Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why this engineering major changed her mind (It's not that it's hard)

Have you read the recent NY Times article entitled: Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard)? Go ahead and read it now. In fact, I even recommend reading the Comments (Highlights and some Readers' Recommendations).


I have to put in my two cents, given that after 2.5 years of engineering coursework, I changed my mind and. Wait for it. Well, as most of you know, I became a recreation major. Here's the thing: I had all As in my math, science, and engineering courses. My only non-As were in English and the Human Event. I wasn't running away from bad grades or working hard.No, I was running away from boredom and total lack of engagement.

I did work hard. My sophomore year I took 18 credits each semester which included multiple labs and recitation sessions and therefore ridiculous amounts of contact hours. I remember once having midterms in Statics and Physics (E&M) the same day. After hours and days of studying, I scored a total of 100. That's right. I got a 58 on the statics test and a whopping 42 (42!) on the physics test. But here's the thing. I still got an A in those courses. I squeaked by in Physics with a 70.1% for the course (with 70 the cut-off for an A). The physics professor, as most physics professors do, had a legendary reputation for extremely hard tests and failing as many people as possible. He taught large lectures so had no relationships with students. (I assume anyway.) This professor, along with others in the sciences and engineering, seem to pride themselves in weeding out as many people as possible. I think that's just plain stupid. Make a test with material you actually expect people to learn. Don't demoralize people on purpose. You might just be weeding out people who would make fabulous scientists and engineers. I'm not saying everyone would, but I disagree with the weed-out approach done in that fashion.

I loved science in high school. I think I took 5 years of both science and math.Chemistry was my favorite, but as I didn't have an AP option, I couldn't test out. Those first two chemistry semesters were huge lectures that were brutally boring, partly because I already knew much of the material and partly because they were, well, huge lectures. The labs were run by TAs who didn't seem to know much (juniors - not even grad students!) and consisted mostly of following step by step instructions without really having to understand anything. I hate to sound xenophobic, but many professors and TAs, particularly in the engineering courses, had accents that were extremely hard to understand. While I could understand my circuits teacher, I recall endless overhead projection sheets. I took math courses and did well but never really understood why I would need to solve a partial differential equation (until I got to grad school).

We actually had a freshman year engineering course that I think was similar to what the Times suggested - we had smaller sections and did hands-on projects and modeling projects, among other things. I thought of it as our brainwashing class, but I guess it was helpful. I also had a materials class that I thoroughly enjoyed.

It all felt apart junior year. I had attended a job fair my sophomore year in an attempt to get a summer internship. "We don't hire sophomores," I heard repeatedly, and I had been willing to work for free. The only thing I landed was a part-time gig for the government working on turning hard copy files into a computer database. Not exactly inspiring or mind-blowing, but something to put on my resume. I had a high GPA but I could find nothing else. So I also worked for the local recreation department, and they offered me a job for the school year. This job precluded me from attending a course that was required for my major and only offered once a year.

Because I knew I would have to extend my education another year, I decided to pick up a minor in recreation. Engineering students do not have electives per se, so I had never really before taken a class just for the sake of taking it. I took "Leisure & Quality of Life", "Leisure and Society", and "Wilderness & Parks in America." Sounds pitiful I know. But I loved them so much I decided to drop the engineering major altogether and major in recreation. I withdrew from one of my two remaining engineering courses (fluids) but had to retain the other (thermodynamics) to keep full-time. While I had first found thermodynamics difficult, I soon realized that there were only three equations that one used, and all you had to do was figure out which equation to use for which problem. No rocket science there, and no particularly interesting outcomes.

Here's where the commenters start to diverge. If you're not interested in the theory for theory's sake, you're not cut out to be a scientist or engineer anyway. You shouldn't have to understand or care what the real world applications are. The fact that your professor does not engage with you just means that you have to be self-motivated. If you're not, you shouldn't be an engineer anyway. Etc. Etc.

Here's what I think. Some people perfectly capable of being scientists or engineers (like me) are actually fascinated by a wide variety of subject matter. It could be a language. It could be literature. It could be math. It could be recreation. My professors in recreation were extremely engaging and hands-on. I learned about how the "leisure" movement is responsible for the 40 hour work week and so much of what we take for granted in the US now. I learned about all sorts of fascinating ways that leisure and recreation can improve society. I could visualize my impact. I remember attending one of these classes after 9/11, and being asked to write an essay on the effects of 9/11 on society and on leisure. "Society must continue to function in the wake of such a tragedy," I wrote, "If only to preserve the very freedom that was attacked....Society has come to understand leisure and recreation as a necessity, a relief, a sustainer of happiness...Sports are tools to release aggression. Leisure time clears people's minds and relieves stress, thus bettering working conditions."

Did I work as hard in my recreation classes as I did in engineering? No. Does that make me a slacker or a weak person? I don't think so. I felt more empowered by my recreation classes, I put more of myself into them, and I was motivated by my professors. My favorite class was the wilderness and parks class, which had been recommended to me by the department counselor because she though I would really enjoy it. (Wow, a counselor that actually considers your options with you rather than signing your course list?) I was fascinated by the founding of the west, the origins of the conservation movement, the uniquely American idea to preserve wilderness as a public good. And so outdoor recreation/natural management soon became my focus.

The next semester I took even more fascinating classes, including Urban Planning Environmental Interpretation, and Writing Reflective Essays. They really all do use critical thinking skills, no matter what you think. And the writing class I loved. I had the most amazing teacher who re-instilled my love of writing that had been completely killed by TAs in my required English classes, but also fostered by some of my recreation teachers.

That summer I was able to intern at Bryce Canyon National Park in the interpretation division. Try learning about the crazy geology of that place and then condensing it down into a 15 minute talk, all in the first week of work. Recreation might not be pure science, but there's sure a lot going on out there in the world.

And so it continued. Environmental Science (for nonmajors) was my favorite science class in school. Was it hard? No. But it set the stage for so many world problems from population growth to bioaccumulation of pollutants to I don't know what else. I guess here is where the purists tell me that this is not a real science class, but I guess it's the kind of science that interests me. I took an amazing environmental planning course. I also took an evaluation course (the one that lets recreation majors earn a BS instead of a BA), and loved that social science immediately.

You can say I took the easy way out. You can say I wasn't cut out for engineering. You can say I made a stupid choice. But in the end, I got a degree that I loved and that taught me valuable things about critical thinking, writing, and the world itself. I later received a graduate degree in science and currently work in engineering. What you do as an undergrad does not determine your fate.

But to those who say that making courses engaging is dumbing them down, or that providing more support is too much hand-holding, I say you're wrong. You are keeping the attention of, and inspiring young people who are fascinated by varities of things. That person who dropped out of your terribly boring course might have been the next great inventor, if only you'd bothered to try. Having taught an undergraduate science course, I understand that many kids out there really do want As handed to them on a silver platter without trying. But you can't use that as an excuse to wash your hands of trying. My division head at the lab recently implored the staff to always hire people who were smarter than you were when you were their age. If you want to pursue your research at the expense of teaching, think about where that leaves the future of your field. It could be left in better hands if you took up the teaching challenge.

[Also, for the record, while numerous commentors pointed out that students drop out because of the bleak, poorly-paid future for scientists and engineers, I really doubt this is the reason for most drop-outs. This may be a good reason for not pursuing a PhD in these subjects. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe most science and engineering students really do think about their sad, depressing future 30 years down the road if they don't get out now.]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The funny things people say...

I was walking home from the shuttle today and two fathers with four small children were outside. The kids were riding scooter and bike type things. As I walked up a small boy started pushing his scooter down the sidewalk towards me so I politely stepped to the very edge of the sidewalk. "Watch out for people," a father said. Then to me: "People watch out for kids. Because I've got news for you, you will lose that battle."

Really? I will give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was trying to be funny. But I had already ceded the sidewalk and I was smiling. Not sure why I required that admonishment.

In cuter news, a girl of about 4 who was with one of the fathers followed me up the sidewalk on her bike.

"Did you go to the grocery?"

"I did."

"You got any Mac n cheese in there?"

"I don't. I'm sorry."

"Don't your kids like Mac n cheese?" (Well she was cute until she thought I was old.)

"I don't have kids but I like Mac n cheese."

"Then why didn't you buy any?"

Good point, young one.