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 email@example.com.