STEM Needs Strong Roots

Students need mentorship, guidance, and real-world experience before pursuing majors in STEM fields

A popular method of attracting students to the world of science involves showing off very loud and visually appealing experiments. From the elementary to the high school level, we still rely on teachers dropping potassium into water for its bright, colorful explosion and crushing aluminum cans using the magic of air pressure. Efforts to drive the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields involve rudimentary examples of “fun” science that completely insulate pupils from the real world work that they might do in their careers. They start off with very crude understandings of what being in their major means, as if they expect to dissolve solids in acid or launch cannonballs for a living. According to a 2010 UCLA study, 40 percent of engineering and science majors and 60 percent of pre-med majors end up changing their minds or dropping altogether, likely due to this very misconception. Growing up with a poor grasp of what these STEM careers are causes incoming freshmen to choose majors that may not really suit them.

The whole purpose of these pseudo-experiments is to engage budding minds and get them interested in STEM in an attempt to raise the next generation of engineers, chemists and doctors. For the most part, this is actually working. Take UCSD for example: The most impacted majors are found in the Jacobs School of Engineering, specifically within the aerospace, bioengineering, bioengineering/biotechnology, mechanical and computer engineering departments. The U.S. Department of Education has also noted that the engineering and engineering technologies field has increased 21 percent from 1999–2010.

However, having some context going into the field is what will actually keep these students interested. According to Oscar Porter, director of the UC academic development program Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement, “Getting students engaged in their career path early on through internships and lab time is essential to student retention [in STEM majors].” Hands-on experiences are what solidify interest, creating a permanent and tangible connection to ideas. Professors can discuss engineering concepts and proper code structure all they want, but what is most valuable is when the student sees their knowledge applied, providing proof that they know what they are doing no matter what their grade may be.

A clear goal is also necessary to stay on track in the STEM field, an area riddled with extremely difficult and unfortunately specific coursework. Intelligent as Tritons are, not everybody will be prepared for that class on fluid dynamics or software engineering once they start engaging in major specific courses. And when it’s 3 a.m. on test day, many may start to question why they do what they chose to do. But upon this epiphanic hour, when students realize their major isn’t for them and they’ve changed their mind, it may be too late. By junior year, or upon completion of 90 units, UCSD students are expected to declare a major despite their prior classes only dealing with general education requirements. And now, those with a shakily chosen major no longer have the option or money to switch. Many are stuck unexpectedly finishing — just barely mind you — a degree that does not even apply to their aspirations anymore. These are very bright individuals who were not prepared for the course load ahead of them. And without a career goal in mind, many choose to give up altogether.

It would help students if high schools helped facilitate understanding of the fields students are interested in. While not everybody entering into the STEM field needs to know what exact job they want with which specific company, it is necessary for students to have some context before they choose to dedicate four years to one field. Entering freshmen need real world examples to help them stay focused; searching on the Internet a few days before college apps are due does not constitute sufficient reason to enter into any field.

The solution to this lack of information is forgoing the superficial experiments in science once we reach the high school level in favor of more personal assistance. A survey by Canadian research company Ipsos Reid found that 64 percent of students in secondary school wish they had a mentor in their lives for career advice. High schools need a program similar to UCSD’s Mentorship Program where students are paired with an appropriate faculty member for career guidance.

Many students don’t have the advantage of knowing a family member or being inherently connected to the field they’re interested in. Having a mentor helps point students in the right direction, informing them of the many opportunities they may not have noticed before. This would likely alleviate many of the pressures associated with applying to universities, as well as lead to a much more reassuring start in college.

While our time here at UCSD is certainly meant to explore and discover ourselves, time restraints require that we start with some direction. And in order to find the right “general” direction, a better connection to the field is necessary, whether that be through a personal mentor or a program that connects with companies and showcases the field to students. If we are to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, then we need to show these potential candidates what it means to work and be proud of their job in the STEM field.