Sunday, November 6, 2011

is there a niche for anthropology as the "interesting science"?

This article from the New York Times got a lot of circulation this week: "Why Science Majors Change their Minds (It's Just so Darn Hard)"

The article is poorly titled. Yes, there is some indication that science majors switch to the social sciences and humanities because the grading is easier in those fields. But the article suggests that the real problem is that the natural sciences, math, and engineering just aren't that interesting. Or, more accurately, that the way they are taught at most universities, as huge lecture classes involving no real-world applications, is not nearly as interesting to students as the more discussion-based courses in more applied fields.

An illustrating anecdote from the article:

MATTHEW MONIZ bailed out of engineering at Notre Dame in the fall of his sophomore year. He had been the kind of recruit most engineering departments dream about. He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering.

But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’ ” And as he looked ahead at the curriculum, he did not see much relief on the horizon.

So Mr. Moniz, a 21-year-old who likes poetry and had enjoyed introductory psychology, switched to a double major in psychology and English, where the classes are “a lot more discussion based.” He will graduate in May and plans to be a clinical psychologist. Of his four freshman buddies at Notre Dame, one switched to business, another to music. One of the two who is still in engineering plans to work in finance after graduation.

Mr. Moniz’s experience illustrates how some of the best-prepared students find engineering education too narrow and lacking the passion of other fields.

This article reminds me of an article I read a few years ago (which of course I can't find a link to now! Can anyone help?) that suggested many women leave science careers because they don't find them very interesting. Women with top SAT math scores are more likely than men with top SAT scores to also have top scores on the verbal component of the exam. In other words, women with highly developed math skills are more likely (for whatever nature/nurture reason) to also be excellent students in other fields. There are fewer men for whom this is true. Therefore, women who started in math, science, and engineering fields often found they were more interested in the social sciences or humanities, and they also had the skill-based to thrive in those fields. So they switched. Men were less likely to switch, as they were more likely to lack the skills needed.

Anecdotally, I had many undergraduate friends who started out in math, science or engineering (my then-boyfriend was a computer engineer). Those who also had strong analytical and verbal skills (a group that did not include said then-boyfriend), did indeed switch to the humanities/social sciences or double-major. Most of these friends were male, not female. Dr. Mr. Palimpsest also fits this pattern, starting out as a physics major and deciding that anthropology was just more interesting.

Anthropology seems an ideal destination for smart, motivated, but dissatisfied science students. We straddle the divide between the natural and social sciences. A student with highly developed math and science skills can put them to use here, analyzing DNA, running stable isotope analyses, or building computer models. Yet, our research is clearly applied, hands-on, and critical to our comprehension of all that it means to be human. How much more interesting can it get?

So what can we do to bring in the dissatisfied math, science, and engineering students? I have two suggestions:

1) We shouldn't hide the scientific or technical aspects of our field. Here at Tiny U, my biological anthropology class is often used as "non-sciencey" option for students trying to get their general education science credits. They're often appalled when they find out how much real science (and gasp! even some math!) is involved. But I've had math and computer science majors tell me they've learned more in my class than in any other natural science class they've taken. We should revel in our science, and not have it a secret discovered only by those who happen to take the class to fill a gen ed requirement.

2) We must make students aware of the applications of anthropology. I've had a number of students tell me they like anthropology, but they're majoring in psychology or sociology because anthro is "all research and no practical application". We need to make it clear that anthropology is not just the study of the exotic or the distant past, with no current applications. Anthropology gains if we clarify that it is hands-on and practical for our modern world.

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