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Breaking Away

Margaret Eisenhart

Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences. Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt. 429 pp. Westview Press, 1997. $55.

Lest there be any doubt, undergraduate students switch out of college programs in science, engineering and mathematics in staggering numbers. Approximately 40 percent of those who begin in engineering switch to nonscience, nontechnical majors; 50 percent abandon the physical and biological sciences for nonscience fields; and 60 percent give up on mathematics. The losses occur among the best qualified students and disproportionately among women and students of color. These findings and some disturbing reasons for them are the subject of Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt's comprehensive new book.

Talking About Leaving is based on a three-year study of enrollment patterns and interview responses of 335 students on seven quite diverse campuses (approximately 55 percent of the students switched entirely out of science, engineering or mathematics during college). The results dispel some common beliefs about why undergraduates leave science, mathematics and engineering (the "S.M.E." fields). First, contrary to the opinions of many who think that students switch because they cannot handle the academic demands, Seymour and Hewitt found no appreciable differences in academic preparation or performance between switchers and nonswitchers. Academically accomplished students were as likely to switch as weaker students, and those who switched out did so only after expending considerable time, energy and money. Further, students themselves did not attribute their behavior to limited ability, lack of adequate preparation or a desire not to work hard. Instead, the four most common reasons students gave for switching were: a loss of interest in the subject matter of S.M.E. fields; the belief that a non-S.M.E. major would be more interesting or offer a better education; poor teaching by S.M.E. faculty; and feeling overwhelmed by what students considered the unnecessarily demanding pace and load of S.M.E. curricula. Of the 23 complaints (or "factors") given by students contemplating switching, all but seven criticized faculty teaching, advising, assessment practices or curriculum design. Apparently, students are very disappointed with college S.M.E. courses and professors—comparing them unfavorably both to high school science teachers and to professors in other college disciplines.

The most compelling parts of Talking About Leaving are the voices of students. Their statements, used liberally throughout the book, convey a deep sense of their frustration and disillusionment with the science, mathematics and engineering they experience in college. Their critiques are sharp, and their comparisons to other courses, teachers and fields, telling. What these students have to say ought to be a wake-up call for college administrators, department chairs and professors of science, mathematics and engineering. If they wish to motivate more students to continue, they must seriously consider new forms of pedagogy that interest and sustain students. Apparently, students find that high school science and mathematics teachers, as well as professors in nonscience fields, are much better at doing this than their college S.M.E. professors.

In spite of the importance of Seymour and Hewitt's findings and the poignancy of the student voices, Talking About Leaving is a hard book to appreciate. The chapters list, in prosaic form, categories of student comments. Details of the results are presented at considerable length, including subgroup variations and nuanced differences in perspective, yet little time is spent on integrative summaries, interpretations or hypotheses that could contribute to better explanations for both the variations and the general patterns. Intending to explain patterns of switching, Seymour and Hewitt discovered no factor that clearly distinguished switchers from nonswitchers. All students, switchers and nonswitchers, complained about poor pedagogy. In consequence, the authors end with the unsatisfying conclusion that nonswitchers were simply better able to cope with poor pedagogy than switchers and the too facile (but still very important) policy recommendation to improve college teaching. It would have been most helpful if Seymour and Hewitt had integrated their results with those of others who have exposed such things as the norms regarding a "good scientist" on campus, the actual consequences for students of pursuing greedy majors like those in science, mathematics or engineering, and the competing demands of campus peer groups. These studies suggest how long-standing structural and cultural traditions affect students' experience of S.M.E. fields, their inclination to switch and the obstacles to increased success. Talking About Leaving does the important work of contributing the perspectives of students. The work of integrating student perspectives with the structural and cultural conditions that affect them remains to be done.—Margaret Eisenhart, Education, University of Colorado at Boulder



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