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UCLA will need a fresh approach to science and math courses to increase student interest in those fields

By Itak Moradi

Nov. 14, 2011 11:12 p.m.

Not to betray my North Campus alliances, but I find science to be of utmost importance in current times.

The innovation and impact a creative mind can achieve through the various fields in STEM ““ science, technology, engineering and mathematics ““ symbolize the human race’s unique accomplishments and define today’s digitized world.

So, it was disappointing to be reminded last week by the New York Times that the obtainment of science degrees continues on its national steady decline, and that people have been scrambling for solutions, with little avail, for decades.

This is no less of a problem at UCLA, and the university needs to heighten its efforts to maintain interest in STEM.

As a member of the Association of American Universities, which launched a five-year initiative to improve STEM retention this past September, UCLA must continue to develop specialized policies that will deter students from dropping out so excessively.

We need a fresher approach, especially in introductory courses, because as much as 60 percent of science majors nationwide switch their majors or fail to get a degree.

That is double the drop-out rate of all other majors combined.

This problem has political, social and economic ramifications. Not only does the United States need to maintain economic competitiveness and sharpness in a global economy, the decline constitutes a threat to national security, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. There’s a growing concern that as systems advance in our Department of Defense, there will simply be too few people to lead them and compete with international inventiveness.

DARPA cites public perception as a main impediment to spawning interest, and is offering funding for retention program proposals that would focus on middle and high school students.

But UCLA researchers offer an interesting dynamic to that discussion.

“A lot of folks talk about a science crisis, and we’ve been pointing for the most part to K-12 education,” said Mitchell Chang, an education professor at UCLA and researcher at our Higher Education Research Institute. “But they aren’t turning students away, they’re actually increasing interest.”

Accordingly, surveys show that the number of incoming college freshman interested in a science major has been on the rise.

Chang said the larger problem instead lies within college walls, and especially at institutions of higher caliber, where competition is so pervasive.

There is a huge drive to spark interest in K-12, what some even call the “Sputnik movement,” but extending efforts so that continuity is a goal at the college level is imperative in order to be fruitful.

And studies conducted by HERI show that effort does exist across the nation to sustain financial and academic support for science students at the university level, especially for minorities.

Women and minorities are even less represented, which is a formidable concern for whoever desires more diversification and accountability in STEM.

HERI has also seen professors across the country using various technologies, like clickers, to instigate comprehension and engagement in the classroom, but obviously none of these efforts are concerted or effective enough.

Support and more technology don’t necessarily seem to be the right answers.

In a sector of the university where grades are habitually lower, competition is higher, and classes are larger, perhaps part of that policy innovation should be an expansion in how science student’s abilities are assessed.

Redesigning introductory courses to be more interactive and discussion-based is one possibility ““ introductory courses are a significant source of attrition.

Deans and scientists tell us what characteristics make the best scientists ““ curiosity, motivation and political intellect ““ but the problem is we only reward students based on the ability to regurgitate knowledge, says Chang.

The foundation of science is curious minds ““ why not teach it in a way that facilitates that?

Especially since studies show that grades are not even significantly related to possessing skills needed for later success in STEM, it is clear that our system is ineffective in its goals.

It’s understandable why introductory courses are so theory-based. Advancing in science requires a strong foundation and is cumulative in a more unique way than other majors, but the competition and rigidness that introductory courses heavily depend on may be pushing students away.

More projects can alleviate how large classes feel and will create interaction. Discussion-based labs will ensure more engagement and motivate the innovation that makes real science flourish.

These are only a couple suggestions from a girl on the other side of campus, but I think the diminishment of science degrees only harms UCLA, the nation and the world, and we must work toward a solution.

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Itak Moradi
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