Losing science majors

Plenty of students come to college planning to major in a science, but not many finish that major. This is a particular problem when national leaders have been championing the need for more science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) training in recent years, including during this year’s State of the Union Address. Where do we stand now as compared to recent years in terms of numbers of majors with this training? What will it take to increase the numbers?

As for where we stand now, there was an interesting post by Alex Tabarrok over on Marginal Revolution comparing numbers of majors in various disciplines over the past 25 years. He shows that while the total number of college students has increased 50% over that time, the STEM fields are still graduating the same number of students as 1984. No growth. All of these additional students have gone into non-STEM fields. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, I do not agree with the conclusions of his article overall, but the data he presents is important to consider.

How can we improve the situation, though? Christopher Drew, writing for the NY Times, highlights a few potential solutions in an article last week.

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.

The article points to one obvious reason for this: these subjects are hard and require a lot of work, usually resulting in a significantly lower GPA than non-STEM friends. While this may seem like a cop-out, we shouldn’t downplay the work. Consider a student majoring in chemistry or genetics, whose roommates are not. Our major probably spends twice the hours in classes and labs every week, and that’s not taking into account the out-of-class study time. It’s hard to see your friends making memories without you. I’m not advocating any change here, just that we become aware of this social pressure. This may support the idea, though, that providing things like science student living situations may be worth considering.

Where the article really strikes me, though, is the suggestion that students have to slog away at mastering the basics before they get to do the “fun stuff”, by which they mean something involving an application. At first blush, there doesn’t seem to be any way around this, because of course students need to walk before they run, right? I’m starting to wonder if that’s necessarily true, or whether we as faculty members are sticking to the familiar paths and failing to imagine ways to incorporate the “fun stuff” even at the earliest levels. That’s one reason I’m excited about some of our initiatives here at OWU to grab students and lead them to some interesting questions that intersect with that introductory material. Could a program like Course Connections be part of the solution? Maybe, we’ll have to see where that goes.

I also want to suggest that there is a major problem at work behind the scenes, though, having to do with students’ expectations for their careers and their perceptions about what their options are. But that will have to wait for another post.

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