A Guide To STEM Majors – How To Avoid Dropping Out

A Guide To STEM Majors

Majors in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are the most popular choice of major for the students we work with, so it was rather a shock to come across a statistic taken from the Engage to Excel report, stating that 60% of students who start college intending to complete a STEM major end up graduating with a non-STEM degree.

There are many reasons for this, some key ones are:

  • The expectations of STEM faculty are higher than other departments, even if they do not teach the classes that have the most demanding workloads. Grade inflation, where work is marked higher than work of a similar standard would have been marked in the past, is less prevalent in the STEM majors than in any other majors on campus.

  • Grading on a curve is more common in STEM classes than in non-STEM classes. This is where the score attained by the largest number of students becomes the middle grade, meaning that the higher and lower grades are fewer in number. The impact is that teachers have already decided that a set percentage will excel, succeed, muddle through, or even fail their classes before the first class has started.

  • STEM classes in the same subject are “cumulative.”   Earlier classes lay the foundations for the following classes. If you struggle in the early classes your struggle is likely to continue into the more advanced ones.

  • The above combine to create a “sink or swim” mentality. Grading is more competitive. And if you don’t seek help you are more than likely to fail.

An important factor that can contribute to STEM students getting into problems with their studies is that in many colleges introductory courses in subjects like chemistry, physics, biology and maths are used to fulfil the core requirements for students who don’t intend to pursue STEM majors. The result is that it can be difficult to get into a class you need to progress onto the other classes you need to study and that you have students with a wide variety of interests in the one class. This is most commonly a problem in larger state colleges, the better ones recognise the problem and they run separate sessions for different groups of students.

Below are some of the things you should be looking for when deciding if the college you are interested in will help you make a strong start to your STEM studies.

  • The quality of the textbook(s): is the text something that majors and non-majors will be able to understand, even if the faculty member or the teaching are poor lecturers?

  • Varied academic interests of students. For example, a prospective pre-med, psychology major, environmental studies major all have different interests. But they must all take biology and chemistry. More schools are designing classes or lab sections around these interests.

  • The amount of help available. Many schools have peer tutoring programs in STEM classes and other subjects where a student who aced the course is paid to provide small group or one-to-one instruction to other students who are struggling with the material. These programs have become quite visible, even at schools such as Georgia Tech that enrol some incredibly bright people.

  • “Flipped” lectures. One new technique used by colleges is to encourage students to listen to the lecture on their own time, then attend class to learn more on the material discussed.

If you are a student intent on pursuing a STEM major do take the time to explore not just what you will learn in class, but also how you will be taught. What are the average class sizes in introductory courses and how will you be supported to gain the foundations you will need for your future courses. Get these things right and your chances of graduating with the STEM degree you are set on increase.

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