PCAST report: Reform undergraduate science and math teaching

From the executive summary of the report “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”, by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology:

Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology. To meet this goal, the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34% annually over current rates.

Currently the United States graduates about 300,000 bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields annually. Fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. 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. Many of those who abandon STEM majors perform well in their introductory courses and would make valuable additions to the STEM workforce. 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 societal 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 reasons students give for abandoning STEM majors point to the retention strategies that are needed. For example, high-performing students frequently cite uninspiring introductory courses as a factor in their choice to switch majors. And low-performing students with a high interest and aptitude in STEM careers often have difficulty with the math required in introductory STEM courses with little help provided by their universities. Moreover, many students, and particularly members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields, cite an unwelcoming atmosphere from faculty in STEM courses as a reason for their departure.

Better teaching methods are needed by university faculty to make courses more inspiring, provide more help to students facing mathematical challenges, and to create an atmosphere of a community of STEM learners. Traditional teaching methods have trained many STEM professionals, including most of the current STEM workforce. But 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 Need for an Improved STEM Student Recruitment and Retention Strategy for the First Two Years of Postsecondary Education

The first two years of college are the most critical to the retention and recruitment of STEM majors. These two 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. In addition, STEM courses during the first two years of college have an enormous effect on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of future K-12 teachers. For these reasons, this report focuses on actions that will influence the quality of STEM education in the first two years of college.

Based on extensive research about students’ choices, learning processes, and preparation, three imperatives underpin this report:

  • Improve the first two years of STEM education in college
  • Provide all students with the tools to excel
  • Diversify pathways to STEM degrees.

Our recommendations, described below, detail how to convert these imperatives into action.

The title of this report, “Engage to Excel,” applies to students, faculty, and leaders in academia, industry, and government. Students must be engaged to excel in STEM fields. To excel as teachers, faculty must engage in methods of teaching grounded in research about why students excel and persist in college. Moreover, success depends on the engagement by great leadership. Leaders, including the President of the United States; college, university and business leadership; and others, must encourage and support the creation of well-aligned incentives for transforming and sustaining STEM learning. They also must encourage and support the establishment of broad-based reliable metrics to measure outcomes in an ongoing cycle of improvement.

Transforming STEM education in U.S. colleges and universities is a daunting challenge. The key barriers involve faulty awareness and performance, reward and incentive systems, and traditions in higher education. The recommendations in this report address the most significant barriers and use both tangible resources and persuasion to inspire and catalyze change. Attacking the issue from numerous angles and with various tools is aimed at reaching a point at which the movement will take on a momentum of its own and produce sweeping change that is sustainable without further Federal intervention.

Recommendations

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) proposes five overarching recommendations to transform undergraduate STEM education during the transition from high school to college and during the first two years of undergraduate STEM education:

1. Catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices.

2. Advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.

3. Launch a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the math preparation gap.

4. Encourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers.

5. Create 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.

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