Increasing STEM Graduation Numbers

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”

For decades the United States government has told us that we need to turn out more STEM graduates.  I remember hearing in my youth the government talk about needing more science graduates; Rita Colwell had not yet coined the term STEM.

On December 18, 2012, President Barack Obama announced a plan to add 1 million more STEM graduates over the next decade (Obama White House.)  In 2018 the Committee on STEM education in their report CHARTING A COURSE FOR SUCCESS: AMERICA’S STRATEGY FOR STEM EDUCATION said, “Since 2000, the number of degrees awarded in STEM fields has increased, but labor shortages persist in certain fields requiring STEM degrees.”

Researchers have proposed that one of the biggest reasons for the lack of STEM graduates is the lack of Primary and High School STEM teachers.  Especially high school physics teachers, according to a 2011 report by the US Department of Education only about 46.7% of all high school physics class are taught by a teacher with a degree in the subject.  Furthermore, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, only 63% of US high schools offer physics.

Decades into the problem, what do we do to increase the number of people graduating with STEM degrees?  Most of the programs focus on expanding the pipeline getting more people interested in STEM careers at an earlier age.  While these types of programs are essential and vital, especially in the cases of underrepresented groups, I wonder if there might be a better way to increases STEM graduates.

Another way to increase graduation rates would be to increase STEM retention.  Even all these years later, I still remember my first core biology course as an undergraduate.  The professor taught the course in the largest lecture hall on campus; there were over 500 students in that class.  By the end of the core biology sequence, there were less than 250 students left.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics report STEM in Postsecondary Education: Entrance, Attrition, and Course taking Among 2003−04 Beginning Postsecondary Students, 27.8% of the 2003-04 starting class registered as STEM majors.  According to the same report, 51.7% of the students that started in STEM degrees graduated with a STEM degree. Also, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the total student enrolment for fall 2003 was 16,911,481 ( retrieved July 27, 20019.)

Using these numbers, the 2003-04 incoming class had 4.7 million registered STEM majors.  By the 5-year graduation mark, the 2003-04 starting class had graduated 2.4 million students with STEM degrees.  Which means the 2003-04 class had lost 2.3 million STEM majors.  If the 2003-04 graduating class had graduated 73% instead of 51.7%, there would have been 1 million more graduating STEM majors.  The same number that Obama set but in half the time and without any changes to the incoming pipeline.

Beyond just increasing the overall number of STEM graduates, increased retention can help in other areas.  For example, from the 2003-04 incoming class, 14.2% of the female students that started as STEM majors left postsecondary education while 32.4% left STEM for other majors. (STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report)  Conversely, 23.1% of the Hispanic students that were STEM majors left postsecondary education entirely while 26.4% left STEM majors for other fields. We see similar trends in Black students, 29.3% left higher education without a degree, and 36% left STEM for other majors.  The numbers were lower for Asian students, 9.8% left without a degree, while 22.6% changed to other majors. (STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report).

Again, if we could increase the retention rate of these students by 50%, we would add a lot of Female, Hispanic, Black, and Asian STEM majors. The most significant advantage of increasing retention rates to increase the number of STEM graduates is we are already dealing with a group that has an interest in STEM.  Additionally, working on increasing retention forces us to decide if the educational goal for undergraduate students is teaching STEM or sorting STEM students.  After all, it is about time that we remember, not all STEM major wants to get a Ph.D. and become a professor.  At the undergraduate level, we should be teaching STEM students so that they can use their skills to pursue their paths. Thanks for

Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

In Research We Trust

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
Mark Twain

Anyone that knows me knows I believe in research and data backed decisions in education.  Successful research is a balancing act between skepticism and an openness to new sometimes radical ideas.  To avoid the possibility of bias, we have developed methodologies and techniques to determine the validity of an experiment.  Experimental validity falls into two categories: internal, experimental design, data collection, and data analysis. The second is external, the progression from hypothesis to theory, and finally to the fact.  Research drives the progression from hypothesis to fact with supporting evidence and replication.

Considering how vital replication is to research, there appears to be very little direct replication.  Makel and Plucker showed that only 0.13% of educational research is replicated (Facts Are More Important Than Novelty: Replication in the Education Sciences).  Compared to a rate of 1.07% in psychology and 1.2% for marketing research.  However, the rate of replication does not tell the whole story.  After all, to publish research, you need to conduct an experiment, submit it for peer review, make changes, and then have your article published.  Perhaps we can accept published results.

Looking at actual replication studies suggests that publication is not enough.  One study in psychology, Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science, was only able to replicate 63% of the studies they examined.  Replications of clinical research are even worse.  A group from Amgen attempted to replicate 53 research studies in cancer research they only replicated 6 of them.  Additionally, a group with Bayer Health could only replicate 25% of the preclinical studies they tested (Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research). 

So how do we resolve the replication crisis?  We need to reproduce previous research and publish the results.  The problem is that professors, postdocs, and graduate students don’t benefit from replication studies.  Even if researchers get the articles published, they don’t carry the same weight as original research.  One possibility would be to have graduate students replicate experiments at the beginning of their graduate study as part of their training.  However, this is probably not a workable solution as it would likely lengthen the time to degree. 

So, who would benefit from reproducing research?  The answer is undergraduates.  Conducting replication studies would more effectively train students in research methodologies than any amount of reading.  Why would conducting replication studies help students with research design?  The reason is that if you replicate a study perfectly (exactly as undertaken previously), you might have the same problems the original researchers had.  After all, most of the issues in research are not intentional but unintentional and probably unidentifiable problems with data collection or analysis.

Statistical analysis of most data involves a null hypothesis.  When the data is analyzed, the null hypothesis is either accepted or rejected.  Errors analyzing a null hypothesis, are classified as Type I (rejecting a correct null hypothesis) or Type II (accepting a false null hypothesis).  The critical thing to keep in mind is that it is impossible to eliminate Type I and II errors.  Why can’t researchers eliminate Type I and II errors? Think about a P value, P < 0.001, what does the number mean.  Written in sentence form as P value < 0.001 means: the likely hood that these results are the product of random chance is less than 1 in 1000.  While this is a small number, it is not zero, so there is still a tiny chance that the results are due to random chance. Since P values never become P < 0, there is always a chance (sometimes ridiculously small) that results are due to random chance.

In addition to Type I and II errors, there could be problems with sample selection or size. Especially early in the research were influencing and masking factors might not be known.  Alternatively, limited availability of subjects could lead to sample size or selection bias.  All these factors mean that a useful replication study looks at the same hypothesis and null hypotheses but uses similar but not identical research methods.

Beyond the benefits students would gain in experimental design, they would also learn from hands-on research something that many groups say is important for proper education.  Additionally, replication research is not limited to biology, chemistry, and physics.  Any field that publishes research (i.e., most areas of study) can take part in undergraduate replication research.

Of course, these replication studies will only benefit research if they are published.  We need journals to publish replication studies, how do we do that.  Should a portion of all journals be devoted to replication studies?  The Journal Nature says it wants to publish replication studies; “We welcome, and will be glad to help disseminate, results that explore the validity of key publications, including our own.” (Go forth and replicate!).  Hay Nature how about really getting behind replication studies! How about adding a new Journal to your stable, Nature: Replication?

However, if we want to disseminate undergraduate replication studies, it may be necessary to create a new Journal, The Journal of Replication Studies?  With all the tools for web publishing and e-Magazines, it should be straight forward (I didn’t say free or cheap) to create a fully online peer-reviewed journal devoted to replication.  Like so many issues, the replication crisis is not a problem but an opportunity.  Investing in a framework that allows undergraduate to conduct and publish replication research will help everyone.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Stop Abusing Numbers, It Will Help You

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
Benjamin Disraeli

Numbers are useful; they give us the ability to make comparisons, identify trends, and identify gains.  We built a lot of modern civilization on numbers, architecture, engineering, finance, the ability to elect politicians or vote on laws.  We use numbers to support arguments or draw attention to a problem we see.

However, it is essential to pay attention to the use of numbers.  Why are you making the choices you made?  When I read an article that starts with numbers and then stops using them, I get suspicious.  I have been thinking about this a lot since I read an article back in October, that article was ‘Fortnite’ teaches the wrong lessons in THE CONVERSATION.

The article argues that the video game Fortnite is teaching the wrong lessons and this will be harmful to society.  To quote the article,

“I couldn’t help but notice how much the game seems to teach children the wrong lessons about how to function as an adult and interact with others. I came away from my “Fortnite” experience thinking that the game is raising young people to be self-centered, not good citizens.”
Nicholas Tampio

The central argument of the article is that the number of players compounds the games “problems.”  Around October 2018 epic games announced it had 125 million players by December 2018 this number had grown to 200 million players. These are undoubtedly large numbers, especially if you write them out 125,000,000 – 200,000,000, most people can’t comprehend numbers that size it triggers an incomprehensible response.

Undoubtedly that is the response the author wanted.  I would argue that this is, in fact, a miss representation and an egregious one at that.  After all, there is another number that is important 7,545,224,830 or 7.6 billion which is the world population according to the Census Bureau world population clock at 5:34 PM January 9, 2019.  Why is this important? The world population is significant because the 125-200 million Fortnite Players are worldwide.

More importantly, the author could have presented this information differently.  Specifically, what would you say if I wrote an article arguing that Fortnite was a problem for the future of society and I based my whole argument on the fact that 1.7% – 2.7% of the population played Fortnite?  I would guess you would probably not take me seriously.

Now then the Fortnite player numbers of 125 – 200 million are worldwide numbers, and the numbers calculate out to 1.7% – 2.7% of the world population.  What’s more important 1.7% means the same thing as the 125 million used in the original article and it is easier to understand.  That is a little incorrect if the author had written the number correctly, 1256 million players would be 125 million people around the world or 125 million out of 7.6 billion people, then they would have been the same.

The only reason to use the numbers this way is the shock value.  From the point of content, there would have been little differences with the opening paragraph if the author had left out the number.  Don’t believe me read the two options below.

The opening paragraph as written in the article.

“In recognition of the fact that “Fortnite” has quickly become one of the most popular video games in the world – one played by more than 125 million players – I decided to play the game myself in an attempt to understand its widespread appeal.”

The opening Paragraph without the numbers.

“In recognition of the fact that “Fortnite” has quickly become one of the most popular video games in the world I decided to play the game myself in an attempt to understand its widespread appeal.”

Both paragraphs get the same message across. So why use the number to shock people, there is another place in the article were numbers are miss represented.  In the section titled a time-consuming habit, the author presents information about the average length of play. The average player plays between 6 and 10 hours a week with 7% playing more than 21 hours.

However, let’s spend some time looking at these numbers, how many hours are there actually in a week?  The answer is 168 hours, so what percentage do 6 – 10 hours workout to 3.6% – 6% of a week.  Looking at the high end 21 hours is 12.5% what if they played for 30 hours a week that would be 17.8%.

Let’s look at another couple of points, if you get the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night that is 56 hours a week or 33.3% repeating (Leroy Jenkins anyone? Sorry couldn’t help myself.) of the week.  A full-time job is 40 hours or 23.8% of the week.  If you played Fortnite for 30 hours a week, got 8 hours of sleep a night, and worked a full-time job that would add up to 75% of the week you would still have 42 hours a week for other things.  Personally, these numbers don’t seem all that problematic.

Also, there are several points where numbers are conspicuously absent.  One of these is that couples are starting to blame Fortnite for their divorce. To begin with, this is not the first time video games have been blamed for a divorce, see this article from 2008 about the World of Warcraft video game.  More importantly, according to the American Psychology Association, the divorce rate is 40% – 50%.  Let’s ask the important question if we look at all the Fortnite players do more then 50% of the married Fortnite players get divorced? The only available answer that addresses this is from England were 5% of the divorces filed with Divorce Online sited Fortnite.  So does Fortnite have a fundamental effect on Divorces, personally I don’t think so (at least not yet)?

Another point made in the article is the hiring of tutors to improve your Fortnite play.  The author presents tutors as unique to Fortnite.  However, this is not true the first time I became aware of hiring tutors for video games was when several websites offered links to tutors when Hearthstone launched in 2014. The reality is video game tutors are more dependent on the emergence of the e-sports market then Fortnite.

One of the last points is the idea that video games cause adverse developmental effects.  The developmental effects of video games are a topic that can fill up entire books.  The only thing I will say is that for every study saying that video games are bad there is a study showing they are not.  To present a single review and say video games are dangerous without the counterpoints is a gross miss representation of the data. I think the data is leaning in the direction of video games not having an adverse impact on development, but that’s a different argument. The only thing we can conclusively say about video games is that we don’t know what kind of effect they have on development. 

While I think this article badly miss represents the data about Fortnite I believe there is an even more critical point here.  I don’t think Fortnite is a problem, however, maybe it will become one or a video game in the future will be a problem.  However, as an author of a document miss using numbers undermines the believability of your writing.  You could be presenting correct ideas, but if you show your data incorrectly, you give your opponents the ability to ruin your arguments.

Using data to fear monger is never the correct approach.  If you want to influence people and policy, you need to present arguments that lay out all the viewpoints and present your viewpoint in a logically unassailable way.  When you use numbers make sure you use them correctly, or you may hurt yourself more than you help.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg