Science is hard. While movie science is thrilling and suspenseful and generally involves things blowing up or horrible plagues being unleashed, real science — the kind that gets done on the UW-Madison campus or in small, private laboratories across the city — is mostly tedious and incremental.
Frequently, however, the payoff is big. From those labs come new medical treatments and diagnoses. Or ingenious devices to make our lives easier, from the internal combustion engine to the computer chip. And startling advances in our understanding of the natural world around us, from newly-discovered planets in nearby galaxies to the microbes in the dirt beneath our feet that may be the source of new antibiotics.
The thing is, however, somebody has to do the science that leads to such wonders. And to do the science, they not only have to get through years of difficult and sometimes inadequate schooling, but they have to also be dedicated enough to put up with the tedium and repetition of the laboratory.
So it is not surprising that UW-Madison researcher Mark Connolly is puzzling over a related and important question: Why do so many students drop out of their science studies in college?
Connolly is with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and he is embarking on a five-year, $4.3 million study that will look at why more students in the U.S. are not studying for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math.
It is not a small problem. According to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, the U.S. workforce will face a shortage of one million college graduates in science and related fields over the coming decade. And that’s in the face of a steadily growing number of jobs in science fields.
So why, Connolly wants to know, do more than half of the students who start their college careers studying the physical or biological sciences or math end up switching majors before their senior year?
In all likelihood, there is something deeper going on here than a dislike for washing lab glassware.
Connolly will be working with Anne-Barrie Hunter, co-director of Ethnography & Evaluation Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Their research, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation, will take a follow-up look at a landmark study conducted 15 years ago. That study, “Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences,” found that poor teaching was cited by students as the biggest reason why 40 percent to 60 percent were leaving the study of science fields.
The researchers aim to interview more than 400 students — both “persisters” and “switchers” — at seven universities across the country. They will also take a hard look at the experiences of students in math and science courses, which the earlier study found to be especially discouraging for budding science students.
The importance of such a study and encouragement for young researchers can’t be underestimated at a time when science seems to be taking a beating nationally. The magazine “Scientific American” features an article this month that laments the antiscience fervor that seems to be sweeping the country during this presidential election year.
“Such positions could typically be dismissed as nothing more than election-year posturing except that they reflect an anti-intellectual conformity that is gaining strength in the U.S. at precisely the moment that most of the important opportunities for economic growth, and serious threats to the well-being of the nation, require a better grasp of scientific issues,” writes Shawn Lawrence Otto.
So, where is a good scientist — or science teacher — when you most need one?