From the Executive Director

Psychology is the pipeline into science

Students’ existing attraction to psychology can be leveraged to attract more students to all sciences.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

My column in the June, 2011 issue of Monitor on Psychology focused on education and workforce data, and what those data tell us about psychological science.  The data on which I focused came from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators – a biannual report of data that help to assess the scope, vitality and quality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.

In the Monitor column, I pointed out how the Indicators analysis confirms what many of us know – that psychology is the single most frequent area of concentration in undergraduate science and engineering education.  Of all the earned bachelor’s degrees in 2007, about one-third (31.5 percent) were in science and engineering fields.  Within those fields, half were in the social and behavioral sciences.  And within the social and behavioral sciences, 37.5 percent were in psychology.  No other separately identified field of science or engineering was higher than psychology.

These data are especially interesting when considered against some of the key findings, as described in the 2010 digest (PDF, 651KB) of the Indicators analysis. Up until about 2000, about 1/3 of college freshmen in the United States said they planned to pursue a degree in a science or engineering field.  But things started to change after 2000, when preferences for such fields as computer science and engineering started to drop sharply.  Engineering is coming back, but generally college students seem to be showing less interest in many fields of science.  This is a large part of current national efforts to attract more college students into the sciences and engineering.

Yet, not all fields have shown dramatic declines over the past ten years.  Indeed, as the 2010 digest describes, preferences for the social sciences, psychology, and the biological sciences have been rising.  And judging from the data on earned bachelor’s degrees, students stick with their intended majors in these fields.

Moving earlier in the educational pipeline, we can find similar trends.  One good indicator of students’ attraction to different fields of study is the number who sit for Advanced Placement (AP) exams.  Of course, the AP exams cover many different fields.  They include the humanities, such as art, history, music, and languages.  They also include an array of fields in math and science, such as biology, chemistry, calculus, statistics, and psychology.

According to College Board statistics, the volume of students who took the AP Psychology exam increased between 2000 and 2010, from 2.7% of the total in 2000 to 5.5% of the total in 2010.  Last year, over 175,000 students took the AP Psychology exam.  That’s a lot of high school students who are learning the science of psychology.

How does this compare to other fields?  About the same number of students took the AP Biology exam in 2010.  But that’s down, as a percentage of the total, since 2000.  Indeed, among the math and science fields, the only one in which more students took an AP exam is calculus.  More students sat for the AP Psychology exam than for the chemistry, biology, economics, physics, or statistics exams.

These data and trends have a good news/bad news quality to them.  The good news is that psychology is attracting a large number of students, and the trend is growing over time.  The bad news is that psychology does not need much help in attracting students, especially compared to fields such as chemistry and physics where the numbers are lower and decreasing over time.

It is precisely this pattern that is used to justify a differential investment of resources aimed at increasing students’ interest in the sciences.  The interest value of the fields themselves creates a natural advantage for psychology.  Getting students to study chemistry and physics seems to require more – inducements, prizes, and privileged access.  In terms of attracting students, psychology is the envy of the other sciences.

For psychologists, it seems unfair that so many resources get devoted to creating opportunities in other fields.  Yet, those other fields need all the help they can get, even if that means bribing students to show some interest.

At least two facets of this state of affairs get overlooked in the general scheme of things.  First, it is assumed that students are needed in the poorly-subscribed areas of science because those fields are somehow better able to address national needs.  It is assumed that the problems we face as a nation – in energy, health, safety, and productivity – will be solved by having more engineers, physicists, and chemists.  Yet, as APA’s Presidential Task Force on Psychology as a STEM Discipline cogently noted, far more progress in solving those problems will come from psychology than from those other fields of science.

The second overlooked facet is the nation’s failure to take advantage of students’ natural interest in such fields as psychology.  Not only is psychology the key to addressing the grand challenges of society, it may very well be the best pipeline into science.  We should be leveraging students’ attraction to the field as a way of introducing the basic principles of science to the greatest number of students.  We can teach more students about the scientific method by teaching psychology than by teaching most other fields of science.

If our goal is to attract students into science, then we should be attracting more students into psychology.  Psychology can be the main pipeline into science.