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Number Of College Students Majoring In Science Rapidly Increases Across South Coast

The fields of science, technology, engineering and math are becoming more attractive to college students across the South Coast. In fact, the number of science majors is rapidly increasing.

Kevin Lee is a senior majoring in computer science at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. In his research project, he is creating a three-dimensional model of a rectangular box using a sonar sensor that uses sound waves to detect the depth of the object as it scans.

Lee began Cal Lutheran without a major before he found his calling.

“On a whim, I just took a programming course, and I really fell in love with computer science from there. The heart of computer science is about problem-solving and I’m a type of person that loves to solve problems,” he says.

Lee is like many college students throughout the South Coast who are majoring in a STEM field, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Those numbers are growing.

At Cal Lutheran, the number of science majors has more than doubled since 2005. About 30% of the student body is majoring in STEM. And, the university is building a $30 million science center to accommodate the increase.

Other universities are experiencing a similar trend.

“Cal State Channel Islands has been on a growth curve for many years. But growth in STEM majors has outpaced the overall growth on the campus,” says Phil Hampton, who is a chemistry professor at CSUCI.

He says between 2009 and 2015, STEM enrollment increased by 110% while overall enrollment increased by 72%.

Hampton says he’s seen a change in students over the years.

“In my classrooms, I’ve seen greater engagement,” he says.

And even outside the classroom.

“There’s been a transformation on our campus of students actively pursuing research opportunities,” he says.

Hampton, who’s also director of the Ventura County STEM network, says there’s emphasis on STEM education at the kindergarten through 12th grade level that is motivating college students to major in the sciences.

“They’re focused on not just memorizing facts but having students do the behaviors of a scientist, which is investigation and inquiry. And when you do science, that’s when kids can get turned onto it,” he says.

Another reason college students major in STEM is the job opportunities, says Pierre Wiltzius, who’s Dean of the Mathematical, Life and Physical Sciences division of the College of Letters and Sciences at UC Santa Barbara.

“If you look at the California economy where the jobs right now, a lot of them are in the sciences,” he says.

Wiltzius says there has been significant growth in the fields of math, life and physical sciences. Since 2005, there has been a 109% increase in those majors while overall undergrad enrollment has only increased by about 28%. This school year, nearly 50% of UCSB freshmen are in those science majors.

“There’s also some growing pains because all of a sudden we have to make sure that we still provide the quality education that we want to the students,” he says.

That’s why UCSB has added science labs, classes and professors.

Lee says he’s happy with his STEM major.

“It can be hard, but if you’re determined, it is rewarding,” he says.

And Lee is not alone. The South Coast is experiencing a trend similar to the rest of the state. The Public Policy Institute of California finds that between 2010 and 2016, the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees in California increased by 55%, more than triple the rate of growth in other degrees.

Cal Lutheran is the parent of KCLU Radio.