As students nationwide graduate high school this month, many colleges aim to graduate more STEM professionals. While many recent high school grads intend to pursue degrees in the STEM fields, many will not earn bachelor’s degrees in the STEM field they set out to. According to the 2012 White House report “Engage to Excel,” only 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM bachelor’s degree. With a looming deficit of STEM professionals – “Engage to Excel” estimates it to be 1 million over the next decade – this problem is alarming for both the students AND our national economy.

VOCABULARY 180Florida is one of the states leading the way to correct the inability to convert students with STEM interests to STEM professionals through robust and successful STEM programs at the collegiate level. Florida’s governor and legislators are now pressing the state’s universities to graduate more STEM professionals, the universities’ leaders should make it a high priority to improve the graduation rates of students in these fields. These graduation rates will never reach 100 percent. After all, success in a STEM major requires not only innate mathematical and analytical abilities, but also rigorous preparation in math and science at the middle- and high-school levels. Not all students declaring a STEM major arrive at our universities with these prerequisites.

Nevertheless, “Engage to Excel” points out that most of the nation’s shortfall of STEM professionals could be met if we raised the graduation rate in these fields from its present value of 40 percent to 50 percent — a goal that seems as if it should be attainable.

The report highlights the importance of improving the teaching strategies used in math and science courses for improving this graduation rate. Often these courses rely solely on lecturing and recipe-driven laboratories. Many students in these courses simply memorize equations and definitions instead of building the deep understanding they need to succeed in higher-level courses in science and engineering. Others become bored, losing the intense interest that led them to choose a STEM major in the first place.

“Engage to Excel” recommends that math and science professors replace lectures and recipe-driven laboratories with “active learning” strategies and laboratories that engage students in “guided inquiry,” in which students use data from their own measurements to “discover” scientific laws. Personal interactions among students and between students and faculty are key ingredients in these strategies.

These strategies are built around decades of research on how students learn math and science. And their benefits are not incremental — research on introductory physics courses demonstrates that these “interactive engagement” strategies double student learning gains.

Many of the students I have met who major in STEM fields cite physics as the scariest subject they must take.

CONTINUE READINGTeaching must match the push for STEM grads

paul cottlePaul Cottle is a professor of physics at Florida State University. 





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