Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Today, TK Learned:

... that David Letterman show starts at 11:30 p.m., not 10:30 p.m.
  • America produces fewer computer science majors compared to 25 years ago. How is that even possible? [Marginal Revolution]
  • This is how -- science majors quit in droves because science is too hard. Pretty damning indictment of just how stupid and soft American students have become. [New York Times]
  • Scary lesson from this graph is that China might be even more corrupt than people think. [The Economist]
  • Korea's credit rating remains solid. [Bloomberg]
  • American generals think the war in Afghanistan is not going that well. [Foreign Policy]
  • Supreme Court sometimes does tell the lawyer to just give up. [SCOTUS Blog]
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

11 comments:

  1. > Pretty damning indictment of just how stupid and soft American students have become.

    Soft? Yup. Stupid? Ehhhh…

    One of the interesting things about STEM fields is that if your SAT-M is 600 or below, you're virtually guaranteed to not have a GPA high enough to get you into postgraduate work in your field. What's interesting is that isn't true for the soft sciences, biology, and the humanities — it is possible to get a GPA of 3.5 even if your combined SAT (using the 1997 through 2003 scale) is below 1000.

    (cribbed from Non-linear Psychometric Thresholds for Physics and Mathematics (PDF))

    With that background in mind, I read Reforming Higher Education: Incentives, STEM Majors, and Liberal Arts Majors — the Education versus Credential Tradeoff As it turns out, the incentive structures for students who are OK but not great at STEM stuff are such that it's best to get out of a major like that and into something else.

    Money quote: (frigging Blogger needs to enable <blockquote> in addition to <b>, <i>, and <a>…)

    In that case, if you are a smart but not brilliant student in STEM, you might tell yourself until you are blue in the face that you must study STEM to be employable and have real skills. But the reality is that you will flunk out or come close to it, or be lucky to get by with Cs. Moreover, at that level of performance, it is not clear that you are actually acquiring STEM skills, just at a C level compared to an A level. Pedagogically, it doesn’t work that way. The bottom end students wind up not really learning anything, because the class moves at a pace and in a way that they can’t keep up with, even to get a lesser grounding in it.

    Read the whole thing. I'd like to point out — especially to our gracious host — that the "especially compared to students in China" stuff is a bit of a distraction; if you're a C student in a STEM field, my hunch is that you're not going to be able to parlay that into a lucrative career even if everyone not in North America dropped dead all at once, removing the complication of foreign competition.

    So yes, American (and likely other students in the West) students may be soft for not going into STEM undergrad majors, but the incentives to go there and stick with it are underwhelming except for maybe the top quintile of college-bound students if the SAT percentile ranks (PDF) are any guide.

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  2. Not that I disagree about the softness of American students...

    But I think students are quitting STEM majors simply as a response to economic incentives. Who wants to go into sciences if jobs are hard to get and yet low-paying?

    A few decades ago, the best and brightest clamor for an engineering and science training, holding dreams of curing cancers and building America dear to their hearts. Ideals are powerful, yet nowadays, when pitted against monstrous bonus packages (which requires very little formal training as well) -- oh dear, dreams can wait for another while.

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  3. I do think that learning math in an American school can be a pretty frustrating experience. Too many students don't learn the fundamentals in grade school, so too many concepts end up getting pressed into the curriculum in the later grades. Asian students do better because they come into the school system better prepared.

    With that said, American schools have long had to confront challenges (large numbers of second language learners, widespread childhood poverty) that schools in places like Korea and Japan are only beginning to deal with. I will also say that, from the early returns, it doesn't look like Korea is going to be too successful dealing with them, either. I read the other day that nearly half of all children from interracial families in Seoul don't even go to school. Keep in mind these aren't even necessarily Korean-as-a-second language students, either, just students who happen to have a non-Korean parent. While the American school system often doesn't do a very well by students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, at least SOME attempt is usually made to give them an education. It seems like such an attempt is not even made for a lot of mixed-race students in Korea. I would strongly suggest keeping that in mind before saying an entire group of people is "stupid."

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  4. I recently got a 2380 on the SATs and I can say that it's a really blunt instrument for measuring intelligence.

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  5. It would be interesting to compare high school maths and science classes today to those 25 years ago. I know that in the UK many schools started dropping the traditional physics, chemistry, biology triumvirate and teaching 'general science' instead (which, to my mind, is a bullshit soft subject). And people would justify it by saying science 'isn't relevant'!

    The growth of the financial sector must also have had an effect - although the mathematical complexity of derivatives suggests only the best mathematical minds will be able to cope with the job.

    Generally, it seems we have a very irrational education system when it leaves so many in so much debt with so few actual skills.

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  6. Another thing to consider is that there is more to learn these days, especially in my areas of study. Compared to what my professors learned a generation or two ago, there are more equations, more reactions, more metabolic cycles, better understanding, etc. In the last ten years, an additional 30% information has made it into the biochemistry course at my campus.

    Having worked with some science graduates from overseas, I'd say the results are mixed - some people seem to know their stuff, and some don't. Perhaps there's less washout overseas because your course is more locked? Look at India's system, where your coursework as early as high school is highly focused on a single area. They can't jump ship as easily, nor are they exposed to as general other options.

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  7. Too many students don't learn the fundamentals in grade school, so too many concepts end up getting pressed into the curriculum in the later grades.

    My hunch is that, at least for math, students don't get enough practice time outside of class to get to the point where they can produce right answers quickly. This likely requires, at least for someone of roughly my math abilities, at least one fairly driven parent who has a decent idea of how fast a child ought to be at doing times tables. I'd bet that most contemporary American parents are a bit fuzzy on this.

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  8. I recently got a 2380 on the SATs and I can say that it's a really blunt instrument for measuring intelligence.

    You sound like me at that age — unaware that people with SAT scores of 1000* exist ;)

    * 1500 for today's three-subtest-scores

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  9. > > I recently got a 2380 on the SATs and I can say that it's a really blunt instrument for measuring intelligence.

    > You sound like me at that age — unaware that people with SAT scores of 1000* exist ;)

    Actually, that's not quite right. It's just that the breadth of human smarts is fantastically wide, and it's tough to design tests that can measure smarts and/or scholastic aptitude accurately and precisely with just one test.

    Of course, this is easily fixed. To separate yourself from everyone else in the 2300+ crowd, wave around your AP Calc AB score that you got a 5 on while wearing your fully-adorned letterman's jacket.

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  10. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.

    As a philosophy/linguistics major, this strikes me as the key point. Why the hell can't we require HSS majors to memorize tons of fundamental concepts in their freshman year and then not forget them?

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  11. Why the hell can't we require HSS majors to memorize tons of fundamental concepts in their freshman year and then not forget them?

    Sounds great! All you need to do now is get a bunch of history/social-science profs to get together and come to an agreement on what the fundamental concepts are. :P

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