How to generate 1 million more science and engineering grads: proposal

New report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology says the US faces critical shortage of science and tech grads; proposes 5-step remedy.

To remain competitive in a fast-changing global economy, the United States needs to produce more than a million more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates than currently projected over the coming decade. Currently the United States graduates about 300,000 bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields annually.

One answer may be to increase the retention rates of STEM students -- fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.

These are the points raise in a new report issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers appointed by the White House.

The PCAST report comes on the heels of a report from the National Science Board, which revealed that about 4% of the world's engineering degrees in 2010 went to US students, versus 34% to students in China, 5% to Japanese graduates, and 17% to the remaining Asian nations. Numerically, China graduated about 1 million scientists and engineers in 2008. For South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, the combined total was 330,000. In contrast, the US graduated 248,000 scientists and engineers during the same year.

The PCAST report, titled Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, suggests that simply retaining about 10% more of the students who drop out or transfer out of STEM programs would generate three-quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees needed over the next decade.

The key is to make STEM courses more interesting, relevant and hands-on. The commission also made five recommendations for increasing retention rates in STEM programs, to help achieve the goal of an additional one million STEM grads:

  1. Diversify STEM curricula: "Most introductory STEM courses taken in the first two years of college are dominated by lectures and multiple choice tests... Classroom approaches that engage students actively have been shown to increase retention of information, build critical thinking skills, induce more positive attitudes toward STEM disciplines, and increase retention of students in STEM majors.... Most surprisingly to many instructors is the increase in retention of information, deep understanding, and student attendance and enthusiasm in class that result from a diversification of teaching approaches beyond lectures."
  2. Emphasize discovery-based research courses: "If we taught young people baseball history, statistics, and rules for years before we let them watch or play a game of baseball, how many would become fans or players? Probably few. But in STEM fields, most students must wait until they are quite far along in their studies before then can experience the excitement of scientific research...  Research experiences in the first two years increase retention of students in STEM majors and improve students’ attitudes toward STEM fields."
  3. Make mathematics more interesting and relevant: "Today, many students entering college do not meet the necessary mathematics standards... Because of inadequate preparation, many students need to take developmental classes in mathematics when they get to college. In addition, employers in the private sector, government, and military frequently need employees with a level of mathematics preparation that is hard to find, placing the burden on employers to provide or obtain remedial education.... This high cost for remediation is coupled to reported low effectiveness... Reducing or eliminating the need for remedial mathematics classes or improving their cost and effectiveness is one of the most urgent challenges—and promising opportunities—in preparing the STEM workforce of the 21st century... Most U.S postsecondary students terminate their college mathematics education at a pre-calculus course that is typically a review of high school algebra, trigonometry, and sometimes functions... Such courses are frequently uninspiring, relying on memorization and rote learning while avoiding richer mathematical ideas. As this is the last mathematics course for many college students, they often are left with the impression that the field is dull and unimaginative, and they can extend this judgment to all STEM disciplines."
  4. Encourage partnerships and a 'network' approach to recruiting students: "New STEM pathways need to offer nationally portable, industry recognized credentials that are integrated into for-credit academic degree programs.... Adult students and those returning to college after time away, especially US military veterans, also often have high levels of motivation and a focus on careers that could be channeled in the direction of STEM-related jobs.... Rather than a single pipeline that is prone to leakage, or a ladder where any missed step makes the next step too hard to reach, educators and policymakers should think of a network of pathways along which students can take different routes to STEM readiness and competency. If students have exited this network of pathways, they need accessible and cost-effective ways to get back on."
  5. Bring together leadership from the academic and business communities to provide vision and action on STEM education and training challenges: "The leadership of higher education and STEM-dependent industries needs to be inspired to generate sweeping change in higher education to produce the workforce America needs. The leaders in these sectors need to be challenged by the country’s political leaders to think creatively, design and implement programs, to challenge existing reward structures, and to raise money from private donors to benefit STEM education."

(Photo: National Science Foundation.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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