Missing Science Majors
by Bethany Dixon
Why aren’t our best science students considering science majors? Out of my team of three State Science Fair awardees, only one is enrolled in a science class his senior year. The other two seniors are bright and interested in research but they didn’t want to take the chance that a difficult AP science course could damage their transcripts in their senior year. They’re tough courses and GPA matters for admissions.
This pattern carries over to major selection and ultimately to the career paths students select. TIME’s Education Summit panel on Basic and Applied Research reported last year’s National Science Foundation operating budget at “$7.4 billion—only $400 million more than Americans spent on potato chips in the same period. Last year too, 20% of undergrads in China were studying in the STEM fields. In Europe it was 11%. In the U.S. it was 4.4%.”
Washington calls for STEM majors to fill technical jobs. Technical skills needed to fill entry-level science jobs offer pay incentives that are dramatically higher than others, but at what cost? Many students are pushed out of science in their first year through the weeding out process of basic required courses or pulled away because of success in early entry-level humanities courses. Statistically, we know that science majors are difficult and STEM careers in academic remain extremely competitive. A colleague of mine who also teaches AP Biology and has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from a top-tier California research institution told me that she struggles with sending her students into research. “It really depends on the lab,” she said, “That is not a place I would send my students.”
Funding of scientific research in the U.S. has been sliced by nearly 20% in the last decade and even as we send our students into careers in science where jobs are predicted to grow, only the most persistent and dedicated students will be able to pursue careers dedicated to science. Federal funding initiatives that researchers depend on (NASA, NIH, NSF) are less certain than ever, and science has a major public relations problem. Take a peek at what Google has to say about what “scientists are…” for an idea on general perceptions.
The American Society of Cell Biologists is trying to put a friendlier face on research with their latest competition: “We are research.” They’ve challenged members to submit photos that portray lab scientists in a more human light and their Facebook and Flickr pages are full of professors of all shapes and sizes and students clustered around tables and benches in jeans and t-shirts. It certainly doesn’t read like the societal misanthropes the Google search makes them out to be – they look like my high school students on a good day in class: happy to be there.
It reminds me of some of Bonnie Bassler’s (CSTA conference keynote speaker in 2009) final words in her fantastic TED Talk about Quorum Sensing. Showing a picture of her smiling lab group in Princeton, New Jersey she says,“…I just want to say that whenever you read something in the newspaper or you get to hear some talk about something ridiculous in the natural world it was done by a child. Science is done by that demographic. All of those people are between 20 and 30 years old, and they are the engine that drives scientific discovery in this country. It’s a really lucky demographic to work with…”
Don’t tell anyone this, but one of the reasons that this hits close to home is that I wasn’t a science major. I’m a tested-in second-career science geek. I read textbooks in my “free” time and watch MIT lectures while I run. I recently told a joke that began with “You need a little bit of background on enzymes for this one, but…” I feel that as a high school teacher the student demographic I work with is extraordinary, but even more so, that science is an extraordinary field. Fixing federal funding, competition, and undergraduate lecture halls of 400 may be beyond our reach, but public perception of scientists and preparation for students to improve major accessibility is well in our corner as science teachers.
Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy, is a CSTA Publications Committee Member, and is a member of CSTA.