Posted on April 15, 2019
It is not surprising that STEM majors are the ones most often dropped in college. Biology, engineering, and math have been known to be some of the most difficult subjects to study. Not only are they difficult to comprehend, but the careers that are associated with STEM carry massive loads of responsibility, to properly comprehend how the world works and develop future hypotheses about what we still don’t know. In examining research about what impacts STEM retention, it was evident that many scholars and pedagogical experts recognize low retention rates in STEM as a big problem. Why is it then, that not much about how we teach science and math has changed, aside from incorporating lots of technology based activities? It was shocking to me that today, in 55% of college classrooms, these subjects are still taught solely with “conventional lectures.” Only 18% are specifically centered around collaborative student work (https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-03/uon-llm032818.php). Numerous studies have shown the benefits of implementing alternatives to lectures in STEM education, yet little progress has been made in actually incorporating them into college curriculum.
When I thought about it, I realized that these college classrooms can get way too big to support teamwork and small group learning. Almost a thousand students at one university can be enrolled in a single biology class for a semester, making lectures with online interactive learning the most time efficient methods of teaching. The increasing competitiveness and pressure of getting into top colleges, with many more students applying for the same number of seats and acceptance rates becoming narrower, hasn’t helped this problem.
However, what surprised me even more was that surveys have shown that hands-on learning even at large research universities has mostly been successful. It is entirely possible to implement in many schools, even though, of course, it may not work exactly everywhere.
Although my prior research on factors influencing student subject interest indicated that teachers are simply reinforcers of student passions and career decisions, the research specifically pertaining to STEM courses is a more complicated arena. In general, just because students had negative experiences with learning a certain subject does not mean that this will determine their future major or career; whether or not they pursue it is influenced much more by the way they perceive their own performance and learning environment rather than actual teaching methods. However, if we do not teach science and math in a way that prepares students for the collaboration and innovation required to pursue a STEM career, a highly negative and discouraging learning environment is created. Because subjects like engineering are already so difficult on their own, I’m finding that STEM students, despite many of them being passionate and driven individuals, are much more sensitive to their school experiences and experience a greater impact on their self-perception within their chosen major. This plays a huge role in the fact that less than 50% of students starting off with a math or science major actually graduate with the same degree or pursue a related career.