Swat bucks national trend of decline in science majors

Based on observations from members of the Swarthmore community, the college seems to be defying a perceived nationwide decline in the number of successful math, science, and engineering majors.

On November 6, 2011, The New York Times printed an article titled, “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)”, which addressed the perceived difficulty of math, science and engineering major tracks in American colleges. Studies conducted by various schools nationwide have found that more students drop out of majors in the natural sciences and engineering than in the humanities and the social sciences, and that science majors often graduate with lower GPAs than their classmates from other departments.

Various faculty and staff here at Swarthmore have been eager to attest, however, that this trend has not been observed at the College. “From the statistics we have on each year’s graduating class, we see that the proportion of students majoring in the sciences has remained about the same through the years, as has majoring in the other divisions,” said Martin Warner, Registrar of the college.

According to statistics available online at http://www.swarthmore.edu/factbook.xml, students at Swarthmore have consistently excelled in the sciences and have ultimately bucked the nationwide trend. In every one of the last ten graduating classes, the number of majors in the natural sciences and engineering has surpassed that of majors in the humanities. In the last three years, biology has consistently been the second-most popular major among graduating classes, second only to economics.

In addition, mathematics was the sixth-most popular major for the Class of 2011, with 22 successful majors; this figure is followed by 15 physics majors, 14 engineering majors, 11 computer science majors, and seven chemistry majors. Even more startling a statistic is how these majors have all grown on average in the past ten years in light of the increasing attrition rates observed amongst many other institutions of higher learning in the United States.

Students in premedical tracks have also excelled in spades. Only once in the last ten years has the college’s acceptance rate to medical schools dipped below 80%; only twice in the last ten years has the college’s average MCATscore dipped below 32. These figures include fresh graduates as well as older alumni who apply to medical schools after graduation.

Faculty members from various corners of the natural sciences were also at hand to echo Warner’s thoughts. “Throughout my time at Swarthmore, I think the number of chemistry majors has been about the same as it’s always been,” said Paul Rablen, Chair of the Chemistry Department. “It’s quite natural that students change their minds regarding what majors they ultimately opt for, especially since majors are not declared until late in the sophomore year at Swarthmore.”

At Swarthmore, students make their initial selection of individual majors through the sophomore paper during the second semester of sophomore year. This policy was originally constructed in order to prevent students from making rash or regrettable decisions concerning their majors. It also helps limit any perceived decline in enrollment in science courses to the first two years of classes, a time when students regularly explore their options before settling down on a major. This contributes significantly to Swarthmore’s lack of attrition from year to year, as can be seen in the above statistics.

Eric Jensen, Chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department, similarly attributed any perceived attrition amongst underclassmen science majors to the flexible nature of the liberal arts curriculum. “Part of the point of a college education – and a liberal arts education in particular – is to find out what you like to do, and exploring the sciences before settling on another field may simply be part of that process,” said Jensen. Jensen also observed that it was difficult to generalize the abilities and priorities of physics students in the Physics Department, especially in the introductory courses that many non-majors attend for the sake of exploration.

“A student in PHYS 005 [the introductory course of the physics major track] may intend to major in physics, but the student in the very next seat may have taken the course simply to learn more physics, with no intention of majoring,” Jensen said. “So it’s not clear how to define or measure ‘attrition’ when we don’t know students’ intentions coming into these courses, and when the courses themselves are designed to serve multiple goals,” he added.

Lynne Molter, Chair of the Engineering Department, agreed with Jensen that students entering Swarthmore might not know what they really want to do. “Here at Swarthmore, students often initially declare their interest in engineering on their college applications,” said Lynne Molter, Chair of the Engineering Department. “But as we all know, such a choice is not always well-informed … only when they come to Swarthmore and start taking classes do they understand the program’s requirements,” she added.

Molter mentioned the stringency of the engineering major, which requires the completion of 12 engineering credits, four math credits, and four science credits, as a major contributor to disinterested freshmen dropping out of their engineering track early on.

Building upon Jensen’s point, Molter also mentioned the nature of the liberal arts education and the ready accessibility of other academic fields as additional reasons for any perceived decline in science-related graduates. “At a larger university where there is a separate engineering school, the college application process results in students making a larger commitment to the engineering program … such a commitment is a barrier of sorts that students here don’t have,” Molter said. The lack of such a barrier would mean that students are more exposed to other fields in the humanities and the social sciences that could potentially pique their interest and turn them away from engineering – a prospect that can lead to logistical problems in a larger school where the engineering school is separate from the faculty of arts and sciences.

Students also seem to think that choosing one’s major is a matter of one’s preference rather than one’s ability. One such student, Leah Lee ‘14, plans to double-major in biology and math because those fields attract her more than any other. “I think math is a very difficult subject, but I also find it very interesting and that’s why I plan to major in it. I don’t think I would be well-suited to major in any other field because they don’t interest me as much,” said Lee.

From the Strategic Planning point-of-view, these observations have led the Strategic Planning Committee to reassert the college’s dedication to providing quality education in every field. “We are, of course, devoted to the same excellence in the sciences that we are devoted to in the social sciences and humanities,” said Garikai Campbell, Associate Vice President of Strategic Planning, stressing that the three divisions receive equal attention from Strategic Planning. “Part of that means ensuring that support for everything from pedagogical innovation to lab and research opportunities to peer support groups is as strong as possible. This goes for the natural sciences and engineering, but it also applies equally to the social sciences and humanities, and should engage our entire community – faculty, staff, students, and where appropriate, alumni,” said Campbell.

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