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The Pipeline: Still Leaking

Fiona Goodchild

Running into Roadblocks

When we tracked the progress of former interns, we ran into questions about the nature of the next step after high school or community college—undergraduate science and engineering. We heard reports of competitive and intimidating introductory courses, and of textbook-oriented teaching that was disconnected from the problems that they had worked on in research labs. High school teachers were disappointed to find that their most promising science students reported that they were switching out of undergraduate science. Had we created unrealistic expectations? A more plausible explanation seemed to be that these young students had encountered the traditional mining-and-sorting approach that underpins many courses that select for only the "best and the brightest" and therefore require that students be graded on a curve. Our projects were based on the assumption that it would be useful for all students to understand the value of scientific thinking. Their college courses made it clear that only certain students would be selected as majors or prospective graduate students.

Figure 2. Between 1975 and 1999 . . .Click to Enlarge Image

The new NSB report confirms the bottleneck at the undergraduate-degree level. Between 1985 and 2000 the number of baccalaureate degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, excluding biology, fell by 18.6 percent. Once young students arrive in community college and undergraduate courses, serious attrition occurs. As this report documents, fewer than half of those students intending to major in science and engineering fields complete that degree within five years. Members of underrepresented minorities drop out at a higher rate than other groups. The trend for participation by domestic students is downward. The U.S. has slipped from third to thirteenth place in terms of undergraduate completion of STEM degrees since 1975.

Does the report reveal what the disincentives and obstacles may be? The section on college programs argues for the necessary equipment and resources to teach laboratory courses and calls for "modification of the educational environment, particularly better teaching and advising" to improve the nature of introductory courses and the focus on the individual student. However, it does not explore what modifications are required and what specific problems may be causing students to lose interest in studying science.

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