Biological cycles: Attrition in science

When Michael Koelle, director of undergraduate studies in the Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry department, came to Yale 10 years ago, there were twice as many MB&B majors as there were last year.

His initial reaction: it was simple coincidence. Biology-oriented students, he assumed, were probably just drifting to other biology-related majors.

Students work together during a laboratory for Chemistry 116. Recent data have led some administrators to worry that students are leaving the sciences.
Students work together during a laboratory for Chemistry 116. Recent data have led some administrators to worry that students are leaving the sciences.

But a departmental analysis of the figures reveal an entirely different picture. The sharp drop in MB&B majors was not being absorbed by either the biomedical-engineering major — which has graduated between 10 and 15 students every year since its inception in 2003 — or Yale’s two biology majors, Cellular, Molecular and Developmental Biology and Ecological and Evolutionary Biology.

“Their numbers aren’t increasing either,” Koelle said.

The question, Koelle recalled, then became slightly different and far more trouble: are students leaving the sciences altogether?

While the MB&B department’s tale may seem to suggest so, numbers provided by the University sketch a more complex story than just simple attrition for the sciences in general. The data suggest cyclic periods of ups and downs with a notably prolonged peak in the early ’90s, followed by a dip has begun to flatten out in recent years.

But the past decade has not been as grim for all the science departments. Some, such as Physics and some of the engineering majors, may actually be better off now than they were in years past. And indeed — as Dean of Science Education William Segraves said — while enrollment in the biological sciences may be down relative to 10 years ago, the early ’90s, because of an isolated spike in interest in medical careers, was an “unrepresentative” period that perhaps shouldn’t be used as a gauge.

Now, after a trough that was most pronounced in 2002-2003, science departments are rebuilding and strengthening their undergraduate programs. And, by targeting science-oriented students in the admissions process, reaching out to individual students and expanding undergraduate research opportunities, the sciences at Yale may just make a comeback.

A ‘big hike’ and then a fall

Between 1987-’88 and 1992-’93, the number of undergraduates enrolled in courses in the natural and physical sciences shot up from just under 8,000 to over 15,000, representing a two-fold increase, according to the Office of Institutional Research. That was “the big hike” — one that professors said may be anomalous in the grand scheme of the data — before a fall in the numbers, beginning in 1996 that brought enrollment levels down closer to their original, pre-surge levels.

Simply comparing enrollment numbers in the current year to the previous decade makes it easy to conclude that interest in the sciences is dropping — but the truth is a little more nuanced, professors said.

Segraves said the 1992-’93 peak was created by an influx of students entering the biological sciences, belying the stability of enrollment in physical science courses over the same time period. Indeed, in 1987-’88, just under 100 seniors graduated as Biology majors, but that number had shot to over 150 by 1997-’98, according to OIR data.

This sudden surge and fall was not unique to Yale, but was likely influenced by the national landscape of medicine, he said. The numbers at Yale mirror national trends of increased interest in the medical field during the ’90s, followed by a six-year period of declining interest.

According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 1996 almost 47,000 individuals applied to U.S. medical schools, the culmination of a build-up that began in 1989. Since then, total numbers dropped anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 applicants each year and reached an all-time low of 33,501 in 2002.

The data on student enrollment suggest that student interest in medicine at Yale has waned since its high in the ’90s, said MCDB chair Thomas Pollard.

“A lot of what’s happening [in the biology departments at Yale] is influenced by the what’s going on the health care system,” he said, noting that the majority of Biology majors are also pre-med students.

Both Koelle and Pollard said they think that some students may perceive the medical field as less desirable than they did in the previous decades, and opt for other careers.

“My hypothesis is that this bump down may reflect that many physicians have gotten disillusioned about the healthcare system in recent years,” Pollard said.

Pollard said recent cuts to federal spending on research — which have downsized the research activities of science labs around the country — may also play a minor role in pushing students away from majors in biology.

But Koelle said this phenomenon has not yet filtered down to the undergraduate level, mainly because of the perception that “these things happen in cycles.”

“Funding gets worse, funding gets better,” he said. “By the time they’re ready to get into research, [current undergraduates] are going to be a different place in the cycle.”

Flexibility and fluctuation

Unlike enrollment within the biological sciences, the Physics, Chemistry and Engineering departments have stayed relatively stable since the 1990s, while some departments have even seen modest growth.

The numbers of Physics majors, for instance, has been rapidly rising, having increased between 10 to 20 per cent over the last decade, said Peter Parker, director of undergraduates studies in the Physics department.

While the upward trend parallels a nationwide increase in the number of undergraduate physics majors in recent years, Parker said that departmental efforts to restructure the major, which have included adding courses and revitalizing the curriculum, have had a part to play in attracting more students.

The class of 2007 had about 20 more physics students than the class of 2002, according to the OIR.

Physics major Elise Novitski ’08 said that she is been pleased with the new structure of the program — which offers two parallel tracks, a normal BS and an intensive BS — because it provides more flexibility to students who may have varying career intentions.

Similarly, Yale graduated more bachelor’s degrees in Engineering in 2007 than in any year over the past four decades, and overall enrollment in engineering majors has increased by 30 to 40 per cent over the last five years, former Dean of Engineering Paul Fleury said in a recent interview.

Much of this growth, he added, can be attributed to the creation of the Biomedical Engineering major and Environmental Engineering majors — whereas enrollment in the original engineering majors — Chemical, Electrical and Mechanical — is either stable or just beginning to show signs of modest growth.

But current Dean of Engineering T. Kyle Vanderlick said aggregate numbers in the engineering program fluctuate around 60, making it “difficult to talk about trends” with such few numbers.

Despite these individual stories of success, the overall decline in science enrollment since the ’90s may also be partially traced to the creation of new majors that draw from science, Segraves said. For instance, recently-created majors such as Cognitive Science, Environmental Studies and History of Science, History of Medicine may have drawn upon the potential science major pool.

‘Get them early’

A slow reversal of enrollment declines in some science majors and small increases in enrollment in others comes at a time when data from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions shows that many more admitted students indicate they intend to pursue science majors, especially biology, than end up doing so.

Overall, the share of Yale students pursuing majors in the natural and physical sciences was 20 percent in 2007, according to the OIR.

Segraves said while students typically shift their majors after coming to Yale, the “net” effect of student movement out of science majors may reflect that fact that students can easily leave science paths to enter other fields, but it is more difficult for students to successfully enter science majors if they have gotten a late start.

“In part, it’s due to the idea that there’s a relatively linear course of study within science majors that makes it hard for students to move into the sciences,” he said.

Pollard said the trend is not one specific to Yale, but rather reflect the phenomenon of coming from limited high school course offerings to college, where course choices abound. Many students come to Yale having taken science courses in high school, he said, while many have not sampled as many of the humanities disciplines the College offers. So many may end up making the initial decision to choose a science major with little information, he said.

Some students interviewed said introductory science courses themselves may dissuade potential science majors from continuing down the science route.

Jessie Ellner ’08, a linguistics major who is also pre-med, said she thinks the impersonal, often alienating, nature of introductory science courses can turn off students deciding whether to go into science.

“For people who are wavering, there’s nothing specifically inviting,” she said. “Many of the large, lecture hall classes turn into factories of just throwing out information … and have this ‘just-to-get-through’ atmosphere.”

She added that sources of help, such as discussion sections and TAs, exist, but their accessibility and helpfulness vary from course to course.

The grading system among introductory science courses, which tend to assign grades on a curve based on their performance relative to the class, also tends to unwittingly pit students against one another — breeding pressure and subconscious competition, Ellner said.

Novitski said it is difficult to get rid of the format of introductory courses altogether, since building up a knowledge of science necessitates exposure to a large base of knowledge before students can get to “the cool, innovative stuff.”

But she agrees that some introductory courses do not engage students in the way they could, drawing upon her anecdotal experience of students who take courses like Physics 150 and 180. The key is to staff introductory courses with “really good lecturers,” she said.

Ellner said faculty could get around the huge enrollment in introductory courses that “makes more personal attention nearly impossible” simply by breaking up lectures into multiple, smaller introductory classes, following the format of introductory math classes.

But much of the responsibility of making sure students are being drawn to the sciences and staying in them rests on the shoulders of individual departments, Vanderlick said.

She said that many students will give the sciences like engineering a chance unless you “get them early,” which makes creating relevant first-year science seminars and getting the word out about “what engineering really is” crucial.

Science majors, she said, are like trains because people can often either catch them or miss them.

“Once you don’t give jumping onto on the train track a chance, you can’t jump on later,” she said.

‘Not only about equations’

Segraves said that a hands-on experience can often be the determining factor for whether a student decides to become a science major.

In this vein, administrators are working on giving students earlier access to research and experiential learning opportunities.

Koelle said the Forest Expedition and Laboratory, a course developed by MB&B Professor Scott Strobel, was created with the intention of putting a new spin on laboratory courses to getting students excited about science. The course sponsors a spring break trip to South American, where students collect rainforest specimens that they can then examine under the microscope back in New Haven.

Segraves said the Dean’s Office also plans to increase the amount of grant money they issue to students pursuing summer research by 30 percent this year, and to target freshman grant applicants. This year, he added, 15 more slots were opened up in Perspectives on Science, a first-year, application-based course that offers its students a grant to conduct research over their freshman summers.

“If you really want to make an impact on students,” he said, “you have to get them to understand right from the start that science is not someone standing up and reading facts from a textbook, but something that’s changing, something they can be part of, something that’s exciting and always new, and that is not only about equations but the real world things that those equations describe.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    yay for the sciences!

  • ScienceIsGradeDeflation

    Science classes here are far harder than any humanities or social science class can be. Science classes meet more frequently, are inconveniently located, and students suffer from grade DEflation compared to the humanities. Give a student a B in Organic Chemistry and they would generally accept and move on. Give a Political Science major a B and they might have a heart attack. If Yale keeps harming the GPA of science majors with such stringent grade distributions, it will see a continual decline in science students. I for one am changing to a non-science major while still staying premed---I want the bare minimum of science.

  • Science Grad Student

    The above poster sums it up. By and large science classes are graded much more stringently and are curved to a B-, which denotes "average". A consistently above average science student will have a very below average GPA and will likely have worked much harder for it. Rational students rightly avoid science and other harsh grading disciplines for this reason. I think many of these enrollment problems could be solved by curtailing grade inflation in other departments by implementing a curve, etc. but this will never happen.

  • Potential MB&B Major

    From the posts above I am seriously (re)thinking my decision of being a MB&B major. It is saddening to hear that grading is that much more harsher in the sciences. This makes me really being to weigh my options.