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Study finds introductory STEM courses may deter students

Senior Lauren Schmidt originally entered college with the intention of becoming a pharmacist or physician assistant. Those plans changed after her experience in Chemistry 101 during her first semester at UNC.

“I spent hours working on Mastering Chemistry,” she said. “I’m not good at chemistry, and I’m OK with admitting that.”

Schmidt decided to drop the class after the first exam, and even though she completed Biology 101 the following semester, she started looking for a different major.

And Schmidt is not alone. Jennifer Krumper, a lecturer in the chemistry department, said a number of other aspiring pre-health students switch majors because of the difficulty in introductory science courses such as Biology 101, Chemistry 101 and Chemistry 102.

“Many students who are interested in science and have the abilities end up not majoring in science because they have a discouraging experience after their first year,” she said.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that about half of the students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields leave their majors before they complete a bachelor’s degree.

Of the students who left these programs, about half switched to a non-STEM major, while the other half left school altogether.

Kelly Hogan, a lecturer in biology, said she has seen the trend on a national level where there is increased interest but also decreased retention in STEM fields.

“Students come out of high school extremely excited about science, especially biology, but we lose a lot of them,” she said. “As an adviser I’ve had students switch their majors, but that’s not enough data or evidence to know what’s happening at UNC.”

Hogan said there are many reasons students in these majors might decide to switch.

“A lot of students come in pre-med but are really quite naive about what it would take to fulfill that requirement, and as soon as they realize it’s going to take some hard work … their opinion changes,” she said.

Given the size of the University, many of the introductory science courses are large lecture classes, but Hogan said she doesn’t want that to affect her students’ experience.

“The way we’re reforming our teaching is to say class size doesn’t matter, we’re going to engage everybody,” she said. “I don’t tend to think of large class sizes as an incredible barrier.”

Senior George Barrett, who also changed his major after taking some chemistry and biology classes, said he thought he would have performed better in a smaller class, which he said creates a better environment for students to ask questions.

After compiling data on different teaching styles and attending faculty workshops, Hogan has changed the format of her courses to make them more interactive.

“I consider the student attention span to be five minutes,” Hogan said. “I like to figure out ways to only be talking to students in the context of explaining a question I’ve already posed.”

A faculty search committee is currently looking for a lecturer who will be charged with redesigning the curriculum. Jeff Sekelsky, former chairman of the committee, said in an email that the University is trying to incorporate modern evidence-based teaching methods.

“It’s about making sure that we reach as many students as possible so they can continue in science,” he said.

Though she no longer plans to pursue a health profession, Schmidt said she does not regret her decision because she was able to find her passion.

“While I did not make it through (Chemistry) 101, it shows the dedication of the people who make it through chemistry and biology majors,” she said.

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