Resolving major issues with major selection

Jordan Soucy and Emily Breviglia had similar experiences choosing their undergraduate majors. Both rising juniors at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Soucy and Breviglia selected their majors in their freshman year but changed them before the year was out. The change for Soucy was dramatic: from chemical engineering to kinesiology. Breviglia’s switch from communications disorders to psychology was more of a fine-tuning. But both changes, it turns out, were fairly typical. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of students change majors at least once before graduation.

College major selection is an important process. Choosing the wrong major can result in additional stress and financial burdens, which can be debilitating for some. A number of factors contribute to a student's choosing a major she or he later will reject. These include practical concerns like the student’s income expectations and career opportunities, ignorance of how the major aligns with his or her interests, and a lack of familiarity with the major of choice. Programs designed to expose students to their chosen fields of study can mitigate the latter two factors.

Learning Unlimited is an organization that aims to expand educational opportunities for high-school students while providing college students with teaching and leadership opportunities. In 2013, with a group of friends, I opened an LU chapter at Northeastern University called the Northeastern Program for Teaching by Undergraduates, or NEPTUN. NEPTUN, much like other LU programs, brought high-school students to the college campus to take classes designed and taught by Northeastern students. Over the past two years, we have run three programs and taught a variety of classes ranging from Introduction to Rocketry to Power, Wealth and Happiness. Soucy and Breviglia both agree that programs like these would have been helpful in their major-selection process. Asked what would have helped her make the right decision about her major at the start, Soucy said, “A program in high school.”

Each year, NEPTUN runs two programs, Splash and Waterfall. Splash is a one-day event in the spring during which students take classes designed to introduce them to topics with which they would be unfamiliar otherwise. On average, the Splash program offers 34 unique classes. Waterfall is a multiweek program run in the fall to foster a deeper understanding of topics than can be offered in the Splash program. Last fall, Waterfall offered 30 classes. Past students involved in NEPTUN programs claimed that they enjoyed the “intro to new topics” and considered it a “fun place to try new things.

Each NEPTUN program accommodates 200 or more students, and generally we have had a large number of sign-ups, achieving or nearing our goals. But attendance has been an issue. Only about half of the people who sign up actually attend the programs. We attribute the low turnout to a combination of issues: low student interest, low commitment on the part of the student and competing extracurricular activities. In previous programs, no-shows who contacted us said that events, such as track meets, class projects and exams, interfered with their attendance. But they still voiced a desire to attend. We think organizers could strengthen student commitment by charging a nominal fee, fostering a level of investment on the part of the student.

We’ve also found it is difficult for organizers to choose a date for the event that works for all schools in the area. With the sheer number of schools participating, this can be a nearly impossible feat. This year, to reduce scheduling conflicts, we are designing a new, alternative outreach program to bring the college students to individual high schools. By working directly with each high school, organizers can settle on a date that will allow for the most student engagement. College students across disciplines and universities, such as Soucy and Breviglia, will design lessons focused on their respective majors. This program will begin during the fall at Methuen High School in Methuen, Mass. Ideally, this program, or others like it, will expand into a network that can accommodate multiple high schools. 

Kristian TeichertKristian Teichert is a biochemistry student at Northeastern University.