Sadly, many students come to college knowing only the minimum they need to pass certain exams, and that does not reflect genuine interest. Most discussions I’ve had about instruction tend to end up with the conclusion that our teaching style would be totally different if we didn’t have to trick people into getting interested in classes they are taking. Today I’m asking the question: what are all those students doing there in the first place? If you are a student, you need to ask yourself if you’re in the right place. You might be in the wrong major. You might be in the wrong university. And any university might not be the right place for you at this time in your life.
I’d like to explore the problem of majoring in science from two perspectives, that of students and that of instructors. This is not really a how-to or algorithm for choosing a major. However, if you are a student, there are some things I think you should think about before going to college, or before declaring a major. These are problems that go beyond any individual student, and they are symptomatic of wider societal issues. If you are an instructor, hopefully we can begin a dialogue about instruction style and advice to students. As an instructor I’ve seen that advice based on competitive social values sometimes gives students harmful ideas about why they are in college and how to get the most out of it.
I find it interesting to see what students blame for their lack of success in particular majors. In Talking about Leaving anthropologists Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt relate a narrative of a young woman in a basic electrical engineering class. She expressed anxiety about how her (mostly male) peers seemed way ahead of her in a basic lab. Once she had constructed the beginning parts of a circuit, her (male) TA came over and said “Looks good, just wire it up” and walked away. She, of course, didn’t know what he was talking about and changed majojrs. She blamed this on how her male classmates had been working on cars in the garage with their dads for the past decade. Since she didn’t have that experience, on account of being female, in her view, she just couldn’t keep up. I want to be careful about something here. The first is that the authors of the study did not blame this episode on gender disparities, but they did ask researchers to pay attention to perception of gender disparities.
My question about this narrative is “If you know that you need a decade of experience messing around with hobby electronics to be successful as an electrical engineering major, and you know you don’t have that experience, why major in electrical engineering?” My basic suggestion is don’t major in something you know nothing about. The issue is experience. What’s troubling to me is that people who have no experience in a particular field would, despite knowing that they need that experience to succeed, choose to do it anyway. Who would encourage that kind of thinking, and what would they gain from encouraging people to do things they can’t succeed at?
My suggestion for how to maximize your learning if you are a student, and reduce the problem of uninterested students if you are an instructor, is for each student to be an interested student. This might sound like something that you don’t choose. “I’m either one of those smart people at the front asking questions all the time or I’m not” might seem reasonable. However, I ask you to consider that you did (at one stage) choose to be in that classroom. You chose a major, field of study or a particular track. If you’re not one of those interested people at the front, then why not choose a different place to be?
For students, I suggest choosing a major from things you already have experience with. Preferably this would be experience outside of classrooms, perhaps even entirely outside of classrooms. Almost everybody has something that actually interests them, and it’s not always biology or engineering. Do you like to cook? Have you ridden horses? Have you decorated a room? Those are probably things you would be really satisfied studying. My first suggestion is that if it’s not entirely obvious, then write down a list of things you’ve done in your life that you found interesting. Not just stuff you’ve read about, but stuff you’ve actually done: real projects, real challenges that you had to stick with. Find the thing on the list that you already have studied, and then study that on a higher level at a university. Of course, it has to be something that can be studied at a university, and that narrows the choices. There are alternatives to going to college.
If you really haven’t spent time with a hobby of any kind, then there are two alternatives I suggest that allow you to become one of those people at the front of the class. The first is to go to a different kind of university where you can get experience doing something really interesting. Small universities allow students to get hands-on and get started with one-on-one instruction, somewhat in an apprenticeship fashion. I did research at a big university, but I started doing research with the same collaborators in middle school, not after I got to college. If you don’t know what you’re going to do, but you can think of what you would like and it’s something amenable to college, small colleges offer a way for you to get started.
The other suggestion I have if you have limited experience is to avoid college and get experience. Don’t go to college. Get a job at a bakery and learn one-on-one from somebody who is already an expert. I’m not suggesting that you beg your parents for money and go backpacking across Europe. I’m suggesting you get a job. Like music? Start hanging out at a recording studio. No recording studios in your area? Move to Nashville (or Austin, or maybe Portland). You might know somebody who’s a music major and seems to be well-connected. If you dig, my guess is you’ll find that’s how he started, except he started when he was fourteen, not after getting a bachelor’s degree.
Let me give you two examples of people who followed the latter approach. The first is my brother Michael. He could have gone to college. But after high school he moved to Arizona, and then to Italy to work at professional cycling. He start his cycling career when he was fourteen, and at nineteen Europe was where to take the next step. After a while of seeing the professional cycling world, he decided it wasn’t for him. Coincidentally, he really loved Italian culture and speaking Italian, so he started teaching English. After he did that professionally for a while he went to work in marketing for his friends’ father. Later he wanted to return to the US and go to college. As I remember it (correct me bro, if I am wrong), but the only reason he ended up going was that he saw not having a bachelor’s degree as hampering his chances of promotion at a large corporation in the United States. By the time he went to college, he already had (at least) three years of experience in marketing, and had traveled the world doing it as a professional. He finished business school in three years while his wife worked as an Italian instructor at the same university.
The second example is my friend Meagan Chandler who still hasn’t gone to college. I say “still hasn’t” because every now and then she mentions that she might want to transition to a profession where a college degree would actually be valuable. However, she’s been working as an artist, musician, dancer, music and dance teacher for over fifteen years. I would say she’s successful, not because she’s made a ton of money doing it (she hasn’t), but because she has been intentionally living that way, doing what she knows and really cares about. She knows, however, that she’s gotten experience doing other things in the meantime, and some of those things might benefit from a college education. There’s nothing wrong with going to college when you’re forty. During graduate school, it’s people like her that I’ve really gained admiration for.
When people choose a particular path without considering preparation, they pay a price. There is something that every student has spent time preparing for. I often hear instructors talking about “unpreparedness” as if it’s a problem in itself that needs fixing: let’s throw more education at people so that they’re “ready” for college. That doesn’t help people who are bored because they’re doing something that they don’t care about. This also assumes that people really fundamentally need to go to college, and that they will all benefit in some substantial way. Everyone has spent time on something that they really love, and not all of those things are helped by higher education. Some of those things are helped more by hands-on training, finding the right mentor, and just plain years of experience. College will only get you that in certain fields that value certain kinds of intelligence. It’s not for everyone.
I often hear that we need to change our teaching style, re-work the curriculum or take other measures to prevent losing science majors. But I’d like to ask if it is really a loss to lose people from a major that they don’t want. Who does it benefit to have more science majors? The most common appeal to the tragedy of losing science majors cites political calls for another one million scientists by a certain date. None of these arguments make an appeal to personal satisfaction for students or instructors. They all rely on someone’s economic and political goals, or that greed is good (more science = more money = more gooder). I don’t want any students out there to be doing something that they don’t want to just so the USA can beat Finland in science.
So to answer the question in the title: major in science if you already have experience in science. If you’re still in high school and you’re reading this, don’t go out of your way to get experience doing something you don’t want just so you can meet my criteria. Get experience doing what you want to do right now and carry on with that. If that’s something that will benefit from higher education, then go to college. Really question whether the skills that you can get from college will help you become a better chef, or horse trainer or artist.
Tony the Mechanic is a character that I really loved on Seinfeld. Tony believes that Jerry’s Real Problem is how he takes care of his car. This of course puts Tony in a position of power:
Public institutions act a lot like Tony: “Come here and you will get what you need.” I see universities especially telling people “as long as you come here, pay your money and give it a real effort, you will be okay.” Unfortunately universities go quite a bit further than that: even as young as Kindergarten, children are being told that to be “good” they have to go to college and try to get into medical school. Only then will they be able to get all the things they really need in life, like a house, three cars and a big huge TV with an Xbox attached. And when people tell their friends and relatives they want to do things differently they get “I don’t understand you.”
I’ve written a bit more about Tony in my teaching philosophy.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about teaching methods, and here’s one I think we should try in biological sciences: wiki-based learning. The goal of a semester in evolution/population biology would be to produce a professional quality free textbook. This would be the equivalent of a ‘wiki-sprint’ where students would each be responsible for a topic. Students that are particularly active can receive the role of editor. No exams; all grading is based on participation and quality of wiki-work. The intervention of the instructional staff should be minimal. All incentivization will be social or based on quality of work.
This incorporates project-based learning, and “scientific teaching.” Students are asked to produce something whose quality they can all see. They can check each other, edit each other. Those who trash-edit/vandalize can be seen by everybody, not just the instructors.
Students should be encouraged to incorporate other free materials. The quality of the material will always be subject to review. They will learn about copyright, authors’ rights and the re-use of material (which is a fundamental part of science). It will be very difficult for students to receive a good grade if they wholesale copy other wikis (for example, those of previous semesters). They wouldn’t be actively participating. However, it will be good to copy and incorporate from previous semesters, as they can learn how to improve the material. They will need to understand the material to improve it.
This would not be a special class. This would be the standard course in evolution, probably a required class. What would be the role for the instructors? TAs would show people how to use Wiki software (easy!) and advise them on topics. The professor’s job would be to clarify good topics for articles/chapters. The overall goal is synthesis. Students can learn terminology and concepts on their own. However, to synthesize topics, they can use the project. The role of the instructor in synthesis is what? Mainly in advising people on good topics for articles, philosophical directions and coordinating between students, rewarding students with the title of editor, etc. The professor could also steer students in the direction of good primary literature and advise them on scientific writing style. “Lectures” would consist mainly of reviewing articles and critiquing them as a class.
What do you think? Something similar has been done at CMU in electrical engineering. Does anyone have the means for trying this out?