Student Features

PA Cyber students calculate value of a STEM degree

Mar 30, 2015

Is a STEM career worth the cost of earning college degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math fields? Can that be proven mathematically?

That was the question a team of five PA Cyber Charter School students tried to answer over a span of 14 hours in this year’s Moody’s Mega Math Challenge. The one-day math competition for high school students draws about 3,000 teams annually.

The conclusion of the PA Cyber team in its scholarly 18-page report was . . . maybe, leaning toward probably.

Though inconclusive, the report was deemed a “viable solution paper” by the 3M Challenge judges.

“There wasn’t a definite answer,” said team member Logan Dunlap, a Waynesburg senior. “Overall, STEM jobs pay more and the job outlook is better, if you can afford the college degree.”

“We had so many variables coming into the problem. It shows in our paper that we are not sure. So many things affect it,” said Cindy Lay, a senior from Norwood.

The other team members were Alexsis Bish from Erie and Amanda Cole from Monroe County, both juniors, and Wyatt Myers, a senior from Martinsburg.

“We received official word that though we did not make it to the second round of judging, we were part of the viable solution papers that were accepted,” said team coach Sarah Carr, a PA Cyber math teacher who teaches Virtual Classroom pre-calculus and geometry classes. She said PA Cyber’s was among 1,128 viable solution papers, only 200 of which advanced to the second round of judging.

A real-world problem

“Each year the 3M Challenge problem is an open-ended, applied math modeling problem focused on a real-world issue,” said Carr. “This year’s topic was ‘Is College worth it?’ for STEM careers. They had to develop a mathematical model supporting their research and claims.”

Carr recruited the team by sending emails about the competition to PA Cyber students taking advanced math classes. Four of the five members are in her pre-calculus class.

This year’s problem was kept secret until the morning of the competition on Saturday, Feb. 28, so no research could be done in advance. The team did, however, develop a format for the paper and a strategy for attacking the problem.

“Miss Carr gave us the sample problems to prepare for it,” Cindy said. “We would read the problem first and would see what we could do about it. We said, you do this and I’ll do that. We didn’t want to do each other’s job. We practiced that way but it was not as extreme as the real thing.”

They met online in the same Collaborate meeting software that PA Cyber uses for virtual classes.

“We used Google docs so we could all work on it at once, with everybody proofreading each other’s work,” said Amanda. “It worked out pretty well. We had a fun time collaborating.”

“Since our school is based in technology, that was an advantage,” said Logan. “But sometimes it was difficult, not being in the same room with everyone.”

“They began at 7 a.m. and worked all through the day until the deadline of 9 p.m.,” said Carr. She checked in on the team a few times, but coaches were not allowed to help in any way.

Factoring costs and ‘happiness’

The final report discussed background issues, including the huge problem of student loans among recent college graduates. It compared wage earnings and costs of college for STEM and non-STEM careers, and even charted the variable of “overall happiness.”

“The value of a STEM career is that they are more successful and get more money, so their happiness is greater,” said Alexsis.

“The president’s council said they need a million more STEM graduates in the next decade,” said Wyatt. “It costs more to go to college for a STEM career, but the payoff is quite a bit more, especially in engineering.”

Engineering is Wyatt’s field of choice; he takes classes in PA Cyber’s School of Engineering track. He said working on the 3M Challenge “helped me to understand the finances better, helped put it in perspective.”

Four out of five members of the PA Cyber team plan to go to college in a STEM field, so on a personal level they apparently do believe a STEM degree will be worth the cost. Amanda plans to go into electrical engineering, Cindy into biology and pre-medicine, Wyatt into biomedical or aerospace engineering, and Logan into computer science.

Alexsis wants to go into criminal justice and perhaps become a state trooper or work for the FBI.

“I’d like to do behavioral analysis, studying people and why they do the things they do,” she said.

Wait, that involves math. Five out of five.

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About PA Cyber

Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instructional methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers, and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and does not charge tuition to students or families.