Science students are switching subjects

Underclassmen in science and engineering majors are switching out in high numbers.

Cassandra Sundaram

It seems like just yesterday I broke new ground in research with my middle school science fair project on carpet cleaners. Life was simpler then; novel studies were done on the intricacies of bread mold, and the tri-fold poster was a status symbol among the 7th grade scientific community.

But now, a tri-fold poster won’t get you very far. Not only are posters at various science-related symposiums laminated and covered in fancy diagrams and equations, the research itself is far above the brainpower and interest of most of our junior-high selves. Once you get to college, it seems you learn what “science” really is, and a surprising amount of students are becoming disillusioned.

According to a recent New York Times article, approximately 40 percent of science and engineering majors end up switching fields of study or failing to get a degree. If you throw in pre-med students, that statistic jumps to 60 percent. What’s the cause of all the switching? A combination of “weed-out” classes and the failure of required courses to inspire excitement and interest in science fields seem likely for the surprisingly high number of students deciding science isn’t for them.

Classes like calculus, chemistry and physics are among the most dreaded general education requirements at universities across the nation. Low test averages and dry lectures would make anyone second-guess their major choice. More often than not, smart and talented students — who are not used to getting poor grades — mistake their less than spotless performance in these classes for inadequacy and stray to other areas where they feel their success will be better quantified. These are some of the brightest kids in the country. Sure, maybe they weren’t challenged enough in high school, maybe they didn’t work hard enough or maybe they just realized that their passion wasn’t in science, but we shouldn’t be losing potential scientists and engineers because we’re not creative enough to make required classes engaging or enjoyable.

 Bill Nye spoke in a Popular Mechanics interview in 2011 about young kids’ interest in science: “Nearly every rocket scientist got interest in it before they were 10. Everybody who wants to do any medical good for humankind got the passion for that before he or she was 10.” The interest and curiosity of young kids is there, and it should be encouraged and stimulated as they reach higher education, not subjected to droning lectures and all-or-nothing multiple choice questions.

President Barack Obama and his administration have been trying to encourage and spur interest in science, technology, engineering, and math fields and while these subjects may interest students in middle and high school, there has been a disappointing drop-off at the university level. Many students in science and engineering fields complain of a lack of career relevance in their early classes. One Notre Dame engineering student interviewed in the New York Times displayed his frustration with the way his classes were taught: “‘I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well. It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’’” When students don’t see the big picture, it can be almost futile to even attempt to understand the equations behind them.

The College of Science and Engineering knows these career connections can be difficult to make, but they also know that without them, many students will lose hope. The director of communications for CSE, Rhonda Zurn, told me that the college has intensified its focus on undergraduate education in the last few years and has put forth certain initiatives in the hopes of getting students more involved in their engineering education.  One of these initiatives is a new first-year experience course that will be required for incoming freshmen and will focus on leadership and study skills, as well as the exploration of career opportunities and research. Zurn said that keeping classwork relevant to engineering careers is a priority in the college .

One interesting aspect Zurn highlighted as a factor in keeping students interested and engaged in their majors is the importance of getting involved in student groups. Not only do they provide a close sense of community in a university of 52,000 students and a college of 5,000, but they also create opportunities for students to start actual engineering projects in their fields. From Engineers Without Borders to the Solar Vehicle Project, these groups are where in-class training is applied with creativity and collaboration to help find answers to real-world problems in these students’ fields.

 Education should be engaging, and learning should be built on practical applications. Without student involvement and classroom activity, not only are classes boring, but they’re often more difficult. Universities have a responsibility to their students to provide them with the highest quality education and opportunities in order to give them the best shot at success. Very few students I know get excited about working problems out on a sheet of paper — they want to see their skills put to use in their education, as well as their careers. 

How is CSE doing? The college’s first-year retention rate is 92.9 percent, and the size of the Dean’s List is increasing. Many students will still undoubtedly say their classes can be dry at times but for now, it looks like CSE has found a way to convince their students that science is still fun — even without the tri-folds.

 

Cassandra Sundaram welcomes comments at

csundaram.mndaily.com.