STEM Students Finding Majors Too Hard

Over the past few years test scores have shown that American students are consistently behind their counterparts in countries like Finland and Singapore.  President Obama and industry groups have called on colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math – to try and bridge the gap, writes Christopher Drew at the New York Times.

There are encouraging signs, with surveys showing the number of college freshmen interested in majoring in a STEM field is on the rise. However, after middle and high school 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.”

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or dropping out completely. This number shoots up to 60 percent with pre-medical students. This is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

And for educators, the key question is how to keep the momentum created in the lower grades from dissipating once the students get to college.

“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.

“It’s not just a K-12 preparation issue.”

Professor Chang says the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” says Chang.

“But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors.

In September, the Association of American Universities, which represents 61 of the largest research institutions, announced a five-year initiative to encourage faculty members in the STEM fields to use more interactive teaching techniques.

“There is a long way to go,” says Hunter R. Rawlings, the association’s president, “and there is an urgent need to accelerate the process of reform.”

No one doubts that students need a strong theoretical foundation. But what frustrates education experts is how long it has taken for most schools to make changes, writes Drew.