02/15/2012 04:11 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2012

PCAST Report: Launching the U.S. to Greater STEM Heights

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report on Feb. 7 on how to produce 1 million additional college graduates over the next decade with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It's an important report that should serve as a launching pad for the implementation of its recommendations, but also for additional explorations of the challenge that faces our nation.

The report, titled "Engage to Excel", rightly establishes this numerical goal as crucial to maintaining U.S. preeminence in the STEM fields -- and, therefore, in the scientific and technological innovations that have made the United States a global economic powerhouse. The report's summary states:

To meet this goal, the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34 percent annually over current rates. Encouragingly, while this need may seem daunting, it can be accomplished with only a modest increase in the retention rate of STEM majors during the first few years of college. That's because fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete college with a STEM degree today. Increasing the retention of STEM majors to just 50 percent would, alone, generate approximately three-quarters of the targeted one million additional STEM degrees over the next decade...

The report's five overarching recommendations -- to transform undergraduate STEM education during the transition from high school to college and during the first two years of undergraduate STEM education -- are the following:

  • Catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices.
  • Advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.
  • Launch a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the math preparation gap.
  • Encourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversity pathways to STEM careers.
  • Create a Presidential Council on STEM Education with leadership from the academic and business communities to provide strategic leadership for transformative and sustainable change in STEM undergraduate education.

As president of the nation's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, and a former Dean of Natural Sciences at a liberal arts college, I know full well the importance of these recommendations and their implementation. The foundation that I lead, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and has played a major role in supporting undergraduate research, providing more than 12,000 research grants in the sciences to colleges and universities across America during those 100 years. We understand the value of discovery-based research courses in particular and look forward to maintaining our commitment in that regard.

But the recommendations in this report should not only guide us but spur us on to explore additional improvements to the teaching of undergraduate STEM courses. Introductory science classes, for instance, are frequently used as a way of weeding out students instead of cultivating them. Course content should be changed to better reflect the process of science and its role in today's world. Content should be taught within the context of a larger societal issue, a relevant story or timely topic, such as environmental, health, or infrastructure issues.

Students should be introduced early on to the interdisciplinary nature of today's science and engineering. This would both reflect the reality of discovery and innovation and increase the likelihood that, if a science or engineering student chooses to leave one field of study for another, that student might go on to choose another field of science or engineering, rather than a completely different field.

Students should also be introduced to the importance of high-risk, high-reward research. To achieve that, at least some critical mass of faculty members who teach students must themselves be involved in such research. High-risk, high-reward research is an essential ingredient of innovation. Exposure to it would encourage students to question conventional wisdom and engage them in the truly transformative potential of science.

Adding 1 million additional STEM graduates who approach science from a conventional risk-averse perspective will not have the impact that we want and need as a nation. But we can maintain and expand our scientific and technological preeminence if those STEM graduates understand that the important scientific challenges ahead of us will be complex, will require an interdisciplinary approach, will be solved by innovative teams, and will progress as much through experimental failures as through successes.

In conjunction with all of this, our nation's colleges and universities should reconsider what they reward through tenure and promotion decisions. Such decisions should no longer be based merely on the number of papers published or overhead dollars generated. Rather, they should also consider how many students of individual professors go on to major in their field or in any STEM field, and how many pursue advanced STEM degrees. Indeed, colleges and universities could even be judged and ranked by funding agencies not only on their ability to accrue funding dollars but also on their success in taking incoming, prospective science students all the way through to receiving science degrees. Such a ranking mechanism could provide a powerful incentive for change.

The PCAST report is highlighting a crucial need -- not just for STEM fields but for future U.S. employment and economic preeminence. It is launching our nation on the right trajectory, and the implementation of its five overarching recommendations should become a national priority. But they should not be seen as the only solutions needed. "Engage to excel" is correct, but we can be even more engaging on the way to producing 1 million additional college graduates with STEM degrees over the next decade.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.