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The problem with weed out classes

| Tuesday, August 23, 2016

As a rising junior, I have now completed exactly half of my Notre Dame education. In that time, there has only been one class that I absolutely hated.

Well, technically two. It was a two semester course, Biological Sciences I and II, required my freshmen year. It was awful. I don’t remember learning much of anything; what I do remember is countless hours pouring over the same three pages of a textbook, actual hundreds of color-coded flashcards, packets on packets of lecture slides I took notes on. I remember trying desperately to stay awake in lectures given by professors who only taught because they had to, who didn’t know my name and didn’t care to, with three hundred other kids who were just as lost as I was. I remember realizing I hated a course on a subject I used to love, and subsequently questioning everything I thought I wanted to do with my life. To sum up: I hated Notre Dame’s version of Biology 101.

And the kicker? I’m a biology major. By all rights and means, I should have loved that class.

Intro Bio is one of many “weed-out classes” STEM majors wade through before obtaining the much-coveted, much-glorified Bachelor of Science. Though not a technical term, students christen courses “weed-outs” due to their ability to “weed out” those who may not have what it takes, so to speak, to pursue a particular subject. These classes are typically large lectures of a few hundred students, taught by faculty who would rather be doing their own research and cover a huge amount of introductory material in a short amount of time. If a course is a weed-out, it’s insinuated that the scramble for an A will be even more desperate than usual. Aspiring STEM majors can look forward to taking two or three such classes a semester for the first two years of their undergrad. David E. Goldberg, emeritus engineering professor at Urbana-Champagne, coined this stretch of dull, difficult classes “the math-science death march” in 2008. The name has since stuck.

And when faced with this so-called death march, it’s perhaps not surprising that undergrads are switching out of STEM faster than you can say “anthropology.” Educators around the country are talking about the “STEM Crisis,” the idea that demand for qualified scientists and engineers will soon far outweigh supply. At the undergraduate level, it’s a problem of retention: the number of students who declare a STEM major is far less than the number who actually obtain a STEM degree. The data varies, but most recent studies pitch the number between 40 and 60 percent, meaning only half of students who enter college with a desire to study STEM actually succeed in doing so. And when that success requires enduring a death march of weed-outs, can you really blame them?

To understand why weed-out classes don’t work, ask a student who has taken one. The problems are three fold: first, the impersonalized teaching style gives students, who are often at the very beginning of their college career, very little support. Second, presenting material en masse and as quickly as possible does not allow students to actually engage with the subject, and they quickly lose interest. Third, the difficulty of earning high grades discourages students who are used to working hard and seeing the pay off, as they would in an arts and letters major. Yet when weed-out lectures are swapped for smaller, more hands-on courses, these problems seem largely mediated. Dr. Mitchell Chang, professor of Education at UCLA, released a 2013 study showing that undergrads attending schools that swap large introductory lectures for smaller, hands on courses are 13 percent more likely to remain in STEM. University of Texas Austin made the switch, and increased STEM retention by 25 percent; a program at the University of Florida almost doubled that number.

Yet some argue that these increased retention rates aren’t actually a good thing. Proponents of the sink-or-swim system maintain that weed-outs separate qualified students from those who can’t hack it early on, saving both students and faculty time. Careers in STEM are often difficult and draining, and it may be better that students learn their limitations before entering a career path they won’t be happy in. Some believe that maintaining a rigorous introductory sequence prevents the pool of STEM PhDs from becoming “watered down” with unqualified workers. And weed-out classes have practical merits as well: why waste time teaching the same course to smaller groups of students when you can teach the whole lot of them at once? Why hire teaching faculty if you can get researchers to grin and bear it for a semester? Why redesign a course when the current model has worked fine for the past ten years?

Perhaps because the next ten years in STEM won’t look like the last ten. Americans’ performance in math and science is falling farther and farther behind; the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 29 countries outscored American students in math in 2012, and 22 in science. In response the White House launched several STEM education initiatives, and President Obama called for the addition of 10,000 engineers to our workforce. The chances of him getting that number appear slim. The President’s Advisory Council predicted that in ten years, the United States will need one million more STEM professionals than will be produced at the current rate. Yet if retention rates were increased by just 10 percent, that one million would likely appear. So why are universities still turning away half of their interested students?

Re-designing weed-out classes isn’t an easy process. It requires time and thought, and faculty who are willing to do it. But the schools who have done it, like Florida and Texas, have had massive success. Perhaps it’s time Notre Dame follows suit — and stops creating biology majors who hate their biology courses.

Sarah Cate Baker is in her third year at ND, double majoring in biology and English. When she’s not in the lab pouring over viruses under a microscope, you can usually find her shooting caffeine in the Hesburgh basement, while she desperately tries to write papers and make deadlines. If you would like to question her sanity or her science, feel free to email her at sbaker6@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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