November 4, 2011 AT 9:01 pm

Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)


Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard) – NYTimes.com via Dale

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

For educators, the big question is how to keep the momentum being built in the lower grades from dissipating once the students get to college.

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  1. It is hard.

  2. EE is indeed hard…

  3. I graduated last year with an electrical engineering degree. I can’t speak to other STEM degrees but I know that it was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. However, I’m not mad that it was hard. Engineering should be hard. If you can’t handle the challenge then engineering isn’t for you.

    I agree that classes need to be more interactive. I was fortunate to be at a school that was still small enough to allow for a lot of interaction between students and faculty. However, I could see how this would be an issue at larger schools.

    I’m excited to see what new engineering programs look like if they continue to change from lecture based courses to more hands-on based courses. My biggest fear though is is that instead of trying to go through the trouble of changing these courses they are simply going to make engineering degrees easier to get.

  4. It’s my standard rant on the subject, but… I think we pretty much fail at keeping the momentum up past the very lowest levels. There’s lots of effort put into getting little kids interested in science, but by the time they get to be teenagers they run into roadblocks like “model rockets require a permit from the fire department (which is practically unobtainable)”, “chemistry glassware is classified as drug paraphernalia” “or explosives” “or hazardous materials not suitable for a residential neighborhood”, “blinking LEDs look like bombs”, or “the school can’t get insurance to do that kind of thing.” Sheesh, I has an elementary teacher at a posh progressive school proudly tell me how they’d carefully removed anything dangerous from their science lab. Sigh.

  5. this one is pretty simple: traditional academic teaching, testing, and grading models (and professor’s attitudes) are elitist. I hated how I was treated for six years, and I was always in the top 20%. How do you think the bottom 20% feels?
    I also agree that the lack of hands-on work (attitudes again) contributes, but there is a more basic problem: the system is hard and cruel (pick your own adjectives if you want to soften it a little), and only people that don’t mind the way it is stay in the system to become professors, perpetuating the problem. (disclaimer: engineering requires a base level of talent and not everybody will or should make it. but that’s no excuse for making it artificially harder.)

  6. I graduated with a Bachelor of Electrical Engineer degree from Cleveland State University. I agree with some other posters about the hard curriculum. My life during college consisted of eat, sleep, study, and work in-between.

    I remember one classmate tell me about an article that was in the college newspaper. It was about how many students, across all disciplines, made it towards graduation and then didn’t graduate. The people had only a few classes left to get their degrees. They grew tired of all of the work and figured they had the bulk of the needed classes to go out and start working.

    Besides the hard work as a turn-off, another is how things are fixed. Maybe I should say strategically controlled?

    In some of my classes a big problem were both the teachers and the students. The teachers were too lazy to make new fresh tests. So naturally the students kept all of the old tests. These students were always the ones with the "A’s" in the class.

    The honest and hard-working students were not treated or respected like the "A" students. That can be a big turn-off for anyone in any discipline. You soon realize that if you are not in any part of the good old boy network then your chances of finding a good job can be null.

    And that was my luck in my senior design project. The teacher put us into groups of four students. Luckily for me I was grouped with 3 of the "in" crowd. You know, the ones in Eta Kappa Nu. They even had their own little private room in the engineering building. But I was still all alone with my work. They only talked to me when they had to. I was the outcast.

    My research in the project was what the others didn’t have time to do. But since I have heart and enjoy engineering, like people here, I persevered and found the needed data for my research. So good, in fact, that the teacher copied all of my findings to give to the rest of the groups so they could complete their projects. I don’t know if I received an "A" due to being in the group of the "in" crowd or due to my actual abilities. What a turn-off, to get A’s because of who you are and not what you are. I don’t want any part of that type of society.

  7. I would also like to add that although the material is hard, there is also the teachers that get in the way. It’s like taking a core humanities professor that thinks that the subject they teach is the best and only subject required to pass college, and then make them smart and semi-correct, and you have an engineering professor. I have had 3 professors that refused to give "A"’s because there ego was at stake, and even though I don’t really care about my GPA as long as it’s decent, it is a little disheartening. To prove my point, the C++ instructor from my EE curriculum is teaching us C-style strings, when from his own mouth, says that they are not used in industry except for vary rare occasions, but is making us code every string as a C-style string. He could be teaching us a lot of other useful stuff, but no, have to prove something to non-CS majors.

  8. STEM-majors can be harder, and yes, it can be discouraging enough to force interested students to change majors.

    But it’s not just that. For me, there were both social and academic difficulties. Although it should not have been, it was frustrating to have 8am science or math classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, every semester, when my liberal arts major roommates didn’t get up before noon. Heck, most of them didn’t even have any Friday classes.

    The material was difficult, but one cannot complain about there being too much math/theory and too little application – there’s no alternative. We did have lab classes that helped bridge theory and application, but there were limits.

    One of the major issues is that high school does not offer adequate preparation for many incoming freshman. At my undergrad university, the average exam grades in the huge entry-level physics classes was usually between 35 and 50, which translated to a B-. A lot of the students that did poorly were expecting to be taught but did not know how to learn.

    I think that this is a result of test results-oriented education. With students being spoon-fed facts and figures for most of their lives, it is difficult to learn in any other manner.

    STEM majors require a lot of work and effort, even if schools have all the resources they need and students are as prepared as can be.

    It’s easy to point figures and blame faculty, boards of ed., social situations, poor preparation, and other factors. But the reality is that it’s a system-wide problem that nothing short of a major overhaul can fix.

  9. My college actually made the decision for me. Due to an “administrative error”, I was no longer in the College of Computer Science, but in MPSE (Math, Physical Sciences, and Engineering). To return to CompSci, I would have to reapply, and meet their (new, revised) admission requirements – which I didn’t. I did the logical thing and left school.

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