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About Our Study

A team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Colorado at Boulder have received grants totaling $4.3 million to examine why so many students who enter college with the goal of majoring in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) end up graduating in a non-STEM field.

The five-year study, co-funded by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, builds on research by Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt that found poor teaching was the most significant influence on STEM majors’ decisions to switch fields. Seymour and Hewitt’s 1997 book Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences subsequently spurred nationwide efforts to improve teaching in STEM courses and to retain more students of color and women into STEM fields.

The new study, known as Talking about Leaving Revisited, will investigate whether rates of switching from STEM majors—and students’ experiences in the process—have changed since efforts to improve college science teaching began 15 years ago. The study’s principal investigators are Mark Connolly of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and Anne-Barrie Hunter, co-director of Ethnography and Evaluation Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The research team, which includes Seymour, will return to the seven original institutions to examine STEM majors’ patterns of persistence and switching, this time in light of national efforts to improve undergraduate education. As in the original study, the research team will interview more than 400 undergraduates in order to compare “persisters” and “switchers.” The present study, however, will also examine foundational courses in mathematics and science, which are known to discourage otherwise talented students. To understand how STEM majors’ decisions to persist or switch are influenced by these courses, the research team will interview instructors, observe their classroom teaching practices, and gather data from enrolled students. The team will also use large national data sets to develop models of switching and course-taking patterns, and to provide a context for interpreting data gathered from the seven participating institutions.

To help administrators, policymakers, and researchers understand why so many students are still leaving STEM majors and what might help more of them persist, the TALR research team will disseminate findings regularly during the next five years, culminating in publication of a book tentatively titled Talking about Leaving Revisited.