Stressing STEM

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November 20, 2014

9:11 PM

Many students believe that introductory STEM courses at the College of William and Mary are designed to weed out less dedicated students. Whether this is true, the difficulty of these courses drives away interested students. America needs workers in STEM fields — more than its universities are producing. Thus, the College’s STEM departments ought to improve the educational experience they provide to introductory students in order to increase retention — without making the courses easier.

There are undoubtedly many resources available to struggling freshmen in STEM courses, including review sessions, study notes and office hours. However, the freshmen experience can be one of panic, confusion and overload. Approaching a professor during office hours is a difficult thing in a class of over 100 students. And acclimating to a new environment exhausts much of a student’s emotional and cognitive energy. Professors in STEM departments should provide easily-accessible study materials — syllabi, PowerPoints and class notes — prior to both fall and spring semesters, so that interested students, less occupied with the stresses of freshman year, can prepare.

That said, in the summer, freshmen may not know what courses they will take, and may not know about or use those review materials; it is during the chaotic week of registration that students ultimately choose their courses. The same ambition and overachieving spirit that gets students accepted to the College often leads them to register for extremely difficult courses, or more than they can conceivably handle as first semester freshmen. Here, pre-major advising can help, discouraging freshmen from taking too many credits and cautioning about introductory science courses. The idea is not to dissuade students from taking STEM courses, but to provide them as much information as possible with which to make informed decisions during a period of extreme vulnerability.

Another option would be for STEM departments to offer remedial courses, either during or between semesters. Students come to the College with varying levels of knowledge and familiarity with core concepts. They also come with varying levels of academic readiness. The administration requires all students to take a freshmen seminar to improve the quality of their writing; STEM departments could do something similar, ensuring that all students have a strong foundation in their subject. Those with an already-strong grasp of the material could test out of the course. While an additional course would add to students’ major requirements, it might better prepare them for more difficult classes and encourage them to continue in the field.

The difficulty of STEM majors cannot be denied. Regardless, STEM departments should provide interested incoming students with every opportunity to succeed — and those opportunities should be consistent with the inherent stress and anxiety that come with being a freshman at the College. That STEM departments’ budgets are tied to retention makes this even more crucial.

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