How to Stem the Loss of STEM Students

June 9, 2020

New research by Professor Paul Attewell and alumnus Dirk Witteveen debunks some beliefs and suggests new ways to address inequity in STEM education.

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Is there really a “leaky pipeline” in STEM education? The phrase describes students who start out in STEM fields but end up changing majors. A new study in Science Education challenges the “leaky pipeline” notion, however, showing that the number of students switching into STEM majors is about the same as those switching out. The findings also suggest that students who do give up on STEM might be discouraged by low grades. 

Paul Attewell faculty

The research was co-authored by Professor Paul Attewell (Urban Education, Sociology, Social Welfare) and Dirk Witteveen, who earned his Ph.D. in sociology (Class of 2019) at The Graduate Center and is now doing post-doctoral research at Oxford University. Attewell spoke to The Graduate Center about the study, which analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Graduate Center: Why did you decide to study this particular phenomenon?

Attewell: My general interest is in the ways that inequalities play themselves out in higher education, the gaps in educational opportunity, and the barriers that low-income students face when they enter college. 

One area that has received a lot of attention is STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math). Graduates with STEM degrees earn more money on average than graduates with other majors. But fewer low-income and minority students and fewer women go into STEM. So why are they missing out on this opportunity? What forces prevent them?

Prior research has characterized STEM as a "leaky pipeline" — meaning that a lot of students who initially are interested in STEM courses leave either for a different major or they drop out of college altogether. Dirk and I wanted to understand why this was the case and how this process worked.

GC: How would you summarize your findings?

Attewell: We found two things. First, the image of a leaky pipeline is misleading: About as many students move into STEM majors from other majors as go in the other direction. 

Second, an undergraduate aiming at a STEM degree is likely to earn considerably lower grades in STEM courses than in other courses. We call this a "STEM penalty." This grade penalty occurs for very strong students who take STEM as well as less well-prepared students. It amounts to a kind of "STEM bootcamp" — to succeed and graduate with a STEM degree, students face several semesters of lower grades. In our view, that grade penalty is an important part of what causes so many undergrads to shift out of STEM because they get discouraged.

GC: What's the takeaway?

Attewell: Science faculty and policy makers who decry the low numbers of American undergraduates who opt for STEM degrees need to understand that STEM faculty are doing this to ourselves. Undergraduates are being discouraged from pursuing STEM majors by the lower grades that STEM faculty routinely hand out in their courses. 

Somehow STEM faculty have come to congratulate themselves on being tough in their grading policies. What they don’t realize is that their tough grading norms are turning away students from STEM, not just the academically weak students but also the strongest students. Students read messages into their grades. If they consistently do better in their non-STEM courses than in their STEM courses, students interpret this as saying that they should follow their areas of strength and not choose a STEM major.

GC: Race was not a focus of this study, but given our current political crisis and the urgent, growing movement to combat racial inequities in the U.S., what should we know about race and STEM? 

Attewell: Black and Hispanic undergraduates are less likely to major in most STEM fields. The same has been true of women. A lot of research has looked at whether depictions of scientists as white males may affect how women and minorities feel about entering STEM fields. Other research looks at how comfortable such students are when or if they do undertake a STEM career. 

These factors are relevant, but in my judgment, minority students are often discouraged from STEM when they have weak math skills and a sense that they won’t be able to succeed in STEM. Many students of all ethnicities enter college with weak math skills — which is why so many undergrads take remedial math. STEM majors typically require a lot of math courses. Add to this the STEM grade penalty, discussed above, and you can understand why women and minority students are underrepresented in many STEM fields.

GC: Any advice for CUNY students about pursuing STEM? 

Attewell: My advice for prospective STEM majors is to try to improve your math skills before you enroll in math-heavy courses. In the summer before you start college, either study online, or take a calculus course at a community college, or brush up on your algebra, so that you can focus on the STEM content and not get frustrated by the math content. Once enrolled in STEM courses, don’t hesitate to form study groups with other students, or to use campus supports such as tutoring services. You may get disappointing grades in your STEM courses. If you can, stick with it.

GC: Any advice for CUNY faculty in STEM fields? 

Attewell: Please recognize that the students in your classes are usually among the highest performing and best prepared of CUNY's undergraduates. Being a tough grader not only pushes away the academically weakest students from your discipline, it also discourages some very accomplished and hard-working undergraduates, and leads many to shift out of STEM. 

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.