Forgoing math and science: A new study suggests students are not prepared for the sciences. It’s up to universities to show the way.

A common campus stereotype is the student who comes to college wanting to be a doctor, and leaves with a degree in philosophy. The student abandoning the natural sciences, for whatever reason, has become a cultural meme.

A working paper posted by two university professors this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research sheds light on the underlying causes of many students’ retreat from math and science.

The revealing research shows the vital role of universities leveraging resources to ensure their own students are prepared.

The study suggests students enter college as open to majoring in math or science as any other major, but many drop these pursuits because they believe their grade performance is threatened. Even more crucial, students’ changes in beliefs about their grade performance arises from the realization that their ability is lower than they expected — not because they aren’t willing to put the required effort into math or science majors.

The conclusion to draw is obvious: Many of our peers aren’t prepared in the areas of math and science. It’s not that there isn’t zeal — there’s just not the requisite knowledge. It also sadly suggests that students will abandon their passions simply to make high grades.

UNC already has programs aimed at mitigating a lack of preparedness.

Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean of undergraduate education, pointed to Summer Bridge as one example. Summer Bridge seeks to fill what Owen calls “knowledge deficits,” and has added chemistry instruction to help bolster science education.

This raises many questions for UNC. Future teachers are trained here, as are future scientists, mathematicians and doctors. UNC’s Innovation Roadmap is also cognizant of the importance of the sciences.

Our programs to cope with students’ lack of preparedness can only address symptoms, not causes. Students need to be targeted at younger ages.

But universities, including our own, often lead the way in tackling social problems. It’s through the work of longitudinal studies and research conducted by university faculty that these issues have been identified.

Through continued research, it may prove to be higher education that formulates effective policies that allow students to come to college prepared.

Thanks for reading.

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