April 13, 2010

Research Finds STEM Classes Have Lower Grades, Higher Dropouts

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Research recently presented at the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute conference shows that low grades in introductory STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — classes “push” students away from their STEM majors. Ben Ost grad conducted the study, which demonstrates how grading gaps between science and non-science courses encourage higher STEM dropout rates.

“My study found approximately a third of a grade point difference between science and non-science classes, and these differences come from averages of intended science majors,” Ost said. “Students who have a bigger gap are more likely to not persist in these science classes and are pulled toward their non-science courses.”

Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, labor economics and director of CHERI, explained the cause of the grade gap.

“We know that harder grading standards are needed nationwide, but they discourage students from going on [in the field],” he said. “The problem is grade inflation in non-science fields.”

While some students in his sophomore-level engineering courses changed majors after receiving low grades, Prof. Nicholas Zabaras, mechanical and aerospace engineering, said dropout rates in higher-level classes were near zero because juniors and seniors know what to expect.

When asked about the necessity of difficult grading in STEM courses, Zabaras said, “Do you want to fly on a plane that was designed by someone who is lazy? Do you want a doctor who is clueless? The problem should not be addressed at the university level; it should be addressed in high school.”

“There is this attitude that traditionally existed in science and engineering fields,” Ehrenberg said, referring to the idea of better high school preparation. “But the proposals to push for K through 12 development are too expensive.” Ehrenberg argued that universities should do more to encourage students to continue in STEM majors instead of “weeding them out” in earlier semesters.

Shoshana Graff ’13 agreed that her engineering introductory courses made her reevaluate her study path.

“I didn’t expect them to be this hard, but it’s conventional to think of these classes as weed-out courses,” Graff said. “I went from thinking about [mechanical engineering] to [operations research and information engineering] and one of my best friends, as well as couple other people I know, are switching out [of engineering] as well.”

Graff was also bothered by the lack of opportunity for engineering majors to explore other fields.

“Unless you are a sophomore or have a lot of [Advanced Placement credits], I feel like my curriculum does not give me a lot of options. Also, I wish my classes were more supportive instead of being so difficult,” she said. “However, I do not think this is unique of Cornell.”

In order to address these issues, Ehrenberg proposed that diversification of the faculty could help some people. He cited research by Joshua Price grad, who found that black STEM students were more likely to identify with black instructors, although female students did not show similar correlations.

“We want the best people regardless of their race or gender,” Ehrenberg said, “but we also want people to serve as role models.”

Original Author: Andrew Hu