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James M. Gentile

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It's Time to STEM the Loss of Science and Engineering Students

Posted: 11/14/11 12:50 PM ET

President Barack Obama and the Jobs Council announced earlier this year an "all-hands-on-deck strategy to train 10,000 new American engineers every year" -- with private-sector companies teaming up with government to help "promote STEM education, to offer students incentives to finish those degrees, and then to help universities fund those programs." Generating home-grown engineers and scientists is crucial to ensuring our nation's leadership in the technological innovations that have fueled our economy for decades -- and to employing Americans in related industries.

The challenge, as the president noted, isn't just attracting students to STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) but retaining them, especially in college. According to a November 4 article in The New York Times,

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

That's a stunning trend that requires a radical change in how the sciences are taught at the undergraduate level. The foundation that I lead -- Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the oldest foundation in America devoted wholly to science -- has provided more than 12,000 research grants in the sciences to colleges and universities across America in its 99-year history. As we approach our Centennial next year, it's worth underscoring the importance of research to retaining the science students upon whom our nation depends for the scientists, engineers, and science-literate citizens who underpin our national commitment to innovation.

In his book Science in Solution: the Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning, noted Grinnell College professor David Lopatto documented the advantages of increased access to research in the retention and development of undergraduate science students. (The book, published last year by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, is available for free download at www.rescorp.org.)

Dr. Lopatto's study surveyed more than 10,000 students at more than 150 U.S. colleges and universities -- thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute -- and determined that, among many other benefits, undergraduate research is good pedagogy. Contrary to the traditional view that undergraduate research should only follow completion of prerequisite lecture and lab courses, Dr. Lopatto's study underscores the value of involving younger students early (even as some try to determine their academic interests), engaging them through research, and requiring only the "just in time" science learning needed to participate in the research.

It's the engagement of students that should be our priority. And, as a former dean of sciences at a liberal arts college, I know first-hand that too often that's not the case. Introductory science classes, for instance, are frequently used as a way of weeding out students instead of cultivating them. The traditional lecture format, a staple of introductory science classes, actually fails miserably as a technique for encouraging student learning -- with students learning less than half as much as they do with active engagement.

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 also be introduced early on to the interdisciplinary nature of today's science and engineering. That 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.

And as Dr. Lopatto has shown, students should have the opportunity to be directly involved with their professors in original research. That process of discovery is often what proves most enticing to potential scientists.

In September, the Association of American Universities (AAU) announced a five-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning in STEM fields at its member institutions. AAU President Hunter R. Rawlings said at the time,

In recent years, researchers, many of them at our universities, have learned a great deal about the most effective methods of teaching specific STEM subjects. We now need to disseminate these methods widely among universities so that more faculty members will adopt the best teaching practices in their classrooms. AAU is not conducting another study or research project on STEM education. We are moving to implement the results of the latest research into science and math pedagogy.

A top priority, he went on to say, will be "the synergy between teaching and research. Bringing these together in the classroom benefits education as well as research."

That's a fundamental shift that's needed in STEM education: increasing dramatically the opportunities for students to experience "the synergy between teaching and research" as early and often as possible. It's important at all levels of education, but it should be fundamental to undergraduate STEM education. We're simply losing too many talented students to other fields, and our nation's economic success depends on stemming that outward flow.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation, and the first devoted wholly to science.