A Widespread Problem
As a freshman at the University Notre Dame, I was not completely confident in my selection of mechanical engineering as my intended major when school began. Though I had taken high level math and science classes in high school, I was worried about my ability to keep pace with the students who had extensive experience in robotics and computer programming. However, I found engineering to be an exciting field which I look forward to pursuing throughout my undergraduate years; however, the same cannot be said for a number of my classmates. Throughout the year, I noticed some of my class sizes shrinking as my peers began leaving the engineering school, electing new majors instead. As it turns out, this is a common phenomenon nationwide: according to a study performed by the National Center for Education Statistics, 48% of bachelor's degree students and 69% of associate degree students entering STEM majors between 2003 and 2009 had left the field by the spring of 2009. Half of the students switched to non-STEM degrees while the remainder left college without a degree. Clearly, sustaining interest in STEM fields is still a significant difficulty beyond high school. But how can universities work to retain the undergraduate population in their STEM programs?
Personal Draw to Engineering
For me, my decision to continue working toward an engineering degree was most heavily influenced by my one-on-one interactions with enthusiastic professionals within the engineering industry. Through my Introduction to Engineering course, I was given several opportunities to sit down with a current engineer and seek advice about both my college major and future career path. I was able to talk with a biomedical engineer about her work designing life-saving surgical instruments. Our conversation gave me valuable insight into a career in which I could apply my love of mathematics, physics, and technology to improve the lives of others in a tangible way. I also attended a panel discussion with a group of civil engineers, and each panelist emphasized his or her love of a job that allows them to work in the field, collaborating with many other engineers each day. Talking with these professionals deepened my interest in engineering as an interactive and dynamic path to follow.
An Individualized Solution
That my own experiences have influenced my decision is no surprise. According to the Manufacturing Institute's Career and Technical Education Study, 64% of high school students consider their personal experiences and interests to be the greatest influences on their future career decisions.
Recognizing how my interactions with practicing engineers have inspired my growing passion toward the subject, I feel strongly that students should have similar opportunities for dialogue with people working in their selected fields. Professors could invite members of their extended STEM networks to speak to their classes, and while that's a start, what will help students most is the chance to personally interact with guest speakers. Whether it be through a quick coffee session or a breakout group following a larger presentation, undergraduates will gain information pertinent to their own specific interests if they can speak to knowledgeable STEM employees in a smaller group or one-on-one setting. These conversations can bring to life the concepts learned in class and crystalize the reality of careers in these fields. Additionally, university clubs such as the American Society for Mechanical Engineers or Society of Women Engineers can invite industry representatives to meet with small groups on a regularly scheduled basis. In my mind, collaboration between universities and STEM companies, along with a commitment to individualized conversation, is a recipe for surefire success in the retention of college STEM students.
The next generation of STEM undergraduates have the potential to change the face of our modernizing world by solving today's global challenges. By exciting college students about the vast opportunities STEM careers have to offer, universities will pave the way for a more sustainable, innovative, and technologically advanced future for us all.