barriers of entry, the filtering, begin in college-level pre-cal/trigonometry, with the bolts tightening in Calc II and Physics with Calc. Those who pass through that are almost always make it through the end (even when they have to deal with harder courses.)

By their very nature, these are natural filters. Granted that many professors suck at teaching them, but even with great teachers, the drop-out rate are enormous. These subjects are truly swim or sink. People cannot advanced through their junior and senior STEM years without having a fundamental grasp on them.

I had to take Calc II and Physics II twice through my college years, and like in many others, it truly gave me a grasp of how hard this shit is, how hard it could possibly get when on the field. Any glamorous notions that might still had lingered went out of the window. That is a very important lesson that many people need to learn early on, and not after getting a degree (which sadly happens a lot… I’ve seen it.)

I don’t necessarily believe Academia sits there in a Machiavellian manner, plotting ways to filtering out people. But they do sit there tightening the bolts on hard subjects. Obviously, and ethically, they should not be made impossible (and that’s rarely the case). But, also obviously and ethically, the hardness of the subjects need to be made apparent.

All type of filters naturally arise in most fields. Medical fields come to mind. Nursing, Speech Therapy and anything that involves a practicum in a hospital or clinic.

Law also has filters. Music and Fine Arts as well (very, very hard, project-oriented filters.)

Ultimately, we want quality, not just quantity. To increase the # of STEM grads, that job has to start early on, very early on, in elementary and middle school. Not by loosening the bolts in University.

And the reality is that a lot of people would do much more better and be much more productive and have more rewarding careers if they opted for formal vocational education.  And by that I’m referring to vocational education done as part of middle/high school as in the German model or in the Japanese kōtōgakkō/kōkō level of high school or higher-ed senmon gakkō. Even poor countries like Honduras (where I was raised) or Nicaragua (where I’m from), you have similar high school systems with a degree of success. For example, I myself graduated from HS in Accounting and Taxation and my sister in Elementary School teaching.

But we do not have that here, and we funnel every body into the college grind without any consideration on where a student’s talents and desires lie or whether the economy is capable of absorbing so many potential graduates. Then we wonder why so many cannot go through it, and we even come to consider to loosen the bolts at the University level.

No other country would even consider such a stupidity. That tells you everything about what is wrong with our educational model.  The main problem in all of this is that we do not have :
1. public vocational training starting at middle/high school,
2. we do not have pre-University education that imbues skills that ease/assist the transition to college.

The filters are a necessary characteristic of college education. Plain and simple. Getting rid of them is not a solution.