Four Things Autistic Students Can Expect from Intro STEM Classes

Wildlife and Habitat Management Intern Justin Robbins shares his observations about the differences between high school and college STEM classes. Read on to learn more.

Although in college you will have a wide variety of courses to choose from, all STEM studies begin with an intro class.

They are the sprout, the sapling, the part of a plant leaves connect to. From there, your options open up.

These classes will also likely be among your first, as most other courses require you to have already taken these foundational classes. With that in mind, let’s go over some of the things to expect when you start your college career in a STEM field.

The first thing you will likely notice is the size. Introduction classes (in all disciplines) are big, with several dozen and maybe several hundred students. There may be times where you discuss matters with your neighbors, but the primary format is lecture. The professor goes over their slides, and you take notes on them.

Now, why do you want to do that? Because you will need to use those notes you created to study. Most of your grade will be decided by 3-4 exams over the semester. Some courses will have weekly online questions, but the homework assignment will always be to know the material and study for the next exam. Intro classes have the most homework out of any college courses (or at least the most structured); after that, you are given more autonomy.

You will have a reliable roadmap for that homework though, in the form of the course syllabus. Another major change in college was that syllabi were much more precise. While in high school syllabi provided a general roadmap, in college STEM classes, they are an almost exact schedule of what will happen each day in class. They are a very reliable way of planning.

In the sciences, however, lecture won’t be the only part of the course. You will likely have a separate laboratory component that will play a major role in your final overall grade for the course. Every week you will meet with a smaller group of students and a teaching assistant (an upperclassman or graduate student) to get practical experience with the scientific process and concepts you are covering in lecture at that time. You will do the experiment with a partner or partners, following the given methodology, making observations, and answering questions in your lab notebook.

The grades for the lab component of the course are, not surprisingly, lab write-ups, which likely consist of doing the lab and answering questions about it, both before and after the experiment. While they are first and foremost methods of teaching, I found college labs to be much more interesting than high school labs. This was mainly because they supplement, not restate, the lecture material and what would happen was not a forgone conclusion.

 The courses may be introductory, but they will not be easy. Indeed, I have heard allegations that these kinds of classes are designed with a higher than normal barrier to success. What is certain is that what is evaluated, in science courses at least, changes considerably from high school. In most cases, it’s not the facts that count; it’s what you do with them. Even in an introductory foundation course, raw knowledge only gets you so far. Understanding those facts and being able to apply them is what matters. Even multiple choice questions can require in-depth thought rather than recitation of notes.

This all might sound daunting in the abstract, but you will not be thrown into the deep end, so to speak. Professors have office hours, time where they set aside other duties to answer students’ questions. Take advantage of this! The lectures are also made with the prioritization of application in mind; you will learn how to apply the knowledge just as you learn the knowledge itself.

Are these classes difficult? Yes, but far from back-breaking. You can do it, and then the field is yours to explore.

Are you currently taking an introductory STEM class?
What did I get right, what did I miss?
If you’re thinking ahead to college, what other questions do you have about intro classes?

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Justin Robbins is currently interning with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in Florida, where he works in the Wildlife and Habitat Management Program. He is a recent graduate of Tufts University, having double majored in biology and history. In addition to being an advocate for other autistic people, he enjoys modern board games, great worldbuilding, and truly awful puns.

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