Wednesday, May 22

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics students show lower graduation rates in study

Underrepresented students more affected than whites and Asian Americans

Students who originally choose to enter science, technology, engineering, or mathematics majors graduate at lower rates than students in other fields, according to a nationwide survey given to more than 200,000 freshmen students.

The study, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, also looked at disparities in graduation rates in STEM among white and Asian American students and underrepresented students such as Latinos, blacks, and Native Americans.

Students who decide to pursue a STEM degree are generally higher achieving coming out of high school, said Kevin Eagan, postdoctoral fellow and co-author of the study. He added that many more STEM students pursue doctorate degrees compared to their non-STEM peers.

“The motivation is there, but they end up running into a brick wall when they get into these introductory science courses.” Eagan said.

Sylvia Hurtado, co-author of the study, said if students are performing poorly in these courses, they eventually switch to another major that they can succeed in.

“GPA determines everything when it comes to deciding to stay in a STEM major or to switch out,” Hurtado said.

A lower graduation rate in STEM can be attributed to three major reasons, said Tama Hasson, director of the Undergraduate Research Center for science, engineering and math.

The first reason is financial, Hasson said. Students who work are less likely to graduate in four or five years, especially if they are majoring in STEM.

The second reason, Hasson said, is lack of preparation. Not all STEM students come from the highest ranked high schools and so do not have the necessary preparation to succeed in STEM courses at the university level.

The third reason, which specifically affects underrepresented students, is that they do not feel like they belong to the classroom community, Hasson said.

“Being a part of a community is a really important thing; knowing that you have the support of your peers and a sense of belonging can make a big difference,” she said.

Programs such as UCLA PEERS try to answer these three problems. PEERS helps the retention rate of STEM students by holding special workshops, tutoring, and collaborative learning that cater to all types of students, not just to those who excel in lecture, Hasson said. The researchers at UCLA have found that underrepresented students prefer collaboration and discussion instead of just lectures.

Eagan said underrepresented students feel the greatest impact from the curve system practiced in STEM courses at most educational institutions. Forced competition in curved classes leads to less collaboration among peers because everyone looks out for themselves, Eagan said, adding that he does not believe courses should be taught this way.

“One side looks at how science departments should spend more time developing talent, and the other focuses on harvesting the talent that is already there,” Eagan said. “We are advocating on the side of spending time developing talent by adjusting teaching styles to better fit students.”

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