Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.

If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


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 | 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.

Credit: Sci. Adv.
At the University of Washington, the proportion of underrepresented students progressing through the general chemistry (GC1, 2, 3) and organic chemistry (OC1, 2, 3) course sequence is significantly lower than the proportion overrepresented students.

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.”



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

D (June 10, 2020 3:49 PM)
General chemistry worked also that way several years ago (we called it the "collander"). And was widely regarded as a culling of the weak. No exams were necessary for the first step. ~80+ people quit after the first 1-3 weeks. Introducing the Schrödinger equation was very effective at that. From 300 people, 80 achieved the Master in Science for Chemistry 5 years later.

During this process, the university tried a modification of the pensum to get more people into chemistry (this included also more marketing). The result was poorly trained chemists with rather weak (and often dangerous) skills in the lab.

I do hope that any changes in the current education won't have such results, and that chemistry will get more people as well.
John (June 11, 2020 9:16 AM)
At Florida State in the 1970s, there was an Advanced Chemistry track filled with about 30 people who had taken Advanced Placement Chemistry in High School. Most of us ended up with a B.S. in Chemistry. Some went to Med School or Grad School in Chemistry or a related field.

General Chemistry was taught in a large auditorium that held at least 150 students. This is where most of the "culling" that "D" described occured. There were smaller Chemistry Lab sessions and problem-solving sessions. There were "Honk if you passed P. Chem." bumper stickers...

I had a fraternity brother who desired to to go to Med school. He took 3 attempts to pass Chem 101 in the large auditorium. He really struggled with concepts in Chemistry and struggled with the pace of the course. He realized that he needed a "Plan B", and changed his major to Audiology and Speech Pathology. The delay cost him an additional year to graduate. He had a productive career. College is a time aim high and find a path that works for you.
Elaine Livingston (June 11, 2020 8:26 PM)
The loss of women and minorities actually goes all the way back to middle school, and especially high school Chemistry. Too often taught via lecture, only the top few, who learn by that method, survive. Innovation in teaching techniques has been few and not widespread. Too many teachers relish in driving away the weak, rather then trying to make the subject accessible to all. This has been true in all the sciences, but especially the harder physical sciences. A paradigm shift needs to happen.
N Schulte (June 12, 2020 8:49 AM)
I have a BS degree in Chemistry and recently retired from a successful career in research with awards and patents.

Growing up in a lower income area with not so great schools, I wasn't well prepared for college STEM classes despite being Salutatorian of my HS class and taking every science class the school offered. I loved all science and wanted a STEM career. But, I didn't know that I didn't have a solid base to build a college education on. In 1977 at Michigan State in my first chemistry class we were told straight out that this was a weeding out class designed to remove those who weren't good enough. Just one live lecture that only a few got to attend. The other 2700 or so of us got to watch video recordings of the lectures while crammed into noisy auditoriums with bad sound and poor picture quality. I couldn't understand the subject this way. I went to the help room to talk to a TA. After waiting in line for 2 hours, I asked my first question and was told - "why can't you Freshman get it that you don't know enough to do this work. Just answer the questions and stop trying to understand." And that was the end of her answer. I was a smart quiet shy woman in a strange place who had just been told off for wanting to understand science. I crumpled into myself. That ended my looking at the help room as a resource to help me succeed. It was also part of the weeding out machine. I managed to pass the class by going to book stores at 2 other universities and buying their chemistry text books. A financial drain I could not afford. By reading the three text books, I got a passing grade. I should have felt great that I had beat their weeding out system but that was only the first semester. There was weeding out round 2 waiting for me and I knew that. A car accident that took away bits of my memory occurred at the beginning of the next semester. It would be another 20 years before I finished my chemistry degree.

I wish I could say that over those 20 years I saw improvements in how STEM classes were taught at the couple of universities I attended. Unfortunately, no. Example - 1990s Pchem prof who started out his first lecture saying, "my job is to flunk 80٪ of you. I grade on a curve to ensure that I always meet my goal." His tests included questions that were sentences taken out of the middle of a paragraph in the text book with a word removed and you had to fill in the blanks. Some of those sentences, you didn't know what the "it" in "it can be seen from this that BLANK is a BLANK" is referring to. I dropped that class at mid semester because I wanted to learn PChem not be scrutinized by the prof to determine how to make sure he failed me.

As I slowly worked on my degree through the years, as I could fit in and afford to take more classes, I continued to see students struggling with these early STEM classes. As I had time, and when they were willing, I offered (free) tutoring. Each one that I worked with I found to be a bright determined woman who had the brain power and drive to succeed. I focused on older women like myself. We are a group that is not much supported by the school or by our families and friends in moving into STEM careers.

To those that got through the weeding out machine to get BS, MS, etc STEM degrees congratulations. If you look down on those that didn't, I ask that you please rethink your position. What can you do to assist a good to great quality STEM mind struggling because, through no fault of their own, they came into college with a background that wasn't as solid as needed or had never been in a large class setting and didn't know the methods to succeed in it?

Universities need to eliminate identifying classes for "weeding out" students but do it without lowering standards. Not everyone learns in the same way and not all coming in had access to the same learning opportunities before hand. Offer these early classes with different teaching/learning styles and help students identify what style works for them. Combine this with opportunities to learn in different ways so these minds develop a nimbleness that sets them up to be the life long learners that STEM needs.

And for those of us that made it through the old weeding out system, let's all lend a hand. The diversity of who ends up in STEM careers depends on the example we are to others and each other. Be your best example.
Z (June 14, 2020 12:32 PM)
Wondering how the "overrepresented students" is defined? Are we supposed to reduce the number of those students since they are overrepresented? To help the students success in general chemistry, it is probably more important to improve the stem education in k12. Watering down the freshman chemistry class will only make the quality of the stem education in college worse and worse. That is not only the general chemistry problem. We see silimar crying about difficulty in calculus, university physics, which to me suggests a lot students simply not ready for college stem education.
SMS (June 26, 2020 7:55 PM)
Unfortunately, there is nothing that we can do about HS and preparation, so we need to meet our students where they are. Finding different ways to teach and learn, rather than pure lectures, does not need to "water down" the rigor of the course. It gives all students a better opportunity to understand the content.
Michelle Vogelsang (September 8, 2020 4:44 PM)
Do you ever watch/read the news and wonder why so many people believe anti-science? Do you ever wish those people would wake up and just "get" that you shouldn't eat laundry detergent, or should understand what the statistics are showing when discussing the benefits of vaccination? If science classes were more accessible to more students, then more people would be capable of the critical thinking required to be a voting adult in this world. The weeding out system hurts society. Imagine a world where more elected leaders, business people, and teachers came to their jobs with a B.S. in Chemistry or Molecular Biology or Epidemiology...wouldn't that be cool?!

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment