Why do people hate STEM classes?


According to the media, the job market and every sensible adult, STEM educations are valuable.

Penn would venture to agree. In its efforts to compete with its peers and push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, it's poured vast resources into research and churned out more than a few new facilities like the Singh Center for Nanotechnology.

It's no wonder that Penn is pushing to become a model institution for STEM education. Nationally, STEM, health and business majors earn the most money, with average annual wages of $37,000 at the entry level and an average of $65,000 or more nationally over the course of their careers, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. STEM majors are also the second most popular choice for undergraduates after business, with 19.6 percent of students choosing to study science, technology, engineering or math.

But according to data from Penn Course Review responses dating back to 2009, students rate STEM departments consistently lower than non-STEM departments in several categories.

Across a number of departments, ranging from math to biochemistry to systems engineering, students report learning less, an increased level of difficulty and work required, and lower instructor quality. And they're dramatically less likely to recommend courses from STEM departments to non-majors.

It's difficult to find a single culprit behind the lower ratings. STEM subjects often inherently require more work outside of class, not to mention that professors are eager to cover as much material as possible so that students are prepared for higher-level courses and graduate studies. It's hard to gauge the quality of professors in 300-person classes, and even harder to recommend advanced science seminars to non-majors who haven't even taken Chemistry 101.

But the numbers are difficult to ignore. The value of a STEM degree may be clear, but whether or not STEM majors actually enjoy the process of earning it is far from it.

An unavoidable reality

STEM professors are quick to provide their own explanations for the lower ratings, citing reasons that range from unchangeable class sizes to the necessity of preparing students for life after college. But a common theme seems to be that changes - at Penn or anywhere else - would be difficult to come by.

Professor Tony Pantev, the undergraduate chair of Penn's mathematics department, said that one major difference between STEM majors and other types of majors - particularly humanities majors - is that STEM curriculums often require a progression of courses and give students fewer choices about what classes they want to take.

And, he said, that only compounds the fact that certain classes, like introductory calculus, are required for a slew of different degrees, forcing huge numbers of students to take courses they might not excel in or enjoy.

STEM vs. non-STEM

Course Quality Difficulty Instructor Quality Work Required

"They [students in other fields] have more choices and they feel like they have more control," Pantev said. "Whereas in all the STEM fields, they don't have any control. These are subjects that have been established a century ago."

It's also common, Pantev said, for introductory STEM classes to cover huge amounts of material in preparation for higher-level courses. And especially for freshmen, the transition can be tough.

"We hit them with all those big STEM classes in the fall semester of their freshman year and ... it's a shock," he said.

But it's not only the classes themselves that students rate lower - it's the professors, too.

Professor Jeffrey Saven, head of the biochemistry department, chalked the lower professor ratings up to large lectures, where - unlike many small, discussion-based seminars in other departments - professors don't have the time to get to know their students individually. Especially with rising enrollment in STEM courses, Saven said, it is difficult to avoid large classes.

Still, no matter the size of the course, Saven said, making sure students learn is a higher priority for professors than being popular.

"Certainly it's great to be liked. It's great when everybody thinks you're a great guy and a great teacher," he said. "But I'm most concerned about where students will be when they leave Penn. Where do they go for their next step? Where will they be five, ten years from now?"

At Penn, and elsewhere, STEM courses require extensive reading, numerous problem sets and demanding lab work. Unlike courses from other fields, where depth of knowledge is often determined through one final essay or presentation, STEM courses often examine learning through multiple exams designed to ensure that students are prepared to continue to a higher level in that subject. Nicole Smith, a professor and economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce who has studied STEM education and careers, explained the inevitability of that difficulty when it comes to studying STEM.

"There's a much higher number of hours you have to put in to get an equivalent grade or even a lower grade," she said. "The reality is - once you get into a STEM major, there's going to be blood, sweat and tears until you complete it."

A devoted minority

Though STEM courses receive lower ratings on average than most other courses, there remains a strong cohort of STEM majors who are passionate about their field. College sophomore Hope Merens, who is double majoring in neurobiology and biochemistry with a minor in philosophy, acknowledged the difficulty of her coursework but feels that the challenge is worth it.

"STEM classes do take a lot for work, but it's doable if academics are your priority," she said. "Compared to my non-STEM classes, I've personally felt like I've gotten more out of my STEM classes."

Merens acknowledged, though, that she only has time for one or two extracurriculars, and that a rigorous STEM course load can make it hard to find adequate time with friends. Still, she says she's found several of her upper-level classes fascinating, and would encourage non-majors to audit them rather than take them for a grade.

But even when STEM classes themselves are fulfilling, the professors who teach them can be sources of great complaint.

"To a certain extent the content is inherently difficult, but I think sometimes professors make it more difficult than it needs to be," said College sophomore Jenna Harowitz, who studies biology with a concentration in neurobiology.

Harowitz said she learns a lot in her STEM classes but sometimes has to study independently to make up for what her professors don't teach. And College junior Molly Brothers, who is also a biology major, says some professors' skills are better suited to scientific research - not teaching.

"A lot of the personality that goes into wanting to do STEM stuff is not necessarily good for teaching," she said. "I think that's what makes or breaks a STEM class, is whether the professor is interesting and engaging and can teach the material well, because that's going to be an enjoyable class regardless of how difficult it is."

Even though students are often pushed to study "useful" subjects like STEM to gain a competitive advantage in the job market, Smith argued that future earnings are never the sole motivation, especially for courses that demand so much time and energy.

"On those nights where everyone is at the bar or the club hanging out and you're at the library with a can of coffee, it's your desire to learn, to understand this, your love of this discipline that's going to push you," she said.

A flawed system

Even though ratings on Penn Course Review portray STEM courses in a somewhat negative light, course ratings in general aren't necessarily valued, according to students and professors alike.

"I think most people in STEM are pretty committed, and I don't think course ratings are necessarily going to change that," Harowitz said, adding that she primarily uses Penn Course Review to choose between professors, not classes. Brothers, too, expects her courses to be difficult and only takes ratings of professors into consideration.

Professors themselves, who may be judged for awards and promotions based on their Penn Course Review ratings, question their reliability as well, often choosing to supplement the official ratings with their own surveys.

Because many students rush through Penn Course Review ratings in a scramble to view their final grades, responses aren't always thorough or even fair.

"Its [reviews are] usually much more belligerent and frustrated and hostile on Penn Course Review than the midterm review, or the one I provide at the end of the course," Saven said. "The stuff I solicit is usually really thoughtful... it seems like there's less of that thoughtfulness on the course reviews."

Professor Ponzy Lu, chair of the biochemistry department and director of the Vagelos Scholars Program in Molecular Life Sciences, questioned whether the ratings are useful at all, arguing that the effectiveness of courses and instructors is impossible to measure without considering how students are faring years after they graduate.

"As Einstein said, you can't measure a lot of things that are important, and a lot of things you measure are not important," Lu said. "And I think this [Penn Course Review ratings] comes in that second category."

Lu sees Penn Course Review ratings as a measure of popularity, not quality, noting instances in his own education when a course he initially disliked turned out to be useful to him later.

"They're important to the extent that you have to pay attention to it, for the same reason everyone pays attention to Trump," Lu said. "Totally worthless and a possibly destructive activity, but you can't ignore it, because it does reflect something going on."