The STEM Fields

Stemming STEM Dropouts

Traditional textbooks and teaching resources in these vital fields are simply not as effective as we need them to be, argues Smita Bakshi.

November 22, 2016

As the CEO of a tech start-up and a former professor, here’s what keeps me awake at night: half of college students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math end up dropping those courses and switching to another major. That is disturbing, not only because I am personally passionate about STEM innovators’ potential to improve lives, but also because it is no secret that we are in dire need of a STEM-proficient work force. If we continue at this rate of attrition, in the next decade, America will need approximately a million more STEM professionals than the field will produce. While we’re pumping much-needed investments into ensuring more K-12 students have access to worthwhile math and computer science education, these investments will mean very little if students abandon STEM once they get to college.

If these skills are so critical, why are students failing to complete STEM degrees? And what can we do to reverse the trend?

In recent years, we’ve gained a better understanding of why students drop STEM majors. Many leave the field early -- even during the first courses they take as undergraduates -- because they’re striving to get good grades in comparison to their performance in non-STEM courses. Some students who struggle the most are discouraged to the point of dropping out of college altogether, which is a devastating outcome for students who once hoped to be computer programmers, doctors and engineers.

The other largest driver of STEM attrition is a lack of engagement with the material. There is a mismatch between today’s students, who understand and interact with the world through technology, and the outdated, two-dimensional delivery of information found in too many STEM courses. This is a shame, given that STEM subjects are inherently engaging, interactive and rooted in exploration.

In classrooms around the world, instructors are tapping into the potential of new technologies to address this learning deficit, and interactive learning models are proving most effective at increasing student engagement and boosting student performance. In STEM programs in particular, these new technologies have been grafted to the established curriculum as one way to improve student retention rates, and the results are promising. Studies show improved student performance in these courses -- more A’s and B’s, fewer D’s and F’s -- with particularly significant gains for the lowest-performing students.

Interactive learning tools using web-based technology, such as digital textbooks and homework assignments, present endless possibilities to improve student engagement and achievement. And we’re not talking about digital copies of static text but rather materials that are alive with animation, graphics and instant-feedback question sets that emphasize learning through action. Such tools work because they disrupt the classic passive learning model and invite the student to become the doer.

Students taking these courses demonstrate not only improved results but also a greater desire to learn. In fact, most report a preference for interactive learning tools and choose to spend twice as much time with interactive textbooks than traditional textbooks, even though there is less text. Students are staying on track and moving on with a deeper understanding of the content.

When I taught at the University of California, Davis, many of my colleagues faced the same issue: traditional textbooks and teaching resources are simply not as effective as we need them to be, leaving even the most talented instructors equipped with inadequate tools. Embracing web-based resources allows us to show movement, cause and effect, and coding outcomes much better than a PowerPoint, chalkboard or old-fashioned textbook ever could. And without the costs of printing and physical distribution, web-based interactive tools address yet another barrier to student retention -- the burden of soaring textbook prices -- head-on.

This is a pivotal moment in developing the STEM work force. We are witnessing a generation of students with inherent talent and capacity give up before they’ve even begun. If we don’t focus our efforts on supporting greater numbers of students to succeed in STEM degrees, we may find ourselves navigating a STEM shortage more stark than the gap we see today. Fortunately, instructors are keenly aware of the challenge and are cultivating the necessary ingenuity to steer this generation back to STEM and to success.


Smita Bakshi is the co-founder and CEO of zyBooks digital interactive textbooks and a former electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.


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