College students find that STEM majors are too darn hard

by Grace

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.

UPDATE:  Again, STEM college majors are too darn hard for kids these days

11 Comments to “College students find that STEM majors are too darn hard”

  1. It appears that overall Chinese students are no better prepared, but I still know that Asian students continue to kill the grade curve in some schools. But is this still widespread? I don’t know.


  2. Related to the “lazy professors” reason is the curriculum. Why can’t there be more engaging projects in STEM majors, especially in the first few years of college? I suspect that it’s partly because there’s just so much fundamental knowledge that must be learned first, before “fun” projects can be introduced. Not that all learning can’t be more engaging, but sometimes you simply cannot completely avoid the hard slogging part.


  3. Yeah, I would like to seem more data on all this. The reporter does say that those students “planning” for STEM majors have “twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors”.


  4. There are engaging projects in some fields, in some colleges. I suspect an engineering student might be better off at an engineering/science focused school than other places. For one thing, there is more company in the suffering and less draw toward grade-inflated classes.

    But, I haven’t yet seen anyone mention the role of the accrediting organizations on the curriculum in these majors. My understanding is that ABET (which is the accrediting organization for engineering education) has rather a lot of requirements. There is a tendency to add, add, and add to the requirements and never drop anything. I feel some sympathy to this, perhaps some majors should be understood to take longer than 4 years, but I do think the accreditation requirements underlie some of the systemic issues.


  5. I really doubt the main problem is the lack of engaging curriculum.


  6. kcab, I’ve never heard of that accrediting issue and of course it makes sense. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that engineering students should expect to take longer than 4 years to graduate. But I don’t know if they take longer than the average student, which I believe is 5 years these days.


  7. I don’t know either. Some schools (DH’s, for one) are adamant about undergrad students being done in 4 years, though this was not a big deal where I attended undergrad. It was pretty common for people to take time off and finish later, for an enormous variety of reasons.

    In some places (all?), there is also a track that leads to a bachelor’s degree without the specification of engineering discipline. That is – they get a BS but not (for example) a BSME even though they major in mechanical engineering – I assume this means they haven’t met the requirements for the accredited degree. I was reflecting recently that this might be a better plan for a student who wanted to study more broadly. When I was an undergrad, I felt too unsure of myself to follow that path – I didn’t come from an engineering family & I thought it was a “lesser” degree. However, my friends that went that route have done very well.


  8. Not all—UCSC does not have any generic “engineering” degree, only specific BS degrees for computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, bioinformatics, technology and information management, bioengineering, game design, and robotics engineering (in historical order of when the programs were added).
    There is also a BA in computer science, I believe, which is intended for students who wish to double-major.

    ABET accreditation is strict, but does not force more than 4 years. Some universities add enough general education requirements to make it difficult to finish in 4 years, but it should be possible. Several things extend engineering students past 4 years: suboptimal scheduling of required classes (either by the student or the college), failure in a course, desire to take a particularly attractive elective, and reluctance to enter the job market.

    I generally advise students that an engineering degree is one semester more than 4 years, unless they come in as transfer students with the general education requirements already completed—then they usually have at least 3 more years, because they haven’t done the necessary science and math.


  9. “reluctance to enter the job market” as a reason to take longer than four years to graduate? Well, it’s hard to see how that could be a legitimate reason. If there are no jobs, then taking a few extra courses might be justified, but who’ll be paying tuition?


  10. Outsource all the stem majors to Asian schools where they seem to like that sort of thing anyway–and do it cheaper.

    It’s cheaper education for those few STEM hardcore students who make it, and it’s cheaper paying jobs for employers who don’t want to pay their workforce much anyway–just work them to death doing code and tech repair jobs until they break, then replace them with younger workers.

    That’s what capitalism is all about!

    The Sage of Wake Forest


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