Universities Face Problems of Retention in Science and Math Majors

Though there has been an increase in the number of freshman interested in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields, the number of students that actually graduate from STEM programs is decreasing, according to a recent article in the New York Times. As high as 60% of students who enter a STEM field, including pre-med, either switch programs or fail to complete a degree, though these students have a history of preparation and high SAT scores. This percentage is double the attrition rate of other majors, and increases at Ivy League and other highly competitive schools.

There are many causes for the high rate of attrition. Among them are difficult freshman classes, coupled with a math or science curriculum filled with dry courses based heavily in theory. Students may find themselves unprepared for the level of complexity that the courses entail, despite having taken preparatory classes in high school. Students also tend to transfer out of STEM majors if they feel they will not get accepted into medical or graduate school.

The low number of STEM graduates has caused political concern. According to the New York Times article, Americans are falling behind in areas of scientific and technological innovations, with countries such as Slovenia and Singapore taking the forefront. Many universities and associations have come up with plans that hope to increase the number of STEM graduates.

Some schools have added more labs to the curriculum in an effort to offset the heavy theoretical framework with hands-on experiences. Others have developed freshman research projects as a means by which students can become interested and invested in what has previously been construed as stale and boring coursework. Notre Dame has already increased the number of its engineering graduates by offering smaller student groups and designing projects to keep students invested.

Yet another attempt to improve retention in the STEM fields involves the adjustment of the grading process. Schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer grade forgiveness for freshman. Students can opt to take no grade in favor of repeating the class, without having their GPA suffer as a result. The Institute hopes to encourage freshman to adjust to the heavy course load they have to take in STEM majors without serious ramifications.

There are still kinks in the STEM system that need to be worked out. Lecture courses are cheaper and easier for colleges and universities to produce. In the wake of budget restrictions and a lack of available funds, universities find it difficult to fund demanding hands-on programs. According to the article, many professors are also more interested in acquiring grants than supporting freshman. Nevertheless, awareness of the need for change in STEM programs is spreading, and many colleges and universities and working hard to increase the number of STEM graduates.

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