MU relies on retention programs to keep science, engineering, math majors on track

Thursday, December 15, 2011 | 6:40 p.m. CST; updated 7:21 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 15, 2011
MU senior Andrew Carlos studies for a Chemistry II final in Lafferre Hall during finals week on Monday.

COLUMBIA — In his sophomore year, MU student Sean Nahlik had a decision to make: Would science be his profession or his hobby?

“I had to ask — do I want to work with science or subscribe to Discover Magazine?" said Nahlik, now a senior. 


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Originally a biology major interested in medical school, he found he had little passion for science after taking a class in genetics.

By the second semester of his sophomore year, he had switched out of biology to pursue an interdisciplinary major in art history, international studies and sociology. 

He said his love for working with people and the "magical subtlety" of subjective learning would dictate a new plan.

Many students like Nahlik have dropped out of a science, technology, engineering or math major at MU in the last decade — yet, compared to national totals, not as many as other schools see.

MU has a higher retention rate in science, technology, engineering and math majors than indicated in a 2010 UCLA study.  In that study, just 40 percent of students remained in STEM fields until graduation at 720 colleges and universities nationwide.

In 2007 at MU, 53 percent of 1,286 first-time students declared and remained in a STEM major.

Thirteen percent graduated with a degree in a non-STEM field, according to data from the MU Enrollment Management Office. The rest dropped out or are still in school, working on degrees in other fields.

One reason for higher retention at MU may be deliberate efforts made by STEM departments to keep students interested in their program from the beginning of freshman year.

The Biology Department and the College of Engineering, for example, offer extensive retention programs, including free tutoring, peer advisors and time-management and study skill classes.

In 2008, Melanie Mason enrolled in MU as a pre-med biology major. She was matched with an upperclass peer adviser, also a biology student, to help her navigate the process.

He gave Mason handouts and advised her to enroll in a specific biology course, thinking the professor's teaching style would be a good fit.

“Right when he said that, I thought maybe I can get something out of this upperclassman who’s been in these classes before," Mason said.

She took his advice, became a peer adviser herself and is applying to medical school this semester.

Biological sciences is statistically the most popular undergraduate degree program at MU, said Carol Martin, coordinator of student services in the department.

At the beginning of fall 2011, total enrollment in MU's biology program was 1,472, according to the the MU registrar.

Psychology was next with 1,276 students, followed by 1,108 business administration majors. 

Approximately 90 percent of the students who go into biology plan to attend medical school, Martin said. The reality, however, is that only 29 percent of these majors at MU actually get into medical school.

“As an adviser, I see it as my job to help show students the wide variety of things they can do with a biology degree,” she said.

On Nov. 15, her office held a biology career night. Mason stood with six other junior and senior peer advisers dressed in khakis and black polo shirts, chatting with small groups of students about the opportunities biology degrees offer beyond medical school — dental school, optometry and occupational therapy, for example.

Mason decided at the end of her sophomore year that she wanted to be a biology peer adviser and was one of three accepted out of about 20 who applied.

Peer advisers offer their services as part of the Biology Department’s effort to retain students. They work with 55 to 60 freshmen each, sending weekly emails with study tips and reminders, holding 10 office hours and helping students when the next semester’s class registration rolls around.

Mason said most students meet with her after their first few exams, when they are harshly introduced to college testing.

“It’s mostly after that first wave of exams for freshmen, that complete wave of different study techniques than high school,” she said.

“I was the same way. I came to Mizzou, took my first Bio 1500 exam and realized it’s not the same as high school.”

She directs students to professors’ office hours or the Student Success Center “to help them get out of that hole" they feel they're in after a round of poor scores.

The MU Learning Center offers free help sessions for required math, chemistry and biology courses, Martin said. Students can attend these sessions up to two nights a week for additional assistance.

Steve Borgelt, the primary adviser and undergraduate director of MU's biological engineering program, said freshmen in his department face both a chemistry exam and a calculus exam during a particularly grueling two-week period at the beginning of the semester.

"Now they really know what a college exam is like," he said. "If they're surprised because they always got the highest grades, that can be disheartening."

Borgelt said he takes a panel of juniors and seniors to freshmen classes, helping discouraged students move beyond this first round of tough tests.

When he asks panel members about their experience with these exams, they tell him they're glad they didn't quit, despite the early shock.

Apart from encouraging interaction with upperclass students, the Biology Department helps them make connections with professors outside of class.

Biology majors select their own faculty advisers, aided by a comprehensive website with a page on each faculty member. Students interested in lab research, Martin said, can find a number of sites with potential contacts who can help them get involved.

Research can help students set themselves apart as candidates in biology fields, she said. Some may even decide against medical school because of their experience working in a research setting.

"I can’t tell you how many students get involved in research and opt to continue on to graduate school,” Martin said.

The College of Engineering began a supplemental teaching program as a retention tool, said Paul Chan, the chemical engineering undergraduate director.

Upperclass students volunteer to attend predominately freshman-level classes to prepare for holding their own tutorials later for students who need extra help.

Senior electrical engineering student Andrew Carlos said he attended Calculus 2 help sessions led by teaching assistants when he needed homework assistance.

"There were a bunch of Calculus 2 classes, but every class had the same homework problems assigned," he said. "Students could work in groups at these help sessions and try to figure out the homework problems."

MU's STEM departments also work with struggling students to improve low grades. A student is put on probation after earning a semester GPA below 2.0 (a C-average), said Steve Nagel, retention specialist for the College of Engineering's Student Academic Services.

If their grades don't improve during this period, they are dismissed from college but can be readmitted back in the program. These students have to meet one-on-one with Teri Pinhero, the student services' retention coordinator. They must complete an academic plan for the semester, she said.

“You can help them, but the person has to help themselves," Nagel said. "There’s plenty of resources available here to get them back up on their feet.”

Nagel said a program designed for students on first semester probation is scheduled to start next semester, an effort to reduce the number of dismissals.

It will include mandatory midterm status updates and a seminar on topics such as  time management. 

“In the end result, not everyone is cut out for engineering," Nagel said. "There are some who ultimately belong somewhere else, but most of the students can do fine with a little help.”

Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate students, said he originally enrolled in MU as a biology major because that's what his parents wanted. He eventually left the program for a degree in animal sciences.

“I wanted to get out of biology, not because it was too hard, but because I had a strong interest in applying science to practical situations involved with care and management of livestock," he said.

John Adams, associate chair for undergraduate chemistry studies, said when a student expresses interest in switching programs, his first question is "Why?" 

“I don’t believe anybody should be in an area when their interests lie elsewhere, so I’ll try to direct them to the right person for advising," he said.

To Adams, it doesn't matter whether students want to switch into or out of chemistry: The ultimate goal is to find the right fit instead of trying to "force them into a particular mold."

This was the common consensus among advisers: Unhappy students shouldn't feel pressured into staying, but they should look seriously into their reasons for leaving the program.

“We do not try very hard to convince people that they should stay, and that’s usually the best strategy," Chan said about the chemical engineering program. "Certainly if a very good student switches out, then I’d be disappointed, but it’s against their best interest if I try to stop them.”

Spain said the university doesn't judge how successful a department is based on how many students graduate with a major. Instead, students who graduate in any field are considered success stories at MU.

“We talk about student success, we talk about student persistence, we talk about student graduation rates," Spain said. "That’s important because the focus is on the student success, because student success defines the university’s success.”

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