Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why Students Leave STEM Majors

A recent (11/3) article appeared in The New York Times called "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds"

Quoted from the article:
But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’ ” And as he looked ahead at the curriculum, he did not see much relief on the horizon.

This article is a micro version of the book "Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences" by Seymour and Hewitt.  It should be on your bookshelf if you are an educator in a STEM field.  The top four reasons why students leave STEM fields in undergraduate education are teaching and learning related.

The Top Four Reasons why undergraduates leave STEM majors:

  1. Lack or loss of interest
  2. Non STEM majors offer better education/learning experience
  3. Poor teaching by STEM faculty
  4. Curriculum overload, fast pace overwhelming.

Traditional explanation or "justification" of this is that we are "weeding out" the weak or morally inferior students.  The data presented by Seymour and Hewitt says otherwise.  One cannot predict based on academic measures such as GPA which students will switch out of STEM majors.

In short, we waste talent and turn away many strong, capable students.  In our rush to "get through all the material" our system has to a large degree lost sight of the big prizes.  We can, however, regain this by focusing on the learner and the learning experience.  We can be coaches and mentors rather than gate keepers, and departments across the nation should reconsider the definition of success.

What should success really mean for a Math program?