research opportunities at federal laboratories may determine the level of success in STEM areas that students may aspire to. Institutions should procure adequate facilities and equipment or partner as possible with other nearby institutions to facilitate the access of their students to these other resources. The federal government can assist by providing institutions with funding for facilities and equipment or by supporting the development of networks among institutions that would provide access to these types of resources, among other things.

In addition to equipment and facilities, the curriculum may also require a makeover. As shown in the Higher Education Research Institute data displayed in Chapter 4, undergraduates regardless of race/ethnicity are less likely to persist and complete in their intended major if they begin in a STEM field compared to a non-STEM field. Seymour and Hewitt (1997) found that students switched out of mathematics, science, and engineering majors at higher rates than for other fields and that this was due in part to the culture of these fields and the characteristics of classes, particularly introductory classes, in these fields, some of which sought intentionally to “weed out” students. Further, they discovered that women and underrepresented minorities were more likely to be turned off by the way science is taught, internalizing difficulties when facing challenges rather than assigning blame to the larger scientific and educational culture. Seymour and Hewitt found that students’ experiences were characterized by:

  • Poor teaching or organization of material;

  • Hard or confusing material, combined with loss of confidence in their ability to do science;

  • Cutthroat competition in assessment systems geared more to weeding out than to encouraging students;

  • Dull subject matter; and

  • Grading systems that did not reflect what students felt they had accomplished.

Further, many of those who stayed also complained about poor teaching and an unpleasant atmosphere. Both male and female switchers reported that negative experiences in freshman science were more important than positive experiences in other fields in reaching their decision to leave. Efforts on the part of institutions, departments, and faculty to change curricula to provide more hands-on, active learning and to encourage rather than weed out students could play a significant role in increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities.22


Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt. 1997. Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 10-11.

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