Why Do Students Leave STEM?

Girls-in-STEMThe skills gap isn’t the only problem in the United States these days– worrisome statistics regarding SLS, Students Leaving STEM, is a massive issue at educational institutions across the county.

According to a late 2014 report, it was revealed that 48% of bachelor’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 have left. As you can probably imagine, with the widening skills gap, manufacturers and educators alike are worried about this trend.

Why does this alarming attrition occur? In an article by Ainissa Ramirez, she explains that students leave STEM because of the “uninviting” atmosphere, difficult weed-out classes, and STEM courses that do not show their relevancy. While some disciplines have better retention than others (biology has more women and more people of color), mathematics and computer science lag significantly in diversity.

However, colleges like Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California are examples of ways in which institutions can increase diversity and therefore, a positive culture that will result in increased retention. Last year, Harvey Mudd reported more girls than boys in STEM– most likely the first institution ever to do so. One potential reason is that the president, Marie Klawe, is a female computer scientist (many experts believe that positive role models within a field need to be more comprehensively emphasized).

Solving this problem isn’t just about diversity or gender, though. If one of the three reasons that students drop out is because of difficult weed-out courses, it means that increased preparation in these areas from a young age can help to prevent this. Additionally, it’s simply the case that many STEM courses are not for the lazy or faint-of-heart. The STEM core requires attention and dedication, something that can be difficult initially, but is what contributes to such high levels of job satisfaction and pride in many skilled careers. An increased awareness of the expectations of STEM courses can also help prepare students for rigorous coursework, instead of catching them off-guard. For students interested in completing a valuable education in any STEM field, other ways to increase drive can be by finding a mentor to work with, or joining a club that will foster their passions so that when the road gets tougher, their love will push them to stick it out.

As Ramirez explains, there are real, tangible ways to fix the SLS problem, and many of those responsibilities fall on the educational institutions. However, students can actively work to foster their love for a subject and find a career path or area of STEM that is worth the hard work. Eventually, STEM educations can result in high first year salaries, extensive benefits, job security, and happiness with a chosen career path. These benefits are worth the work to get there.

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photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory via photopin cc