President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Release Report Outlining Undergraduate Education Initiative

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Publication date: 
14 February 2012

On February 7, 2012 the President’s Council of Advisors  on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its report “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates  with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”  The report provides a strategy for improving  STEM education, particularly during the first two years of college. 

This report is in response to economic analyses which  found that there is a need for the United States to produce approximately 1  million college graduates with STEM backgrounds over the next decade in order  to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology.  To do so, the United States will need to  increase the number of students who receive STEM degrees by about 34% annually  over current rates. 

While fewer than 40% of students who enter college  intending to major in STEM field complete a STEM degree, the report explains  that “increasing the retention of STEM  majors from 40% to 50% would, alone, generate three quarters of the targeted 1  million additional STEM degrees over the next decade.”  It goes on to state that “retaining more students in STEM majors is the lowest-cost, fastest  policy option to providing the STEM professionals that the nation needs for  economic and social well-being, and will not require expanding the number or  size of introductory courses, which are constrained by space and resources at  many colleges and universities.”

The report highlights that “the first two years of college are the most critical to retention and  recruitment of STEM majors.  The STEM  courses in these years are also a shared feature of all types of 2- and 4-year  colleges and universities – community colleges, comprehensive universities,  liberal arts colleges, research universities, and minority-serving  institutions.”

The report discusses teaching methods at the undergraduate  level, stating that a “large and growing  body of research indicates that STEM education can be substantially improved  through a diversification of teaching methods.   These data show that evidence-based teaching methods are more effective  in reaching all students – especially the ‘underrepresented majority’ – the women  and members of minority groups who now constitute approximately 70% of college  students while being underrepresented among students who receive undergraduate  STEM degrees (approximately 45%).  This  underrepresented majority is a large potential source of STEM professionals.”

The report proposes three strategies to address issues of  student intellectual engagement and achievement, motivation, and identification  with a STEM field.  These three key  strategies are to adopt STEM teaching strategies that emphasize student  engagement, provide all students with the tools to excel and to diversify the  pathways to a STEM degree. 

Institutional and individual barriers exist and are  addressed in section 3 of the PCAST report.   These include that faculty lack knowledge of evidence-based teaching and  that they lack individual rewards for good teaching, there are limited  resources particularly in light of the current economic climate, also the idea  that students hesitate to major in STEM fields due to the perception that their  grades will be lower as a result.  The  report points out that many two-year and non-research institutions do not have  the programs or resources to offer students extensive research  opportunities.  The report also suggests  that “colleges and universities need to  change their institutional and reward structures” since “although research will always be the  hallmark of the research university and must be valued and rewarded, the ideal  faculty incentive system is based on both teaching and research accomplishments.” 

In the report, PCAST identified five recommendations to  generate the 1 million additional undergraduate STEM degrees:

Catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated  teaching practices     Evidence-based teaching was highlighted as an effective  way to teach in STEM classrooms to build critical thinking skills.  This approach uses diverse methods to engage  students in “active learning” in order to increase in coverage of content in  classrooms.  

PCAST recommends that federal agencies establish  discipline-focused programs funded by Federal research agencies, academic  institutions, disciplinary societies, and foundations to train current and  future faculty in evidence-based teaching practices.  It also recommends that the NSF institute a  competitive grant program for “STEM Institutional Transformation Awards.”  These grants would go to faculty working to  design transformational and sustainable teaching methods for STEM subjects.  PCAST lastly requests that the National Academies develop metrics to evaluate  STEM education. 

Advocate and provide support for replacing standard  laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses     The report recommends that universities and colleges expand  the use of research courses in order to provide research experiences in the  first two years of undergraduate education.   This would allow students to have the opportunity to generate scientific  knowledge through research.  To expand  the opportunities for students to research and design projects in faculty  research laboratories, PCAST recommends reducing restrictions on Federal  research funds and redefining the Department of Education Carl D. Perkins  Career and Technical Education program. 

Launch a national experiment in postsecondary  mathematics education to address the mathematics-preparation gap “Because of  inadequate preparation, many students need to take developmental classes in  mathematics when they get into college.”

To address this complex problem, PCAST recommends that  the National Science Foundation, Department of Labor, and the Department of  Education support a national experiment in mathematics undergraduate education. 

Encourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversify  pathways to STEM careers     To encourage students to pursue STEM degrees, PCAST  recommends strengthening partnerships between high school and college; between  two- and four-year colleges; and partnerships involving minority-serving  institutions.  Many in the private sector  actively support STEM efforts in high schools, colleges, and universities and  strengthening these partnerships would greatly affect student learning. 

PCAST offers recommendations to strengthen the  collaboration between the Federal Government, K-12 education as well as higher  education.  These include expanding the  Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career  Training initiative to encourage pathways from two- to four-year institutions;  sponsoring STEM learning programs for high school students through the  Department of Education’s summer STEM learning program; establishing  public-private partnerships to support STEM programs; and improving data provided  by the Department of Education and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to STEM  students, parents and the greater community on STEM disciplines and the labor  market. 

Create a Presidential Council on STEM Education     PCAST recommends that the President, via executive Order,  form a Presidential Council on STEM education to provide advice and leadership  on postsecondary STEM education from the academic and business communities in  order to provide strategic leadership for transformative and sustainable change  in STEM undergraduate education. 

The reaction to this report by the public present at the  PCAST meeting was positive.  Many believed  that refocusing current investments in STEM education can address the barriers  in student retention. 

In September 2010, PCAST released a report “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science,  Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future” which called  for 100,000 additional STEM teachers over the next decade.  The FYI on that report can be found here

A link to the PCAST Report “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates  with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” can be  found here.

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