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Monday, December 11, 2023

Collaborative study aims to decode high STEM dropout rate

A recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology projects a shortfall of one million college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) over the next decade. Approximately five to six of every 10 students that begin in a STEM major will switch majors to a non-STEM field before graduation.

A team of researchers from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) and University of Colorado-Boulder are undertaking a study to examine the reasons why students are switching out of STEM majors at such a high rate.

This new study, “Talking About Leaving Revisited,” will re-examine the findings of a previous study performed 15 years ago. The original study, “Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences,” was led by Elaine Seymour at UC-Boulder. Seymour looked at why so many undergraduate students, even those talented in math and science, began in the STEM majors, only to later leave those majors.

The original study interviewed over 400 undergraduate students broken into two groups: the “switchers” who were juniors who had switched majors, and the seniors who were the “non-switchers” and stayed in their STEM major.

It was a common assumption that these students dropped out the STEM majors because they could not handle the material. However, the study found that the primary reason was related to poor teaching. The findings had a major impact in science education, and brought about many changes to the methodology of teaching undergraduate level science courses.

Despite the revelations of the original study and 15 years of advancements in undergraduate STEM education, the rate of students leaving STEM majors remains high. In the new study, Mark Connolly, Chris Pfund and Joe Ferrare at WCER will join researchers at UC-Boulder, including Seymour, to examine why this dropout rate persists.

“The study isn’t about the number of STEM majors, it’s really about the people who start and are discouraged and decide to leave,” Connolly, a principle investigator of the study, said. “Why do we still have five to six out of every 10 students starting there and then leaving?”

In contrast to the original study, this study will focus primarily on freshmen and sophomores in the foundational courses for the STEM majors, like calculus and organic chemistry. The study will combine information from faculty interviews, course observation and student interviews to determine what students are really getting out of this fundamental coursework.

The study will also take into account factors outside the classroom, such as involvement in science-related extracurricular activities and research experiences. Involvement in science outside of the classroom can provide a more meaningful experience that helps students connect beyond lectures and may be influential in the decision to stay in a major.

“We are hoping to extend the study such that we see what those freshmen and sophomores actually do,” Connolly said. “Then we can make the connection between what their experiences were like and maybe use a predictive model to guess which ones will or wouldn’t switch and then compare with actual results.”

Once complete, the results of this study will be published in a book that will include recommendations for improving STEM education and help more students graduate with the STEM degrees needed for in-demand jobs.

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