College-level STEM programs are notoriously rigorous, and getting off to a strong start can make a huge difference for students who dream of pursuing STEM careers. Many first-year college students struggle to find their footing in their first few math and science courses, which can impact students’ GPAs and cause them to doubt their career goals. Acing the first few science and math classes builds confidence, boosts GPAs, and–most importantly–ensures that students are well-prepared for the higher-level math and science courses that come next.
To learn more about what STEM students can do to make sure they get off to a strong start in college, we sat down with Dr. Bassem Sabra–a tenured professor of astrophysics with a Ph.D. from Ohio University. Dr. Sabra also teaches online STEM prep courses for incoming college students, and he shared valuable insights about the challenges faced by students entering STEM fields and the importance of starting off on the right foot.
One of the most common pitfalls for STEM students is a phenomenon that Dr. Sabra calls "summer evaporation." Summer evaporation is when students' STEM knowledge declines during the summer before entering college.
“I have seen this happen even with good students who have had excellent preparation,” Dr. Sabra said. He urges students to be mindful of this common challenge and take steps to maintain and reinforce their STEM knowledge over the summer.
“College professors assume that the students have had excellent preparation in high school,” Dr. Sabra said. “However, most of the time high school preparation is not enough. Students will benefit a lot if they get a sneak peak of what is to come BEFORE they enroll in college.”
STEM programs are continuously adapting to meet the demands and challenges of the modern world (i.e. encouraging students to learn the latest technology or most in-demand coding languages), but a solid foundation is the key to success for any STEM major.
When asked for a single piece of advice for students considering a career in a STEM field, Dr. Sabra stressed the importance of starting college well-prepared, particularly in math. “My two-decade experience in higher education has shown me that students who start weak in math and physics tend to struggle with these subjects throughout college and it affects other courses that need math and physics as a foundation,” Dr. Sabra said.
In addition to teaching astrophysics at the university level, Dr. Sabra teaches courses through STEMPrep101, an online platform that offers students a chance to engage with real freshman-level coursework before they set foot on a college campus. Dr. Sabra highly recommends this kind of immersive experience for incoming freshmen who want to avoid “summer evaporation.”
“STEMPrep101 is unique among its competitors in that its instructors are practicing college instructors with many, many years of classroom experience at universities from around the world,” Dr. Sabra said. “The courses are modeled after actual college courses, with in-class work, homework assignments, midterms and final exams. The textbooks and resources used are the gold standards in their respective fields. STEMPrep101 replicates first-year STEM courses that students can take before joining college.”
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