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January 13, 2015

Another leak in the pipeline...

Today, a student came back to Niles West to visit.  He took AP Physics C and got a 4 on the Mechanics portion of the exam.  He liked physics and thought about majoring in physics.  I think I remember him saying he took chemistry and calculus his freshman year, and didn't love it, but hung in there.  He remembered liking AP Physics C in high school, so he decided to major in physics and signed up for Physics 211 at U of I.  He said it was SOOOO hard, he hated it and it was the first C he got in college.  And he also was miserable in his Calc 2 class.   So he's changing majors.  No more physics.  

He's a bright young man.  I don't remember the grades he got in my class, probably B's both semesters.   And that's not easy.   I can think of several students who claimed to want to go into engineering, but, in my opinion, didn't have the work ethic or problem solving skill to manage it.  This student is not in that category.

I wish I could say that he is the first of my students to enter college loving physics, having taking AP Physics C with me, only to be driven away from it by an overly difficult freshman physics course.   I know of at least two: one at Princeton, and the other one at U of I.  And who knows how many of them are afraid to tell me: how many students have the nerve to tell their physics teacher they no longer like physics?

It makes me sad.  It makes me angry.   The nation decries the lack of STEM majors, and makes a push to increase STEM courses for high school students. But then when they get to college, droves of students are driven away by large weed-out courses.   Maybe you can claim they didn't like it ENOUGH, and maybe that's true.   Or maybe there is something wrong with some of the college physics courses out there, and something wrong with the concept of a "weed-out" class.  Perhaps we are pulling some of the good fruit-bearing plants out with the weeds because our courses are too hard.

I don't mean to imply everyone has to like physics.   I personally "leaked" out of the "pipeline" when I had to learn quark wave functions in grad school.  

I asked him to send me links to the past tests they publish on line for students.  Perhaps that will give me some more answers.   But for now, it's a mystery to me.  Would he still be in physics if he had taken it at a less prestigious college or university (as Malcolm Gladwell posits in David and Goliath)?  Who knows?  In any case, the U.S. lost another STEM major this past semester.