The Leaky Pipeline of Science Education
A Letter to the Editor from Former Dean of the College and Professor of Chemistry Jim Swartz appeared in the Sept. 19, 2008, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Swartz offers the college's experience with the Grinnell Science Project as evidence that the changing demographics of the student body contributes to higher overall achievement in the sciences.
To the Editor:
In How Our Culture Keeps Students Out of Science (The Chronicle, August 8), Peter Wood contends that "promotion of diversity and multiculturalism" is "hostile to advanced achievement in the sciences and technology." In fact, I can offer evidence that close attention to the changing demographics of our student body contributes to higher overall achievement in the sciences.
In the early to mid-1990s, Grinnell College, where I teach, noted a problem: First-generation college students and U.S. students of color were not graduating with science majors in proportion to the interest in science they had expressed when they entered. We also saw that women were underrepresented among the majors in physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science.
Further analysis pointed to poor performance (one full grade point lower) on the part of students of color in introductory math and science courses. Grades in introductory science courses did not correlate with SAT scores or high-school performance, but they did with social factors like being a first-generation college student, graduating from a high school where fewer than half the students went to college, or being a student of color. Women interested in the physical sciences and mathematics had grades comparable to those of men but persisted less frequently than men.
To deal with those risk factors, we created a focused pre-orientation week, aligned our curriculum and teaching methods to match new research on learning, and increased opportunities for student-faculty research. Those changes strengthened science learning for all our students.
A decade later, we find that U.S. students of color who participate in our pre-orientation program earn grades in science courses nearly as high as those of majority students, and well above those of a comparison group of students who do not participate. The percentage of U.S. students of color who graduate from Grinnell as science majors has increased markedly. The number of women completing majors in the physical sciences, math, and computer science has more than doubled.
Nor is a Grinnell science education in any way watered down. We prepare and motivate our science majors to earn graduate degrees.
Let's recognize how students learn and what types of support help them excel. As our country's population grows less homogeneous, we can respond with innovative programs that promote high scientific achievement. Institutions of higher education should welcome this challenge as part of our responsibility to society.
Professor of Chemistry