Getting Michigan students interested in STEM careers

Despite the successes at Michigan Tech, challenges loom for STEM education even as public interest in the importance of a STEM degree is clear.

“It’s at its highest point in 25 years,” said Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change at UCLA.

That doesn’t automatically translate into getting enough students into quality programs for engineering, science or other STEM fields, Chang and others said. They have a few suggestions:

  • Show students what they can do with degrees both before they enroll and throughout their academic careers
  • Prepare high school students better in the basic skills needed to succeed in STEM programs.
  • Ignite interest in STEM early

Amid a call to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and math graduates, experts say state’s like Michigan can improve what’s already in place and ensure that any new programs produce quality graduates.

Education leaders should look at state programs that are already producing quality graduates, like the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech, experts say. They could use them to “benchmark” how the science/math cultures at those schools could be used as a foundation at other universities in Michigan.

Getting more people interested in STEM – and keeping those already in programs motivated – researchers said the state’s universities and high schools could do more to know what options await STEM graduates upon graduation.

It could mean telling students about job and internship opportunities that are on the horizon, including details on all professions not just the more obvious engineering and science fields that most students are already aware of.

At Tech, students can easily find an online list of how the most recent grads did in the job market, with the average salaries their classmates are earning in dozens of fields. Seeing that last year’s mechanical engineering grads are making, on average, more than $60,000 may encourage more students to give this field a look. “In the end, education works best when students are goal oriented,” Chang said.

That kind of information may help solve another problem: the number of people who drop out of STEM fields. The dropout rate is among the highest in engineering fields, Chang said. If students are more aware of their prospects, they may work harder to stay in the field.

But not everyone can make it, experts acknowledge. And some who may have the aptitude for it don’t know enough about it to consider it. To keep the existing pipeline full and perhaps increase it someday, more has to be done by high school counselors, industry advocates and the schools themselves to promote STEM fields, Chang said.

Chang said many high school kids are unaware of what options STEM offers and what doors it may open. At Tech, the college has sought to address that with its Mind Trekkers program,  in which Tech students take a traveling science show on the road, allowing high school students to see how science works in ways more vivid and meaningful than memorizing a periodic table.

Despite the rigor associated with a STEM degree and questions about the supply of STEM jobs that are available,  Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, said students should give it a shot. “If you’re interested in it and have the aptitude for it, sure,” Salzman said.

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Comments

Allan Whittemore
Tue, 12/02/2014 - 3:57pm
I believe that 7% "Advanced Proficient" (state average for 11th graders) on the math MME needs to be increased, if we expect more students to choose and thrive in 4-year STEM college programs. How can we get educators concerned about this dismal performance?
Anna
Fri, 12/05/2014 - 11:18am
Allan, The problem starts well before high school. The vast majority of elementary school teachers are not really capable of teaching math in ways and with the insight needed for students to achieve what's labeled as "Advanced Proficiency" once they get to high school. Instead, many teachers transmit their math-phobias or mistaken ideas about math skills to their students. No one expects someone to be "good at the violin" without competent instruction and substantial amounts of practice. Why should 3rd graders be "encouraged" by their teachers and their mis-educated or un-educated parents to think that they are "just not very good at math" when the truth is they haven't put in the amount of practice necessary to learn their times tables. Mathematics is the language necessary for success in science and engineering and is required in most technology-heavy careers. Understanding of the math behind compound interest,statistics and probability is essential to leading a healthy, economically secure life and to evaluating economic, environmental, and political claims of all kinds. Unfortunately, our teacher corps is plainly unequal to the job of producing mathematically literate high school graduates, and I see very low probability of improvements in the short term, no matter how much they talk about STEM or STEAM.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 12/08/2014 - 12:00pm
Allen and Anna, I think the MEAP data backs up what Anna said. Here is the breakdown on what percentage of school children are at the 'Advanced' level. It contains Allen's 7 percenters as well. http://michigan.gov/documents/mde/Fall_2013_Statewide_MEAP_Results_44899...I am an Industry Advocate, with 50 years experience in Mechanical Engineering. I am also a Professional Engineer. I would like to offer my help to Allen to increase the numbers of his '7 percenters'. And to Anna to improve the quality of Education available to students before high school, so there are more students available with the skills to be successful '7 percenters' in high schools, and to be successful career wise in technical fields as professionals, and/or business owners. I think a key factor is 'Work.' The ability of the individual to work. What principle is more basic to any economy or the pursuit of their happiness by any individual? So, should this be taught as though it were the basic principle of Education? Students should know what industry values as 'Work' earlier. What if this principle were unknown to Education, and somehow suppressed by Education? What if 'the ability of the individual to work' was actually lessened by K-12 education instead of being increased? As we all wish it might be. During the Industrial Age boys and girls from farms where initiative, diligence, creativity and intelligence were instilled, were brought into schools and the military, to embody the spirit of this industrial revolution. Such a migration of brain power has never before seen on this planet. I don't think it has been seen since. Now we are in the formation stages of some sort of 'Information Age', or 'Applied Knowledge'. Where shall our Age acquire those with initiative, diligence, creativity, industry and intelligence? Does our K-16 Education programs increase these? No, I think not. For example, in high school we were told we could not be told the results of the many 'intelligence tests' we were required to take, because it might give us an 'inferiority complex'. Actually, that was not true. That data collectively shows, the maximum intelligence scores in the world are achieved by 12 year-olds. After that it goes down year by year, on the average. Each additional year of Education, has its price intelligence wise. After comparing intelligence scores for college graduates to college entrants, one finds about a 5 point decrease in intelligence, say one point per year, for all students in America. We need a technology of education that does not, I repeat, does NOT do this. It should not, in a similar, way destroy 'initiative', 'diligence', 'creativity', and 'industry.' These are my words, with a little reflection, I'm sure anyone could add a few more. The military agency, DARPA. The Defense department's Advanced Research Projects Agency sent a message, a very personal message to 5000 of its 'insider' Robotics suppliers about 5 years ago. It said most of the highly creative and innovative technology of their advanced weapons systems is now actually being supplied by other countries, such as Japan and Israel. (Japanese Robotics Technology, such as ASIMOV, is considered decades ahead of ours.) The message said, America should consider such capabilities, such skills, (I have called these initiative, diligence, creativity, industry and intelligence.) a National Resource. America's 'National Resource' to bring new technology into existence is being (has been) replaced by others. They began a Robotics program for High Schools and have been spending tens of millions of dollars on such things and are working with thousands of high schools across America. A local high school has three of these Robotics insiders mentoring its Robotics Teams. If you look over the sponsors of the statewide Robotics's Teams how many heavy technology companies do you see? Some Teams have dozens. When this level of funding by the military was offered to the Founder of Maker Groups. He refused utterly. The military is not known for its ability to sponsor Innovation is it? If fact, it more like the classic example of the opposite; laziness instead of initiative, lack of creativity instead of creativity, $700 dollar screw-drivers instead of industriousness, neglect and indifference rather than diligence. We can not rely on the military to handle this challenge for us. We must act.
Neil
Tue, 12/02/2014 - 9:12pm
Beyond STEM I think the students should think STEM MFC. MFC is management, finance, and CPA. After a STEM bachelor's degree, an MBA degree is needed. Otherwise the engineer or scientist will always remain at the bottom.
Duane
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 2:28am
Neil, It seems freshly minted engineers start at a very nice bottom.
Craig
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 7:58am
STEM degrees are so very challenging and take much student discipline! Can kids do it, yes they can. Will they, I'm not sure many American kids will? The necessary self disciplne and work ethic just is no longer there in most cases. The other paths using their science and math skills in finance and related fields are easier. Do economists and finance people use calculus sure but for an undergrad degree in STEM versus finance I say kids will head to finance area. Same starting or better starting salary and if you want to run with the Bulls in Wall Street, you could be infinitely more wealthy that almost any engineer. Not sure our American kids will ever see more value in a STEM career over the capitalistic potential to be RICH!
Duane
Thu, 12/04/2014 - 11:44pm
Craig, I think if we ask those how have earned the STEM degrees we might get the whys and hows they did it. With that understanding we could use it to help others achieve the same successes. If STEM is presented as a package of value, financial, work challenges, impact, satification, the work environment, etc. I think it is much more interesting then if it is distilled down to the financials and the few would have the outsized successes.
Ryan
Wed, 12/10/2014 - 10:09am
Duane, You hit it right on the head here. Successful engineering students look at the total career package and compensation is just one part of that. The ones that come "just for the money" are often frustrated and do not perform well. They have to want to do the work, both in college (hopefully before that) and once they move into industry or other career paths.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 12/08/2014 - 12:34pm
Craig December 3, 2014 at 7:58 am I disagree. Not with your observation, but with your conclusion. You said, "I’m not sure many American kids will? The necessary self disciplne and work ethic just is no longer there in most cases." I don't think 'self-discipline' and 'work-ethic' are taught in schools. At least not well. In fact, as I said in another comment above, it may be they have been lessened or removed by Education whether accidentally or on purpose. Here are some examples from industry: I was once asked to take over an Engineering department for a Space company, Shaeffer Magnetics. The work of the department was stalled and not moving as it should. As one of my first actions, I worked with a Senior Engineer and planned out thousands of hours of work he had to accomplish on a major project. I reviewed the plan with Earnie Schaeffer, the owner of the company, and he gave me the bad news, from his viewpoint. 'I could do each of those tasks in one-third the time.' It seemed the Engineers lacked the 'self-discipline' and 'work-ethic' to live up to Earnie's standards, let's say, for wour purposes, 'Industry Standards.' So I say, did they or did they not? I did a very simple educational trick, that could be done in each class, K-12. First of all, I considered what Earnie, the owner of that company, and we are now saying, Industry, said, He said he could do each of these tasks 3X as fast. So I decided, I will teach them to work faster than that. I achieved 4X. I had each employee do each task 5 times through. When I have my students do this, I have them simply repeat the task till they can do it 'quickly and easily.' Now I had to organize the work so an employee had the five tasks to do, one after the other. But with my students, I just have them do the same task, over and over. I make the task interesting enough to carry them through. So I do not doubt your observation, I just have a different conclusion. I have a different vision of this.
Fri, 12/05/2014 - 7:19pm
Stockbridge schools stem program. I observed a teck class at Stockbridge high school a year ago and realized more than ever that the teacher and administrators makes the difference. When I talked to the teachers and principle of the school it became apparent that they ran their program on a low budget just by using material collected from closed plants at a very low cost or for free. I would recommend that any school that would like to develop a program to request a visit at stockbridge school I can assure you it would be time well spent. Dale Westrick