Matthew Moniz entered The University of Notre Dame's engineering programm with an 800 in the math portion of the SAT and 700 in both the Reading and Writing portions, scores that would seem to make him an ideal STEM prospect.
But instead of continuing on in the engineering program, he dropped out and switched to a double major in psychology and English along with a new career goal to become not an engineer but a clinical psychologist.
Of his four closest friends in engineering, two also switched majors, one to music and the other to business. The third remains in engineering but plans to find a career in finance rather than engineering after he graduates.
It turns out that Matthew's story is not the exception.
Many STEM students like Matthew, students with good grades and high test scores during their K-12 years and who looked forward to careers in science engineering, will drop out of their programms and either not complete a degree or will complete one in a different field.
According to one investigator, "We are losing an alarming proportion of our nation's sicence talent once the students get to college." Even more disturbing is that the loss is occuring at the most selective colleges and universities, the ones that are getting the students who have the best preparation for demanding work in science and engineering courses. (Drew, 2011)
What led Matthew away from STEM?
His motivation for engineering was his love of building things. What he found at Notre Dame was something different: "I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering's all about application, which they don't teach too well. It was like 'Do these practice problems, then you're on your own.' There didn't seem anything different for the future." (Drew, 2011)
David L. Goldberg, an emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, calls what Matthew experienced, "the math and science desert" and the course of study that leads through this desert, the math-science death march." (Teschler, 2015)
According to a 2015 study reported in the journal Life Sciences Education "the 6-yr degree completion rate of undergraduate...STEM majors at U.S. colleges and universities is less that 40%. Persistence among women and underrepresented minorities (URMs), includingg African-America, Latino/a, Native American, and Pacific Islander students, is even more troubling, as these students leave STEM majors at even higher rates than their non-URM peers." (Toven-Lindsay, and others, 2015)
The result is that the percentage of STEM majors in the undergraduate population in American colleges and universities has fallen substantially over the past several decades.
Traditional reasons given when students fail to complete a difficult course of study; that is, a lack of motivation or ability do not apply to the talented students like Matthew.
One way to think about the problemm is to imagine a program of study as an environment. In the environment of their elementary and high school STEM programs, students are connected to the ultimate goals of science and engineering through opportunities for hands on science through programs like Engineering is Elementary or First Robotics.
In contrast, the introductory courses at colleges and universities are often taught in large and impersonal lectures like those described Professor Goldberg.
Once past the hurdle of the introductory sequence, the science and engineering students will face another two years of largely abstract coursework that will lead to a final research or design project. As Professor Goldberg describes it, "it's dry and hard to get through..." (Teschler, 2015) The traditional college STEM learning environment poses additional difficulties for women and minority students, many of whomm may be among the first in their families to go to college, or in the case of women students "an unwelcoming academic culture in science and math departments" that adds to the challenge of learning in large lecture-style classes.
The high attrition rate in STEM fields has not gone unnoticed. The Association of American Universities, a coalition of research universities has advocated that STEM faculty redesign their instruction to include more opportunities for active learning.
Some universities have responded. Notre Dame's engineering program is being redesigned. Pioneering institutions like Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts "ripped up its traditional curriculum in the 1970s to make room for extensive research, design, and social service projects for juniors and seniors, including many conducted trips with professors overseas. In 2007 it added an optional freshman project that studies world problems like hunger or disease." (Drew, 2011)
In our July 3, 2016 blog "Parallel Parking the Aircraft Carrier," we described the work done at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to reconstruct the introductory physics courses that began back in the 1980s and which continues today.
What does a changed environment look like and what are the changes that seem to work?
In a 2015 issue of CBE--Life Science Education, Brit Toven-Lindsay and colleagues describe a study of two university programs designed to improve the persistence in STEM of URM students at two universities, The University of California-Los Angeles and the University of California-Berkeley.
In both programs, students find themselves with increased early research experience, active learning in their introductory STEM courses, and participation in learning communities.
According to the Toven-Lindsay research, these environmental strategies are "critical components for effective learning and feeling like a scientist." (Toven-Lindsay, 2015, p. 2)
In the Toven-Lindsay study, students in the treatment group outperformed their peers in the control group as measured by GPS in their chemistry courses and performed at a level of a "high math" special control group composed of students who had scored 650 or higher on their math SAT.
Further, early research, active learning, and participation in learning communities made it more likely that the URM students would persist in their STEM programs because their academic success enhanced their confidence and motivation, two key factors in academic persistence.
Drew, Christopher (2011). Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard. New York Times, November 4, 2011.
Given-Lindsay, Brit, Marc Levis-Fitzgerald, Paul H. Barber, and Tamra Hanson. (2015). Increasing Persistence in Undergraduate Science Majors: A Model for Institutional Support of Underrepresented Students. CBE—Life Sciences Education (14) 1-12, Summer 2015.
Teschler, Leland (2015). The math and science death march. Design World.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.