Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles reacts to a recent discussion on STEM attrition in higher education that was spurred by a New York Times article. "As someone who sees a lot of first-year college students who think they want to major in a STEM field, I'm not sure that all that attrition is a bad thing," Orzel says.
For some students that begin as STEM majors, graduating with non-STEM degrees may actually have a positive effect, he says. "Particularly on the pre-med side ... moving out people who really shouldn't be in those majors in the first place. Not because they aren't 'smart enough' to do it — many of them will go on to be very successful in other fields — but because they don't have any idea what they're signing up for," Orzel says.
He adds that there is a difference between doing science for fun versus doing science for a living, and that university-level STEM courses are often students' first experience with that reality. "Everyone is capable of doing and even casually enjoying activities that they would absolutely hate to do professionally," he says. Debunking the "science is hard" wisdom somewhat, Orzel says that "everybody can do science, but that doesn't mean everybody should do it for a living."
Because of that, he says, attrition isn't necessarily bad. "If we're driving out people who aren't temperamentally suited to being professional scientists and engineers, that's probably a good thing," Orzel says, though he warns that "if we're driving out people who have the right personality type to be good scientists and engineers because the intro classes are boring and useless, that's a bad thing."