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You Were Once a Science Major, Too?

The Times had a story the other day on the attrition of science-loving students at universities — Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard):

The excitement [of studying science in high school] quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls “the math-science death march.” Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.[Emphasis added]

I wondered how Dartmouth did in this area. Not well, it turns out. Although anywhere from 41-44% of incoming freshmen over the past few years have hoped to major in one of the sciences:

Science 1.png

Science 2a.png

only 20% end up doing so (a figure that includes double majors), down from 26% a decade ago:

Science 3a.png

A third of the refugees go to the Humanities and the remainder to the Social Sciences.

In objective terms, this situation is a crisis. At the very least, it an area where Dartmouth could do a much better job, and an innovative one at that. But, as with so many other parts of the College, the word from faculty members is that efforts at reforming the curriculum in any way, or in developing non-standard courses, have met the usual response from Lord Foltemort: “we have no money” (translation: “I am afraid to try anything new!”).

Addendum: An example of an interesting, hands-on science course, even though it is destined for non-majors is ENGS 8: Materials in Sports Equipment. This offering will be Professor Rachel Obbard’s first solo course.

Addendum: An acute observer of the College’s affairs shares her thoughts:

What the Times omitted is the pernicious effect of premed. Because biology, chemistry and mathematics all have compulsory enrollments through premed, they have no incentive to improve their teaching. They also favor large, impersonal classes. Of course they give lower grades: the students flock in any case, and they justify their role as pre-selectors for medicine. The whole thing has badly damaged collegiate science education in this country.


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