Weeding Out Students In Stem

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Students and College of Science faculty describe their experiences with STEM


As the fall semester slowly begins to wrap up, most students are beginning to sign up for the classes they will take next semester. Many plan on advancing to upper-level classes that complete their degree requirements. However, some STEM students will find themselves unable to advance like their peers.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are known to be difficult fields that involve the development of key skills such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, computational analysis and mathematical modeling. Although gaining these skills are useful for one’s career, the rigorous curriculum of STEM courses can hinder students from completing their major requirements.

About half of undergraduate STEM degree candidates leave their field before completing a bachelor’s degree, according to a report by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. One of the reasons may be “weed-out” classes, which are typically large entry-level courses designed to be difficult so that students can decide whether they wish to continue in their field.

Diana Guillen-Piazza, a learning assistant for Human Geography and student advisor for the Department of Geography and GeoInformation Science, shared her thoughts on why some STEM students do not make it through.

“I think the big scare for STEM students is math,” said Guillen-Piazza. “[For example], calculus weeds people out. Many of my peers have complained about general and organic chemistry, and have switched to pursuing a liberal arts degree.”

“I think they weed out the class because they over-stack, and they don’t focus on students’ learning,” Guillen-Piazza continued. “The problem is that you have 60 people for one class that is already hard, and you can’t really help the student unless students are attending office hours.”

Guillen-Piazza was a double major and double minor who went through her own share of tough classes. She offered advice to students who find themselves discouraged by problems with their STEM classes.

“Find something you’re passionate about, and [start] reaching out if you’re getting jaded,” Guillen-Piazza stated. “It’s up to the student. If they want it bad enough, [they] can get through it. It’s important to have self-motivation. If you quit halfway through, you’re [never] going to know how far you could’ve gone.”

Most difficult STEM classes reside in freshmen, or entry level classes. Most people believe they design entry level classes to be difficult in order to weed out students who do not try enough, or are not passionate enough to go into the STEM field. A course notorious for failing students at Mason is Chemistry 211.

A speculated reason why chemistry students fail is because most students that take entry level STEM courses are freshmen at Mason. They have just recently graduated from high school. Therefore, they are unaware of the difficulty of the course and are not able to pick up the rapid pace of college.

One potential weed-out course at Mason is General Chemistry I. An anonymous student, who will go by the pseudonym Elizabeth, came forward about dropping the course’s laboratory twice since being at Mason.

“I feel as though the [Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry] grades too harshly in lab and they don’t do a great job at presenting the material in lecture,” said Elizabeth. “They don’t give students the opportunity to excel when they’re constantly taking off points for things as silly as format. I don’t believe [the] grades that people are given are a representation of their ability, because classes have a class average of a 50 percent on every exam, and then they curve up to a B for everyone’s final grade.”

Elizabeth continued, “It’s hard to gauge how well you’re going to do when your grade is so deflated, and that’s why I feel like a lot of students drop. [My lab partner] dropped for the same reasons.”

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry declined to comment.

Some argue that it is not the difficulty of the courses that are making students fail, but rather that the students are setting themselves up for failure by not putting in the effort needed. An anonymous source, who will go by the pseudonym Lilly, shared her opinion.

“[The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry] doesn’t want their students to fail,” Lilly said. “It’s all about studying and putting in the extra effort. [Chemistry laboratory] is designed to be challenging, because that is simply life.”

Mason offers multiple sources of support and tutoring for science students. One way the school does this is through groups like the The STEM Accelerator program, which was created by the College of Science in 2011 to focus on the success of undergraduate students, according to the program’s website. One of its goals is to improve retention rates among STEM students.

Dr. Rosenberg, director of STEM Accelerator, said that her team has not seen a large decrease in STEM students, but rather an increase.

“We do not design classes to be difficult or to weed out students,” said Dr. Rosenberg. “The College of Science is dedicated to the success of our students. Because these are intrinsically difficult classes, that is the nature of the material, not something we have created.”

Additional resources such as learning assistants, undergraduate students who conduct peer-to-peer tutoring and mentoring, and the Chemistry Tutoring Center offer assistance to struggling students.