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Why are STEM Majors Quitting?

by Elizabeth Owers | University of Notre Dame

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: November 21, 2011
headshot elizabeth owers Elizabeth Owers

In the past several years, America has fallen behind its international counterparts in producing college graduates with training in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), largely due to the high attrition rate among college students. Efforts have been made to encourage students to stick with STEM majors, but the fact remains that around 40 percent of the students who start in science and engineering majors don’t complete them. Critics point to overbearing parents, colleges that weed out students instead of helping them, and the students who would rather abandon their dreams than sacrifice their GPA. As a science pre-professional major with hopes of going to medical school, I can attest to the validity of all of these concerns. I would argue, though, that much of the responsibility for preparing students to enter and complete STEM majors lies in the high schools.

Perhaps the most important thing that high schools can do is to offer challenging classes, such as AP or IB, which will expose students to the concepts covered in introductory science classes.  This is especially important for classes such as chemistry and calculus, which are traditionally “weed-out” classes for freshman science majors. The AP curriculum doesn’t necessarily cover everything presented in a college class, but it provides a solid foundation that makes introductory college classes much less stressful. In addition, advanced classes in high school are much smaller than typical college lecture classes, providing a setting that is more conducive to learning.

Even in the most rigorous curriculum possible, many students were able to breeze through high school with minimal studying, thanks to a combination of natural intelligence and attentiveness in class. These same students often have a rough time adjusting to more difficult college classes, which require two to three hours of intense studying every night. In my experience, the students who did well first semester of freshman year were not the ones who made all A’s in high school while barely opening a book, but rather the ones who had to work hard to make good grades and in doing so developed good study habits that are crucial for success at the college level.

Many high school science classes, especially biology, focus on word-for-word definitions and labeling diagrams. Thus, a student can do well on a test by cramming the material the night before and then forgetting it thirty minutes after the test. College classes, on the other hand, put more emphasis on understanding the concepts and applying them to new situations. A student who has been conditioned to memorize every possible fact might be tempted to memorize all eighty-six reactions for an organic chemistry exam (I wish that were an exaggeration), but given the way the material is tested, this method would result in a barely-passing grade on the exam. If high school classes began to favor understanding and analytical thinking over rote memorization, students would be much more prepared for their first college exams.

It is not uncommon for students to enter STEM majors because of high math and science scores, with little understanding of what the actual coursework entails. The introductory classes often seem to have little relevance to the student’s intended career-after all, a cardiologist in the middle of a triple bypass surgery generally isn’t concerned with the relative reactivities of formaldehyde and acetate. While these classes are a necessary foundation for the more advanced science classes that do have more practical applications, a student with only a vague concept of his ultimate goal is more likely to switch out of science than a student who has a clear idea of what he is working towards. More opportunities for exposure to the different careers and the work required to reach them can help students make informed decisions about their college major.

This is especially important for students interested in biology or chemistry, which often become synonymous with “pre-med.”  If students reach college and realize that they don’t want to become doctors, or that their GPA is not up to par, they may be inclined to drop science altogether. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary, as there are a variety of careers in science that don’t involve medicine, such as research and education. With a better understanding of alternative career paths, these students have a better chance of putting their aptitude for math and science to good use. Job shadowing, internships, and career days offered by high schools can all help students to find an area that is a good fit for them.

As a high school student, I was able to take several AP science classes, hear presentations about the medical field at career days, and shadow doctors. These experiences did not make my freshman year easy by any means, but they gave me a preview of the work that lay ahead and reinforced my desire to study science and enter the medical field. If all high schools afforded their students these same opportunities, I believe that the STEM attrition rate would drop considerably.

Elizabeth Owers Elizabeth Owers Elizabeth Owers is a Voices Contributor from New Orleans, Louisiana. A sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, she is majoring in pre-medical studies with a minor in Catholic social tradition.

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