Gas station without pumps

2011 November 5

STEM majors do not have extremely high attrition

The New York Times just printed an article by Christopher Drew about the huge attrition rate from STEM (science, technology, and math) majors at US universities: Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard).

According to statistics on entering students  (using fairly old numbers), of proposed engineering majors in freshman year only 16% graduated in their initially proposed major and 37% did not graduate at all. The overall did-not-graduate rate was 31%, with Art, Engineering, and Physical Sciences somewhat higher and Humanities and Social Sciences somewhat lower. Only 36% of the students graduating with an engineering major had proposed that major on entry: another 32% had proposed some other STEM major, and 23% had been undeclared.  Only 9% of the engineering graduates had been pulled from non-STEM initial choices.  But only 10% of humanities graduates, 9% of arts, and 16% of social sciences had initially proposed a STEM field, so I’m not seeing a lot crossing of C.P. Snow’s two-cultures barrier.  (The big shift into social sciences seems to be mainly from switches to “business management economics” with the second largest group into psychology.)

According to the statistics on 3rd year majors, 69% of 3rd-year engineering majors finish in that major, another 8% in some other STEM field,  12% in a non-STEM field, and 11% do not graduate. For 3rd majors in STEM fields as a whole, 54% graduate in their 3rd-year major, 28% in another STEM field,  8% in a non-STEM field, and 10% do not graduate. Only about 2% of non-STEM fields 3rd-year majors end up with STEM majors, so the transfers are not balanced—there is some leakage after the third year, but it is not a huge one. About 8% of non-STEM 3rd-year majors do not graduate, so the attrition rate is not much different in STEM and non-STEM fields.  The big attrition rate is from those who still have not declared a major by their third year—26% don’t graduate.

Therefore, I do not accept Christopher Drew’s thesis that the attrition of STEM majors is unusually high (at least not at UCSC)—it is similar to attrition in the arts and only somewhat higher than in humanities and social sciences.  A big part of the difference is due to the prerequisite structure which makes it difficult to transfer into the STEM fields after the first two years, but fairly easy to switch to other majors.

But if there is a problem and if engineering faculty are to fix the problem, it has to be by redesigning our curriculum and changing our courses—what we teach, how we teach it, or both. One idea that has been suggested (and is implied as the solution by Christopher Drew) is to have more project-based courses at the freshman and sophomore level.

Freshman year is pretty packed for UCSC engineers, with the 5 of the 9 course slots taken up by calculus, college core, and writing 1.  Of the 4 remaining slots, one is generally recommended to be general education, leaving 3 courses for making progress specific to the major.  For many students these are not even courses directly connected to their major, but necessary background classes in physics, chemistry, biology, discrete math, or computer programming.  While having an exciting project course freshman year would be good for recruiting students, I don’t know that it would help much with retention, which seems to be a bigger problem.

Does anyone have ideas on how to get more project-based learning into sophomore year? At UCSC, I’m particularly concerned about the bioengineering and bioinformatics majors, who have a broad, large-lecture, book-based experience their first two (or even three) years, though the senior year is pretty intense with projects.  I think that EE also suffers from not having projects and design experiences until the senior year. Computer Engineering and Robotics majors both get some pretty intense design classes their sophomore years, and the Game Design majors seem to have project-based classes also, though most intensely in the senior year.  The standard computer science major is pretty dry throughout, though, as there are essentially no project courses that call for the students to do design work, even in the senior year.


  1. I am no expert in engineering programs, but I do know that we have a local community college (Itasca Community College in northern Minnesota) that has an engineering program that is very hands-on and project-based from the very beginning. The program is aimed at rural students who traditionally would not have considered an engineering degree. We live in an area with job opportunities in mining and other related manufacturing industries.

    The program is very inclusive. It is not a weed-out program, as is the program at our main state uni., where they seem proud of the fact that half the kids that start as freshman drop out and switch majors. The program attracts kids with aptitude and interest in engineering, but not necessarily the math background (which the students then acquire in college). They are attracting kids who have great mechanical aptitude, experience with tinkering (cars, snowmobiles etc), and the general ability to figure out how to fix things. The program has been very successful and there is now a four-year engineering program at another area community college (for students in their junior/senior year). The program is located in Grand Rapids, MN.

    Itasca also runs a wonderful, and very inexpensive, engineering camp program for junior and senior high school students.

    The Science Museum of Minnesota does outreach programs at elementary schools throughout the state. I’ve talked to the staff when they’ve visited our local elementary schools, and they are always impressed at the ability of our rural kids to solve mechanical problems, something they do not see in most of the city kids they work with.

    Comment by Jodi S. — 2011 November 5 @ 05:42 | Reply

  2. You say your computer science major doesn’t have a lot of project-based work? That is sad. Any good CS program should be packed with projects. We do a large scale project in the software engineering course, which is pretty typical. I also have my students do a semester long project in the database course. That isn’t quite as common, but still, many schools do it. We also are involving our students with humanitarian open source projects. There are so many good ways to integrate project work in computer science.

    Comment by Bonnie MacKellar — 2011 November 5 @ 07:27 | Reply

    • I may have exaggerated the problem somewhat—I used to be in the computer engineering department and there was always some friendly rivalry between the departments. The CS department runs the game-design major, which is heavily project oriented. There are project-oriented courses (compilers, software engineering) in the CS major, but these seem to be mostly toy problems or highly artificial ones.

      I rarely see a CS poster at the undergrad research symposia, other than game design majors. Game design, computer engineering, bioengineering, and even electrical engineering manage to have several. Perhaps the problem is that the CS department relies on its grad students for projects, rather than involving undergrads. Or perhaps having a separate computer engineering department (which does both hardware and software) has let the CS department slide into a more theoretical mode (though there are several faculty and grad research groups doing highly practical, project-based work that could involve undergrads).

      I’ll send a link to this post to the CS faculty, in the hopes that they can rebut my claims—maybe things are more project-oriented there than I realize. I tend to see the CS courses now mainly third-hand, which could be causing considerable distortion of my views.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 November 5 @ 08:54 | Reply

  3. we have a solution ….. see and

    Comment by desmond Murray — 2011 November 5 @ 07:30 | Reply

  4. […] STEM majors do not have extremely high attrition ( […]

    Pingback by Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard) – | Odds and Ends: Pit's Complete Waste of Bandwidth — 2011 November 6 @ 06:41 | Reply

  5. I don’t have an engineering degree, so I can’t vouch for this approach first-hand, but my school has an approach similar to the first commenter’s. As you know, I teach at a technical college (2 years, algebra-based, students graduate as technicians or technologists). There are two Canadian universities that I know of that accept our grads into the third year of engineering. In both cases there is an intensive summer institute where they take crash courses in calculus (and other intro courses).

    Although calculus is clearly necessary for a thorough understanding of physical phenomena, it’s not clear to me that the computational techniques of calculus improve beginning students’ grasp of the meaning behind those phenomena (see for example this research where students taking calculus-based and algebra-based intro physics courses all posted fairly dismal scores on test questions like “will the first lamp in a series circuit be brighter than the second one”). I don’t teach the techniques of calculus, although I do introduce the concepts of limits, rates of change, and sum of infinite series as part of teaching charge times of capacitors, phase shift, and the frequency response of filters (for example). If the computational techniques of calculus are not helping students make sense of their learning, maybe they could be taught later in the curriculum, freeing up some time for projects. Corollary: if students aren’t using calculus to make sense of physical phenomena in their other classes, that means they are taking entire courses about a subject that they cannot link to the field they’ve chosen. I can’t prove that that experience makes people want to drop out, but I can’t imagine that it helps.

    In the first year of our program, our students do an individual project where they must design a two-stage amp, and a group project where they propose and project-manage a digital design. The amp is a toy, though useable. The digital projects tend to have a scope similar to hobbyists’ projects, but they’re a good stepping stone toward second year projects that are often done in collaboration with industry (mine, way back when, was a controller for an underwater winch that has since been deployed in the Arctic and the Azores).

    I’ve often wondered at the quality (actual as well as perceived) of these hybrid engineering programs (2 years tech school, 2.5 years university). If they are comparable to conventional programs, they are certainly a bargain ($2700 per year for tech school tuition is a significant savings).

    Comment by Mylene — 2011 November 6 @ 17:55 | Reply

    • California has community colleges, rather than technical colleges. The University of California gets some transfer students from them, but they generally have had no more project-based classes than students coming up through UC. And, because the community colleges are required to accept any adult, the teaching level for community college courses is sometimes quite low. (It is not supposed to be lower, but some teachers can’t help adapting to the level of students they have and reducing content and standards.)

      A hybrid engineering program where the first two years were spent on the sort of engineering you describe sounds great to me, but I can’t see it happening in California in the next decade.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 November 6 @ 19:28 | Reply

  6. […] STEM majors do not have extremely high attrition […]

    Pingback by Blog year in review « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 1 @ 14:17 | Reply

  7. […] STEM majors do not have extremely high attrition […]

    Pingback by Second Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2012 June 2 @ 18:16 | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: