In an effort to encourage students to enjoy science, President Obama held the first White House Science Fair last fall in the State Dining Room. During this event, he tested and played with various projects that students had made. This was just one way that President Obama has been trying to increase the USA’s international competitiveness in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) industries.
For years, politicians and educators have been trying to think of ways to increase the level of interest that their students have in science. This is even more important today than it has been in the past, as Americans are competing with people from other countries for jobs in the international marketplace.
Sadly, it seems like most Americans are still losing interest in this fields shortly after their days of science fairs end. Why? According to David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, it is because when they get to college, they face “the math-science death march.”
Recent studies show that 40 percent of college students who plan to pursue a major in the engineering or science fields change their majors or do not earn a degree at all. If you include pre-med students in this figure, the percentage jumps up to 60 percent. This is twice as much as the attrition rate of all other majors combined.
“We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college,” said Mitchell Change, an education professor at UCLA. “It’s not just a K-12 preparation issue.”
To be fair, the bulk of students who fall into this category of leaving the STEM majors are pre-med students who have not met the qualifications for medical school. Another factor could be causing students to turn away from STEM majors is that the curriculum usually consists of difficult lower-level classes followed by a senior research project.
“It’s dry and hard to get through, so if you can create an oasis in there, it would be a good thing,” said Goldberg about a way to increase retention levels.
Also contributing to this trend is that there is much grade inflation in other majors, such as humanities and social sciences, which could cause students to want to change majors in order to increase their GPAs. In other words, students have to work harder to have the same GPAs in these fields as they would in a different field.
It makes sense to me why students are changing out of the STEM majors in pursuit of something easier. However, the question remains: how do we convince students to stay involved in these majors?
The dean of Notre Dame’s engineering college, Peter Kilpatrick, has one solution. Instead of using weed-out classes to discourage freshmen to continue in this field, Kilpatrick changed the freshman design course to allow students to complete four projects during the semester.
“They learn how to work with their hands, how to program the robot and how to work with design constraints,” Kilpatrick said of the program. This instills a passion in the students, but it also shows them how difficult the field really can be. “We’re in a worldwide competition, and we’ve got to retain as many of our students as we can. But we’re not doing kids a favor if we’re not teaching them good life and study skills.”