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From the Editor's Desk

Are "weed-out" courses a good idea for engineering school?

Most of us who have gone through engineering school have not-so-fond memories of "weed-out" courses. These are classes set up to be so hard that they convince people who are not sufficiently stubborn to get out engineering and into some other less strenuous major. 

In my case, a freshman engineering course served as one of the "weed-out" mechanisms. I can still remember stumbling out of the first exam and wondering whether I'd gotten any points at all on the stupid thing. Turns out, many of us had problems with it. The median exam grade was 20 out of 100. (For the curious reader, I ended up with a 40.) That kind of experience was enough to convince several in the class that engineering wasn't for them. 

Now, educators seem to be having second thoughts about putting impossibly hard courses like this one in STEM curricula. Writing on the Chronicle of Higher Education site, Dr. Mika Nash -- academic dean and associate professor in the Div. of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College --  questions the whole idea of using super-tough courses to weed out STEM wannabees. But Nash doesn't want to just dumb-down initial coursework. She says, 

"Changing introductory STEM courses does not mean simply reducing rigor. These 'leader' introductions to their fields give students the opportunity to learn key concepts and to find their footing. In subsequent courses, students will use a more applied and hands-on methodology as standards are raised."

One reason weed-out courses seem to be standard practice, Nash says, is that they come from the idea that educational institutions don't want to waste resources on students who are going to eventually drop out. So shake them out early, the thinking goes. But there's a flaw in this logic:

"We had discovered that the way students perform upon arrival is often very different from what they are capable of just a couple of semesters later. To foreclose on those students so early seemed to us at best short-sighted, and at worst unethical," she says. 

As is so often the case with articles on the Chronicle site, the comments are as interesting as the original piece. Some commentors disagree with Nash. Many posts have the tone of this one:

"I'm sorry, but that is just idiotic. Some people want to be rock stars, but they just don't have the talent. Being a biomedical engineer is no different. Some people have little aptitude for math, but are still fascinated by what people in this and related fields do. The whole point of weeding them out is that you haven't wasted a good portion of their lives, but hopefully they realize the truth in one semester."

But there are probably as many posters agreeing with her as disagreeing. Among those in this camp was this one:

"I went to a small school that did not weed. If I went to a large school with courses like those discussed, I would not be a professor right now. I also have a tendency to be stubborn. I got the lowest grade of any student in my entire year on my first freshman chemistry exam. Many other students would have just dropped the major. Instead, nine years later, I had a Ph.D. in Chemistry.... "

So here's a question: Do weed-out courses measure apptitude, or stubbornness? Nash doesn't seem to explore this side of things.

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