Have you been “weeded out”?

Vanderbilt should make introductory STEM courses more accessible to a wide range of students

During orientation week, many freshmen say they are “pre-med” or “engineering” when introducing themselves. They come to Vanderbilt with a vision that, one day, they will wear a white coat like the doctors just across the street from Commons. However, if you talk to the same students again in their sophomore or junior year many of them will laugh and tell you, “pre-med wasn’t for me,” or “I was weeded out.”  

Why are so many STEM majors inclined to change their majors after their first semester? Did these students truly lose interest or find their true passion? Or was there something else holding these students back?

The answer to this last question may lie in “weed out” classes. These courses are offered at the introductory STEM level and aim to sift out students who are not equipped for the intense rigor of the subject. Therefore, they can’t move on to the higher level courses. They can’t make it to organic chemistry without first taking the dreaded “Gen Chem.”

One justification for making these courses so difficult is that they allow students to recognize early on that they are not meant to become engineers or doctors. Many students come into college wanting to pursue a STEM major simply for a high paying job or for the glory of the title. Weed out classes serve as a wakeup call: such superficial desires will not put a scalpel in one’s hand. They save the students a lot of trouble earlier on. Additionally, these classes test the student’s commitment to pursue a STEM major. They ensure that only the students who will succeed continue.

Another explanation of this phenomenon is that introductory level STEM courses are just hard classes. They cover a wide range of material and go much deeper than a high school level course. In a sense, all college courses should feel challenging to students who have just graduated high school.

However, the question comes to mind: should one course determine whether a student is worthy enough to be a STEM major?

Weed out classes discourage many students from pursuing careers in the STEM field even if they have a genuine interest in the subject. College should be the place where students discover and pursue their passions. However, the first ever C on a midterm and the long hours with too many cups of Peets in Stevenson scare them away from studying what they love.

Furthermore, these classes make it difficult for undecided students to try out these introductory STEM courses and possibly find their passion in the field. These students may be worried that they are not committed enough to survive the infamously hard classes or that the low GPA will look bad on their record. This is especially a concern for Vanderbilt freshmen, many of whom come from high schools where they received perfect or near-perfect grades. These courses are designed so that only the students who are extremely certain in their career path are brave enough to enroll in them. 

In addition, there are humanities-oriented students who want a basic knowledge in science and math. Weed out courses make this difficult for these students and force them to stay away from STEM classes, instead forcing them to take significantly dumbed down versions of the courses.

Clearly, there are some advantages in having challenging introductory STEM courses. However, it is hard for fresh-out-of-high-school students to know what they want to do or be ten years from now. Vanderbilt shouldn’t punish students who aren’t totally certain about their future. Instead, Vanderbilt should work to make introductory courses like General Chemistry or Calculus 1300 more welcoming and approachable to students who wish to take them.

Yulia Lee is a first-year in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at seo.yeon.lee@vanderbilt.edu.

1 COMMENT

  1. The courses can remain challenging while reforming the pedagogy (like many more active learning components in class sessions besides just clickers). This is typically where chemistry curricula at the introductory to intermediate levels struggle. However, under no circumstance should the introductory STEM courses at selective schools be watered down to essentially stroke the egos of students who had been told that they performed perfectly at an HS with much less rigor. A pedagogical style should be used that enhances the chance that the students can be able to clear a high bar the bar should be such that a B grade really means something in such courses (furthermore, the instructor should tell students this. That they would like to challenge students and that B in that particular course is a strong grade and means they learned and applied material at a high level). I also disagree that such courses are designed to be so challenging that they are primarily for those whose career path is decided already. I went to Emory University for undergraduate where many of the general chemistry instructors were very challenging (I know they typically wrote more challenging exams than the ones I have seen from what a VU friend showed me and likely still do) and yet some people would attempt them for fun or to just explore a pre-health or a STEM track even though they really had something else in mind. Those who put in the work did fine (often like B+ which is much higher than the course GPA of the class, a B-). The classes are simply designed to challenge and those who put in the effort (adjust study habits from HS or have a background from AP/IB) often succeed. I am just not convinced that most introductory STEM courses at most elite schools are overbearingly tough (they are challenging than most schools without competitive admissions, but they seem pitched according to the students’ levels. Like a general chemistry course at a much less competitive state school would also see about a 60-70 something average per exam. Should students at Vanderbilt be given the same level exams? That would not make much sense considering their level of preparation and their clear ability to test well). They do get you to adapt quickly, and indeed you may only learn that after being slapped in the face by an exam or a whole semester, but anyone who wants to continue on the track will not give up immediately. They will learn from their mistakes and likely do better next test or term. Also, instructors are often designing the exams so that they have some higher level items on them such that the average on an exam is in the 60s or 70s (considering that most general chemistry sequences have lab integrated, a 70 something average on exams plus some homework nearly ensures that class average is somewhere near a B which is more than reasonable for such large classes in a college setting which even at a good school, will have variances in study habits and academic backgrounds). Believe it or not, introductory social science courses often have a B or B/B+ type of average), This is not the high school narrative where they write basically all straight-forward or seen before questions so tests are designed to yield perfect scores. They are trying to reorient students towards what actual problem solving is. If the student has seen the exact same or a strikingly similar problem before taking a test, then it isn’t a problem. In a selective college STEM course, you put a couple of reasonably heavily weighted problems that ask for more application/extrapolation or derivation of a new concept to separate As from Bs and Bs from Cs. Their goal is not to get their really talented students to merely show that they can learn material at surface levels like in HS. They want a much deeper understanding. The problem with humanities majors at most schools has basically been solved and they have courses in STEM pitched for those who may only need or want a foundation level or surface level understanding.

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