## Are STEM Students Born or Made? The STEM student paradox

A couple of things are causing me to think again about STEM students in developmental mathematics. First, we have local data showing that over half of our pre-calculus students came from the developmental math program … about 24% start in intermediate algebra, about 23% start in beginning algebra (or math literacy), and about 5% started in a pre-algebra course. Since we no longer have the pre-algebra course, those students will now take a math literacy course (raising the 23% to about 28%).

The other event was a student in one of my intermediate algebra classes. One of the things we always do on the first day of the class is to have students record what their college program is (either on a class sheet or on an individual form). This particular student recorded her program as “religious studies”. She had taken our beginning algebra course the prior semester, so being in this class was not a surprise.

However, this week, as we talked about a test in the course she told me that she was thinking of changing her major to mathematics. Of course, we shared a “how cool is that!” moment; we then talked about what math course she would take next semester. That was a good day!

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what led to the student’s statement about changing majors. This particular class uses a “Lab” approach … class time is used for doing some of the homework, getting help, and taking tests individually. We’ve had this format for about 50 years; although the method has been through many changes, the basic concepts have remained. One of my mottoes for the method is “get out of the student’s way!” We have pass rates that are just below that of traditional ‘lecture’ classes.

My impression of this student is that she got to really like the process of working through problems on her own. If she had to listen to me lecture … or if she had to work in a group to deal with math problems … I don’t think she would have had the meaningful experience which led to a ‘change major’ state.

Here is the STEM student paradox:

A focus on getting more students through a math course can lead to conditions that never inspire students to make a commitment to a STEM major.

Now, I am not saying that continuous lecturing will inspire a student. Continuous lecturing has no defense, and can be considered educational malpractice.

The issue here is that many of the processes we are using, combined with a limited symbolic formality based on contextualizing most topics (especially in developmental mathematics), tends to create a social focus for the learning while minimizing the symbolic complexity of the problems. More students might learn the course outcomes at the cost of seldom inspiring students to select a STEM major.

Of course, like pretty much any generality, this one has plenty of exceptions. I’m talking about the directionality of math classes, not about absolute location.

I would like to have a conversation with my student to see if she can articulate a reason, or even a description of the experience that led to a change. I might get some feedback concerning my assessment, which might support the hypotheses stated her (or might not).

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