College STEM students transfer to other majors at twice the attrition rate of all other majors combined. This is a problem, according to this New York Times article.
“We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college,” says Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who has studied the matter.
Some possible reasons
Poor preparation in grades 6 through 12 (and I’d also add K-5) for the rigors of STEM courses. Could it be that the extreme focus on “engagement” at the expense of actual learning in our public schools is a factor?
But, it turns out, middle and high school students are having most of the fun, building their erector sets and dropping eggs into water to test the first law of motion. The excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.
Related to poor preparation, students are unwilling to work hard.
Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.
Lack of fun projects in lower level college STEM classes is another issue.
Other deterrents are the tough freshman classes, typically followed by two years of fairly abstract courses leading to a senior research or design project. “It’s dry and hard to get through, so if you can create an oasis in there, it would be a good thing,” says Dr. Goldberg, who retired last year as an engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now an education consultant.
And then there’s grade inflation in non-STEM majors.
The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work, like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.
While all these factors play a role, I suspect the heart of the problem is that students are simply poorly prepared for the academic rigors of STEM majors and have failed to develop good study habits while breezing through the American public school system. I’ve seen this up close.
By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.
“We’re in a worldwide competition, and we’ve got to retain as many of our students as we can,” Dean Kirkpatrick says. “But we’re not doing kids a favor if we’re not teaching them good life and study skills.”
This general theme seems to dominate the more than 1,000 comments accompanying this article. Here’s one of my favorites.
I have been teaching introductory college physics for fifteen years now. My observation is that for the most part students come to college excited about pursuing a science career, brimming with illusions and/or misconceptions about what that really entails, and as soon as they find out that it is not all about gazing at stars or looking through a microscope, that it is a lot of hard work and (ugh) algebra (the horror !) is involved, they run like the wind. Simple as that.
In my opinion, it is all about how they are brought up in High School. The seem to think that if something is difficult, someone should “make it easy” for them, that anything that they do not like (such as calculus) must surely be disposable and therefore should be simply removed from curriculum and never imposed on them again, that all it takes is the desire to do well. And it is very hard to change them by the time they get to college.
I know, I sound like an old fart.
Speaking as an authentic old fart, I would agree.