George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why Students Leave STEM

To keep women and people of color engaged in STEM, let's ignite an early passion for these topics, provide mentors and role models, and emphasize subject relevance.


There was a recent report (PDF, 1.6MB) that put out some alarming data about the attrition of students in STEM college courses. The numbers say that 48 percent of bachelor's degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 have left. Many people are striving to understand the cause for the attrition, particularly for students of color and women. According to a White House report (PDF, 1.1MB), it seems that students leave STEM because of the uninviting atmosphere, difficult weed-out classes, and STEM courses that do not show their relevancy.

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Now, the attrition story is not one-size-fits-all for every STEM discipline. Some disciplines have better retention then others. For example, biology has more women and more people of color. But mathematics and computer science lag significantly in diversity.

Why So Few?

An understanding of the difference between these attrition rates requires knowledge about the demographics of those STEM disciplines. There are more women and minorities working in the biological sciences, so they do better in these environments because they see evidence of success. Students of diverse backgrounds see their reflection in these disciplines. The other fields have less diversity, and that leads students to feel isolated. One way to improve this is to provide mentors within the programs (teacher-student, student-student, and even STEM clubs). Bring several students into a STEM major with others of the same demographic. This "posse" model has been tremendously successful. With it, birds of a feather succeed together.

Computer science has one of the worst attrition rates and also has the least amount of diversity (in both gender and in race). I would add that very little has been done to make the general culture more suitable for those who are different. But there is a bright spot! Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California is showing that it is indeed possible to create a positive culture that increases diversity. Last year, Harvey Mudd reported more girls than boys in STEM. The college president, Marie Klawe, is a woman computer scientist who knows how to make the environment more hospitable. We can learn lots from her example.

One barrier that Harvey Mudd works hard to demolish is the "impostor" syndrome. Not seeing one's reflection in teachers or other students makes one feel as if she doesn't belong. The need for role models to help girls overcome the "impostor" syndrome cannot be emphasized enough, and those role models could range from teachers to television. (Hey, Hollywood, here is your chance to do something great!)

Joining the Club

For those who do not get a chance to benefit from the Harvey Mudd experience, there are other options. One way to overcome the unwelcoming environment in STEM is with STEM coding clubs in secondary schools, so that girls and minority students will gain expertise and confidence before college. Black Girls Code and other organizations provide opportunities for students to fall in love with coding, so that when they enter the bumpy STEM pipeline, they'll have a passion that fuels them to proceed through it. However, experience with coding does not eliminate the sense of exclusion.

Mathematics is not very diverse either. It's such a very, very difficult topic that many students will drop out despite their demographic. In fact, math is often viewed as a weed-out class to dissuade the unsure. Math instruction has a broken culture. The instructors often do not show real-world problems, focusing instead on the beauty of math for blossoming mathematicians. The beauty of math is a fine point of view, but not the point of view that will make sense for most students. They get discouraged, particularly since many of these young people, just entering college, are in a new environment and challenged in every possible way.

So the old STEM pipeline still needs major fixing. But we have some real ideas of how to do that. One approach to address the leaks is more mentoring, and by tuning the culture so that students don't feel excluded, or feel like impostors, or have to find the relevance of hard topics on their own. We need to do a better job of selling STEM -- and then be brave enough to make STEM classes irresistible.