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

By Francis Eberle

Posted on 2011-11-08

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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