03/21/2013 10:55 am ET Updated May 21, 2013

How MOOCs Can Bridge the STEM Gap

While uncertainty still looms around jobs and the economy, there is seemingly unlimited potential for tomorrow's professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In fact, the primary challenge in STEM is finding enough qualified people to fill the growing number of jobs in these high-innovation fields.

This gap has been well documented, as has the problem behind it: young people with an interest in or aptitude for STEM aren't staying the course. According to a recent report, as many as 60 percent of students who are interested in pursuing STEM degrees as high school students change their minds at some point and graduate from college in something else.

This is a complex quandary, but one reason for high attrition is we need to do a better job of exposing students to the possibilities of STEM careers -- and what it takes to get there -- much earlier. At Brown University, we have attempted to address this problem through pre-college courses in STEM taught online and on campus as part of the Summer@Brown program. This year, we have taken things a step further by piloting a massive open online course (MOOC) on Canvas Network that focuses on the introductory curriculum from the university's "Exploring Engineering" course.

Offering this course as a MOOC has two advantages: it is free, and anyone in the world can enroll. This allows us to remove two of the biggest barriers facing most students who want to explore STEM careers before they make important decisions in their first years of college. The MOOC platform also allows us to leverage emerging technology to reach students where they are -- on their computers, all over the world.

The MOOC is designed to give an introduction to the field of engineering, a subject for which few high school teachers are available. During the six-week course, students will share in highly engaging and participatory activities in the MOOC, including investigating various careers in engineering, building something using basic engineering concepts, and researching the academic requirements of engineering programs at various colleges and universities they are considering. This course structure is meant to turn students on to the potential of a career in engineering through a highly interactive experience and help them navigate what is almost always a rocky transition from high school to a post-secondary STEM program.

The ultimate goal -- and challenge -- is to get pre-college students excited about a future in highly technical and complex fields like engineering. Doing so offers considerable benefits for individuals and the rest of us collectively. On the individual level, STEM fields offer more job opportunities, greater security and higher wages. In fact, a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce concludes that growth in STEM jobs will outpace others by more than 70 percent over the next decade at wages 26 percent higher than average. If our young people want rewarding, high-paying careers, we ought to point them toward occupations such as engineering.

The same report also notes that growth in STEM employment has a larger economic impact for the nation. In 2011, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke linked STEM occupations to long-term viability, calling these jobs "essential to a competitive, innovative and technologically advanced U.S. economy." When individuals forfeit STEM careers, the rest of us miss out on the economic benefits from the income they leave on the table and the innovations they might have driven.

Many pre-college students understand these incentives but still fall by the wayside, even after enrolling in a STEM program. One of the key reasons is they get intimidated and overwhelmed by the rigorous prerequisite courses in math and science they must take as underclassmen. For many, this isn't a problem of workload so much as expectations -- nobody told them freshman year would be so intense.

We hope to address this in our MOOC experiment by having students chart the entire academic process, all the way to the point when they graduate from their chosen institution with an engineering degree. If we can help more students through this transitional period by creating an engaging experience, I believe we will see exponential benefits that will lower attrition and improve society overall.

The U.S. suffers from a discrepancy between our disappointing world ranking in math and science and our impressive collection of excellent engineering and technology universities -- 7 of the world's top 10 are in the U.S. Certainly, there are issues to work through in elementary and secondary education, but we can also do more to help students understand what a collegiate STEM program will really be like before they get into college and change majors in a panic when things get difficult.

Beyond its implications for STEM, I am excited for what our Canvas Network experiment will teach us about extending open online courses to pre-college students in general. Our course is one of the first MOOCs tailored specifically to high school students. My hope is that, in addition to helping students become better informed about engineering, this course will serve as a model for using the open online platform to engage pre-college students in new ways. Through MOOCs, colleges and universities can expose young students to a wide range of curriculum and topics that aren't readily available at most secondary schools. Done right, this could lead to more students making seamless transitions to college programs across the academic spectrum.

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