Colleges Fight to Retain Interest of STEM Majors

Kelsey Sheehy

Experts estimate that less than 40 percent of students who enter college as STEM majors actually wind up earning a degree in science, technology, engineering or math.

Those who don't make it to the finish line typically change course early on. Just ask Mallory Hytes Hagan, better known as Miss America 2013.

Hagan enrolled at Auburn University as a biomedical science major, but transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology a year later to pursue a career in cosmetics and fragrance marketing.

"I found out I wasn't as prepared as I should be," Hagan said during a panel discussion today at the 2013 U.S. News STEM Solutions conference in Austin. "I hit that first chem lab and thought, 'Whoa. What's going on?'"

[Discover which top-ranked colleges grant the most STEM degrees.]

Her story is a common one. New STEM students often feel isolated, discouraged and overwhelmed when they get to college, but several schools are making strides to reverse that trend.

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana is one of those schools. The private college uses small class sizes to help foster connections between professors and students, said Phillip Cornwell, vice president of academic affairs at Rose-Hulman, during a separate panel on STEM majors at Tuesday's conference.

"Rather than having a single class of 200, we'll have eight sessions of 30, all taught by professors," Cornwell said.

The intimate classroom setting helps professors identify who is struggling before they drop the class or switch majors, he added.

Additionally, Rose-Hulman surveys each faculty member and resident adviser working with freshmen to identify academic and attendance issues. The school also has a retention task force, which meets biweekly to look at where and why they lose students, and figure out ways to plug the leak, Cornwell said.

[Learn why the STEM disconnect leaves women, minorities behind.]

Making course work relevant for students as early as possible is one of the ways the academic development program Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement helps ensure STEM students progress through college. Administered by the University of California school system, MESA serves mostly low-income, first-generation college students.

"For the communities we're working with, there is very little knowledge of what it may be like to be a scientist or engineer," said Oscar Porter, the program's executive director, during the panel on STEM majors.

Getting students engaged in their career path early on through internships and lab time is essential to student retention, said Porter.

For students in the MESA program, that may mean visiting Driscoll's in Watsonville, Calif. One of the world's largest berry suppliers, Driscoll's is a major employer in the area and relies heavily on immigrant farm workers.

Instead of walking the fields, students spend time in the laboratory, Porter said.

"They get to think of themselves as scientists while, in many cases, their parents are working in the fields right outside," he said.

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