LARSON: STEM at a disadvantage

Nothing in Particular

According to a recent article for the News, the class of 2016 is the first in which over 40 percent of incoming freshmen have expressed their intent to major in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field. This proportion is in line with admissions targets and is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Special events for scientifically inclined admitted students, promotions of our science program at top high schools and personal outreach from top science faculty have evidently paid off.

But before the administration celebrates this achievement, we should all ask: What percentage of freshmen intending to major in a STEM field actually goes on to take more than “General Chemistry”?

As recently as 2010, long after Yale renewed its focus on the sciences, the answer seemed to be about half. For every two freshmen intending to major in a STEM field, only one student graduates with a STEM degree. But the graduating group likely has less than half of those original STEM-intentioned freshmen, assuming that some students switch into STEM majors after arriving at Yale.

People change their minds in college all the time — I’m currently on my third major (at the last count). But given such high attrition rates, I wonder whether our problem really is attracting STEM students to Yale, or whether it’s keeping them with STEM once they’re here. Even those of us without personal memories of the experience know friends or suitemates who constantly made that cold and thankless pilgrimage up Science Hill first semester freshman year, only to swear that they would never again take a science course.

Most Yale students were good at high school science — often, they get to college and find that higher-level science is either uninteresting to them or more challenging than they expected. Yale can’t change that.

But if we want our graduating as well as incoming class to have as many STEM students as other colleges, we need to make the life of a STEM major at Yale more appealing.

We should start with the logistics. Unfortunately, Yale may have doomed its undergraduate science program by building Science Hill (and no, the new residential colleges aren’t going to magically shift the center of campus so that the Kline Biology Tower Café becomes the hip new hangout).

But couldn’t Yale run more frequent shuttles? I know plenty of kids who never take the shuttle to Science Hill, either because the shuttles are late or too crowded. (Renovating the bathrooms in Osborn Memorial Laboratories, which look like they’ve been stolen from a barrack, wouldn’t hurt either.) The University could also explore placing some large introductory science lectures in LC, WLH or Davies. Distance might sound like a petty complaint, but for students trying to make that 15-minute transition between classes, it can be a deal-breaker.

The broader problem with getting students to stick with sciences, however, is that STEM fields at Yale are hard and time-consuming. Humanities and social science students, myself included, usually resent when our STEM friends act as though they’re the only ones with work. But the average grade — and hours spent studying to get that grade — is different in “University Physics” than in introductory economics or art history courses.

The problem isn’t entirely that STEM classes are too hard — it rather lies in the relative balance of work. As our campus culture has defined it, the full Yale experience includes the ubiquitous pressure to immerse yourself in extracurriculars, as well as the sense that one should take those random, totally impractical classes on food history that give Yale College much of its color.

The humanities and social sciences have largely accommodated these trends, managing to challenge students and still allow them to maintain a decent GPA, while taking advantage of Yale’s dynamic extracurricular and social life. STEM subjects haven’t yet done that.

Yale needs to reflect on what sort of academic and extracurricular culture it wants. The current iteration of our culture that enables and elevates extracurriculars has its strengths. But it also disadvantages STEM students seeking the full Yale experience. As long as this basic reality continues, many of our STEM recruits will quickly realize that they want a new major.

Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu .

 

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