STEM Success Requires More Creativity in Classes

The choice of what to major in is one fraught with personal, social, and perhaps most saliently, economic implications. The pressure to major in something 'practical' is, as I'm sure many students at the Claremont Colleges can attest, quite real. This pressure may have something to do with the massive increase in those studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). According to the Pomona Office of the Registrar's own graduation statistics, nearly half of the graduating seniors in 2015 held a major in either computer science, math or one of the natural sciences. Moreover, the proportion of STEM graduates at Pomona has increased by over 10 percent since 2011.

Whether the increasing amount of STEM students is good or bad is a point of contention. Those on both sides of the disagreement frame the issue as a contest between the humanities and STEM. Yet I would argue that while careerism may reduce the enrollment numbers of the humanities, it is just as deleterious to the way the STEM subjects are perceived, as well as the quality of the education students in introductory STEM courses receive.

To see why this is so, consider what for many is the most salient distinction between STEM courses and humanities courses: their difficulty. STEM courses almost universally give out lower grades than those in the humanities. One could think that the reason this discrepancy exists is that STEM courses are simply more difficult than humanities courses. However, how harshly any given class is graded has more to do with how many students choose to take it than anything intrinsic to the subject itself.

An article in the summer 2009 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives entitled “What Grades are Made Of” argues that the reason that grades are higher in the the humanities and social sciences than in STEM has more to do with how many people take those classes than anything intrinsic to the disciplines themselves. The paper examined student grades at the University of Michigan and found that classes that were in high demand gave out harsher grades as a way of reducing enrollment pressures.

As such, it makes sense that the intro classes to STEM majors, which are popular on account of the economic security that they seem to offer, would grade much more harshly than classes in other disciplines. Part of what enables harsh grading in introductory STEM classes is the fact that the majority of the grade is determined by timed tests with objective answers. Unlike in introductory classes in other disciplines, most introductory STEM classes do not assign any creative work, such as writing papers or designing studies. Grading creative work is much more subjective, thus making it harder to use harsh grading to push down enrollment, as subjective grading systems are more open to unconscious bias on the part of the grader, as well as to student criticisms and complaints.

Yet STEM subjects are inherently creative. Engineers, researchers, and programmers must all exercise their creative faculties in order to solve logical problems, design experiments, and write papers that demonstrate their findings. Upper division STEM classes, especially at small schools like the Claremont Colleges, emphasize the creative aspects of STEM disciplines. But introductory STEM classes are often focused more on mastering a defined body of knowledge than adding to a body of knowledge.

There is nothing essential about STEM subjects that requires that their introductory classes be taught this way. Imagine that instead of having to pass organic chemistry in order to get into medical school, all of the prospective doctors in the nation had to pass an upper-division art history course. I expect that pre-med students would spend hours in the library poring over paintings instead of functional groups. Moreover, the art history classes themselves would be large lecture classes, rather than small discussion classes, and they would be focused on getting students to assimilate massive quantities of information, rather than on appreciating and understanding a smaller number of works of art. If this was so, there would be a greater need to give out worse grades in order to decrease enrollment, and it's much easier to justify giving out a sub-par grade if what determines that grade is a test of memorization, rather than a test of interpretation.

The divide that we see between technical subjects and humanistic ones is in large part artificial. The usual conclusion to an essay on this well-worn subject matter is a lament of the decline of the humanistic elements of higher education. While I certainly wish that more people appreciated those elements, I shall take a different tack and instead lament the unnoticed yet even more pervasive lack of STEM classes that encourage intellectual creativity, and the resultant perception that STEM comprises intellectually dead disciplines. Despite the enrollment numbers, STEM fields are as much victims of the careerist model of higher education as any others.

William Schumacher PO '18 is majoring in Philosophy and Computer Science. He is interested in literature and the politics of technology.

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