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Retaining the STEM Dropouts
November 9, 2011 - 2:53pm

It's not really news that we're failing to graduate enough students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors to fulfill the predicted "jobs of the future." An emphasis on STEM education -- at the K-12 level as well as at the college level) -- has been part of the Obama Administration's mantra all year, beginning with his invocation during the State of the Union address that this was our nation's new Sputnik moment.

But a story this past weekend in The New York Times has rekindled discussion of why those graduation rates remain low. According to the NYT, some 40% of students that enter college planning STEM majors end up switching to other fields or failing to get a degree at all. That rate is even higher (60%) among pre-med students -- "twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors."

Much of the focus on STEM education shortfalls has been on the failures of K-12 classrooms to adequately prepare students. But as the NYT points out, this doesn't begin to explain the whole story of what is happening, particularly at the college level. The students who are abandoning science and math majors aren't just those who've struggled in science and math; they are some of the brightest students, those with great aptitude, good high school backgrounds and strong AP and SAT scores. And they're also the students at some of the most prestigious and competitive schools in the country.

That's part of the problem, according to the NYT article, which notes that a "Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.” The article also points to the low GPA rates in STEM classes -- chemistry and math classes have the lowest GPA at Wake Forest University, for example, while English, foreign language and education classes have the highest.

Of course, the humanities are often singled out and chastised for grade inflation. But even if we recognize that's a problem, there may be other things at play here -- disciplinary differences, perhaps, pedagogical differences. There's definitely the sense that the purpose of the introductory freshman classes in the STEM fields are designed to "weed you out"; the humanities, arguably, try to "woo you in."

The humanities are often ridiculed for their focus on "theory." But as the NYT article makes clear, one of the problems that STEM majors find with their fields -- and this is in addition to the low grades and hard work -- is that there is a lot of emphasis on theory there as well. Despite all of the possibilities for practical applications, hands-on experimentation, and project-based learning, much of what's taught is, well, "theory."

Research has already indicated that that's not the best approach to having students learn. "The National Science Board, a public advisory body, warned in the mid-1980s that students were losing sight of why they wanted to be scientists and engineers in the first place," the article points out. "Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates."

That's not to say that there aren't STEM courses that take a hands-on approach (nor is it to say that there aren't humanities courses that are requiring some computational thinking). But clearly there needs to be a shift in the ways in which higher ed classes are taught, otherwise we will continue to see high attrition rates in STEM classes.

I can't help but wonder if the rise of informal learning opportunities -- those outside the college campus -- is going to appeal to more of these potential scientists and engineers too. You can certainly learn to code outside a CS department, for example, and you can even have access to community centers that serve as DIY biotech labs. These developments could shake up the way in which STEM departments work, sure. But they might also woo new people to those fields -- people who do have the interest and the passion, but for a lot of reasons just don't want to stick with STEM majors.


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