“What’s your major?” Ask a college freshman this question, and the answer may be physics or chemistry. Ask a sophomore or a junior, however, and you’re less likely to hear about plans to enter the “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. America’s universities are not graduating nearly enough scientists, engineers and other skilled professionals to keep our country globally competitive in the decades ahead.
And this is despite evidence such as a recent Center on Education and the Workforce report that forecasts skill requirements through 2018 and clearly shows the importance of STEM fields. The opportunities for those with just a high school education are restricted, it says — many high-paying jobs are open only to people with STEM college degrees.
Still, as many as 60 percent of students who enter college with the intention of majoring in science and math change their plans. Because so many students intend to major in a STEM subject but don’t follow through, many observers have assumed that universities are where the trouble starts. I beg to differ.
I am a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, where I teach an introductory class in cosmology. I see the deficiencies that first-year students show up with. My students may have dexterity with the equations they’re required to know, but they lack the capacity to apply their knowledge to real-life problems. This critical shortcoming appears in high school and possibly in elementary grades — long before college. If we want more Americans to pursue careers in STEM professions, we have to intervene much earlier than we imagined.
Many efforts are underway to get younger students interested in science and math. One example is the Tree of Life’s online “treehouse” project, a collection of information about biodiversity compiled by hundreds of experts and amateurs. Students can use this tool to apply what they are learning in the classroom to the world around them. Starting early in children’s education, we need to provide these types of engaging, interactive learning environments that link school curricula to the outside world.
My own schooling is an example. Growing up in Delhi, India, I did puzzles, explored numbers and searched for patterns in everyday settings long before I ever saw an equation. One assignment I vividly remember asked us to find examples of hexagons. I eagerly pointed out hexagons everywhere: street tiles, leaves, flowers, signs, buildings. I was taught equations only after I learned what they meant and how to think about them. As a result, I enjoyed math, and I became good at it.
Not all American children have this experience, but they can. The Khan Academy, for example, has pioneered the use of technology to encourage unstructured learning outside the classroom and now provides teaching supplements in 36 schools around the country. For instance, recent reports describe a San Jose charter school using Khan’s instructional videos in ninth-grade math classes to tailor lessons to each student’s pace.
Perhaps more than English or history, STEM subjects require an enormous amount of foundational learning before students can become competent. Students usually reach graduate school before they can hope to make an original contribution. They can experiment in high school labs, but the U.S. schools’ approach to math and science lacks, in large part, a creative element. We need to help students understand that math and science are cumulative disciplines, and help them enjoy learning even as they gradually build a base of knowledge.
One way to do this is to encourage students to engage in self-guided or collaborative research projects — something the Internet has made much more feasible. An example from my own field is Zooniverse, a collection of experimental projects in which students can classify galaxies and search for new planets or supernovae using real data collected by NASA. Taking part in such explorations early will help students understand that science and math aren’t just abstract equations, but tools we use to understand our world. By the time they get to college, they will have mastered the rhythm of the scientific method — learn, apply, learn, apply — and enjoy the process.
Six years ago, I had a student in an introductory cosmology class for non-science majors who had entered Yale as an economics major, a choice based primarily on pressure from his parents. After one summer researching gamma-ray bursts — the most energetic explosions in the universe — he is currently finishing up a PhD in physics at Berkeley. He was hooked by the opportunity to apply what he learned in the classroom to a challenging scientific problem. He loved the thrill of figuring something out.
Without firsthand experience of the scientific method and its eventual payoff, students will continue to flock to other majors when their science and math courses become too demanding. If we want more scientists and engineers later, we need to teach children about the joys of hard work and discovery now.
Priya Natarajan is a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University.