Overcoming Obstacles in Teaching STEM

By Scott Rhodes

Learning the intricacies of STEM subjects can be a challenge. But teaching these complex subjects presents its own unique set of obstacles. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 48% of undergraduate students who entered STEM degree programs between 2003 and 2009 left them by spring 2009.
Considering the rising demand for educated STEM professionals, students’ dissatisfaction with university-level STEM education is both alarming and eye-opening. Given that competition among universities is fiercer than ever, the low retention rate for STEM programs is a major concern for many higher education institutions.

However, in order to adapt to these trends, some universities are reshaping their curriculums and programs to meet student needs and attract top talent. Despite the rigor and complexity of these STEM programs, these strategies make attracting and retaining students achievable.

“Survival of the fittest” is flawed

We’ve all heard this before: “Only the strongest and smartest survive this class.” Although every university wants the best and brightest talents, this flawed Darwinian thinking unintentionally discourages interested students from pursuing their chosen major. By creating a culture that is uninspiring, cutthroat and too focused on the difficulties of a STEM education, incoming students with even the slightest interest are thrown into an environment that doesn’t necessarily breed success and doesn’t reflect the collaborative nature of industry.

Instead of alienating students with impersonal, rigorous courses that provide little support, universities should spend time on the development and well-being of their undergraduates. By doing so, universities can prevent interested students from unnecessarily switching majors—and ultimately increase retention rates. According to Bill LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, instead of looking at the number of students who dropped the course as a mark of success based on its rigorousness, universities need to boost inclusivity and build a framework that supports STEM student accomplishments. “Weeding out” interested students does little for student welfare and achievement; but encouragement and support builds a community where students feel inspired to innovate.

Real life education, real life skills

In many cases, experience is the best education. Instead of reserving real-world experience for upperclassmen, many of the nation’s top engineering colleges are throwing students into the thick of it on their first day of class.

For example, on the first day of their Introduction to Engineering class at Harvey Mudd College, freshmen disassemble a pencil sharpener and write a report. Though it’s a simple assignment, it’s typically the students’ first exposure to project-based learning and helps them get familiar with complicated theoretical topics. Incorporating hands-on projects early on gives students a head start on refining skills they’ll need later in their career.

Student-centered breeds student success

We know that each student has their own unique learning style. However, most universities continue to teach to only one type of student through their traditional, lecture-based classroom structures.

By using a student-centered approach instead, universities can cater to the needs of every student. This emphasis on collaborative, self-paced learning has been used at institutions like Purdue University, which uses online modules to introduce students to foundational topics before their activity-based classes. This not only helps them focus on in-class tasks, but also take advantage of assistance from their professors and teaching assistants.

Get down to business

Although it’s often overlooked, access to internships, industry partnerships and guest lectures from leading professionals are critically important and useful strategies for attracting and retaining students. By the time students graduate, employers expect them to be experts in their field of study. By providing students with professional connections and emphasizing the importance of experience, universities bridge the divide between academic and professional growth.

Moreover, the focus on real-world experience goes beyond the classroom, giving students an insider’s perspective on what it takes to become leaders in their future STEM careers.

Because of the rising global demand for skilled scientists, coders, mathematicians, doctors and engineers, universities must stay competitive and provide quality education to those seeking a STEM degree. With the manpower and resources behind it, universities have the power to continue the STEM revolution and engage students throughout their entire career.

Scott Rhodes is vice provost of enrollment at Florida Polytechnic University.

Related Posts:

Rebranding STEM for Millennials

Educating the Next Generation of Makers

Weird Science: Further Thoughts on the STEM Educational Challenge

A Very Fragile STEM: Why We Are Stifled in the Sciences

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