Monday, February 18, 2008

Breaking: Equations Not All That Important In Engineering!

Post below lifted from Phi Beta. See the original for links

Soon after the Larry Summers debacle, Charles Murray summarized the reason for the gender gap in math and science:
[There is] a distributional difference in male and female characteristics that leads to a larger number of men with high visuospatial skills. The difference has an evolutionary rationale, a physiological basis and a direct correlation with math scores.

Well, a Smith College professor found a way around that for getting women into engineering: Ignore the math. From the Chronicle:
[The curriculum] emphasizes context, ethics, and communication as much as formulas and equations. Smith, the first women's college to offer an engineering degree, graduated its first class of engineers in 2004, and since the program's creation, in 1999, has attained a 90-percent retention rate

I'm no expert, but I'm not clear on what you can engineer with "context, ethics, and communication." I hope the Chronicle is wrong in saying that this engineering curriculum emphasizes sociology and philosophy "as much as," um, engineering.

To be sure, if teaching in this way improves women's performance on actual engineering tasks, as opposed to just luring them into enrolling and sticking around, I'm all for it. But I find it hard to believe such distractions would improve on a focused curriculum, and I can't seem to find any information on (A) how these students compare to those who got into sex-integrated engineering programs and (B) how these women do when they graduate. Certainly, were the program working well, it wouldn't need affirmative-action deals like this:
Students who maintain an overall GPA of 3.5 and a GPA of 3.5 within the major are automatically admitted to graduate study in an engineering discipline at Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, Tufts University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Michigan.

UPDATE: Here I focused on the reason the Chronicle discussed for having a different curriculum - drawing in more women. An engineer reader, however, writes to say there are legitimate reasons to push engineering instruction in this direction:
An increased emphasis on communication is, to me, a no-brainer. My work is highly numerical in nature; and I have spent a good portion of my academic life reading and reviewing papers and books, and interacting with my colleagues in classrooms, seminars, and conferences. So personal experience definitely guides my view. I *heartily* endorse any effort to improve both the written and spoken communication skills of my future colleagues.

And another great point:
There is some variability as to what makes a good engineer. . . . It would not surprise me or bother me if women innately excel in different areas of engineering than others. If that is the case, then it seems natural to me that Smith would exploit that knowledge and tailor their curriculum to suit.

More Handwringing Orthodoxy From The College Board

Post below lifted from Discriminations. See the original for links

This morning the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a new report from the College Board on the demographics of its Advanced Placement exams. Once again (similar results last year), the overall numbers are encouraging; the numbers for blacks are not. And the College Board blames, well, everybody (except for the tests and the test-takers). First the numbers:
... 24.9 percent of the 2.8 million students who graduated from American public high schools in 2007 took at least one AP test, and 15.2 percent of them earned a score of 3 or higher on at least one test. Those numbers are up slightly from the previous year.... [NOTE: This isn't completely clear, but a check of last year's article reveals that the 15.2 percent refers to all high school graduates, not 15.2 percent of the 24.9 percent who took AP classes - jsr.]

Underrepresentation of African-Americans

However, only 3.3 percent of the students who scored 3 or higher on a test were African-American, despite the fact that black students represented 14 percent of all high-school seniors last year.... African-American students also are less likely than their peers to take AP classes.... Black students accounted for only 7.4 percent of AP test takers last year, according to the report. White students, by contrast, accounted for 61.7 percent of test takers and 64 percent of graduating seniors.

In many states, American Indian and Hispanic students' participation matched their representation in the student body. Nationally, Hispanic students made up 14.6 percent of the high-school-senior population, and 13.6 percent of them scored at least a 3 on an AP test.

In short, black students were significantly "underrepresented" among AP test takers and among those doing well on the test. Trying to explain this "underrepresentation" is a great challenge to our country, requiring the efforts of, among others, our best scholars (such as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their impressive book, NO EXCUSES: CLOSING THE RACIAL GAP IN LEARNING). What doesn't help, however, is the moralistic finger-pointing engaged in almost reflexively by representatives of elite institutions such as Trevor Packer, the director of the College Board's Advanced Placement program.
The board sees a "true and startling lack of equity," Mr. Packer said. "African-American students in particular are not receiving encouragement and support."

Does Mr. Packer have any evidence, beyond the "underrepresentation," that black students "are not receiving encouragement and support"? Who does he believe is guilty (and if there truly is a "true and startling lack of equity," it is guilt we are talking about) of not providing the missing "encouragement and support"? Teachers? School administrators? Parents? Peers? If you're going to point your finger at shortcomings in equitable treatment, it at least ought to be clear whom you're pointing at.

Finally, it would be nice to know whether Mr. Packer believes that Asian-Americans, who are no doubt "overrepresented" among the high achievers, have been receiving a disproportionately and hence inequitably high level of "encouragement and support."

Perhaps what the College Board should propose is an Equiable Support and Encouragement Redistribution Act, taking some equitable treatment away from those who receive an excess of it and redistributing it to those who are not given enough.

Starting school at 4 'no help to children'

Children in England start school lessons earlier and sit more tests but still perform no better than in other countries, researchers say today. They find school "stressful" as they are subjected to academic lessons in English and maths at the age of four. In countries such as Sweden and Finland, where children do not start school until seven, pupils often outperform English children by the age of 11.

English primaries are also bigger than in most other countries - with an average of 224 pupils against 128 in Scotland - and make pupils sit exams more often, at a younger age and in more subjects.

In a damaging conclusion, it is claimed more parents educate their children at home or in alternative Steiner schools because they believe schools are "too constrained by the imperatives of performativity".

The findings - made as part of a two-year review of primary education by Cambridge University - will fuel fears that the target-driven nature of modern schooling is damaging childhood.

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described the findings as "devastating". He said: "When it comes to testing in England, the tail wags the dog," he said. "It is patently absurd that even the structure and content of education is shaped by the demands of the tests."

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said it had commissioned a "root and branch review of the primary-level curriculum". This will attempt to ease the transition from early years into school and will also "consider whether it would be appropriate to allow greater flexibility in school start dates", said a spokesman. She added: "The idea that children are over tested is not a view that the Government accepts. The reality is that children spend a very small percentage of their time in school being tested. "Seeing that children leave school up to the right standard in the basics is the highest priority of government."

In a further conclusion, today's report shows that English schools focus more lessons on politically correct themes such as "diversity, tolerance and multi-culturalism" than in other nations. A study by Glasgow University said this was "especially evident" in RE, history, geography and citizenship. France and Japan were more prepared to celebrate home-grown values in the curriculum.


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