George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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.

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Chris Shamburg's picture
Chris Shamburg
Professor and Coordinator of the Doctoral Program in Educational Technology Leadership at New Jersey City University


Well said. One new area that we are working on to address this is the applications of e-textiles and wearable technologies in education. We've been doing some pilot projects on using e-textile kits with elementary school students, and we've had a lot of success (compared to using robotics or microcontrollers). In October 2014 we're rolling out an initiative to develop more applications and get some research on this in our Wearable Technology Education Incubator. If you're in Jersey City, stop by for a visit. --Chris

LisaCClark's picture
Marketer, Product Designer, Founder, STEM Advocate, Advisor

Hello Ainissa,

A colleague posted your excellent article on LinkedIn.

Yes, the White House report is alarming. Yes, there's much published by women recently (engineers and scientists especially) about unwelcoming, hostile or demeaning environments. And yes, many in LinkedIn edu groups are asking why and what can be done -- then they focus on training teachers in STEM or focus on high school students.

I've observed, as did Susan Hockfield, formerly of MIT and with whom I shared the stage at a Qualcomm talk about girls and women in STEM in the past two years, that STEM learning needs to begin much younger, in elementary school and earlier, in play activities and in identification of initial passions and sparks, and needs to be talked about and celebrated right then -- because every person successfully practices math and physics in various ways every day of our lives but it isn't recognized or bolstered.

At the Qualcomm event, including an audience of hundreds of middle school girls, I reminded them that just in the act of pulling down their auditorium seat cushions they'd successfully practiced physics.

A cursory review of the dozens of children's "classic games" Wiki list reveals that every one of them involves math and/or physics.

Starting this young is where mentors and sponsors are needed. This is where a universally recognized STEM edu roadmap needs to start, pre-K-20. This is where neighborhood workshops and labs, and local neighborhood/town "STEM Tours" are needed to take advantage of available (read: free) environments to recognize STEM as ubiquitous in kids' worlds and not just classroom topics. This is where (young) adult STEM professionals weekly campus visits (all year) and internships are a quick-fix on middle and high school campuses -- all so that Harvey Mudd College eventually doesn't look like such an anomaly.

I appreciate your article and welcome your thoughts.

DrPamMcCauley's picture
Dr. Pamela McCauley is a nationally recognized speaker, an award winning educator, and a full Professor in the Dept of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at UCF where she leads the Human Factors in Disaster Management Team

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do a better job of featuring more STEM role models at all levels of education and we need to work together to create an environment that mentors and retains females and minorities in STEM. I speak on this topic regularly at schools, conferences and at universities across the nation and highlight strategies for success for the individual and for institutions and corporations looking to develop innovative leadership. You hit on the very important topic of mentoring that is critical for success.
What can you start doing in high school, college, or even after graduating to transition into STEM fields?
o High school: take STEM classes EVERY year; join organizations that focus on STEM careers; seek an Undergraduate Research Experience at a local university. Many of these are paid opportunities as these grants often are funded by the national Science Foundation. This will also increase your opportunities for scholarships and paid undergraduate work in your area when you enter college
o College: stay in a STEM major even if you have difficulty with some of the classes; get a mentor; don't' wait until your grades fail to GET A TUTOR! A tutor is always a good idea with rigorous STEM classes; join your professional organizations; get to know your professors - i.e. ask for an opportunity to work in their lab or participate in undergraduate research; seek a summer opportunity that is a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU); these are national opportunities and NSF funds these programs so they are paid summer experiences; this is vitally important if you're considering going to graduate school.
o After graduating - find a job that allows you to gain some relevant STEM experience; if you can't find one consider volunteering a few hours a week in an area related to your desired STEM career; join professional organizations in your STEM area and attend conferences in your area

Rob Knop's picture

I want to disagree with one point. I fully agree with all the role model and imposter syndrome points, and don't want to disagree with any of those, so I hope I own't be portrayed as disagreeing with that.

This, however, is the point I want to disagree with: "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."

I strongly disagree that this is a broken culture. It may well be that a lot of things aren't done well. But I don't think that the goals and ideas behind doing this are the wrong goals and ideas. However, I'm also coming at this from perhaps a different point of view. That is, from the point of view of liberal arts education, as opposed to the point of view of training people for specific careers. Recognizing that those are two different points of view, *and* that serving those two different goals may well require differenet methodologies, is something important that's been completely lost in higher education today, I believe.

Saying that math classes are broken because they focus on the beauty of math, to my mind, is basically the same as saying that English classes are broken because they focus on the appreciating, undersatnding, interpreting, and making deep conections in literature, instead of focusing entirely on how one crafts prose so that one can convince somebody of a political position or so that on can obtain grant funding. If you're just doing the latter, are you really even taking an English class any more?

The beauty of mathematical structure is what math is *about*. Saying that math classes should not teach that is saying that you should not teach math, ultimately. It's similar to the differene between knowing how to use existing software on computers, and understanding how they work and the ideas behind creatively designing software. Yes, absolutely, there's a role for classes that teach you how to use the results of mathematics as a tool for manipulating real world problems, just as there's a role for pure-writing classes that teach you how to craft prose without all that "wasting time" on strange, complicated, and (to many) seemingly pointless pontificating about symbolism and character that you find in English classes. But if you just focus on the tool aspect of these things, then you're losing what the subject is about.

Yes, you could argue that that deeper appreciation of mathematics is lost on those who aren't going to be actual mathematicians. But, again, from a liberal-arts point of view, that's a very restrictive view. The point of a liberal-arts education is that you get broadly educated, and you understand something about the range of human intellectual achievement. We shouldn't restrict an introduction to a deep undersatnding of human literature to English majors, and likewise it would be very sad and terribly exclusive to put a "Mathematicians Only" sign in front of a deeper understanding of what math is beyond a tool for technology. These are important parts human intellectual achievement, and somebody who is broadly educated -- as opposed to simply trained for a career -- should at least be passingly familiar with them.

From the point of view of STEM, saying that math is broken when it's about math instead of how to use math only for real-world problems is taking both of the S and M out of STEM and leaving just TE... and, of the two of those, only the E is an actual academic discipline.

Yes, all kinds of education (physics being the one that I am involved in myself, but also math) can be improved. Yes, there is a place for purely technical classes where people learn recipies for doing stuff in the real world. But there is also a place for understanding the beauty and nature of subjects, and this latter understanding is crucial for a liberal-arts education. So when I teach physics or math, it's not just going to be "here is how you use this stuff for real-world applications". It's also going to be what the subject is *about*. It's unfair to students to deprive them of the latter, because that's part of the promise of a liberal-arts education. (And, I should note that I consider science and math to be integral parts of the liberal arts, as part of human intellectual achievement. Indeed, if you look at the original (and much outdated) definition of the liberal arts, science and math is fully integrated.)

Part of the problem is not just figuring out how to teach "actual math" well, but also understanding that when somebody *does* want a purely technical education, funnelling them through a liberal-arts-designed curriculum is probably not the best thing to do. However, part of it is also recognizing that education is about expanding your mind more than about learning how to do things.

(As an aside, and as a reason why I think those interested in STEM careers should still seriously consider the liberal-arts route, I honestly believe, without proof, that those who go through the English classes that think about literature in real ways are ultimately more likely to end up as better writers than those who take pure-writing classes... and I believe the same is true of math. If you *get* math as more than a bunch of equations and tools and techniques, you're likely to be able use it more effectively and broadly as a tool later.)

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

We are going to have to agree to disagree. My article is based on data and personal experience as a student of STEM (my Ph.D. is from Stanford in Materials Science and Engineering) and as a professor of engineering (I taught at Yale University and witness bade math classes all the time). Math could do a better job at presenting itself and your energies would be a great addition to doing that.

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

Thanks for your thoughts. I know Susan Hockfield well and I appreciate her position and yours. I think my stance is similar in that we must start to encourage students earlier (and that is where my work lies). I've spelled out how to lather children with STEM in my TED Book 'Save Our Science." I would say we need science in television shows (and not like Big Bang theory, but in the common ways we use it as you describe). I think we need School House Rocks for science for this generation. We need tinker spaces everywhere. We need cities to claim themselves as Maker cities and make it part of the culture. Everyone can help at every level. You might want to look at the last few pages of this short book for a list of ideas. My plan is to hit students with STEM in every direction so that it is commonplace and has less stigma and is even fun. Thanks for your comments and your work.

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