When will policy-makers admit that higher education in science and engineering is fundamentally different than in other disciplines?

The Lumina Foundation recently released the 2015 edition of its Stronger Nation report on the status of higher education in the US.  The word “science” did not appear in the report.  Not once.  Nor “engineering”.  Nor “math”.

It is as if the high school preparation and work required to earn degrees in mechanical engineering and, say, interdisciplinary social science (our favorite degree to denigrate at FSU) are the same.

They are obviously not.  And neither are the economic opportunities afforded by the two degrees.

Let’s start with high school preparation.  Here’s what the American Society for Engineering Education has to say on their eGFI website about the high school courses needed to prepare for a college major in engineering:

Most engineering schools require four years of math, including Pre-Calculus, although Calculus or AP Calculus is strongly encouraged. Engineering schools are also looking for at least three years of science, including Physics and Chemistry.

That seems clear enough.  The high school preparation necessary for a college major in interdisciplinary social science, and a zillion other majors?  Graduating from high school, which in Florida includes Algebra 1, Geometry, and Biology 1.

And once students are in college, the differences continue.

According to the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), senior engineering majors report spending more time per week “preparing for class” than any other major (item 15a here).  The difference between the mean hours spent preparing for class in a 7-day week between engineering (18.63 hours) and social sciences (13.67 hours) is five hours (my reaction – are you sure that’s all it is??) and between engineering and business (13.10 hours) is 5.5 hours.  Engineering seniors report that they are also spending 1.5 hours more than majors in physical science, math and computer science (16.90 hours).  But physical science/engineering/math/computer science majors are near the top of the scale, with the average for all majors being 14.82 hours.

If we want more students to earn bachelors’ degrees in the physical sciences, engineering, math and computer science, then we need to start acting on it.  Provide incentives for students to take higher level math and more physical science in high school – perhaps by requiring them for Bright Futures eligibility.  Look for ways to relieve the pressure many engineering majors feel to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet so that they can spend those hours on studying (or sleeping, which is often the first casualty of an over-busy schedule).

But mostly, stop making believe that science and engineering are just the same as every other college major.  They aren’t.

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