Where Have All The Chemists Gone?

Thoughts on STEM from Walter Russell Mead. Part of the problem is grade inflation in the softer courses and overemphasis on GPA as part of the faux credentialing of modern academics, which chases students away from real degrees and courses. And I agree completely with this comment with regards to engineering:

Engineering is difficult. And if you’re going to stay the course you really must want it in your gut with a passion not far from love. It helps if you were one of the kids who tinkered with radios or with automobiles or even blowing up “spare” stumps with strange concoctions. Experience made college easier. Those who got into it because daddy was an engineer and expected the son to be an engineer mostly didn’t make it. The fire in the belly was missing.

So what’s new today? Manufacturing in the US is a faint shadow of what it used to be. And computer aided design is doing away with the need for large teams just to build a small subassembly for a product like an airliner. You don’t need several passes trying to determine the proper airfoil for a Dreamliner. The computer performs an awful lot of the preliminary testing neatly and cleanly. The final product is then built and tested to confirm performance with little more than some computer drafting needed to tweak performance to specification. A small team can do what many larger teams did in the past.

Despite a long career in engineering I don’t recommend anybody get into engineering these days, particularly if they want to do it for the money. If you must get into engineering do it because you build things, love it, and want to understand how to build them better. Go into it because your hobby is engineering. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.

I’ve commented in the past that when I was growing up, engineering was what a lot of lower-middle class kids whose parents didn’t go to college went into as a way to step up in life, and they were the kids (mostly boys) who tinkered with radios and cars (my uncle was in this class). I think in the eighties, a lot of young women who were good at math steered into it, post-lib, but many of them didn’t have a natural affinity for it. But no one should go into it only with the expectation of financial reward — as other commenters note, most engineers who do really well financially go into management or become entrepreneurs.

I would also note that one of the things that drives New Space, and it’s dramatically lower costs, isn’t just the difference in incentives and business structure, but the fact that the tools available allow small teams to do what large ones used to.

[Update a few minutes later]

This is a good comment, too:

Being an engineer for over 50 years, I note the difference between the liberal arts and engineering grading systems. As was stated to me by Dr. R. F. Mehl, the engineering program does not grade on the curve. It uses real numbers. If you are driving cown the highway, you don’t want to cross a bridge built by an engineer that was graded on the curve. Grading an engineer on the curve can cause disasters later. However, grading a liberal arts student on the curve can only cause a social disaster like Obama. And the unintended result is that the liberal arts person feels so good about him/herself that they can’t be corrected.

Just like Obama.

[Late morning update]

Heh. “Hey, my major is ‘real,’ too.” It’s hard to tell initially whether or not it’s satire, but it becomes more clear as you get further into it.

9 thoughts on “Where Have All The Chemists Gone?”

  1. If the liberal arts are down graded and science and technology begin to dominate the university, the usual suspects will be meddling with the grading system there as well.

  2. Glad you posted the second comment. I remember when a teacher said “I’m not curving the results of this test because nuclear reactors are not designed on a curve!”

  3. I wouldn’t want to ride on an airliner that was designed by engineers graded on a curve. I wouldn’t want to ride in a car designed by engineers graded on a curve. Unlike the liberal arts, there are real life consequences to engineering decisions. Engineering mistakes can kill a lot of people.

    1. Engineering mistakes can kill a lot of people.

      Actually, policy mistakes traditionally kill many more (many tens of millions in the twentieth century alone). Of course, those making them don’t consider them mistakes.

      1. Very true, Rand. Except engineers are usually sued for their mistakes. Politicians exempt themselves from responsibility for theirs, and usually just keep making the same ones in hopes of different results. :/

  4. Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were physics legends and also faculty colleagues at Caltech. You would think that each of these men would be comfortable with what they achieved, the glory they have brought upon themselves and the common institution they work for, but I guess there was, perhaps, just a tiny amount of rivalry between them.

    One manifestation was Feynman coining an expression “The Gell-Mann Effect” as a way of tweaking his esteemed friend and colleague as, shall we say, perhaps a trifle naive in matters apart from physics. As Feynman put it, he (Gell-Mann) reads in the NYT some popularization of high-energy physics and starts fuming about how those reporters don’t know anything and should have asked him (Gell-Mann) for a fact check, and everything in that article is just misinformation and trash.

    Feynman’s spin was that if the NYT got high-energy physics wrong, they probably got the story about the IDF in Gaza wrong along with just about everything else they write about. In science, that principle is known as uniformitarianism — that laws of physics that apply in one setting apply in all other settings unless there is something special about the settings. Gell-Mann and others who believe what they read in the paper when they have an experimental reason not to are naive.

    On another occasion, Professor Gell-Mann reads an article in the NYT casting what Israel is doing in Gaza in a bad light. Gell-Mann takes the article at face value — he is an expert in high-energy and particle physics but does not have direct first-hand experience about foreign affairs and hence relies on the Times article. He thinks, “This is terrible what the IDF is doing in Gaza, they should not be doing that!”

    Now a great deal of political commentary is offered here on this blog that requires a great deal of knowledge of economics to pass judgement on, which I don’t have, so I take it at face value that what Mr. Obama is doing in Washington is terrible and what Mr. Walker is doing in Madison is the best thing possible.

    This post is offering opinions about STEM education and grade inflation and how teaching takes place. I have been both a STEM student and I am a STEM educator, I have been graded on a curve and I have given grades on a curve, and I can tell you that ride on airliners, cross bridges, and are neighbor to nuclear reactors designed by engineers, many of whom, I assure you, are not 4.0 GPA students, and even if they were 4.0 GPA students, they have made some errors on their examinations and continue to make errors in their engineering work, and if they are good engineers, these errors are caught in testing or in design reviews because no engineer is perfect, and you airliners don’t function safely on account of letter perfect engineering but because of the most rigorous form of testing and design reviews.

    Hence like Gell-Mann, I believe everything else written on this Web site apart from this topic where I have direct knowledge.

  5. “Concerned Global Citizen” has other articles at the Duke Chronicle that are worth reading, such as New Brothels Positive Step, which begins:

    Hi, sororities. It’s good to see that you’ve finally quit your whining (note that I didn’t tell you to quit your bitching, because that is sexism, and sexism is wrong) and taken a positive step in the direction of womyn’s rights. Congratulations on your new houses. (How’d you get those past the brothel laws?) You’re halfway to regaining the self-respect you lose every time you blow a guy at Shooters because he’s in a good frat.

    You’re all surprised, loyal readers. Why am I congratulating this superficial, judgmental, entitled group? I won’t beat around the bush here. (No, not that kind of bush, male readers. Pigs.) Sorority girls probably didn’t know about this earlier because they’ve all been too busy dressing like slutty dinosaurs and “hosting” populists or regressives or whatever they’re called, but it seems they’ve finally noticed that we have a gender problem on this campus.

    She goes own to offer a solution to the gender problem.

  6. When I was a professor, I graded on a curve, more to make up for my mistakes than for my students. Sometimes it is more difficult to develop a test that takes exactly 50 minutes for an “A” student to finish correctly than you would think….

    Also: unmentioned is a big factor in grade inflation: many states have adopted scholarship models that require students to maintain a “B” average. Giving a student a “C” or a “D” is a weighty matter, because for some students those scholarships mean the difference between staying in school and serving fries. It’s easy for a professor to believe that he has witnessed low “B” work and not high “C” work if the alternative means a student loses a chance at further education.

    1. Overheard back in the day:

      “I got a 5 out of 20 on my quiz.”

      “That’s an ‘A’ in Chemistry, right?”

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