How to attract and keep students in STEM

Young female scientist working in a modern biological lab

Perhaps in the not-too-distant-future, parents and educators will be able to glimpse the future’s needs and effectively educate today’s students for future jobs. Until then, society’s most promising crystal balls reside in forecasts of job demand and growth by government and private organizations. According to President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, there will be a shortfall of one million engineers, computer scientists, and technology designers by 2020 (Report to the President, 2012).

So what?

According to the US Department of Education, “the United States has become a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers and innovators” (Science, Technology, Engineering, n.d.). Despite understanding the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) talent in driving society forward, “only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career” (Science, Technology, Engineering, n.d.). Despite the lack of STEM proficiency and interest in US high school graduates, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reveals that “US students have lower achievement in math and science than those in a number of other countries, especially those in East Asia” (Science, Technology, Engineering, n.d.).

Currently, United States employers are filling the STEM talent void by recruiting qualified workers from other countries. However, unless the US system for STEM education changes to attract and develop students in STEM excellence, increasing numbers of US students will likely become workers in less-skilled jobs (or no jobs) while the demand for higher paying STEM jobs increases. Although outsourcing these STEM jobs appears to fill the STEM talent gap in the US, this solution is only a temporary fix. Over time, these trickles of money flowing out of the United States economy might exacerbate the already skewed US income inequality.

Seven Tips to Attract More STEM Talent

Below are some pertinent factors educators can consider to support the growth of burgeoning young engineers, computer scientists, and other technical specialists.

  1. Teach Us to Think Not Memorize: Careers in engineering, computer science, and technology design require problem solving skills, sound decision making, and the ability to translate numbers into English. These skills all require more thinking and applying than memorizing. To succeed in engineering courses and jobs, we must learn the ability to apply knowledge to a wide spectrum of problems. As such, we appreciate educators who can support our curiosity, discovery, and confidence rather than the ability to memorize and recite.
  2. Make Mindset Matter: According to research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, praising students based on intelligence or talent tends to create students who believe that our capabilities are limited to our innate intelligence or talent. Instead, educators should model and praise hard work, effort, and resilience as means to grow rather than an innate gift of talent. When I reflect upon my journey as an engineering student, the instructors that led me to believe “I can” encouraged me even when I broke the beakers, wrote buggy code, and miscalculated simple algebra in proofs. Successful people learned to embrace failure as opportunities, thus STEM education should reward effort rather than strictly successes.
  3. Reduce or Eliminate Stereotypes: Prior to college, I had no idea what engineering, computer science, and technology really consisted of. In fact, my idea regarding STEM majors and careers were that everyone became either nerdy scientists in lab coats or antisocial awkwards buried in books. While white males represent the majority of STEM undergraduates at my university, I experienced an empowering diversity of cultures, friends, and ideas both in college and the workplace. The stereotypical “nerdy and awkward” major fear I entered college with quickly faded when I got to know the past adventures and future large-scale goals of my classmates. Given my own misconceptions, I suggest that high schools, colleges, and companies create partnerships to provide opportunities such as jobs shadows, internships, and corporate sponsors that show students what “real” STEM is like!
  4. Make Resources That Pertain to STEM Careers Available and Accessible: I dare to proclaim that most of my learning occurred not during the 50+ people lectures but rather during office hours with the course instructors, review sessions with other students, and academic resources provided by the department. Although hearing the concepts in lecture was helpful, the concepts really “stuck” while sharing ideas and questioning truth with experts in the field. How did I know about these resources? First, having a well-publicized “resources page” on the school webpage was very helpful. In addition, having access to peers, teachers, and corporate leaders as mentors was instrumental in my growth in STEM. After all, now employers fill 80% of jobs through referrals according to NBC news.
  5. Allow Students to Direct Our Own Learning: I recently stumbled across Dr. Montessori’s Montessori Method to child development and education, and a lightbulb instantly lit up in my mind. The Montessori Method nurtures children’s curiosity and intrinsic desire to learn by allowing them the freedom to explore and choose activities that interest them (American Montessori, n.d.). But why should college be any different? Both children adults can benefit from the freedom of selecting courses of interest and to learn through inquiry. For example, Sir Ken Robinson exclaimed in his TEDtalk that “[schools] are educating people out of their creative capacities” (Robinson, 2006). However, he also argues that original ideas come about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things. As it relates to STEM, perhaps letting us students pick our own courses, even if selecting from a pre-determined list, can promote our curiosity, motivation, and passion for learning.
  6. Built GRIT: Considering that many jobs in the future job market have not yet been created, I see more possibilities than positives when I consider my future career. Given this uncertainty, how can schools best prepare society’s burgeoning leaders for future challenges? Dr. Angela Duckworth’s research showed that grit predicts achievement. Her lab defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” (Duckworth, n.d.). With this approach, my undergraduate goals shifted from a mundane checking off requirements to graduate towards an exercise of sustaining interest and effort toward an exciting future that does not yet exist.
  7. Expect the Best: To inspire STEM greatness, treat us as if we already are great. Dr. Rosenthal conducted a research study by randomly assigning students into two groups and telling teachers that one group consists of all the IQ gifted students while the other group of students were less gifted (Rosenthal, n.d.). At the end of the year, the group of students labeled ‘gifted’ actually scored higher on IQ exams than the other group. In other words, believing in students’ capabilities leads to self-fulling prophecies!

 

As 2020 rapidly approaches, research, practice, and policy are converging to transform STEM education. Together, we can grow deeper roots in STEM.

 

About the Author
Julianna Ge

Julianna Ge

Julianna Ge has a passion for teaching, service, and research. She has received seven awards and scholarships and seven internships during her three years in college.

Julianna teaches and advises students as the lab assistant for General Engineering 101. She also led the 2015 Engineering Open House exhibit, which won a first place award, and subsequently received the Industrial Engineering Department’s 2015 Service Award.

Julianna serves as president of the James Scholar Advisory and Leadership Team, where she recently received the 2015 Leadership Achievement Award in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the organization.

Julianna works collaboratively with professors and graduate students in the Department of Human and Community Development to develop a new concept in the field of enculturation science. She was the lead presenter at the Undergraduate Research Symposium and co-author of a research paper in publication.

She loves meeting new people, so feel free to contact her!

 

References

American Montessori Society: Introduction to the Montessori Method. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori

Duckworth, A. (n.d.). The Duckworth Lab, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from https://sites.sas.upenn.edu/duckworth

Report to the President: Engage to Excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_feb.pdf

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en#t-255450

Rosenthal, R. (n.d.). UC Riverside Website. Retrieved from http://www.psych.ucr.edu/faculty/rosenthal/index.html

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/stem