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Undergraduate Education

Freshman chemistry is an exit point for many underrepresented STEM students, study shows

University of Washington study reveals final grades in general chemistry classes dictate whether underrepresented students persist in STEM

by Celia Henry Arnaud
June 10, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 23


General chemistry is among the largest classes taught at most universities because many science programs besides chemistry, like medicine, require students to take the introductory course. A new study reports that general chemistry may play an outsized role in underrepresented students, like Black or female students, leaving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Scott Freeman and coworkers at the University of Washington (UW) analyzed student data from 15 years (2001–2016) of general chemistry classes at the university (Sci. Adv. 2020 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz5687). Over that time, more than 25,000 students took at least one course in the three-course general chemistry sequence. Students whose programs require only the first course in the sequence weren’t included in the analysis.

The researchers analyzed the data to determine how final grades in each course affected the likelihood of various categories of students persisting in STEM. They performed regression analyses with respect to multiple variables—gender, underrepresented minority status, socioeconomic status, and family education background.

According to D. Michael Heinekey, chair of the UW chemistry department, the study came about because faculty “had figured out that a lot of underrepresented students struggled in the freshman chemistry sequence.” And the study results bore that out. “We discovered that there is indeed an achievement gap,” says Heinekey, who was not directly involved in the study.

The analyses showed that students in each category who achieved a C or C− (the minimum grade needed to progress to the next class in the sequence) were less likely to remain in STEM than their overrepresented counterparts. For grades of C+ or higher, the outcomes flipped, with the underrepresented students becoming more likely than the overrepresented students to remain in STEM.

In work published earlier this year, Freeman and his colleagues also showed that active learning approaches—teaching methods in which students do in-class activities—can reduce achievement gaps between under- and overrepresented students (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2020, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1916903117).

“The take-home message here is that ‘business as usual’ is disenfranchising groups of students who belong and can thrive in STEM because of a misguided culture in which rigor is correlated with how many people are weeded out,” says Melanie M. Cooper, a chemistry professor at Michigan State University. Cooper is part of a program at Michigan State in which a revised general chemistry curriculum has increased the number of students—including underrepresented minorities—advancing in STEM with grades of 2.0 (a C) or better.

“If the community can reform general chemistry in a way that closes achievement gaps, it could be revolutionary,” Freeman says.

The UW chemistry department has changed its general chemistry sequence since 2016, the last year that the recent study considered, Heinekey says. The department’s teaching faculty “are doing great work in improving our instruction,” he says. “I think it would be worthwhile to repeat some of this and see whether the changes have had any effect.”


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