Low Retention Rate in STEM Majors Prompts Study

Despite the ever-growing need for scientists and engineers — and the ever-high salaries that come with such jobs — universities are sending far fewer graduates than necessary to fill them.

Building on research done 15 years ago that largely influenced the push for better teaching in STEM classrooms, a group of researchers is exploring why, more than a decade later, more than half the students who go in with a STEM major eventually leave.

The original study, published as a book in 2000, had far-reaching effects in STEM education. Finding the cause behind the high departure rate from STEM majors to be bad teaching, the work is largely credited with beginning a national dialogue on improving the retention rate in STEM majors, particularly among women and students of color.

The new study, which includes at least one of the original researchers, will return to the seven institutions surveyed more than a decade ago and conduct 400 interviews with “persisters” and “switchers.” The goal is to figure out what happens between the first science class and the decision to switch majors; to that end, the researchers are paying close attention to the foundation classes, also known as “weeder” classes, that might dissuade talented and motivated individuals from pursuing the major.

The results will be published in a book, along with recommendations on how to improve STEM education so that 60 percent of students aren’t switching majors before their senior year.

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And an expected shortfall of one million STEM graduates over the next decade makes such research all the more necessary.

Claire Perlman

Claire Perlman is a senior at UC Berkeley who covers Technapex's higher education beat. She is majoring in English literature and worked at her college’s student newspaper, The Daily Californian, for two years as a science reporter and news editor. She is currently working at UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project transcribing Twain’s letters and unpublished manuscripts.

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About Claire Perlman

Claire Perlman is a senior at UC Berkeley who covers Technapex's higher education beat. She is majoring in English literature and worked at her college’s student newspaper, The Daily Californian, for two years as a science reporter and news editor. She is currently working at UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project transcribing Twain’s letters and unpublished manuscripts.
  • http://twitter.com/nitin Nitin Borwankar

    Hi Claire,

    I think the solution is simple – stop this nonsense of “weeder” classes. Obviously they are working and people are leaving – so if you want to change the results change the causes. There is no fundamental reason why a foundation class should be artificially extremely difficult. There seems to be some form of professorial machismo and a folk culture of fear around these classes and these also need to be dissipated.

    This is a cultural problem. The weeder class is a symptom.
    Create a more inclusive and less elitist science education culture in a way that is not considered “dumbing it down”. That’s the key challenge.
    Instead of a weeder class culture that considers students to be weeds, there needs to be “fertilizer” culture that considers them to be potentially fruitful, and that nurtures them so they take root in a STEM field.

    Thanks for listening,

    Nitin Borwankar, @nitin on Twitter