Stem Majors switch gears


Many individuals will begin to pursue college degrees that they will not complete. Of the 2,211 students who enrolled as freshman at Northern Kentucky University in fall 2010, 1,466, or 66.3 percent, returned in fall 2011. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors constitute one group of majors that is of particular concern when it comes to retention.
According to a Nov. 4, 2011 article in The New York Times, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of students who begin college as STEM majors either switch degrees or fail to complete a degree at all.
According to physics and geology chair John Filaseta, the department of physics only retains about 50 percent of its majors beyond their first year. Changing majors is not a habit exclusive to STEM majors, though. Filaseta said that the average college student changes his or her major three times.

Sometimes students switch to other STEM majors, as was the case with senior physics and mathematics major Laura Brown. Brown wanted to go into optometry, so she enrolled at NKU as a chemistry major. However, the biology required for the degree was not clicking for her. So, after her third year, Brown switched her major to physics and mathematics.
Brown said that since switching majors, she has not had any struggles beyond the norm for any college student.
“It has gotten tougher, but that’s in the upper level stuff, where it’s supposed to get tougher,” Brown said.

According to biology chair Debra Pearce, about one-third of biology majors enroll in the program hoping to go to medical school. However, rigid GPA requirements lead many of those students to switch majors.

“What we try to do is to present to them what other career options are available with a biology degree,” Pearce said.
All biology majors are required to take biology 151, which gives students an overview of the major, according to Pearce. One thing students learn in the course is what different career opportunities the field has to offer.

Like biology, the mathematics and statistics department has a freshman seminar, which, according to mathematics and statistics chair Steven Wilkinson, gives students a “birds-eye view of the major.”
“When freshman come in, they’re not aware of all the possible majors they can go into,” Wilkinson said.

Although Wilkinson said the rate of math and statistics students switching majors is comparable to the rate cited by The New York Times, he said that once students make it past their first year, they tend to finish their degrees.

According to junior pre-med major Ginny Shelley, time management is a significant factor in students changing majors and is something she struggled with. Shelley said her own issues with time management and the workload for the major led her to consider switching to chemistry after her freshman year.
In addition to informing students of different career options, STEM faculty are exploring a variety of avenues to increase retention in their programs.
The mathematics and statistics department provides social events for students throughout the school year, including two luncheons per semester and a “Pi Day” celebration on March 14, according to Wilkinson.

Coordinator of engineering technology Morteza Sadat-Hossieny said the mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology and electronics engineering technology programs require students to do a co-op, which helps them apply what they learn in class.

According to Pearce, all biology students must see an advisor every semester to register for classes.
Sometimes, no matter how hard students try, or how many resources are offered to help them, a STEM major may just not be for them.
“Not everybody can be a pro basketball player, and not everyone is going to be good at chemistry,” said chemistry chair Diana McGill.

In spite of the high rate with which STEM students change majors, enrollment in STEM programs has been increasing. Since 2005, enrollment in physics, pre-engineering and geology has increased 32 percent, 100 percent and 83 percent, respectively.