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US: Expert panel urges focus on student retention to increase STEM graduates

The United States, like many countries around the world, is openly concerned about its ability to produce a sufficient number of highly-proficient professionals and researchers in science, engineering, mathematics and technology (STEM) fields. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) – a standing group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers – has recently delivered to President Obama new food for thought on this subject. Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics presents the compelling argument that by merely increasing the retention rate of undergraduate students majoring in STEM fields from the current level of just under 40% to 50%, the US could generate three-quarters of the one million additional STEM degrees it expects to need over the coming decade.

Emphasis in the group’s analysis is placed heavily on strategies for improving STEM education during the first two years of college, which the PCAST experts believe is a “crucial stage in the STEM education pathway”. Specifically, the Engage to excel report urges action on five main fronts: 

  • encouraging widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices, for example through a competitive grants programme for “STEM Institutional Transformation Awards” that could be administered by the National Science Foundation, as well as an online platform for sharing data and best practices in this area; 
  • advocating and providing support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery­based research courses, which would ideally involve a reduction in restrictions on federal research funds, as well as special consideration for grants establishing collaborations between research universities and other institutions; 
  • launching a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the mathematics­preparation gap, including special summer programmes, discipline-based mathematics instruction and new pathways for primary and secondary mathematic teachers; 
  • encouraging partnerships among stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers; and 
  • creating 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.

The need to focus on teaching and learning in the STEM fields is one that seems to resonate with the US academic community active in this area, which by all accounts has been very receptive to the report’s findings. Most also agree, however, that implementing the recommendations—and particularly raising the profile of teaching in traditionally research-oriented disciplines—presents real challenges.

The White House