Students consider putting down the calculator

STEM professors, administrators make efforts to retain struggling engineers

By Margaret Young

Published: Sunday, November 13, 2011

Updated: Monday, November 14, 2011

STEM struggles

Daily File Photo

Many STEM students struggle with their courses when they first arrive at Tufts.

This past Thursday, a procession of pale, tired students in varying states of panic and despair trudged through the lobby of Cohen Auditorium following the end of their latest Biology 13 exam. The looks on their faces aren't hard to find on college students in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields everywhere. A college education in science or math is a lot of work, and the strain is showing in the numbers as students flock away from STEM majors into the humanities. According to a New York Times article published last month, nearly 40 percents of students who plan to major in a STEM field at the time of matriculation switch their major or fail to obtain any degree whatsoever.

STEM student numbers at Tufts, at least in engineering, are defying this trend, according to Dean of the School of Engineering Linda Abriola. In fact, Abriola said, the net attrition rate from the engineering school is 0 percent, meaning that the amount of students who enter and leave the school evens.

This doesn't mean, however, that defects from science and engineering majors are hard to find, or that they regret their decision to put down their solutions manual and pick up a novel.

Junior Seth Hurwitz, who switched out of the School of Engineering to pursue a major in English, said his initial decision to apply to the School of Engineering at Tufts was somewhat spontaneous to begin with.

"When I was in high school … ‘green tech' was a buzz [phrase], and I was very intrigued by that, even though I didn't have a background in engineering," he said. "So I took an engineering−type class that was pretty easy in high school, and applied to the Tufts engineering school figuring that I would like building things that are better for the earth."

However, as the first semester of his freshman year progressed, Hurwitz realized that engineering did not appeal to him as much as he had anticipated. Finding it difficult to get engaged in his his introductory engineering courses, he struggled to succeed.

"The learning curve was really simple as long as you did the work, I was just so turned off by the subject," he said. "For me, when it should have been progressing at a steady rate of difficulty, it just got more and more difficult."

"I always knew that my favorite subject was English and that I loved writing papers more than math and all of that stuff. By the end of the semester, I realized that I didn't like it at all, so I started taking philosophy and English classes and enjoyed all of them."

Associate Professor of Mathematics Kim Ruane said that many students find success elusive in courses featuring material that they don't find interesting. This can present a problem for engineering and math students who are required to take calculus courses in order to progress to the classes in which their true interests lie, according to Ruane.

"Once you survive [calculus], the courses are easier, but that might be because they [students] are more interested in it. Some math majors even find the calculus sequence tedious," Ruane said.

Professor of Physics Peggy Cebe added that students might tend to do better in upper level courses because their interest motivates them to put in the necessary work.

"I have found that most students can excel in the higher level courses because they all tend to do the assigned work. Students who have difficulty are generally those who do not attend class and do not hand in the homework," Cebe said in an email to the Daily.

Ruane said that students might also become discouraged by introductory−level courses if they didn't receive a strong foundation in high school or are not accustomed to the method of teaching math at Tufts.

"The quality of [calculus] that students get in high school is different than when they get here," Ruane said. "In high school, they're just taught how to do well on the [Advanced Placement] exam and not to think. Here, we are trying to teach you think in a certain way."

Sophomore LaTisha Curtiss said that struggling through her freshman−year math courses was exactly what prompted her to switch her major from math to sociology.

"I always had an affinity for math. In high school I did practically no work and did really well," she explained. "When I finally got [to Tufts], the first day of Math 17, I was like ‘woah, it's the first day and you're hitting me with stuff I have never heard before."

Abriola said that in order combat this type of academic culture shock, Tufts takes measures to invest in helping students to adjust to a new set of expectations.

"At Tufts, in general, engineering requires carrying a lot of math and science courses, and if you haven't had those, you're hit pretty hard when you come in," Abriola said.

"We want you to succeed and we're not trying to weed people out, which doesn't mean that students don't have to work hard. You have to go through a lot of hard work, but when you get through, you know you want to do it, but we need to keep students engaged," she said.

To this end, Abriola, along with the Tufts Center for STEM Diversity, has started a program to help students whose high schools provided insufficient foundation in these programs.

In certain cases, according to Travis Brown, the program manager for the Center for STEM Diversity, students can be admitted to the School of Engineering on condition that they participate in the Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) program during the summer before their freshman year. The BEST program allows students to take Tufts courses for credit, as well as participate in workshops to ease the academic and social transition to Tufts.

The program has been effective: According to Brown, all of the students who participated in BEST have thus far remained in the School of Engineering.

For students like Hurwitz though, a year of STEM classes at Tufts was enough to spur an about−face. Now, Hurwitz is finding in humanities what he didn't experience as an engineering student.

"I'm stimulated by it," he said, "and I learn things about it on my own."

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