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Yes, STEM is harder.

This past September, Carleton held its annual Opening Convocation. Between numerous speeches, dedicatories and other processions, Dean Hofmeister recognized students on the Dean’s List, those who achieved academic excellence in the past year. This prompted me to think about my own standing. Where do I, an Art History and Computer Science major, place in terms of difficulty? How is that time I spend on studying correlated with the grades I have received in my two years here? Did I deserve my good grades? Did I work hard enough for the less desirable ones?  

Almost ironically, this convocation had been preceded by the first meeting of what would eventually become the toughest class I have taken at Carleton: an upper-level computer science course. In between my algorithms class and convocation was my art history seminar. As someone with one foot in the humanities and another in the sciences, I quizzed myself and others only in generalized comparisons. For the following week, I entertained conversations with my fellow classmates, mostly revolving around a central question: Is STEM really harder than the humanities, and could this difference be appreciated strictly from a GPA perspective?

Interestingly enough, every single person who was willing to engage with me on the topic, humanities or STEM, was upfront about the fact that permeates academic circles. 

“I actually came in to Carleton as a physics major but unfortunately I was not doing well at all so I switched over”

“I kinda liked math and then I took Calc 2”

“STEM classes are most definitely harder, I just could never see myself doing as well in most math or science classes” 

It seemed to be an accepted fact for many. Before I, too, saw it as such, I decided to put it to the test. Contrary to what many would believe, out of 43 students in the Class of 2022 listed on the directory, 30 are majors represented in Carleton’s STEM board. Similarly, over a two-thirds majority of graduating students recognized at commencement last June with the highest possible honors were STEM majors. If STEM is as hard as students believe, why are they not underrepresented in recognitions of academic excellence? The answer lies in demographics. Most of Carleton’s high-achieving students are STEM majors because most Carleton students are STEM majors. For example, 11% of the class of 2021 were computer science majors and 12% of students recognized as Summa Cum Laude were majoring in the field. Additionally, within the Class of 2022’s humanities and social sciences majors on the dean’s list, political science seemed to perform the best. Political Science also happens to be the second most popular major for the Class of 2022 at the time of declaring, the highest ranking non-STEM department. For further context, the next two non-STEM fields are economics at 7th and history at 12th. 

All this shows is that, from purely a general GPA standpoint, the statistics seem to be lining up. This does not control for how many STEM versus non-STEM classes a student takes, comparative difficulty within STEM (can we say chemistry is harder than biology or vice versa?), and previous education. Since Carleton opts to not publish departmental class averages (for good reason), we are unable to further scrutinize GPA as a potential measure of difficulty. 

From a purely qualitative perspective, however, the story seems to be completely different. Since my first year at Carleton, stories of upperclassmen opting for a humanities or social science major after roughing it in the sciences were rife. STEM students’ complaints on problem sets, exams and labs are commonly heard from the common spaces of the Science Complex. Whether this is the culture that is bred by science education culture or not is a separate argument (and one worth exploring). Science classes remain the most complained about by both STEM and non-STEM majors alike. As I write this article, I am also proof-reading an email to my professor, where the sentence “This is by far the most difficult class I’ve ever taken” is included. 

So perhaps STEM courses could be relatively more difficult. But is that something we should aspire to? I’d venture to say that it’s a hole in knowledge, a missing piece, an area of needed research. Academia may know the depths of advanced algorithm design, the minute details of thermochemistry or how to compute a line integral, but do we know how to teach an undergraduate student how to grasp these concepts? As student experience has shown, the answer is a resounding no. 

This is, of course, dependent on field and subject matter, and is not unique to STEM, but the compounding of similar experiences that cause an individual to prefer dropping a major they carefully chose is more telling of STEM fields than any other factor. This becomes even more of a problem when the students switching to the humanities or social sciences tend to be those less-supported in science education: low-income, BIPOC and female students. We are then left in environments solely with those who are able to shrug off the educational discrepancy, creating a vicious cycle of who is allowed to participate and who isn’t. This process continues into graduate studies, furthering research that does not concern itself with equity or diversity, a direct pipeline into ultimately detrimental projects such as biased artificial intelligence or ill-drawn medical conclusions. 

These problems are not usually institution-specific or unique and I feel like Carleton departments are mostly aware of these issues, as seen by the support I have received from my professors, departments and student organizations, but to not highlight the dismissal of STEM education research is a disservice to every student that has struggled through a poorly-constructed ‘rigorous’ curriculum. As I ponder whether I should continue my computer science major, I think of all of the students that could’ve been doing way better had the right methods and concepts been employed to teach them. If science education were at an acceptable level, what would the Dean’s List look like? Might it look different not in how many STEM majors there are, but in who those students are? 

So maybe STEM might be harder, but pride is the last thing I feel about it.

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