STEM students must hold on until help arrives

Corrine Harris | Evergreen Columnist

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As a student majoring in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math, you have a 60 percent chance of dropping out or changing majors, according to a study by the University of Central Florida.

The odds are not in your favor.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is in dire need of renovation.

Until then, STEM students should seek the help they need, such as tutoring, office hours and support groups. 

There is a national STEM crisis in this country. Only 15 percent of the United States student population declares a major in these fields, according to the aforementioned study.  Due to the high dropout-rate associated with STEM degrees, of the 3.6 million total students in the U.S., only six percent will graduate within six years.

Dr. Kimberly Kidwell, the associate dean of the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences here at WSU, is well aware of the problems incoming students face.

“We see tremendous amounts of shifting; people especially in their freshman year start out thinking they want to be a doctor or a veterinarian and then they get into some of their science courses and are really just overwhelmed or scared right out of the business,” says Kidwell.

Many students who drop out of STEM courses do so because of curriculum overload, poor instructors and an overall loss of interest in STEM, according to the University of Central Florida and The New York Times. Universities across the nation are looking for innovative ways to present science and math to students, but many students are struggling because they lack a solid foundation from which to start.

In 2011, only 45 percent of U.S. high school graduates were ready for college-level math and 30 percent ready for college-level science, according to the National Math and Science Institute. Without the right preparation, students entering college are woefully unprepared to keep up with the demands presented by collegiate biology, chemistry and math series.

“The volume of memorization…the pacing is difficult, a lot of content to get in and not a lot of time,” Kidwell said. “If students stumble at all or get behind, it feels like there is no way to catch up.”

Kidwell said she often sees people completely scared away from the sciences.

“That’s the collateral damage we want to stop,” said Kidwell. “Good people that have talents get scared out of science to the point they don’t think they can do anything in science, let alone the major they’ve been struggling with.”

To increase STEM retention rates, students need to speak up about what does not work for them in the classroom. Science is science and that cannot be changed, but the way in which professors deliver the material to their students can be changed.

WSU offers large amounts of tutoring on campus. Regardless, if students don’t feel comfortable about asking for help or find the material interesting many will not seek out the assistance they need, whether they are pursuing a STEM degree or not.

Kidwell’s approach is to present STEM in an applicable context.

“Faculty often say that if students studied more, they’d do better,” she said. “In a way, that’s true, but the other side of that is if we framed science in a way that was more palatable to study – if the uptake was better, the examples were more relevant – people would sync into it more and get more motivated.”

This challenge is exactly what made former Provost Warwick Bailey ask Kidwell and a team of faculty to come up with an innovative way to deliver biology courses at WSU.

“We came up with some interesting ideas to pair disciplines together, like teaching a math course using biology examples to bring that content to life so people see the relevance of it. That approach to making it real and using examples that build on each other, [help] people see why it matters,” she said.

The first proposal of the initiative fell through the cracks when Provost Bailey stepped down, and has been resubmitted to the Office of the Provost.

WSU won’t be the first to take this approach when teaching science. The National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education (NEXUS) is a project designed to create effective models for teaching interdisciplinary science, which is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

NEXUS is implemented at Purdue University, The University of Maryland and the University of Miami. The program aims to create a curriculum that connects biology with physics, math and chemistry. Implementing a similar curriculum at WSU would mean positive changes for STEM majors.

Until a new curriculum is enacted, however, STEM students will be left to fend for themselves. Tutoring is provided all over campus, and students should not feel bad about needing the help.

“When you get behind, it’s almost as if you’re rolling around on the bottom of the ocean. It’s hard to recover and get back on your feet,” Kidwell said.

Any student, who feels that they are behind, even if it’s just in one class, should reach out for help. There are organizations all over campus willing to help you.

It’s up to you to take the step.

-Corrine Harris is a senior animal science major from Edmonds. She can be contacted at 335-2290 or by [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of Student Publications.