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.