Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences

Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences

Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences

Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences

Synopsis

This intriguing book explores the reasons that lead undergraduates of above-average ability to switch from science, mathematics, and engineering majors into nonscience majors. Based on a three-year, seven-campus study, the volume takes up the ongoing national debate about the quality of undergraduate education in these fields, offering explanations for net losses of students to non-science majors. Data show that approximately 40 percent of undergraduate students leave engineering programs, 50 percent leave the physical and biological sciences, and 60 percent leave mathematics. Concern about this waste of talent is heightened because these losses occur among the most highly qualified college entrants and are disproportionately greater among women and students of color, despite a serious national effort to improve their recruitment and retention. The authors' findings, culled from over 600 hours of ethnographic interviews and focus group discussions with undergraduates, explain the intended and unintended consequences of some traditional teaching practices and attitudes. Talking about Leaving is richly illustrated with students' accounts of their own experiences in the sciences. This is a landmark study-an essential source book for all those concerned with changing the ways that we teach science, mathematics, and engineering education, and with opening these fields to a more diverse student body.

Excerpt

Many faculty, deans and advisors are concerned to understand what reasons for choosing an S.M.E. major make persistence more likely, and which hold up less well during the rigors of the freshman and sophomore experience. We therefore explored the reasons given by students for their initial choice of major, the significance of their motivations for the kinds of difficulties they experienced and for patterns of switching and persistence. Tables 2.1 and 2.2 summarize the responses of switchers and non-switchers to the question, "Why did you choose a science, math, or engineering major?" Their answers to this question were grouped into the 12 categories shown as "Reasons Given" and are described below.

As can be seen in Table 2.1, most students gave more than one answer to the question, with switchers giving almost twice as many answers as non- switchers. This is not surprising. Switchers have more reason than non-switchers to reflect on the part played by their reasons for choosing a major in their decision to leave it. Many switchers felt that they had chosen their S.M.E. major largely because they saw themselves as good at mathematics and/or science in high school, whether or not they understood what was entailed in these majors or the careers to which they might lead. Fewer non-switchers spontaneously mentioned their competence in high school mathematics or science, or their lack of prior understanding about the nature of the major, unless these subsequently created problems for them. Generally speaking, choosing a major for reasons that subsequently proved inappropriate or insufficient did not (at 14.2% of mentions) contribute significantly to switching decisions (cf., Table 1.6). However, ill-considered choices created some degree of problems for most switchers, and choosing an S.M.E. major for 'the wrong reasons' was the second most commonly cited choice-related problem described . . .

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