How Universities Can Help STEM Students Succeed

Photo by John Phelan


Across the country, millions of students will be filling the lecture halls of introductory science and engineering courses, many of them eager to declare majors in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). However, if the national average holds true, come graduation, 40 percent of the initial hopefuls will have failed to follow through with their STEM majors.


As a recent biology graduate, I have seen a fair number of my high school and college peers give up their STEM majors after a series of disappointing grades. While they may have been honor students in high school, excelling in college science courses is no easy feat. First of all, by definition, half of all students, including many former honor students, will score below the median. For many, the assigned coursework may vex them for the first time in their lives, the shock of which may impel them to abandon their STEM majors. Furthermore, compared with more advanced courses, the enrollment in introductory courses in STEM are often huge, meaning that students are most likely to slip through the cracks at the very onset of their STEM trajectory.


Studying science at a college level requires both understanding and application; rote memorization, while richly rewarded in AP, IB and SAT II subject tests, is not enough. Adapting to a college science course requires students to devise new methods of approaching and internalizing the course material in a short period of time.


And while many students view college as a fresh start, academic advantages from high school will carry over. The honors student from elite prep school or the public magnet will probably have a head start over the student from the inner city. Students who have taken honors, IB or AP biology chemistry, physics or calculus will have the edge over those who are completely new to the material. The students who have performed research during high school will have a better understanding of how to excel in lab sections. Considering that upper-level science courses build upon concepts taught in introductory courses, a solid foundation of the fundamentals is critical for future success. A shaky foundation may thus derail a student’s path to completing a STEM major.


While there is no easy fix, universities themselves could do their part in leveling the playing field to incentivize more STEM graduates. First, universities should even the grading disparity between STEM and non-STEM courses that encourages students to abandon science majors.


Furthermore, major departments that have mandatory introductory courses could consider making these classes pass/fail for all enrolled students to allow for a period of academic and social adjustment for new students. For instance, STEM-focused universities such as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology require incoming freshmen to take all of their courses on a pass/fail basis for the first one or two terms, enabling students to understand the academic expectations of their institutions and focus on improving their study methods with minimal stress.


Most importantly, however, colleges and STEM departments should focus on preparing individual students before courses even begin. For instance, universities could offer prospective science majors a crash course or seminars on basic study methods and time management methods, so that students will not be caught unaware. STEM departments could also arrange formal or informal peer mentorships between incoming students and upperclassmen who have passed through the academic hoops to create a lasting support structure within the major itself.


Science skills are crucial to our future as a society and as a nation. The responsibility to meet many of the biggest challenges of our century will rest on the shoulders of our scientists. And yet, every year millions of students give up studying science. Considering that not all high school graduates are equal, college is the place to make science courses more accessible for more potential STEM graduates.


A version of the article was previously published in The Dartmouth


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Check out my new book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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