Groundbreaking STEM study to expand with aid of $4.3 million grant

Early next month, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder will begin the painstaking process of interviewing hundreds of undergraduates in an effort to understand why the rates of students switching out of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors has remained troublingly high over the last couple of decades despite widespread efforts to address the problem.

The five-year, $4.3 million project, undertaken in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, replicates and expands on a study begun by a couple of CU-Boulder researchers two decades ago and published in 1997 as a book. “Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences” has since become a seminal text in the field of STEM education.

“Part of the reason why we’re undertaking this study is that the rate of students switching out of STEM majors has remained so persistent,” said Anne-Barrie Hunter, co-director of Ethnography and Evaluation Research at CU-Boulder and principal investigator for the Colorado research team. “Here we are now, 20 years on, and the rates are still roughly the same. They’re very, very stubborn.”

The study, which is being funded by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is the first to be based at CU-Boulder’s new Center for STEM Learning.

When the original study began in the early 1990s, the high rates of students leaving STEM majors — between 40 percent and 60 percent, depending on the discipline — were known, but the reasons for the switching were just conjecture. Some thought that the students who switched didn’t have the necessary ability to succeed in tough science classes, while others blamed teaching assistants with difficult-to-understand accents or the lack of experience of teaching assistants in general.

CU-Boulder researchers Nancy Hewitt and Elaine Seymour set out to determine whether any of the speculation was true by asking those who should know: the students. The pair led a research team that interviewed more than 400 undergraduates, both “switchers” and “persisters.”

“Our evidence didn’t support what they thought,” said Seymour, who also is involved with the new study. “We were really surprised.” As it turned out, “switchers” and “persisters” were equally bright and teaching assistants were often a much-needed lifeline for struggling students. Both sets of students faced the same set of challenges, the largest of which was the way science classes were taught.

“What we discovered was that an incoming interest in the sciences was dissipated over the course of the first two years by the way the courses were taught,” Seymour said. “The teaching in those days was predominantly stand-and-deliver lecturing.”

Since Seymour and Hewitt’s book was published, there has been a nationwide effort to improve the quality of undergraduate science education. “Change is going on all across the country,” Seymour said. “But it may not be sufficient to move the needle.”

For “Talking About Leaving Revisited,” the researchers will interview undergraduates at the seven institutions that hosted the original study to find out if the reasons for switching have changed. But the new study also will go further by interviewing course instructors, observing classroom teaching practices and analyzing the transcripts of students across institutions to look for patterns among switchers and persisters. When the study is concluded, the research team plans to publish another book.

Talking About Leaving Revisited is one of the inaugural grants affiliated with CU-Boulder’s Center for STEM Learning, which was officially formed in December. The center, which was organized over four years with the backing of a $1 million institutional transformation grant from the National Science Foundation, aims to provide an infrastructure that will support the more than 75 existing STEM education programs on campus and allow them to more easily collaborate.

“We will provide a network and support structure designed to catalyze and provide links among these people, ideas, tools and resources,” said physics Professor Noah Finkelstein, one of the people who helped lead the effort to create the new center.

The Center for STEM Learning, which also will strive to be a state, regional and national resource, has three main thrusts: to transform the way STEM classes are delivered, to support research into the best practices for STEM education, and to help recruit the brightest to become STEM teachers.

For more information on the study visit http://wceruw.org/projects/projects.php?project_num=956.

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