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Ted Rall on Why Few Teens Want Tech Careers: Engineering School Sucks

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Ted Rall
Written by Ted Rall

Our Pulitzer-nomintated columnist and ex-engineering student Ted Rall says the reason few US teens want careers in science and tech today is simple: It’s because they dread engineering school. Here’s why. aNewDomain commentary.

aNewDomain.net — A recent survey shows nearly 90 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have no interest in a science, tech, engineering or math (STEM) career. Why is this? Our Ted Rall says it’s because engineering school sucks. And sexing up science, he adds, won’t help the situation, either. Here’s more on the U.S. dearth of science majors, with Ted Rall’s details from the field.

The climate is crashing, the National Security Agency (NSA) is tracking porn use, and 99 percent of Americans haven’t gotten a decent raise in decades. But the party organ of America’s ruling class is terribly worried about imminent STEM-lessness in the United States.

According to the editorial board of The New York Times:

The number of students who want to pursue an engineering or computer science job is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the need for those workers is soaring.”

The board, I should add, is comprised of editors no one has heard of, but editors with opinions we all are supposed to care about. And they continue to say that “within five years, there will be 2.4 million (science, tech, engineering and math) job openings.”

Oh, no. Who, in the future, will program the great fleets of killer drones? Who will pilot them?

It sure would suck to lose all that business to the Chinese. But we digress.

Whenever the question of why no one wants to study engineering arises, the media always emerges with the same answer: It boils down to conning convincing kids that STEM stuff isn’t boring.

“Most schools continue to teach math and science in an off-putting way that appeals only to the most fervent students,” the Times editors complain.

Right, that’s the ticket. Sex up science. Ha.

Texas Instruments — yes, it’s still around — has gone so far as to hire neuroscientist and The Big Bang Theory actress Mayim Bialik as its STEM-education-brand ambassador. She’ll be singing the  praises of partial differential equations that kids of today/worker bees of tomorrow will relate to. Please.

Asks Bialik:

Who doesn’t know something about zombies or superheroes? These cultural archetypes can do more than just entertain. Zombies, it turns out, can teach real science and mathematical concepts like exponential growth curves and the intricacies of human anatomy and anatomical degradation. Superheroes can prompt a variety of questions that draw on physics, such as: How does one actually travel faster than the speed of light?”

Is it me? Or does this all sound really … forced?

I mean, look, I’m as geeky as you get. I was enthralled when an engineer who designed famous roller coasters gave a talk at my Ohio high school.  My classmates — not so much.

But I still didn’t want to study engineering — and it wasn’t because science is boring.

Just the reverse. I loved math, chemistry and physics in high school. I studied years ahead. I made perfect grades and I tested so well that Columbia’s School of Engineering offered me a full scholarship and, even, a well-paid teacher’s assistant job.

But I didn’t want to go. It wasn’t because math and science were boring to me. It was because I dreaded engineering school. I knew it would be a sucky experience — and that a career in the sciences would be depressing beyond belief.

My parents didn’t care what I wanted, though. They bullied me into going anyway because Columbia gave me the most financial aid of the schools I applied to. And my parents thought something as “practical” as engineering would guarantee a steady well-paid job after graduation.

So off I went.

Guess what? Engineering school turned out to be exactly the sucky experience I anticipated.

My experience at Columbia highlights what I believe are the exact reasons most of today’s students shirk from professions in science, tech, math and engineering.

For one thing, when you study math and science, your classmates are boring. At Columbia the engineering majors were politically disengaged, careerist, nose-to-the-grindstone grinds you’d never find working over the world’s problems at an overnight bullshit session. And they’d never show up at a punk show. They were academically smart and deadly dull. After graduation, I knew, people with the same kinds of personalities would wind up as my colleagues.

Engineering isn’t boring. Engineers are. Working with boring engineers is a bummer. Now let’s look at the data.

  • Science, tech, engineering and math majors get much lower grades than liberal arts majors. Tougher grading causes lower GPAs, so dropout and expulsion rates are also much higher. Three out of four liberal art majors get a degree, as compared to only one out of four STEM majors. During freshman orientation, Columbia’s dean of students told us that 75 percent of us would drop out or get expelled. I wondered why I was there. But he was right. After three years, I was expelled with a 2.4 GPA. And I worked hard for that. Why take out massive student loans for a one-in-four chance at a degree? Though some studies deny the difference, 60 percent of freshman engineering students are gone in short order. They drop out or transfer to the liberal arts by the end of their freshman year. These kids aren’t stupid or lazy. They were smart and studious enough to get admitted in the first place.
  • Low social status. Guys don’t make passes at girls who wear safety glasses. And girls suddenly remember something they forgot in the ladies room when you tell them you’re an electrical engineer. That’s because (see above) engineers are boring. Also: in America’s anti-intellectual culture, it’s not cool or hip or prestigious to be a scientist. Even now.
  • STEM employment is sporadic. Cyclical. What’s the point of playing it safe when it’s not, well, safe? The STEM major you select as a freshman is possibly obsolete by the time you hit the senior year job fair. And even if it isn’t, it’s extremely unlikely your chosen scientific field will provide steady employment for years to come. Currently, as the Powers That Be say, they need STEMmers. Yet unemployment is sky high among STEM professionals. As of 2009, nearly 9 percent of electrical engineers were jobless. It also turns out STEM majors actually don’t earn more than their liberal arts counterparts.

“Indeed, science and engineering careers in the U.S. appear to be relatively unattractive” compared with other career paths, said Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, which funds basic scientific, economic and civic research, in testimony he gave to U.S. Congress in 2007.

High-school students know what’s up. They hear from older siblings how hard it is to graduate from engineering school. They watch their friends’ parents lose their jobs from supposedly safe engineering outposts.

They’re not going to change their minds until reality improves.

All this said, I’ve got some proposed fixes.

  • The divide between English and Physics majors is artificial and outdated. Crosspollinate. And de-ghettoize STEM majors within colleges and universities. Require STEM majors to take lots of liberal arts classes — it’s not like a math major shouldn’t study Spanish literature — and require that liberal arts majors take more math and science. Mix up the student bodies. Think about someone like the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose design sense came from his love of art and calligraphy.
  • Put an end to the grading disparity between STEM majors and liberal arts. It’s unfair and it’s stupid. At Harvard, the average grade is an A-. And why not? The average Harvard student is intelligent and hardworking — and so is the average Columbia engineering student. Harvard’s softer grading regime hasn’t cost the school any reputation points.
  • If America wants science, tech, engineering and math majors from America, it ought to stop importing them from overseas. “When the companies say they can’t hire anyone , they mean that they can’t hire anyone at the wage they want to pay,” Jennifer Hunt, a Rutgers University labor economist, said in 2012. So firms outsource STEM jobs overseas and game the work visa program to import cheaper foreign scientists. “Tech companies that import temporary workers, mainly recent graduates from India, commonly discard more expensive, experienced employees in their late 30s or early 40s, often forcing them,” as Ron Hira and other labor-force researchers note, “to train their replacements as they exit.” This comes from reports from the Columbia Journalism Review. Until STEM unemployment among Americans is 0%, Congress ought to get rid of the visa program.
  • Even cultural perceptions can be changed. If President Obama and other members of the political class are serious about promoting STEM careers, they could start featuring our best mathematicians and chemists at events like the State of the Union Address rather than the usual parade of military veterans. The Soviet Union pimped its scientific minds big time; kids who admired these intellectual heroes followed in their footsteps.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.

About the author

Ted Rall

Ted Rall

Based in New York, Ted Rall is aNewDomain's chief commentator and a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist. A Pulitzer nominee, Rall's latest book is the NYT bestselling book, Trump: A Graphic Biography.
Support his work and see his toons first at his site on Petreon.

  • tj

    Engineering also sucks because they pay so little. Also, if TI is going to take someone from the big bang theory, why not the hot blonde?

  • hendog

    Bingo

  • As stated engineering isn’t boring, but actually a good subject with interesting facts that we didn’t even know about. Will be interesting for those are interested in it.

  • engrmom

    I am a female engineer in the civil field and it SUCKS. I have developed the strongest dislike for engineers. I don’t fit in at all and it is the worst. Plus no raises in 7 years. So… I tell everyone – DON’T GO INTO ENGINEERING. My son goes to Columbia – but not engineering. nope. it is a miserable existence.