Investing in Nontraditional Thinking in STEM Education

06/27/2012 07:20 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2012

Companies are facing a shortage of qualified incoming STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) employees. This isn't a secret. The issue has been discussed, and companies like Bayer have been involved in developing that workforce by supporting programs that strengthen U.S. STEM education. The longstanding belief has been to reach students at an early age, when they are most impressionable and eager to learn, by investing in programs designed for K-12 students. This is certainly a sound approach, with proof to back up the success. Recent studies, however, are showing the key chokepoint for students looking to enter a STEM field professionally is actually in college.

For example, it was surprising to learn that 59 percent of university STEM department chairs polled in our most recent Bayer Facts of Science Education survey still feel that discouragement at colleges is an issue for female and minority undergraduates.

But it's not the educators themselves who are standing in the way but their archaic way of thinking. Traditional teaching practices among STEM educators at universities, like "weeding out" classes, are impeding the intellectual growth and ultimately the graduation and success of these students. While all students, regardless of race or gender, are being deterred from further pursuing these fields of study by an education system entrenched in an outdated philosophy, it's the female and minority students who have proven to be especially susceptible to this discouragement.

The traditional line of thinking is not only hurting these students but putting American industries in a precarious situation of lacking incoming talent with the right set of STEM skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. In order for U.S. science innovation to remain steady in the future, we need to modify our teaching techniques to better embrace diversity in our STEM education system. Strong, innovative ideas come from varied backgrounds and experiences.

Armed with this knowledge, now may be the time for organizations to reevaluate their investment in STEM education programs, reallocating resources to help bolster higher education, ensuring that university students remain focused and undeterred from pursing STEM careers. By working directly with universities, helping educate them on the needs of today's companies, we can infuse nontraditional thinking that assumes that students will be successful, which in turn helps them, and ultimately our country, succeed in an ever-competitive global economy.

The good news is that there are college STEM programs around the country that are laying the groundwork and setting the precedent for how to successfully recruit and retain women and underrepresented minority students in STEM majors. Forward-thinking universities across the United States have adopted and put into practice techniques challenging the "norm," all with a high level of success. These are the universities embracing success by nurturing students without coddling them and pushing students with the assumption that they will be successful.

The Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., has some of the finest examples of educators who identified a problem and designed a specific solution to meet it head-on. Over the past decade, as the national average of women receiving computer-science degrees has plummeted to only about 14 percent, Harvey Mudd College has seen its numbers triple to nearly 42 percent. How have they discovered success where others are failing?

A key factor was modifying their introductory computer-science course to increase interest and confidence. The coursework now has broader, real-world-connected appeal, placing emphasis on problem-solving skills. Students work in groups based on proficiency levels to help remove the "macho effect" of experienced students incidentally or deliberately intimidating others. First-year female students are also taken to the Hopper Conference, which focuses on women in computer science. Their attendance provides an opportunity to showcase the career opportunities that are available to them and has been shown to increase interest, confidence, and a sense of belonging.

But it isn't just at the Harvey Mudd College that traditional thinking is being challenged. Across the country, at places like the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Meyerhoff Scholars Program and Duquesne University's Bayer School of Natural & Environmental Sciences, diversity in STEM studies is being embraced in nontraditional and unique ways.

These two programs in particular are leading producers of high-achieving minorities who have gone on to not only graduate but have highly proficient professional careers in STEM fields. Their programs replace highly competitive classroom environments with personalized coursework that emphases cooperation and teamwork. Utilizing mentoring, research, and scholarships for minority students who wish to pursue STEM studies, these programs have evolved their teaching methods and nurtured their students by helping them learn in methods more appropriate for their development.

These universities serve as hallmarks for what is possible in STEM education. Others that are willing to take a risk and follow suit, especially when coupled with the backing of science companies and organizations, will help further break the mold of traditional teaching methods. The roadmap is available, one with a proven track record of success. By following it, the opportunities for STEM innovation by our students, our universities, and our country are limitless. The future for our country is bright. Smart students are plenty; it's now up to us to help them reach their potential.

Rebecca Lucore is the executive director of the Bayer USA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Bayer Corporation.