Why Engineering Majors Change Their Minds

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

If we want our country and economy to get back on track we need to fix the education system for math and science related degrees. It’s simple really and everyone knows it. Growth happens when people build and sell things. In an age of high tech innovation those “growth” building blocks rely squarely on the skills acquired in a science, technology, math or engineering curriculum. It’s why the president and other industry groups are advocating for more students to graduate with these degrees.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Christopher Drew talks about “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds.” He really highlights some of the systemic issues that are engrained in our institutions but having experienced firsthand what it’s like to study engineering, I can tell you what’s really going on.

Cramsorption Learning. How fun is this? 2 hours a day, 3 days a week, a professor stands up in front of a classroom and paraphrases sections from a chemistry text book. After a few weeks of lectures and labs, the class is ready for its first test. A few days before the exam the libraries are pact. Students cram all of the formulas and anecdotes into their brains because in a few hours they will be responsible for regurgitating those same formulas onto a test. And once that test is finished, all of that information evaporates. Why? Because now the students need to focus on the next chapters and shortly thereafter they’ll have their next exam. By the next semester most of the learned information will go to waste because there was never any real practical experience applied to the information in the first place. Cram, regurgitate, next.

Learning from experience. One of the best Electrical Engineering classes I ever took was in high school during my freshman year. It wasn’t an EE class per se’ but it just as easily could have been. My teacher David Peins, basically said to the class, “here are some parts, here is how to make a Printed Circuit Board (PCB), and here are some circuits. Go build a firefighting robot that can autonomously navigate a maze and put out a fire.” What ensued was what all engineering programs should be like. We had to figure things out on our own and when we had questions, which we did almost all the time, we would ask Mr. Peins. By the end of the class we had learned about resistors, transistors, tute-bot circuits, and an entire foray of engineering concepts. I didn’t even learn about transistors until my junior year in my real ECE major. In high school, I learned these concepts by doing and not by sitting in some lecture hall taking notes.

Grades, grades, grades. I got a 2.5 GPA the first semester of my freshman year. I thought I could do what I did in high school – almost nothing and get by with good grades. My other college buddies thought the same thing. It turned out they did much better than I did freshman year, but it was also true that they were not pursuing a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). So here I was taking extremely hard courses, working 3x as many hours as my peers for crappier grades. And as school progressed it was time for me to start thinking about my future. At one point I thought about attending the London School of Economics. I gave them a call and they said I needed a 3.5 GPA regardless of my major. So here I was thinking about my future and I was already at a disadvantage because my major produced historically lower grades than other majors. Had I really wanted to go to the school I might have switched. I know I debated it almost every day for two years.

School Rankings. The end justifies the means. I heard a story once that went like this. A university had a top program for entrepreneurship. The best students from the STEM majors wanted to put their skills to work so instead of taking jobs from some of the top, high paying companies like Google or Intel, they choose to work on their own projects. Great, right? More entrepreneurs. Bring it. Well that university ended up cutting back on that program because those high quality students weren’t taking those high paying jobs. And when part of a school’s rankings are predicated on graduate’s starting salaries, you might see why long term opportunities were sacrificed for short term gains. We’ve seen this story before though – see Wall Street.

Money, money, money. In college, my buddies and I came up with this great idea that we thought would change the world and make us a lot of money. We realized that millions of cars each day were driving over speed bumps in the roads. These speed bumps were put in place to force the car to slow but consequentially there was also a lot of energy going to waste during this process. We thought that we could harness this lost kinetic energy and pump it back into an electrical grid. So we went to work. We started developing the equations and formulas needed to make this happen. One of our professors was helping us but after a while he asked, “why are you doing this?” Thinking this was already an obvious answer, we responded “because it’s a great idea and it will make us rich.” He quickly began to tell us about a fellow engineering friend of his who came up with several inventions but ultimately went to Wall Street because he wanted to get paid and he was having a hard time turning inventions into real products and businesses.

Its Hard. One of my exam questions once was, “How much fuel do you need to get to mars?” That was it. We needed to account for the earth’s gravity, various altitude levels, the trajectory of the flight path, the mass and weight of the ship, and so on. This was a straight up NASA question and I was barely doing well on my calculus exams. The reality is that most STEM majors have topics that are extremely difficult and sometimes they are just too hard too complete. How did I deal with this? I just worked harder. Was it worth it? It was for me but most others deferred to the “Grades, Grades, Grades” section.

Changing the Status-Quo. The feeling I get with most STEM course work today is that they were designed for a 9 to 5 industrial age with the goal of producing great workers for great companies in a non-global economy. This reverberated through my mind as I sat in those giant lecture halls. But now we are very much in a competitive, global, all-hours-of-the-day economy. We need a system that rewards risk taking and encourages people to pursue challenging academic careers. This is not happening today because we are too focused on school rankings, easy grades, short term gains, and maintaining the status-quo.

Sooner or later these issues will be addressed and they will most likely come from someone who has the building blocks to address and engineer real problems. I just hope more people stick with Science, Technology, Math and Engineering and don’t change their minds.