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Encouraging STEM Students Is in the National Interest

United States must produce more workers in science, tech, engineering and math

By Chad Mirkin and S. James Gates Jr.

This article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on June 25, 2012

This year a report issued by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, on which we serve, concluded that if the United States is to maintain its historic pre-eminence in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- and gain the social, economic, and national-security benefits that come with such pre-eminence, then we must produce approximately one million more workers in those fields over the next decade than we are on track now to turn out. At first glance, that may seem to be a daunting task -- but it doesn't have to be.

At current rates, American colleges and universities will graduate about three million STEM majors over the next decade, so an increase of one million would require a whopping 33-percent increase. Yet the report's lofty goal can be seen as quite feasible in the light of two other statistics: First, 60 percent of students who enter college with the goal of majoring in a STEM subject end up graduating in a non-STEM field. And second, reducing attrition in STEM programs by 10 percentage points -- so that half of freshmen who enter college with the intention of majoring in one of those fields complete college with a STEM degree -- will produce three-quarters of the one million additional graduates within a decade.

We find these facts encouraging, especially since a lot is already known about why students drop out of STEM studies. Among the leading reasons are uninspiring introductory courses, difficulty with the required math because of a lack of adequate preparation, and an academic culture that is sometimes not welcoming, particularly to women and minorities, who constitute 70 percent of college students but earn only 45 percent of STEM degrees. On the basis of that knowledge, we believe it is entirely realistic to think that, with a diligent effort, the United States can achieve the goals laid out in the report.

The federal government could get the ball rolling by acting on three recommendations suggested in the report: It should promote widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices, including active learning approaches, in introductory STEM courses; advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses; and begin a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the preparation gap that discourages students from pursuing STEM degrees.

But we also strongly believe that action at the federal level is not sufficient. Academic institutions, faculty, and students have an equally crucial, if not more important, role to play. It won't be easy. They all must be willing to make improvements in undergraduate STEM education in the face of institutional and individual barriers to change and an academic career-incentive system that is often not aligned to promote innovative and inspirational teaching in introductory STEM courses.

So what can colleges and universities do to help? First, they should collaborate with high schools on the development of bridge programs to improve student preparation during the summer between high school and college.

We've seen this work. For example, through a combination of bridge programs, building a community of support for STEM students, increasing students' research opportunities, and re-evaluating teaching practices, the University of Texas at El Paso raised graduation rates in STEM disciplines by nearly 50 percent and more than doubled the number of STEM baccalaureate degrees awarded to Hispanics—making it the largest producer of Mexican-American STEM graduates in the country.

Second, institutions should build on the mounting evidence that collaborative partnerships between two- and four-year institutions provide greater access to and opportunities for advanced STEM training for a more diverse population of students. In the University of California and California State University systems, universities and neighboring two-year colleges align curricula and work with students through the transition to bachelor's-degree programs in STEM disciplines. Courses at the community-college level that are vetted by university faculty not only provide intellectual rigor but also allow students to develop relationships with faculty before transferring.

Third, we call upon educators and their institutions to support research collaborations between research and nonresearch universities, including minority-serving institutions, that offer experience with cutting-edge scientific research to broad groups of students. For example, a partnership between Elizabeth City State University, in North Carolina, and the University of New Hampshire has given more than 400 students such experiences through federally sponsored programs.

Finally, we strongly recommend that academic leaders establish partnerships with the private sector to improve STEM undergraduate education. Foundations and private industry should join with universities to expand educational technologies, provide internships to students in the first two years of college, and invest in programs with proven success, such as bridge programs and certification programs linking community-college and technical education to industry-recognized standards.

To increase recognition of the importance of STEM college teaching, we think it will be crucial to have strong leadership from college presidents, provosts, and department chairs to galvanize faculty through resources and rewards. At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, leadership from the president has led to a coordinated approach to STEM-education excellence with demonstrated success. Among African-American students who entered the program over a seven-year period, 51 percent went on to Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. programs in STEM subjects, and an additional cadre entered master's programs, particularly in technical fields.

Some changes, however, involve more-challenging and resource-intensive actions, such as altering the faculty incentive-and-promotion structure. Administrators may need to consider reallocating resources, bringing a more strategic focus to fund raising, and securing support from private sources as well as state and federal grants. Those resources can be used to influence how faculty spend their time and will be essential to institutionalizing improved STEM teaching.

We believe that engaging higher-education leaders in this mission and putting the report's recommendations into effect will remove the most significant barriers to STEM student retention. This will provide students with the skills they need to fill 21st-century jobs, and provide the United States with the work force it needs to be innovative and competitive for decades to come.

Chad Mirkin is a professor of chemistry, medicine, and engineering at Northwestern University. He is also director of Northwestern's International Institute for Nanotechnology. S. James Gates Jr. is a professor of physics and director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland at College Park. 

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