America has already had a difficult time increasing interest in the areas of math and science, but now things are getting even worse. Despite national efforts made by President Obama and other prominent leaders, enthusiasm for fields such as science, math and engineering is waning.
According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, students getting bachelors degrees in engineering have only increased slightly, as compared to other majors, such as business, which have grown a great amount in the past couple of years. More and more students are dropping out of science, technology, engineering and math (abbreviated as STEM) majors, and instead changing them to subjects such as business.
Whitney Molloy, Director of Student Affairs for the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering, believes that the first semester sometimes just isn’t as exciting as students think it will be, causing them to lose interest and consequently drop out.
“[I] think that often students do not get to do enough of the ‘cool stuff’ in their first couple of years that attracted them to engineering in the first place, such as FIRST Robotics,” Molloy said. “They spend time in math and science classes trying to get the pre-reqs out of the way, and engineering schools lose them because we don’t keep them engaged.”
Jesse Sharp, who graduated from East last year, is currently going to New Mexico State University to work on a major in Aerospace Engineering. Although he is aware of the challenges facing him, he isn’t concerned that it will be a problem.
“I have heard of several people who have dropped out of the Aerospace Engineering major and head for a easier subject of study,” Sharp said. “The most noted reason is that the classes seem to be to hard after the first semester; sometimes it’s because it’s just not their thing.”
But the reasons don’t stop there. Sharp also sees how the money related to a job in engineering can skew the approach that students take when entering the program.
“I think there is an ever present thought that money will get you anything in life and so people foresee engineering to be a route that will achieve a high monetary status,” Sharp said. “However when they are done with a semester and start to realize the time commitment and the time that you will need to spend studying and what not, it comes to realization that they won’t be able to keep up with all the classes.”
Similar to the ideas of Sharp, Molloy has also seen how part of the reason could possibly be due to a lack of knowledge of what it really means to go to college to become an engineer.
“One of our students was just talking about this during a presentation,” Molloy said. “From a student perspective, he thinks students may not understand how rigorous the curriculum will be, the amount of math and science they will have to take, and what it really means to be an engineer.”
However, even though the economy is going through a recession, Molloy doesn’t think it is affecting STEM fields in a negative way at all. In fact, she feels that the economic situation is actually causing students to consider a career in technology or engineering. She has seen professionals return to college to get a degree in the field because there is an actual need for more engineers in the jobs realm.
“When you look at the top degrees employers are hiring for, or the top jobs that will see growth over the next 10 years, or even the top paying jobs, it never fails that at least seven of the 10 will be related to engineering and/or technology,” Molloy said.
Senior Christian Wiles plans on majoring in Mechanical Engineering, despite the challenges that will face him in the program. Wiles has a strong interest in math and science, and is actually looking forward to getting a degree that will allow him to explore these fields. Although not one hundred percent sure of what exactly he will be doing as a career, Wiles knows that his degree will allow him to do what he enjoys most.
“It’s a really flexible major; you can do a lot with it,” Wiles said. “in terms of designing parts to [working on planes], it basically lets you do anything.”
Due to engineering degrees being able to be used in a variety of professional settings, they really help to open up the door of opportunity for graduates.
“[Working in engineering is] really a lot of fun,” Molloy said. “You can apply engineering to anything you are interested in: the environment, airplanes, cars, health care. It’s pretty amazing all of the opportunities that are out there.”
The popularity of jobs that use STEM subject degrees can be attributed to the current need for more professionals who have studied in these areas.
“Our society is in great need of more STEM professionals,” Molloy said. “You hear it from everyone, including President Obama. There is no doubt that America needs to strengthen our education in these areas and produce more innovative thinkers to enter our workforce.”
However, in order for this to happen, there is a consensus amongst college and university leaders that changes need to be made in the way people approach engineering — both from a student and teacher perspective.
At UMKC, Molloy says that in order to make sure prospective engineering students stay in the program, they have done a number of things that aim to prevent students from switching out of STEM subjects. Some of these include first-year introductory courses, which help to give students a impression of what it is like in the professional world of engineering as well as become introduced the faculty, other students, and become encouraged to explore different disciplines of engineering.
“We also really encourage our students to join our student organizations or competitive teams, such as Robotics, Steel Bridge and Baja Buggy,” Molloy said. “[That way] they are able to have hands-on experiences while connecting with upper-classmen students who can serve as great mentors.”
In order for students to better prepare themselves for the challenges of an engineering major, Molloy thinks that it is important for students to have a realistic expectation of what they are signing themselves up for. Also, preparation in high school plays a significant part in getting a student ready to enter a program.
Wiles, who is currently at the top of his class, has been doing his best to get prepared for the difficult course work experienced in an engineering program. He has made sure he’s taken lots of math and science classes as well as kept on top of all his studies.
“I think [students should] spend time during high school talking to professionals, visiting colleges, meeting with college students and really understanding what it means to study engineering,” Molloy said. “There is absolutely a lot of math and science, and you need self-discipline and great study skills, but we too often scare students off from even trying it. They not only need to be encouraged to take more math classes, but to understand the value of what they are learning in those courses.”