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STEM the Tide and Keep Students in Science

It’s no secret that Americans are a particularly patriotic group. Many of us proudly hang American flags from our homes, root fiercely for US athletes, and dress up in our finest red, white, and blue attire every 4th of July. After all, we have reason to be proud. We are the inventors of the polio vaccine, Teflon, blogging, the computer mouse, and the Internet, for that matter. America is home of the Big Mac, and the land of the free and the brave. From the race to the moon to the quest for Olympic gold medal supremacy, Americans never like to settle for being anything but the best. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that students in a country so proud of its technological advancements are ranked 17th in science and 23rd in math according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Formerly leading the pack in education, the US now trails countries such as Slovenia, Liechtenstein, and China.

Why is education in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields particularly important to America and the world today? New challenges in non-renewable resource depletion and the global climate change crisis call for the creation of alternative, clean energy sources. Overpopulation and the inadequate availability of tractable land demand new agricultural practices to feed the growing human race. The unsettling development of pathogens, resistant to a wide range of antibiotics, also necessitates the invention of novel methods of disease prevention. Finally, the recent surge of cyber-attacks challenges programmers to develop new firewalls to keep sensitive information safe. Meeting these challenges requires a new generation of talented, well-trained, and highly motivated individuals to rejuvenate the workforce and carry the torch for years to come. According to the Economics & Statistics Administration of the United States Department of Commerce, jobs in STEM fields are predicted to grow 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 9.8% growth in non-STEM fields. Working in the STEM fields not only helps solve these important problems, but also comes with personal benefits as well. Employees in the STEM field earn 26% more than their counterparts in non-STEM fields.

Given the job opportunities and importance of pursuing careers in STEM fields one might predict that students would be more attracted to these areas of study in hopes of both making it rich and making a difference in the world today. Unfortunately, quite the opposite seems to be true. In 2010, only 38% of students entering universities intended to major in a science or engineering program. Of these students, 28% of biological/agricultural sciences majors, 31% of mathematics/physical/computer sciences majors, and 22% of engineering majors will later switch out of the STEM field.

Of the 38% of incoming university students that intend to major in a STEM field, 28% of agricultural/biological science majors, 31% of mathematics/physical/computer sciences majors, and 22% of engineering majors will transfer into NON-STEM majors.
Of the 38% of incoming university students that intend to major in a STEM field, 28% of agricultural/biological science majors, 31% of mathematics/physical/computer sciences majors, and 22% of engineering majors will transfer into NON-STEM majors.

Studies examining the exodus of students from the science and engineering fields have identified a number of causative factors. Students transferring out of STEM majors often cite their lack of preparedness for a program in science. This may in fact be the case for many students, as a report prepared by the ACT found that only 46% and 31% of high school students are prepared for college courses in science and math, respectively. Other students have blamed poor teaching and advising at the university level for their departure from the STEM field. Still others found the curriculum overwhelming and felt that majoring in a STEM field was simply not worth the effort.

Many STEM students find the workloads of their majors to be overwhelming. Image credit: Nigelpepper flickr
Many STEM students find the workloads of their majors to be overwhelming. Image credit: Nigelpepper flickr

Regardless of the reason why students are abandoning their studies of science and engineering, it is clear that steps need to be taken to improve the American STEM educational system and motivate students to enter these challenging yet rewarding fields. Some programs, like the non-profit National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) are focusing their efforts on improving education at the primary and secondary levels. The NMSI provides training for teachers and free online resources to elevate math and science education so that students can succeed at higher institutions. Other organizations are allocating their resources to improving university STEM programs. The NSF-STEP program provides large grants for institutions with the sole goal of increasing the number of engineering and computer science degrees. These grants allow colleges and universities to overhaul their existing programs and redesign them specifically to retain STEM students.

Current STEM undergraduate and graduate students have an especially good opportunity to promote the study of their respective STEM fields. While chances are most students don’t have exorbitant amounts of money to donate to foundations like the NMSI, they are in the possession of something much more valuable: their voices. Many science and engineering students wear their workload as a badge of honor. They can often be heard griping about the length of their homework assignments or bragging about the difficulty of their exams to their non-STEM friends in the dining hall. The general atmosphere of dissatisfaction with their major hardly inspires younger students to enroll for the same degree, nor does it encourage current students to stick with it. Clearly, current STEM students think pursuing their science or engineering degree is worth the effort, so why not highlight the positives? Instead of sharing the number of hours your organic chemistry assignment took you, mention the incredibly interesting fact you learned in class that day. It’s likely that your non-STEM friends don’t know that you have more bacterial cells than human cells in your body, or that sound waves can put out a fire. Be a cheerleader for your program (although, you don’t need to take it as far as these ladies did) and encourage others to take on the challenge of earning a Bachelor’s degree in the STEM fields.

While the poor preparedness of American students and their abandonment of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math aren’t new problems, it remains clear that little progress has been made and much work is yet to be done. Non-profit and governmental organizations are hard at work designing programs to give students the tools they need to succeed in STEM degrees and ultimately in STEM careers. But the greatest power to change this can come from within students themselves.  Current undergraduate and graduate science and engineering students are in a unique position to encourage their peers to join them in these majors and to work together in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.


Rebecca Marton is a senior Biological Sciences major at the University of Notre Dame and co-Editor in Chief of Scientia, the undergraduate journal of research for Notre Dame’s College of Science. She studies retinal regeneration in the adult zebrafish and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in stem cell biology. 

  1. I’m curious what the percentage of students who go to college intending to be premed but switch to something else. Yet no one complains about a shortage of doctors…

    I see that you intend to pursue a phd. Do not expect that will mean you will be making more money than nonSTEM folks. You won’t. Only the T and E of STEM make any money (and the Ms who go to Wall Street).

  2. A well written article about an important problem that lacks perspective by those in education. Fashionably gloomy statistics about STEM enrollment/retention has been a stead drumbeat by the higher ed insiders and for a long time now. I wonder though if suddenly 70% of students chose STEM majors and completed degrees what of these major challenges would be solved? And what of the effects on non-STEM fields?

    The good news is that many hard-working students are interested in STEM and we have lots of them with degrees. Large public universities alone crank out tens of thousands of STEM degrees every single year with many exceptional students. The real problem is that none of them can find jobs. Many turn to graduate studies and then post-docs, and after another 10 years still can’t find them. Why? Because an entry level faculty position at a mid-sized research institution now gets close to a thousand applicants for a single opening if you are in the biosciences. Biotech is the answer? But you’ve been in academics for 15 years – there is a job for you starting at the bottom.

    Suddenly your non-STEM friends who entered the workforce when they were 22 and now have 10+ years of experience (not to mention income, benefits, seniority, and job connections) don’t look so silly!

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