Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Lighten up 

The lead article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers link) discusses a group of 30 university presidents who are concerned about diversity in programs of in mathematics, science, engineering and technology. They want to address the problem of minority students failing too many introductory classes in these fields.
Several of the presidents blamed what they called 'weed-out courses' in the early stages of undergraduate education for driving disproportionate numbers of minority students out of math- and science-related fields. Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said that even those minority students who go on to earn bachelor's degrees in such fields often are too discouraged by the difficulty of the experience to consider pursuing a graduate education.

They 'don't go on, quite frankly, because they have not done well as undergraduates,' Mr. Hrabowski said. Colleges should do more to get such students 'excited about the work,' he said, and should not be afraid to take steps such as urging students to repeat introductory courses in which they received grades of C or lower to ensure that more-advanced classes do not leave them feeling overwhelmed.

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, was among those who suggested that colleges should rethink their reliance on rigorous introductory courses to ensure that prospective science and mathematics students can handle work in those fields. "Just because we have always done it that way does not mean that is the way it has to be done," she said.

Several college presidents and administrators on hand suggested that earning Advanced Placement credits in high school may have unintended negative consequences for students, minority and otherwise. The speakers said that, as a result of earning such credits, many students place out of introductory courses that they could handle easily, and go straight into more-advanced classes without adequate preparation, earning poor grades that leave them discouraged.

The alliance covered several topics about diversity in the sciences, but the article's focus on AP was quite enlightening. Are we to believe that minority students might be getting easy AP credits? Or is the message that college faculty in the sciences might be expecting too much? Or what?

UPDATE: Reader jw notes additional discussion at FIRE's Torch.