Mention the phrase “pre-med” to a bunch of fall semester freshmen and quite a few of them will perk up and mention that they are, in fact, that specific moniker. Talk about the pre-med track to these same students two years, one year or even one semester later, and they might say, “Oh, I dropped pre-med” or “It wasn’t for me.” They’ll have an “oh well” look on their face. Was the pre-med track just not for them, or was there something more to it?

Replace “pre-med” with just about any STEM major and you will probably get the same set of reactions. Many college freshmen start their undergraduate careers with bright eyes and huge aspirations. They not only excelled at but also genuinely enjoyed their AP Biology, AP Chemistry and AP Calculus classes. Maybe they worked at a laboratory one summer that intensified their interest in STEM. Why then would they discard their science- and math-oriented pursuits so quickly and so permanently? 

Introductory-level STEM classes might be the reason.

A lot of introductory-level courses seem to “weed out” prospective majors or pre-med students from taking further steps into the world of STEM. These classes are often so large that professors will probably not know even a quarter of their students’ names by the end of the semester. Each course also goes through heaps of material at lightning pace. Most of the material seems to be focused on abstract concepts that are completely unrelated to medicine or  topics in math and science.

Is being “weeded out” of a major circumstantial? Probably not. In fact, approximately forty percent of college students who plan to pursue a degree in science or engineering switch majors or fail to get their degree.

Why then are these intro classes so painfully difficult? Isn’t there a good reason to encourage us to be at the forefront of scientific innovation when we graduate?

Part of the reason might be to highlight the so-called exclusivity of STEM. Though this is not consistently the case, STEM majors tend to make more money after graduating college. The bridge between STEM and non-STEM, therefore, is widened by this financial gap. The proponents of difficult intro-level STEM classes see these courses as an initiation that prospective students need to undergo to see that many zeroes on the horizon. 

In other words, adults with careers in STEM have “earned” higher salaries, in part because they were able to do relatively well as college freshmen or sophomores in their intro-level classes. I don’t agree with this in its entirety, but post-graduation prospects play an undeniable role in the struggle inherent in these courses.

The other two reasons may, in fact, be slightly unintentional and entirely unavoidable. First, a lot of these introductory classes have to cover a wide range of topics to prepare their students for a higher level of understanding. The breadth of the material, though, causes the course to be taught so superficially. Even the most riveting of these classes need to cover many different topics at the surface level. 

Second, professors would often rather teach students who truly want to delve into the minutia of an area of study that piques their interest, not just an introductory prerequisite that most students just want to finish. I, and many other students I’ve talked to, have observed that most of the professors who teach any sort of 101 class are either new to teaching or are disgruntled by their students’ profound lack of interest. Either way, the very notion of fulfilling prerequisites to get to the next level makes the idea of those courses even less appealing to students.

Making the content easier for underclassmen may seem like a good idea, but the problem is that it’s an almost impossible proposal that will lead to few, if any, benefits. It’s not worth it to water down the material if it will hurt students when they take far more rigorous upper-level courses a year or two later.

How, then, could we lessen the agony of introductory-level STEM classes? Simply having more midterms may be an apt first step. Freshmen make up the majority of these classes. Hence, most of them are used to high school classes, where more than two or three tests determine the grade for an entire semester. Breaking up the heavy material into more sizable pieces can ensure that students understand the material and are not cramming information that they cannot truly understand. 

If college administrators want their students to pursue careers in STEM, they should encourage, rather than dissuade, their students through accessible courses that actively engage them. Isn’t a major objective of a university to ignite students’ passions rather than to diminish them?


ALEX SILBERZWEIG is a College sophomore from New York, studying mathematics and economics. Her email address is alexsil@sas.upenn.edu. “Brutally Honest” usually appears every other Tuesday.

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