Prepare for College Classes as a STEM Major

Aspiring engineering majors can spend the summer developing a wellness plan for the school year.


Students planning to major in a science discipline, such as chemistry or physics, should brush up on their math skills, one expert says.

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Many college freshmen will spend the summer before classes begin relaxing at the beach or working to raise money for books, tuition and a mountain of other expenses. Students who plan to major in a science, technology, engineering or math discipline may need to fit in one other activity: pre-college prep.

Classes in chemistry, engineering or advanced trigonometry are typically not a cake walk.

"Even for strong students, math is hard," says Jeanne Clelland, associate chairwoman for undergraduate studies for the department of mathematics at University of Colorado—Boulder.

Many could say the same thing about engineering. It's not uncommon for students to put in a "60-hour work week" between going to class and studying outside of class, says Kurt Paterson, head of engineering at James Madison University in Virginia. About 50 percent of students who start college as an engineering major won't finish as one, he says.

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Freshmen can increase their likelihood of being successful STEM students by doing a few activities in the summer before school begins, experts say.

Sarah Rowe, a rising fourth-year engineering student at James Madison University, says doing a summer preparatory program before her freshman year was invaluable.

"It got my brain working," she says. Rowe participated in the Bridging the Valley program, which targeted STEM majors and has now been discontinued. It was offered through a joint partnership between James Madison and other Virginia institutions. For three weeks, Rowe took a math course that reviewed concepts she'd learned in high school, such as algebra, and participated in a science lab. She also learned about time management, one of the many skills from the program that she was able to use once freshman year began, she says.

“It was definitely worth it," she says of the program.
Below STEM experts share advice on what soon-to-be freshmen can do to get ready for a demanding major in the STEM field.​

​• Engineering​ and technology majors: Aspiring engineers can start by working with their hands, Paterson says.

"Begin to understand that engineering is about making solutions," he says. "Can you spend some time in the summer beginning to make something?"

For inspiration on how to think creatively, he suggests students read Make: Magazine, which walks readers through do-it-yourself projects, and "Creative Confidence," by Tom and David Kelley. The book, Paterson says, discusses​ how people can build confidence in their own creative abilities.

But strong engineering students will need more than a creative mind and a willingness to study hard. They'll also need to watch their health.

"I would encourage all of our incoming engineering students​ to spend their summer developing a wellness plan," Paterson says. The demands of the discipline can "take a real physical toll on you." He encourages students to exercise six days a week for 30 to 60 minutes a day.

[Learn how a professional science master's degree may help students.]

​• Science majors: In many sciences, such as chemistry and physics, there's an underlying common language: math. For that reason, Paul Goldbart, dean of the college of sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology, has some keen advice for students.

"Brush up on your math skills," he says. "They should practice their existing math skills at a time in their lives when they’re not cramming for exams.”

He also suggests students read several books that show how science-based skills can be applied in the real world and enhance understanding of difficult topics. "How the Cows Turned Mad: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mad Cow Disease," by Maxime Schwartz and "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee are two of his suggestions.

Students are so busy studying the technical aspects​ of their subjects, Goldbart says, that they may ​forget or overlook the great power and importance of science and technology.​ He encourages students to stay focused on the bigger picture.

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​• Math majors: Like Goldbart, Clelland believes that for some students honing your math skills over the summer can make the transition to certain college classes easier. For example: Students struggling in calculus may really have a weak foundation in algebra or trigonometry. "It’s really helpful if your background is solid," she says.