Removing Obstacles to STEM Education is Critical to U.S. Vitality

Embracing technology is critically important, as 21st-century jobs will increasingly require an educated and highly skilled workforce. Over the next 10 years, 5 out of 8 new jobs and 8 out of 10 of the highest paying positions in the United States will be in careers related to science, technology, education, and math (STEM) subjects.

But in a decade the United States could face a shortage of one million STEM graduates. The nation's economic vitality hangs in the balance.

A major barrier to graduating more STEM majors is the way we teach these disciplines. My own personal experience is a good example. Until sixth grade, I was not good in math. This was partly due to the poor pedagogy and some teachers who were not able to contextualize the material to make learning fun and enjoyable.

Many decades later when I think of my math teacher in fourth and fifth grades, he embodied the angel of death. Going to class was unpleasant, and taking exams was a horrible experience. Consequently, my grades were mediocre at best.

When I began sixth grade, we had a new teacher who made math really fun. He was successful in changing my attitude toward math. Not only did I develop a deep interest and appreciation for the subject matter, but my grades dramatically improved. Most important, that enjoyment of a STEM subject has continued throughout my life. That is why I have an incandescent passion for this issue. It was only that chance of having a different teacher that changed the course of my academic career and, more than likely, the trajectory of many professional opportunities.

Making STEM Topics Relevant

It is unfortunate that in the current zeitgeist we have implicitly accepted child obesity, diabetes, and poor math performance as "a new normal." We need to increase the number of students we graduate in STEM by focusing on participation of underrepresented populations, like women and minorities, and by teaching STEM in new ways that engage students.

The prerequisite for accomplishing this mandate requires a significant improvement in the math competency of all students, but especially for women and students from underserved communities. We have to make the learning social, contextual, and relevant for these students. New instructional methodologies and innovative use of technologies can be a major tool in accomplishing this mandate.

Flipped classes and blended learning, where students watch online videos offered through companies like EdX and then participate in classroom discussion, are one way to use technology in higher education. Such a blended model helps students learn at their own pace before coming to the class and creates more peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

Fixing a Broken Funding Model

Another factor is contributing to the lack of STEM graduates: the poor funding model for higher education.

Affordable higher education is becoming available to fewer people. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education shows an alarming trend of dramatically diminished state support for public higher education. Our public universities and colleges have increased tuition and fees and reduced administrative costs, but these efforts are not enough.

Finding new ways to reduce costs requires radical thinking. There are untapped sources that can yield significant savings while also increasing access to higher education. Unlike most other industries, higher education has not taken advantage of technology to reduce costs. Certainly, there has been discussion in the media and on campuses across the country about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered through companies like EdX, Udacity, and Coursera, but public higher education needs to take technology to the next level.

In addition, the inefficiency of transferring credits from one university to another costs the nation an estimated $30 billion annually. An overwhelmingly large number of students attend more than one institution, and they often lose some of their credits in the process. Due to the cottage industry nature of higher education, every institution believes its set of courses--even introductory, lower-division courses--must be unique.

On average, students in who attend a community college and transfer to a four-year college complete 154 semester credits, while only 120 are needed for most majors. Students end up accumulating one year of additional schooling while pursuing a bachelor's degree, which is clearly a waste of valuable time and money--an estimated $30 billion a year.

Imagination and Innovation is the Solution

Public higher education can do better. Let's start now by consolidating, redesigning, and standardizing 25 to 40 introductory, lower-division courses across institutions and making them available to everyone online. Entrepreneurs and academics must partner to develop ways to assess learning online. And public colleges, universities, businesses, and community members must work together to innovate.

I said at the beginning of this blog that 5 out of 8 new jobs and 8 out of the 10 highest paying positions in the United States will be in STEM-related careers. So, shouldn't common sense tell us that if we have daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, or other young loved ones, we should encourage them to attain STEM competency so they have a higher chance of a successful career ahead? Each and every one of us can make a difference in this regard.

We must increase the nation's graduation rates, particularly in STEM fields, if the United States is to continue competing globally. Advances in technology, the expansion of online learning, and the needs and expectations of today's tech-savvy students make now the time to embrace the changing role of colleges and universities. Our imaginations can shape a new reality for higher education.

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