“You cannot teach a
man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”
For decades the United States government has told us that we need to turn out more STEM graduates. I remember hearing in my youth the government talk about needing more science graduates; Rita Colwell had not yet coined the term STEM.
On December 18, 2012, President Barack Obama announced a plan to add 1 million more STEM graduates over the next decade (Obama White House.) In 2018 the Committee on STEM education in their report CHARTING A COURSE FOR SUCCESS: AMERICA’S STRATEGY FOR STEM EDUCATION said, “Since 2000, the number of degrees awarded in STEM fields has increased, but labor shortages persist in certain fields requiring STEM degrees.”
Researchers have proposed that one of the biggest reasons for the lack of STEM graduates is the lack of Primary and High School STEM teachers. Especially high school physics teachers, according to a 2011 report by the US Department of Education only about 46.7% of all high school physics class are taught by a teacher with a degree in the subject. Furthermore, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, only 63% of US high schools offer physics.
Decades into the problem, what do we do to increase the number of people graduating with STEM degrees? Most of the programs focus on expanding the pipeline getting more people interested in STEM careers at an earlier age. While these types of programs are essential and vital, especially in the cases of underrepresented groups, I wonder if there might be a better way to increases STEM graduates.
Another way to increase graduation rates would be to increase STEM retention. Even all these years later, I still remember my first core biology course as an undergraduate. The professor taught the course in the largest lecture hall on campus; there were over 500 students in that class. By the end of the core biology sequence, there were less than 250 students left.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics report STEM in Postsecondary Education: Entrance, Attrition, and Course taking Among 2003−04 Beginning Postsecondary Students, 27.8% of the 2003-04 starting class registered as STEM majors. According to the same report, 51.7% of the students that started in STEM degrees graduated with a STEM degree. Also, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the total student enrolment for fall 2003 was 16,911,481 (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_303.10.asp retrieved July 27, 20019.)
Using these numbers, the 2003-04 incoming class had 4.7 million registered STEM majors. By the 5-year graduation mark, the 2003-04 starting class had graduated 2.4 million students with STEM degrees. Which means the 2003-04 class had lost 2.3 million STEM majors. If the 2003-04 graduating class had graduated 73% instead of 51.7%, there would have been 1 million more graduating STEM majors. The same number that Obama set but in half the time and without any changes to the incoming pipeline.
Beyond just increasing the overall number of STEM graduates, increased retention can help in other areas. For example, from the 2003-04 incoming class, 14.2% of the female students that started as STEM majors left postsecondary education while 32.4% left STEM for other majors. (STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report) Conversely, 23.1% of the Hispanic students that were STEM majors left postsecondary education entirely while 26.4% left STEM majors for other fields. We see similar trends in Black students, 29.3% left higher education without a degree, and 36% left STEM for other majors. The numbers were lower for Asian students, 9.8% left without a degree, while 22.6% changed to other majors. (STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report).
Again, if we could increase the retention rate of these students by 50%, we would add a lot of Female, Hispanic, Black, and Asian STEM majors. The most significant advantage of increasing retention rates to increase the number of STEM graduates is we are already dealing with a group that has an interest in STEM. Additionally, working on increasing retention forces us to decide if the educational goal for undergraduate students is teaching STEM or sorting STEM students. After all, it is about time that we remember, not all STEM major wants to get a Ph.D. and become a professor. At the undergraduate level, we should be teaching STEM students so that they can use their skills to pursue their paths. Thanks for
Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg