Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences

Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt
Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1997
429 pp., $49.95 hc

Robert C. Thomas
Environmental Sciences
Western Montana College-UM

Many of us in the business of science, mathematics, and engineering (S.M.E.) education recognize that recruiting and retaining undergraduate students into S.M.E. programs has become increasingly difficult. Like many of my colleagues, I have placed part of the blame on a pre-college educational system that leaves students unprepared and passionless for these subjects. However, poor preparation cannot completely account for initially well-motivated students of above-average ability leaving the sciences early in their college careers. National data show that students who started in S.M.E. programs switched to non-science majors within two years of taking their first college science or mathematics course to the tune of 40 percent in engineering, 50 percent in biological and physical sciences, and 60 percent in mathematics! The reasons for this disturbing trend is the focus of this compelling and comprehensive book.

In order to understand why students of above-average ability are leaving S.M.E. programs, the authors conducted a three-year (1990-1993), seven-campus study of college juniors and seniors with mathematics S.A.T. (or equivalent) scores of 650 or higher. The data set included both students who had switched from S.M.E. programs to non-science programs (54.6%), and students in their senior year who stayed with their S.M.E. programs (45.4%). The authors over-sampled women and students of color in order to better understand how their experiences differ from their white-male peers. The research design consisted of approximately 600 hours of ethnographic interviews with individuals and focus groups on the reasons for their decisions to enter, continue in, or leave their S.M.E. program. The authors present these data in both tabular and narrative form, with numerous, eloquent quotes from students.

So why are talented and initially well-motivated students choosing to leave the sciences? According to the authors, the most common reasons for leaving the sciences stem from the "structure of the educational experience and the culture of the discipline." They cite poor teaching, and a pedagogical style dictated by "weed-out objectives" as the primary reasons that above-average ability students lose their motivation and morale for S.M.E. programs. Their data show that improving the quality of the learning experience is also the most important factor in retaining women and students of color in S.M.E. programs. They found no evidence to support the common contention that attrition is the result of class size, inadequate lab and/or computer facilities, poorly-trained teaching assistants, or foreign-born faculty and teaching assistants with poor language skills. Interestingly, the data show that inadequate high school preparation cannot be used as a criterion to distinguish the above-average ability students who leave S.M.E. programs from those who complete S.M.E. programs.

The authors offer precious few solutions to the problem, but this is understandable since their findings are predicated upon complex interrelationships between our academic and societal systems. Their most compelling proposal is a fundamental change to the "weed-out" culture common to S.M.E. programs. They argue that faculty should shift the objectives of introductory courses from selection to education. Although they do not offer specific methods to accomplish this change, I suspect that their proposal could be viewed as "dumbing down" the curriculum. They also propose that S.M.E. faculty draw upon the pedagogical and program evaluation knowledge of education faculty to improve S.M.E. courses. Although collaboration with education faculty can be of great value, the current system of promotion and tenure at most colleges and universities does not provide the incentive to pursue these relationships.

This book is of great value to science and math faculty who are interested in understanding the student's perspective on the quality of their education. In our enrollment-driven system of higher education, can any of us afford not to be interested in the reasons why undergraduates leave science and math? I found many of the student's comments to be insightful echoes of comments I regularly hear from my students. However, I was deeply disturbed by the anger and bitterness in their comments; do my students feel this way? The paradox of this book may in fact be the evaluation of S.M.E. programs by students. In this customer-oriented culture of state-assisted higher education, it makes a great deal of sense to ask the customer what she wants from her education. However, in a culture where the customer may want the least amount for her money, we may be led down the path of least resistance!

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