Solving the Problem of Student STEM Fatigue

Studies show fewer than four in 10 college students who intend to major in a math- or science-based field actually stick with it.

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It’s a problem a good engineer would be eager to tackle: seal a crucial but porous conduit, one leaking more than half its supply. At the U.S. News STEM Solutions conference, however, an expert panel analyzed a leaky pipeline of a different sort: the one taking STEM students from high school to college graduation and beyond.

Studies show fewer than four in 10 college students who intend to major in a math- or science-based field actually stick with it, and only one in four students who do actually graduate. The attrition rate is even worse for minorities and women, who represent just a fraction of first- and second-year college students studying in STEM-related fields.

[SPECIAL REPORT: The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index]

The panel, “Bridging the Gap: Overcoming Stem Fatigue,” identified a range of solutions including mentoring students as young as middle-school age to engaging college freshmen in hands-on “experiential learning” to keep them engaged.

Moderated by Dan Berrett, a Chronicle of Higher Education senior reporter, the panelists included Karen Zunkel, a senior administrator at Iowa State University and president of WEPAN, a mentoring association for women engineers; Linsey Malcom-Piqueux, a higher-education administration professor at George Washington University; Peter Kilpatrick, Dean of Engineering at Notre Dame University; and Mary Fernandez, CEO of MentorNet, a group that looks to increase the number of women and minorities in computer engineering.


The panelists agreed: The attrition rate for STEM college students across the board tends to be higher than other disciplines because the coursework -- which typically includes advanced math like calculus and algebra -- is demanding. STEM students overall tend to have lower GPAs, on average, than students in other disciplines; while common, it can be a spirit-breaker for students who lack mentoring, a strong educational foundation or a solid family support system.

Those challenges, meanwhile, are exacerbated for women and minorities who can find themselves underrepresented in the college classroom.

“We need to think about different policies and practices” that will address those situations, Malcom-Piqueux said. That, she added, includes “barriers to academic preparation that can’t be overlooked," such as poverty, non-native English skills or students who graduated from underperforming schools.

To curb the STEM attrition rate, the panel recommended:

  • Examining the culture and student population in STEM-related classrooms to make sure diversity -- not only of race and gender but background and experience -- becomes a priority. That can involve "changing systemic, fundamental aspects” of that culture, Zunkel said. “It’s not just saying ‘OK, I have a female on my team of five.’ It’s understanding that different people bring different things to the table.”
  • Create partnerships -- school-to-school as well as school-to-industry -- to provide larger learning opportunities and guidance. Fernandez said having access to a professional can make a crucial difference to a struggling student, while Malcom-Piqueux described how some historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as community colleges, have teamed up with predominantly white institutions to offer courses and dual-degree programs. Of the top 25 producers of African American engineers, she said, eight are HBCUs and nine are larger, predominantly white schools that offer dual degree programs with their HBCU partners.
  • Developing more hands-on programs, like Engineers Without Borders, to keep first- and second-year college students engaged in their STEM disciplines. Kilpatrick said at Notre Dame, students compete in all kinds of “experiential learning” activities, including Robotic Football.

The bottom line, Fernandez said, is academia and industry need to work together to seal the leaky pipeline and build up the “diverse and sustainable” workforce the country needs for the future. When only 2,000 women and 1,150 Latinos receive STEM degrees each year, she said, “It’s a fraction of a fraction of the talent we need… it’s a huge and simply unacceptable brain drain.”

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