The Student Perspective: Why a Qualified STEM Student Decided to Drop Physics
One of the largest issues with the current STEM education system in the US is that it is failing to attract and retain students. According to the National Math + Science Initiative, of the students who enter into college with a declared STEM major, 38% do not graduate with a STEM major. In order to begin to address the problem, we must ask: what factors make a qualified student decide to abandon STEM fields?
I spoke with Kati Newcomb, a student at the University of Oregon who had recently decided to drop her STEM major and switch to political science during her second term of college, despite coming to the university thinking that Physics was her calling. Like many other students, the system did not work for her and she decided to study something else.
Kati is from La Pine, a small city in central Oregon. She graduated as Salutatorian from La Pine High School and received one of the University of Oregon’s largest institutional scholarships: the Presidential Scholarship, with a value of $36,000 over four years. In addition, she was offered a place in the university’s College Scholars Program, an advanced program for top students. When I asked her why she wanted to study Physics, she said “Originally, I was attracted to STEM career paths because I was naturally good at math and science in high school. I have always been interested in topics specifically in Physics and I thought that I would get to explore those exiting and intriguing Physics topics.”
A lack of female role models or mentors can be one reason why female student leave Physics. The University of Oregon, like other universities, has a gender imbalance in Physics, but that is not why Kati left. She said, “It was definitely made apparent from day one that women in the Physics department were important. The department knows that it is lacking gender diversity and my professors were all very excited to see my female classmates and myself in Physics courses. I would have to say that my favorite class I have taken at the university has been my Physics lab and a very big part of that is my lab lecture professor who happens to be one of the few female faculty members in the Physics department. It is easy to look up to her because she is an incredible example of a woman who has made her name in a field dominated by men and who is making important new discoveries in Physics.”
Kati dropping out of Physics had more to do with the requirements she had to fulfill than her gender. “I think the main reason I felt so burnt out so soon is because I really had no time to become a well-rounded student in my first two terms. All I have done since coming to college has been Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics and it has been incredibly overwhelming.” Kati’s many academic talents and interests are not confined solely to the STEM world, but the pursuit of a STEM major is so time consuming that it would have prevented her from achieving other things.
This increase in necessary work time was much different than Kati’s high school experience. She said, “I found that for Physics the requirements as a freshman were pretty intense. For a lot of undergrads the first few terms are spent completing general education requirements, but for STEM majors they are filled with a combination of Calculus, General Chemistry, and Fundamentals of Physics, leaving little to no time to try new classes or get involved on campus.” In addition, she described the intro level classes as “mundane,” and said that they did not connect to the larger concepts in Physics, working only on skill building. She understood that this was necessary, but wished there had been more connections to the grander concepts in Physics, which would have made the class more interesting.
To its credit, the University of Oregon Department of Physics is very aware of the loss of students from STEM, and therefore has launched a series of programs called STEM CORE, which are intended to improve STEM education as a whole. Some of the programs within STEM CORE focus specifically on women and other minorities within the field; however, many of these programs are targeted towards high school students. This is to combat a problem colloquially known as a “leaking pipeline” of prospective STEM students. Kati’s interest in STEM was alive when she came to the University and died somewhere during the time she was there, indicating that the factors which drove her away were a part of an institutional problem at the university itself, not an issue with the pipeline to get her there.
In order to see how the University of Oregon tries to lighten course loads for its students, I reached out to Dr. Dean Livelybrooks, a Physics professor at the University of Oregon. He stressed that course load, which can be a deterrent when it is too heavy, is ultimately the student’s choice, and that he routinely encourages students not to take general chemistry their first year, as it can become too much work for the student to handle. However, he acknowledged that the written guidance materials from the department, such as sample course schedules, do include general Chemistry as a class for freshmen, and may not realize that not taking Chemistry is also an option.
The University of Oregon is not alone in needing to address the problem of low retention in Physics. STEM Central showcases people and projects at a diversity of institutions that are working on similar Undergraduate STEM issues that could be a model for other institutions like the UO. A quick search of STEM Central revealed several NSF-funded projects that are implementing innovative strategies to improve retention in Physics. One such project at Saint Francis University is attempting to increase retention by instituting research projects that start early in the undergraduates’ college careers. This allows students to see a payoff from their hard work early in their college careers, discouraging them from quitting STEM early. The STEM Central search also revealed some other useful resource for retaining students in Physics, including an excerpt from an article entitled: “The physics education reform effort: a possible model for higher education”, in which the institutional paradigm shift from instructing to learning in Physics is explored. STEM Central also hosts virtual poster galleries on STEM Education. One very useful poster entitled “Implementing Studio Physics Pedagogy at Concordia College” by Heidi Manning and Mona Ibrahim, describes using a reformed Physics pedagogy that improved STEM major enrollment by 20%.
Kati is just one student, and it would be foolish to make any claims about the system based solely on her experience. However, when dealing with the statistics of the problem and the abstract findings of reports, it is imperative to keep the stories of the individuals in mind as well. In many ways, Kati exemplifies one of the biggest challenges facing the American higher education system: intelligent, driven, successful students turning away from STEM and choosing to utilize their talents in other fields. How can the problem be corrected? If we intend to reform the system in order to attract more people like Kati, then we ought to pay close attention to what they have to say.