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Choosing and leaving science in highly selective institutions

Abstract

This study sought to discover some of the causes of initial interset in and atrition from the natural sciences and engineering among the students (N=5320) who entered four highly selective institutions in 1988, with particular attention to possible special causes for the disproportionate attrition of women from science. Though a smaller proportion of women (35 percent) than men (49 percent) were initially interested in science, gender added little to the prediction of such initial choice when preadmission measures of developed abilities were taken into account in regression analysis. Of the group of 2,276 students initially interested in science, 40 percent did not finally concentrate in science, and smaller proportions of women (48 percent) than of men (66 percent) persisted. The most significant cognitive, factor predicting these losses was low grades earned in science courses taken during the first two years of study. With grades held equal, gender was not a significant predictor of persistence in engineering and biology; gender added strongly to grades, however, as a factor associated with unusually large losses of women from a category that included the physical sciences and mathematics. Responses to a questionnaire administered in the fall of 1991 showed that science majors regarded their instruction as too competitive, with too few opportunities to ask questions, taught by professors who were relatively unresponsive, not dedicated, and not motivating. Students who defected from science did so largely because of the attraction of other fields, but many shared the criticism of overcompetitiveness and inferior instruction, along with the view that the work was too difficult. Several items were about elements of classroom instruction and atmosphere thought to be especially difficult for women (i.e., the chilly climate), but except for perceived competitiveness, women did not rate their classroom experiences as being more unpleasant than did men.

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This research was supported by grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

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Christopher Strenta, A., Elliott, R., Adair, R. et al. Choosing and leaving science in highly selective institutions. Res High Educ 35, 513–547 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02497086

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02497086

Keywords

  • Physical Science
  • Grade Point Average
  • Classroom Climate
  • Science Major
  • College Entrance Examination