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Liveblogging the League III: STEMs and Roots
March 3, 2008 - 4:17pm

Although nobody here has addressed it directly, as far as I've noticed, there's a definite theme underlying many of the discussions here. In discussions of topics as varied as teacher education, workforce development, and the need for more cc funding generally, the headline usually comes with a qualifier: what we *really* mean is a need for more STEM (science,
technology, engineering, and math) grads. The obvious fact that most of our students don't major in the STEM disciplines is acknowledged with a silent nod, if at all. And in discussions of student retention and graduation rates, the guaranteed laugh line (or groan line) is a reference to developmental (remedial) math.

I've seen this in our local teacher ed program. Community colleges in my state eventually won state permission to enter the teacher ed realm by pointing to the need for more science and math teachers. But most of the teacher ed students we have - and we're not unusual in this - are in English, social studies, art, and early childhood, all of which have more grads than jobs. We have a few students in science and math, but they're a distinct minority.

(Interestingly, this isn't true of the 'alternate route' teacher ed program, for people who already have bachelor's degrees. There, we get a fair number of career-changing engineers and accountants, which is great.)

It's a tricky issue, since the roots run deep. Obviously, there's a major national failing in the way math and science are taught in high schools and earlier. Certainly, we need to take good hard looks at how we remediate math, and how we teach those intro level classes. (And when did 'college algebra' come to exist? I thought algebra was a high school course.) But that said, there's still something discomfiting about knowing that arguments based on a need for more STEM grads often wind up supporting the creation of more English majors.

Even outside of STEM majors, one of the major drivers of attrition is the inability to pass the required gen ed math classes. Since even English and Art majors have to take at least *some* math, an unsuccessful early math sequence has consequences across the curriculum.

I've taken some perverse comfort in seeing here that the problem is so utterly widespread that it actually constitutes an easy laugh line. It's not a failure of an individual college, or textbook, or professor. Objectively, that suggests that solving the problem will be that much harder, but at least it's not idiosyncratic.

At a panel today on the College Board's report on community colleges, one of the presenters mentioned almost parenthetically that cc's real contribution to 'national competitiveness' will be in helping to produce more folks in the STEM fields. The rest of the College Board report was addressed to issues that affect cc's across the board. I didn't have the heart to ask whether recommendations based on a need for more STEM grads would result in more Art majors, since I suspect we all already know.

Wise and worldly readers - have you found ways to make math specifically and STEM more generally more enticing (and therefore more legible) to students who have had spotty histories with it in high school? Otherwise, I suspect an unintentional sort of bait-and-switch will continue.


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