Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees is generated from many white papers compiled on a multitude of factors affecting undergraduate STEM student success. The data extracted from these white papers illuminates the numerous influences that can affect STEM degree attainment. The book begins with two overarching questions: (1) Why do so many students who start out pursuing STEM lose interested before degree completion, and (2) How can we improve the quality of the STEM educational experience? The authors go a step further and identify several common barriers to STEM education success: poor advising; not prepared for rigor; stereotypes from faculty or peers; unwelcome environments; and uninspired teaching.
Early on in the book, we are re-acquainted with some hopeful facts and figures that are likely familiar. For instance, those holding STEM degrees have higher salaries and lower levels of unemployment than other fields. Also, the pay gap between male and female workers is less for those holding STEM degrees than other fields. And in the classroom, with much praise to the Vision and Change Call to Action, best practices such as active learning, group work, and feedback from instructors have shown improvements in the learning and culture in STEM classrooms. The first chapter also points out some tidbits that may be less widely known. Did you know that most people with STEM degrees are not working in STEM fields? And that there are more minority and single parent students pursuing STEM degrees than ever before? Interestingly, in active learning environments, the achievement gap between black and white students is decreasing. Furthermore, the achievement gap between first-generation and traditional students was eliminated altogether!
But after that, the picture starts to get a bit grim, particularly for two-year college STEM students. Two-year college students make up over 40 percent of the total undergraduate population, yet two-year college STEM students are switching out of STEM majors at higher rates than their four-year college counterparts. Unfortunately, the authors did not provide any reasons for this attrition or possible solutions. However, they did provide several excuses: it is natural that some students would switch out, and perhaps students are switching to majors that are more suited to their perceived abilities.
This is in direct contradiction to an earlier statement in the book that we (students, advisors, instructors, administrators) should not base students' chance of STEM success on their perceived natural abilities. I thought they made a good point in this section, as they mention that perceived abilities are most likely attributed to early exposure to science and math. Since it is likely that students in low socio-economic environments for their primary and secondary education would not have early exposure opportunities, they would never even have the chance to build their abilities in science and math aptitude.
The most interesting aspect of the book is the discussion of the role that the “culture of science” plays in pushing students out of STEM. The idea that some students are naturally inclined toward science are outdated, but still largely perpetuated. The lack of visible scientists of color has a negative impact on the perceptions of students of color. The highly competitive nature of introductory science courses and the rigid structure of course sequencing delays movement through the majors. Institutions do not incentivize and rarely support the use of best practices and professional development. Even if institutions invested in this area, this is unlikely to make a large impact, because these practices have been shown to be most effective in introductory-level courses, which are widely taught by part-time instructors who typically don't have access to institutional professional development programs.
In the end, the authors assert that research shows that STEM classrooms can be unwelcoming. But they also make it clear that there is not enough data to really understand the effect of barriers or best practices in STEM education. If you consider yourself an engaged instructor and use best practices in science education in your classrooms and labs, this is probably not the book for you. However, if you are looking for data to support funding and programming for STEM retention and success programs on your campus, or if you are an administrator who would like to support or promote such efforts, then this book has all the data you need to build a strong case for the work ahead.