The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pipeline: how are we doing?

NSTA Executive Director Francis Eberle

NSTA Executive Director Francis Eberle

The pressure has been intense on increasing STEM literacy for K–12 students. What this actually means is not entirely clear since for many STEM literacy is not well defined. When we speak about STEM literacy, does it include all students, or just for some students?  And what part of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics are we talking about when we use the “STEM” acronym?

Recently released National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores for mathematics show improved student performance in this subject. This is good news, although we still have a long way to go before we can claim that all students are math literate. We don’t know about student literacy in the other areas however—the S, T, or E.  Science is not nationally assessed by NAEP assessments at the same frequency as mathematics. There is no current NAEP assessment for engineering or technology (although it is coming in 2014) and there is a framework available that indicates which topical areas will be assessed.

Research also tells us that there is a clear link between early student motivation, and student persistence in pursuing K–12 STEM subjects and STEM fields once they leave secondary school and enter college and beyond. There has been an increase in students’ interest in pursuing STEM fields at the secondary level.  Many students are making career decisions before getting to college. A recent national Harris Interactive survey of college students reports that 78% made the decision to study STEM fields in high school and about 21% decided to pursue STEM while they were in middle school.  The survey also points out that student motivation to pursue STEM studies in college largely came from a teacher and/or a class. Students decide to pursue a STEM career because of a good salary, a positive job potential, and a degree program would be intellectually stimulating and challenging. We should give students credit for being perceptive and paying attention to larger trends. And congratulations to all the K–12 teachers who are working to increase the number of students who are interested in pursuing STEM careers.

Yet this is only part of the story. The prognosis is not good for students who go on to pursue a STEM degree—roughly 40 percent of students who plan an engineering and science major in college end up changing their major once they start taking STEM classes. This percentage is even higher for the best students–60% of premed students with strong SAT scores (and quite likely) a quality high school preparation also change their degree to a non-STEM degree.  This is twice the combined attrition rate for all other majors. Something is definitely going on here.  A New York Times article Why Science Majors Change Their Minds reports that the culture of weeding out students is alive and well in our nation’s universities. High schools have made some improvements increasing students’ interest, but it turns out that those students are being discouraged at the university level. There are bright spots for retention of STEM students: Engineering programs at MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Villanova University allow freshman to do projects in engineering. Some of those classes are not even graded. They are focused on problem solving and helping students think out of the box. These programs still require students to take the rigorous calculus and chemistry courses, but they hook them with opportunities for research, design and service projects. Worcester Polytechnic has 74% of students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years and 80% in six years. This is engaged learning. We know that this works at the secondary level as well.

The pipeline and STEM literacy does not end at the high school. What do you think—how we can keep more students engaged in STEM both in high school and especially when they get to college?

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8 Comments

  1. Bill Kuhl
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I can sure remember one my first computer classes in college the professor telling everyone that if you are really struggling with coding your programs you might better drop out now instead of wasting money on more classes.

    Sure glad I didn’t listen to him.

  2. Julie Michener
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Students pursuing STEM degrees at St. Catherine University benefit from research projects that pair students with faculty. These collaborations not only engage students but build confidence and skills students take with them as they pursue advanced degrees or enter the workforce. Students in St. Kate’s women-only baccalaureate program also greatly benefit from the National Science Foundation’s Scholars programs that provides financial aid and support programs. More at: http://stem.stkate.edu/college/stem_majors.php

  3. Francis Eberle
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Our past persistence is what got us through when we attended school. Today the participation in STEM is so small as compared to the rest of the population and the need for a technical workforce and general science literacy is much larger than when we attended school, that hoping more students have great persistence in S.T.E.M. fields is not enough.

    This makes the program that Julie mentions so important. Julie, I think we met on panel in NYC this fall. At that time you talked abut your program and it is doing a great job at serving its intended audience.. The U.S. needs to have more programs that both target specific populations of students and is more inclusive of the larger population. As an example of how valuable a S.T.E.M. degree is, recently the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University released a report, http://cew.georgetown.edu/STEM/, that found students who have a STEM degree are better paid than non STEM degree students and this is also holds true for jobs that do not need a STEM degree.

  4. Bill Kuhl
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I would have to agree with the Francis that the STEM movement is really having a hard time of making an impression. Our local newspaper finally published an article that the president of our local university is the person credited with coining the term STEM. I shared that with my friends on social media and got not a single reaction. http://www.winonadailynews.com/news/local/article_457afe3e-0db3-11e1-abe0-001cc4c03286.html

    My efforts with my science project website are better received in that I can get over 300 people in a day looking at an article on mousetrap cars, but my attempts to connect this with the bigger picture ideas such as alternatives for transportation often go with not a single person looking at the article.

    Granted my web stats are not an accurate measure of what everyone is thinking but I think it is at least a partial indicator.

    It was so great to attend STEM Day at the Minnesota State Fair this year and she all the STEM booths and meet people such a Julie.

  5. Bill Kuhl
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    A couple typo’s in the last message.

  6. Francis Eberle
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    You have to give Minnesota credit – A STEM day at the Minnesota State Fair! Amazing. It is a great connection between the public, corporations (3M in MN) and agriculture promoting STEM fields. We are seeing more of these types of STEM “fair” or “cafe” type events. There have been some local, city, state and national events.

    Do you know of some that have occurred or will occur that no one seems to know about? Tell us.

  7. Bill Kuhl
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    My understanding that the number of vendors in the STEM area at the fair had increased greatly from the previous year. I had created a 2 minute video of some of the activities I saw: http://youtu.be/Cmc3T7rjJEo

    Two weeks ago I volunteered at a STEM Summit in Rochester MN for students, I read an article in newspaper that they had to limit the number of students that wanted to come and it was in a huge facility.

    I get out to the local events such as film festivals, fairs, etc. pictures can be seen here:
    http://www.scienceguy.org/Home/PicturesScienceGuyEvents.aspx

    Bill Kuhl

  8. Mike Baldwin
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    My issue with STEM activities is that they discussed and approached as if they are another level of a basic education. At my school, many students tell me they don’t need AP biology or AP chemistry since they don’t plan to major in science yet AP Calc and AP English are accepted as core classes to the logical sequence of course work at our school. Science is to often seen as extra and as being to complicated and too hard.

    Too often STEM activities have to be something extra, something hard, something beyond what is expected. This makes it hard for us regular teachers to get really excited as we already have more to do than we have time. We need to work on our marketing and approach to STEM education.

    M. Baldwin Ed.D.

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