America’s STEM education pipeline is leaky. We lose students at every transition point during their schooling, but particularly in college where first- and second-year students are often “weeded out” of STEM courses and majors early on.
A recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) noted that fewer than 40 percent of the students entering college intending to major in STEM actually graduate with a degree in a STEM field.
At the third annual United Nations’ Social Innovation Summit last month, I was invited to moderate a roundtable discussion on how to plug the holes in the pipeline so that we retain more students along the way.
The roundtable included corporate executives from Microsoft, Merck and PayPal; non-profit and professional organizations like the New York Academy of Sciences and the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, as well as venture capitalists and STEM educators.
1) Provide inquiry-based, hands-on science education to elementary and middle school students. We would never expect art students to learn to paint by memorizing facts from a textbook. The same is true for science. Experiential learning that involves experimenting, hypothesizing, journal-keeping and teamwork engages students early on and keeps them interested as they move from elementary to middle school. It allows students to learn science the way scientists do – by doing it.
2) Expose students to real-life scientists and engineers. Few students understand the full range of STEM careers available to them. That’s why it’s so important to expose them to actual scientists and engineers as early as grade school. This will demystify STEM and make pursuing studies and careers something real -- something they can touch and feel. For computer science this is particularly important because computing is such an integral part of our lives, yet few K-12 science teachers have degrees in the field.
3) Ensure science teachers are well-trained. How can we expect our students to excel in science if their teachers aren’t properly prepared to teach it? Studies show that science is often the subject that elementary school teachers feel least prepared to teach. Ongoing professional development that hones teachers’ instructional abilities and knowledge of science content has been shown to have a positive impact on student performance and achievement.
4) Transform college STEM courses. This is critical because this is where we lose a lot of STEM talent. It is unacceptable to have students weeded out in their freshmen year. In fact, this makes companies like Bayer, which has invested millions in pre-college STEM education to prepare students to study STEM in college, seriously question our return on investment. College students should be encouraged, not discouraged, and provided more academic support if they need it. Early engagement in real research projects is something that benefits all students, especially women, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians who for so long have been underrepresented in STEM.
At the undergraduate level, continued exposure to STEM professionals becomes essential. This is something the Anita Borg Institute understands well. Each year they host the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing Conference, which brings together professional women computer scientists and female undergraduates to network and exchange ideas. For a STEM discipline in which women’s participation is historically low, this student professional development activity is a key ingredient that institutions like Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., are using to successfully retain women in computer science.
There’s a lot of talent out there, but sometimes, when it comes to STEM, we forget that. We think it’s just for the chosen few who have the chops to go to get their Ph.D.s. Nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of STEM jobs in this country require a bachelor’s degree, so by weeding out undergraduates from STEM, we’re undermining a valuable workforce this country needs today and tomorrow to stay competitive.
Rebecca Lucore is the executive director of the Bayer USA Foundation.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.