Students who enter college to earn a 2-year or 4-year degree in an area of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) face many barriers in the multiple pathways to degree completion. The pathways that students are taking to earn STEM degrees are diverse and complex, with multiple entry and exit points and an increased tendency to earn credits from multiple institutions. The barriers students face differentially affect students from underrepresented minority groups and women, as shown by the lower rates of degree completion by black, Hispanic, and female students. The barriers are particularly difficult to overcome for students with limited experience with and knowledge of higher education in general and of STEM fields in particular, such as first-generation students and many of those who are eligible for Pell Grants. The undergraduate student population has undergone significant shifts, and undergraduates who aspire to earn STEM degrees are much different than their counterparts 25 years ago. The percentage of women and students from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in STEM degrees has been on the rise (National Science Board, 2014). The number of students attending undergraduate institutions who have previous work experience, have taken a semester or more away from college, and have families is also increasing (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). And as noted throughout this report, students interested in STEM degrees are navigating the undergraduate education system in far more complex ways than previously. Increasingly, students, including those seeking STEM degrees, are combining credits from multiple institutions to earn a degree, are transferring from 2-year to 4-year institutions (often without completing a degree or certificate program), are
transferring from 4-year to 2-year institutions, are enrolling at multiple institutions both simultaneously and sequentially, and are taking college credit in high school through dual enrollment and advanced placement courses (see Eagan et al., 2014; Salzman and Van Noy, 2014; Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014).
In the face of these changes in the student population, the committee found that—although there are some notable exceptions—postsecondary institutions, STEM departments, accrediting entities, and state and federal education policy have been slow to adapt. Although there are many small- and larger-scale efforts to remove the barriers that students face, we find that the underlying causes of these barriers need to be addressed much more deeply and systematically for widespread and sustainable reform to take hold. An important reason that institutions of higher education struggle to consistently deliver high-quality education experiences for STEM aspirants is that the institutions themselves and undergraduate education more generally were designed to serve much different student populations and to help them progress along much different education pathways than are typically being used today. In a sense, higher education institutions function more like a collection of discrete practices and policies, rather than being interconnected and synergistic.
There are many examples of unchanged policies and programs:
- a “weed-out” culture in many STEM departments rather than a supportive environment;
- graduation rates that are tracked on a 2-, 4-, or 6-year time clock, uninformed by data on median time to degree for different fields or the need to account for remediation time or the reality of part-time study;
- recognition and rewards to institutions for the quantity of degrees awarded rather than the quality, relevance, and levels of learning that are expected of and provided to students; and
- completion rates that are calculated on the basis of enrollment by first-time, full-time students and so discount part-time students and transfer students.
Several facts are worth noting. Institutions that take on the challenge of providing a high-quality STEM education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds often do so with fewer resources than elite institutions. Underrepresented minority students and first-generation students are more likely to enroll at a 2-year institution than a 4-year institution (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014). Historically black colleges and universities award about 20 percent of all of the STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by black students in fields other than psychology and social sciences, and about one-third of
black students who have earned a Ph.D. in these STEM fields attained a bachelor’s degree in STEM from historically black colleges and universities (National Science Foundation, 2013).
Two overarching findings undergird our conclusions and recommendations:
- The “STEM pipeline” metaphor focuses on the students who enter at one end of the education system and those who emerge with STEM degrees. The metaphor does not reflect the diverse ways that students now move across and within higher education institutions, the diversity of paths that lead students to STEM degrees, or the expanding range of careers for those with STEM degrees. The “STEM pathways” metaphor is a more comprehensive and inclusive way of examining how students progress through STEM degrees and the much broader kinds of supports that higher education needs to provide to enable these students to successfully complete a credential.
- Undergraduate STEM reform efforts have been piecemeal and not institutional in nature, and those that do not attend to today’s students, their challenges or to the policy environments in which the institutions operate are likely to be short-lived and largely ineffective.
In the following three sections, we present our conclusions and recommendations related to today’s students, about the role of institutions in serving those students, and about the need for systemic and sustainable change. Our conclusions and recommendations are embedded in these sections. In addition, our recommendations are presented by stakeholder group in Box 7-1.
CONCLUSION 1 There is an opportunity to expand and diversify the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce and STEM-skilled workers in all fields if there is a commitment to appropriately support students through degree completion and provide more opportunities to engage in high-quality STEM learning and experiences.
Interest in STEM degrees among all undergraduate degree seekers at 2-year and 4-year institutions is at an all-time high, including students from traditionally underrepresented groups. Interest in STEM degrees is not only reflected in what degrees students indicate they are most interested in
earning when they first begin their undergraduate studies, but also in the fact that one-third of students who begin with an undeclared major select a STEM discipline as a major (Eagan et al., 2014).
The degree completion rates for all STEM aspirants is less than 50 percent, with the lowest completion rates found among students from underrepresented groups (blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans). Three common threads among students from groups with low degree completion rates are that they have the greatest economic need, are more likely to require developmental courses, and have few if any immediate family members who completed college. Increasingly, students who aspire to earn STEM degrees are coming to college with a broad range of life experiences, are transferring among institutions at least once, and are more frequently stopping out. They are also likely to be working while attending college, especially 2-year colleges, and some are parents. Although the demographic
composition of students who are seeking STEM degrees is shifting, it remains true that on average, STEM aspirants arrive on campus better prepared and having achieved more academically than the student body as a whole. Yet only 40 percent of these students earn STEM degrees within 6 years.
Students who enter college declaring that they are interested in pursuing STEM degrees but then decide to enroll in non-STEM majors most frequently do so after STEM introductory courses (or prerequisite introductory science and mathematics courses). These students turn away from STEM in response to the teaching methods and atmosphere they encountered in STEM classes (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012; Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). Furthermore, many students who switch majors after their experiences in introductory STEM courses pass those courses. It seems that they abandon their goal of earning a STEM
degree due to the way that STEM is taught and the difficulty in attaining support. That support, such as tutoring, mentoring, authentic STEM experiences, or other supports, improves retention in STEM majors (Estrada, 2014). In other words, students are dissuaded from studying STEM rather than being drawn into studying a different discipline. While some of the switching may be the result of considered choices based on opportunities to explore attractive alternatives, lack of a supportive environment in STEM likely contributes to those decisions.
Based on STEM persistence and completion rates, and research on why students leave, it seems clear that 2-year and 4-year institutions are not consistently providing all STEM degree seekers with a high-quality education experience and the supports that they need to succeed, especially in introductory and gateway courses.
CONCLUSION 2 Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) aspirants increasingly navigate the undergraduate education system in new and complex ways. It takes students longer for completion of degrees, there are many patterns of student mobility within and across institutions, and the accommodation and management of student enrollment patterns can affect how quickly and even whether a student earns a STEM degree.
An increasing percentage of STEM aspirants and those who graduate with a STEM degree or certificate begin their college career at 2-year institutions. This is especially true among black, Hispanic, and American Indian students. In addition, the rate at which STEM aspirants and graduates transfer from a 4-year institution to a 2-year institution (reverse transfer) is also increasing (Salzman and Van Noy, 2014). Likewise, there is increased availability of and enrollment in high school dual-enrollment programs and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate STEM courses, both of which provide students with college-level courses and are accepted for college credit and placement at many institutions. The increased movement of undergraduate STEM credential aspirants often leads to loss of credits earned (because some credits do not transfer), classes that may not count toward the degree requirements in a second institution, and difficulties in adjusting to new academic cultures. All of these factors influence the amount of time it takes STEM aspirants to graduate, even if they are consistently making progress toward their degree and doing well in their classes. Students who reverse transfer (from a 4-year to a 2-year institution) are substantially less likely to complete a STEM degree within 6 years. However, students who concurrently enroll in multiple institutions are only slightly less likely to complete a STEM degree in 6 years than those who attend only one institution. Students who need remedial classes also
need to take more credits, which often extends their time to graduation and increases the cost of their education. This is one reason that students with remedial needs often “time out” of federal financial aid.
CONCLUSION 3 National, state, and institutional undergraduate data systems often are not structured to gather information needed to understand how well the undergraduate education system and institutions of higher education are serving students.
Most large-scale data systems that include information on undergraduate students were built to track students in a pipeline model. Some systems focus primarily on gathering data on full-time or first-time students, while others do not account well for the swirling of students among institutions. These systems often rely on graduation rates as the sole metric of success for students and institutions: they do not systematically collect information on students’ goals, reasons for transferring or leaving institutions, progress toward a credential, nor do they provide access to evidence-based teaching practices or student support systems.
The limitations of the data systems make it difficult for the states and the federal government to understand how the postsecondary education system is serving students, if some students are being served better than others, and which institutions consistently do not meet the needs of their students. In addition, most faculty, departments, and institutions do not know when students encounter barriers to earning the degree they seek or what supports students may need to succeed.
RECOMMENDATION 1 Data collection systems should be adjusted to collect information to help departments and institutions better understand the nature of the student populations they serve and the pathways these students take to complete science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees.
- Colleges and universities need to more consistently leverage the information collected across their campuses (e.g., offices of institutional research, STEM departments, and student aid offices) to better understand who their students are, their movement among majors and institutions, the barriers they encounter in working toward their degrees, and the services or supports they need.
- States and federal agencies should consider how the information they require institutions to collect might enable better tracking of students through pathways they take to earn a STEM degree within and especially across institutions. In addition, they should consider
expanding measures of success, which increasingly inform funding formulas, beyond graduation rates.
There are a growing number of institutions that are using the data collected across their institutions to support student learning and identify when and where students need support to continue with their work toward STEM degrees. More campuses are identifying difficult introductory courses to provide supplemental instruction or use evidence-based instructional strategies and track students with data dashboards to improve progress toward degrees; however, systematic collection and use of such data are not widespread. With a better understanding of what barriers students typically encounter, and when and why students typically encounter them, institutions can more efficiently provide individualized support to students.
Existing data on undergraduate students and institutions are limited in a number of ways. We were not able to ascertain the success of STEM students who transferred from community colleges without earning a credential, nor could we address questions related to what happens to students who “time out” of financial aid.
A vision of success that goes beyond graduation rates and time to completion has been emerging from definitions of success developed by various stakeholder groups, including the American Association of Community Colleges, the Aspen Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, and the Association of American Universities. These stakeholders have identified a broad set of academic indicators, such as success in remedial and first-year courses, course completion, credit accumulation, credits to degree, retention and transfer rates, degrees awarded, expanding access, and learning outcomes. Much work is needed by these and other stakeholders to develop a systematic, national data source on such factors.
RECOMMENDATION 2 Federal agencies, foundations, and other entities that fund research in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education should prioritize research to assess whether enrollment mobility in STEM is a response to financial, institutional, individual, or other factors, both individually and collectively, and to improve understanding of how student progress in STEM, in comparison with other disciplines, is affected by enrollment mobility.
Many students move across institutions and into and out of STEM programs; the incidence is higher among community college students. It is often not clear what drives their decisions. One-half of community college STEM students enter into STEM after their first year of enrollment, and little is known about what factors are involved in their decisions and the
ultimate implications for student outcomes. While late decisions can force students to take more than the required number of credits for a major because many STEM programs are highly structured with various requirements, early decisions may not be possible or even desirable if students are unsure about their career paths and need time to discover their interests. These decisions may be influenced by institutional policies (e.g., on early deadlines to declare program entry), discipline-based professional societies, and accrediting bodies. Research is needed on:
- what kinds of exploration students undertake as they decide to major (or not) in a STEM field and how they make their decisions,
- why students enter STEM programs at different times,
- the factors that attract them to STEM majors,
- how institutional structures might facilitate or delay their entry into STEM, and
- to what extent the identified problems may be associated with changing student demographics.
CONCLUSION 4 Better alignment of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, instructional practices, and student supports is needed in institutions to meet the needs of the populations they serve. Programming and policies that address the climate of STEM departments and classrooms, the availability of instructional supports and authentic STEM experiences, and the implementation of effective teaching practices together can help students overcome key barriers to earning a STEM degree, including time to degree and the price of a STEM degree.
Substantial research in the last decade indicates that persistence in STEM is related to a host of factors that go beyond academic preparation of the individual student. Those factors include institutional practices and supports that reinforce student identities as scientists or engineers, recognition of talent, interaction with peers, and opportunities for authentic research experiences. Instructional practices that encourage active and interactive learning are keys to improving student learning and persistence in STEM. In addition, faculty behavior and attitudes inside and outside the classroom can provide cues that help students persist toward STEM degrees.
Discipline-Based Education Research (National Research Council, 2012) identifies the evidence-based practices that improve student learning and persistence in STEM programs. The study illustrates the importance of active instructional practices that engage students in the learning process
and increase their interaction with peers, faculty, and teaching assistants. The report also points to the slow adoption of these practices. Research has also shown increased effects of evidence-based teaching practices when paired with co-curricular supports.
Even when high-quality instructional practices are implemented, students often receive little guidance or support regarding how efficiently to navigate the vast array of undergraduate education options. This makes it difficult for students to know how to get from where they are academically to where they want to be or to help them explore options that they have not considered about current and future career opportunities. This situation may help explain the phenomena of students who take classes at multiple institutions, transfer between institutions, or take time off from college, but all of this “churning” is associated with lower rates of completion and longer times to degree. Time is the enemy of many undergraduate STEM students. As time to degree increases, the likelihood of graduating seems to decrease due to a host of factors, perhaps, most importantly, increasing student debt.
Long-term program evaluations of interventions now provide evidence of what can increase persistence and graduation rates among STEM students. The most promising interventions combine contact with faculty and a supportive peer group along with access to authentic STEM experiences. Undergraduate research experiences show positive effects for both persistence and intentions for graduate school, over and above faculty mentoring experiences (though the two are often combined in structured research programs). Co-curricular supports (e.g., research experiences, mentoring, summer bridge programs, and living and learning communities) have been shown to affect STEM student persistence and completion when they align with evidence-based practices in supporting student learning and interests.
The culture of STEM classrooms and departments also influences STEM student persistence. Many students interested in STEM degrees, especially those from underrepresented groups and women, decide to pursue other fields due to the instructional practices, the “weed out” culture of some introductory STEM courses, and the lack of opportunities to engage in authentic STEM experiences.
To train effective mentors and create a culture of inclusiveness, faculty need to be provided opportunities to become more aware of implicit bias and stereotyping as well as how to avoid them. Departments need to encourage greater student involvement in research and design experiences, as well as in clubs and organizations related to a discipline, which have been shown to improve retention in STEM (Chang et al., 2014; Espinosa, 2011). The role of professional STEM clubs and organizations also points to the importance of local chapters as well as national student organizations and
the development or enhancement of professional society programs for undergraduates to sustaining interest and retention in STEM.
The need for and nature of student supports likely will differ by type of institution and student background. It would be useful for institutional leaders to collect the kind of data about students’ current interests and needs to better determine how they can offer a range of interventions that are most appropriate to the current and changing needs of their students.
In general, 2-year and 4-year institutions serve students with different backgrounds, goals, and educational preparation. Community colleges enroll more older, first-generation, and working students than 4-year colleges. They play a significant role in the pathways that a diverse population of students takes in earning STEM degrees and certificates. Science and engineering programs at 2-year institutions enrolled relatively high proportions of Hispanic, Asian, and female students but a lower proportion of black students, who were more likely to be enrolled in technical-level programs.
Although community college STEM students have relatively low completion rates, their high persistence rates are notable. Students who begin their undergraduate education at a 2-year institution often take more than 6 years to complete their degrees, due to part-time enrollment, interruptions in their enrollment, and loss of course credit when they transfer between institutions. Understanding the quality of the educational experiences provided by 2-year institutions is hampered by the existing data systems that do not provide clear information on students who transfer from 2-year institutions to 4-year institutions without earning a degree or certificate. In addition, the contribution of 2-year institutions to the degrees that transfer students receive at 4-year institutions is not tracked and so is not well understood. Although there is emerging evidence regarding the characteristics of departments that support the use of evidence-based pedagogy, we were unable to find data on the relative use of such pedagogy. In fact, we were unable to even find recent national data on who teaches STEM courses (full-time tenured faculty, adjunct, or other), the level of instructional training that instructors had received, or alignment of instructor practices with evidence-based practices.
RECOMMENDATION 3 Federal agencies, foundations, and other entities that support research in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education should support studies with multiple methodologies and approaches to better understand the effectiveness of various co-curricular programs.
Future research on co-curricular programs should reflect the complexity and “messiness” of undergraduate education, and it should illuminate how the co-curricular support fits into the broader culture of institutions.
There is a need for more studies that track students over time to assess both the short-term and long-term effects of program elements across academic pathways. Such studies should include data from similar cohorts of students who do not participate in the program as a comparison or control group. When possible and appropriate, participants should be randomly assigned to co-curricular program groups.
For these studies to be useful, co-curricular programs need to identify measurable outcomes such as retention, grades, knowledge, and degree conferment, and they should identify the discipline of study. In-depth case studies or focus groups with program participants and similar students to track experiences at time of participation and shortly after can add to the research. Studies should move beyond linear models of student progress to a credential to test models that are more reflective of the kind of decision making of students. In addition, studies of long-time co-curricular programs and the nature of the sites that house them are needed to better understand how to sustain successful programs.
RECOMMENDATION 4 Institutions, states, and federal policy makers should better align educational policies with the range of education goals of students enrolled in 2-year and 4-year institutions. Policies should account for the fact that many students take more than 6 years to graduate, and should reward 2- year and 4-year institutions for their contributions to the educational success of students they serve, which includes not only those who graduate.
- The states and the federal government should revise undergraduate accountability policies so that systems of assessment, evaluation, and accountability give credit to and do not penalize (i.e., in-state funding formulas) institutions for supporting students’ progress toward their desired educational outcome. It is important that policies take into account the various ways that students are currently using different institutions in pursuit of a degree, certification, or technical skills.
- The states and the federal government should extend financial aid eligibility to graduation for students making satisfactory progress toward a degree or certificate, so that students do not “time out” of financial aid eligibility.
- Colleges and universities should shift their institutional policies toward a model in which all students who are admitted to a degree program are expected to complete that program and are provided the instruction, resources, and support they need to do so, rather than a model in which it is assumed that a large fraction of students will be unsuccessful and will leave science, technology, engineering,
and mathematics programs. This model can save money because the time to degree is shortened and the number of drops, failures, withdrawals, and repeating of courses is reduced.
Systems of accountability for undergraduate education need to better align to the pathways that students actually are taking to earn STEM degrees. To do so, more thought needs to go into how each institution can track students’ progression toward a degree or other outcome-—including gaining skills to upgrade current employment and earning a certificate while working toward an associate’s degree—recognizing the long time to degree completion among many STEM students.
STEM students are taking longer to earn degrees because of many factors, including transferring among institutions, changing majors, and the need to follow strict course sequencing. It is now uncommon for a student to complete a 2-year degree in 2 years or a 4-year degree in 4 years. The time frame of some current financial aid policies do not reflect what is now common and do not align with the pathways that students are taking to earn degrees. Providing financial aid on the basis of the number of semesters a student has spent in college has a differentially negative impact on students from underrepresented minority groups, who more frequently than other students need remedial courses due to weakness in their K-12 preparation, starting at 2-year institutions, and taking longer to graduate. Financial aid policies could recognize the current pathways by focusing on whether students are making adequate progress toward their academic goals.
The culture of many STEM courses and departments is undergirded by the belief that “natural” ability, gender, or ethnicity is a significant determinant of a student’s success in STEM. Related to this view is the tendency for introductory mathematics and science courses to be used as “gatekeeper” or “weeder” courses, which may discourage students from pursuing STEM degrees, through highly competitive classrooms and a lack of pedagogy that promotes active participation and emphasizes mastery and improvement. These courses often seek to select out and distinguish those with some perceived ability in STEM. The classroom and departmental culture needs to value diversity and be based on the understanding that all students aspiring to earn a STEM degree have the potential to succeed in STEM and provide all students the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether they want to continue pursuing STEM credentials.
RECOMMENDATION 5 Institutions of higher education, disciplinary societies, foundations, and federal agencies that fund undergraduate education should focus their efforts in a coordinated manner on critical issues to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
(STEM) strategies, programs, and policies that can improve STEM instruction.
- Colleges and universities should adjust faculty reward systems to better promote high-quality instruction and provide support for faculty to integrate effective teaching strategies into their practice. They should encourage educators to learn about and implement effective teaching methods by supporting participation in workshops, professional meetings, campus-based faculty development programs, and other related opportunities. Instructional quality is a key aspect of a student’s undergraduate experience that could be addressed by providing incentives for more faculty members to align their classroom practices with evidence-based pedagogy.
- Disciplinary and professional membership organizations should become more active in developing tools to support evidence-based teaching practices, and providing professional development in using these active pedagogies for new and potential faculty members and instructors.
- The National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education should collect systematic data on tenured, tenure-track, and nontenure-track faculty and staff, as it previously did through the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. Such data will make it possible to understand who is teaching STEM courses and whether they have participated in professional development programs to implement evidence-based instructional strategies. The Department of Education should support research on what supports are needed to allow all educators, including tenured, tenure-track faculty, full-time nontenured teaching faculty, adjunct faculty, and lecturers, to successfully implement such strategies.
- Federal agencies, foundations, and other entities should invest in implementation research to better understand how to increase adoption of evidence-based instructional strategies.
Although a considerable body of research is emerging about the nature and effect of effective instructional practices, this awareness has not necessarily been translated into widespread implementation of such practices in STEM classrooms. More investment needs to be made in implementation research to determine how to support putting this knowledge into practice. There have been calls for working with postdoctoral scholars and graduate students during their education to ensure that professional development is available to them on effective teaching strategies. This requires departmental support and leadership across an institution, along with agreement that
future faculty should have mastered research-based teaching strategies as well as disciplinary research knowledge and skills.
RECOMMENDATION 6 Accrediting agencies, states, and institutions should take steps to support increased alignment of policies that can improve the transfer process for students.
- Regional accrediting bodies should review student outcomes by participating colleges and require periodic updates of articulation agreements in response to those student outcomes.
- States should encourage tracking transfer credits and using other metrics to measure the success of students who transfer.
- Colleges and universities should work with other institutions in their regions to develop articulation agreements and student services that contribute to structured and supportive pathways for students seeking to transfer credits.
The pathways that students are taking to earn undergraduate STEM degrees have become increasingly complex, with greater numbers of students earning credits at more than one institution. Thus, issues of transfer and articulation are now relevant to an increasing proportion of STEM students, as well as students in other majors. The range of different regional, state, and institutional transfer and articulation policies that students encounter can be dizzying, and they can extend a student’s time to completion and increase the cost of college, as well as being stressful to navigate.
Regional accrediting agencies, states, and institutions can all take steps to remove the barriers that students currently face when transferring credits among institutions. Removing these barriers may require creative and collaborative solutions, but they have the potential not only to improve students’ educational experience, but also to make higher education institutions more efficient and effective.
RECOMMENDATION 7 State and federal agencies and accrediting bodies together should explore the efficacy and tradeoffs of different articulation agreements and transfer policies.
There is a need to better understand the efficacy of existing and new models of articulation agreements. Currently, it is not clear which types of agreements work for different types of students (including students from underrepresented groups and veterans), and for different types of transfers (vertical, reverse, and lateral). Research on the effects of articulation agreements needs to consider not only the policies that guide the transfer
of credits, but also the supports developed to make it easier for students to navigate the policies and adjust to their different academic environments.
CONCLUSION 5 There is no single approach that will improve the educational outcomes of all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) aspirants. The nature of U.S. undergraduate STEM education will require a series of interconnected and evidence-based approaches to create systemic organizational change for student success.
From years of attempts to improve higher education for all, many lessons have been learned. Focusing narrowly on individuals rather than on the entire system is not effective because it leads to changes of minimal scale and sustainability. Failing to leverage the many actors in education—individuals, departments, institutions, disciplinary societies, business and industry, governments—in a systematic fashion is ineffective because different levels of the education system often operate in isolation and are often unaware of how their actions can both affect and be affected by other components of the system.
In addition, focusing narrowly on pedagogical and curricular changes and not considering other variables that are related to student success, such as institutional policies, articulation, faculty culture, and financial aid, limits the potential effects of such changes. It is not productive to focus on “silver bullets”: they often lead to “fixing the student” approaches rather than identifying problems throughout the system, from mathematics preparation, to science culture, to faculty teaching, to financial aid, to articulation and transfer. Finally, it is clear that such barriers to change as the nature of the incentive structure in colleges and universities remain largely unaddressed, and studies have not been conducted to determine if addressing such barriers would facilitate large-scale and sustainable change in institutions or education systems.
CONCLUSION 6 Improving undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for all students will require a more systemic approach to change that includes use of evidence to support institutional decisions, learning communities and faculty development networks, and partnerships across the education system.
Students need a higher education system that is less fragmented—or at least has clearer road markers—so that the diverse and complex pathways they take toward a degree do not create unnecessary barriers. Partnerships with elementary and secondary schools may be able to lead to better
preparation for college, especially in mathematics. Partnerships with employers can lead to better articulation of the skills and knowledge that are relevant for their workforces, as well as opportunities for internships and work-related experiences that may improve students’ understanding of and commitment to STEM education.
At the institutional level, program faculty and administrators need to recognize that successful improvements usually include strong leadership, including support for faculty to undertake the changes needed; awareness of how to overcome the barriers to adaptation and implementation of curricula that have been demonstrated to be effective; faculty who implement instructional practices developed through discipline-based education research; and data to monitor students’ progress and to hold departments accountable for losses and recognize and reward them for student success.
Strong, multi-institutional articulation agreements, including common general education, common introductory courses, common course numbering, and online, easily available student access to equivalencies, can improve the percentage of contributory credits transferred, shorten the time to degree, and increase completion rates.
Department-level leadership is critical for systematic change. It can drive changes in rigid course sequencing requirements, transfer credit policies, degree requirements, differential tuition policies, and classroom practices. It can build connections between the reform efforts in their department and broader efforts in their institutions, as well as connect to multi-institutional reform efforts supported by foundations and disciplinary associations. The training of STEM department chairs supported by a number of programs and professional organizations has yielded promising results for departmental programs and their students.
RECOMMENDATION 8 Institutions should consider how expanded and improved co-curricular supports for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students can be informed by and integrated into work on more systemic reforms in undergraduate STEM education to more equitably serve their student populations.
To improve degree attainment rates, the quality of programs, and better serve their diverse student populations, institutions can consider a wide range of policies and programs: initiating or increasing opportunities for undergraduate student participation in research and other authentic STEM experiences; connecting students to experiences related to careers in their field of interest; expanding the use of educational technologies that have been effective in addressing the remediation needs of students; building student learning communities; and providing access to college and career guidance to help students understand the various and most efficient path-
ways to the degrees and careers they want. Students seem to benefit most from such supports when they are paired with evidence-based instructional strategies and when three or more co-curricular supports are bundled together (Estrada, 2014). Such efforts will be more sustainable and effective if they are integrated into more systemic reform efforts.
RECOMMENDATION 9 Disciplinary departments, institutions, university associations, disciplinary societies, federal agencies, and accrediting bodies should work together to support systemic and long-lasting changes to undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.
- STEM departments and entire academic units should support learning communities and networks that can help change faculty belief systems and practices and develop sustainable changes.
- Colleges and universities should offer instructor training and mentoring to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Participating in such efforts as The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (funded by the National Science Foundation; see Chapter 3) can educate graduate students about the value of treating their teaching as a form of scholarship and to value use of evidence-based approaches to teaching.
- University associations and organizations should continue to facilitate undergraduate STEM educational reforms in their member institutions, particularly by examining reward structures and barriers to change and providing resources for data collection on student success, as well as by providing resources for interventions, support programs, and ways to share effective practices.
- Disciplinary societies should support the development of continuing and intensive national and regional faculty development programs, awards, and recognition to encourage use of evidence-based instructional practices.
- Federal agencies that support undergraduate STEM education should consider giving greater priority to supporting large-scale transformation strategies that are conceptualized to include and extend beyond instructional reform, and they should support both implementation research and research on barriers to reform that can support success for all students. They should increase the percentage of undergraduate STEM reform efforts and projects that focus on multiple levels—department, institution, discipline, government, and business and industry.
- Following the policies adopted by some disciplinary accrediting bodies (e.g., the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technol-
ogy), regional and professional accrediting bodies should consider incorporating evidence-based instructional practices and faculty professional development efforts into their criteria and guidelines.
The nature of the challenges of removing the barriers to 2-year and 4-year STEM degree completion can only be addressed by a system of solutions that includes the commitment to transformation. Looking from the ground up, those who teach need to be enabled to adopt and engage in effective classroom practices; co-curricular supports need to be made available for students who begin college with interest in STEM but who may lack some of the skills necessary to be immediately successful in their pursuit of study in STEM.
Money still matters: strategies need to be explored for addressing financial need in ways that connect students to STEM (such as through STEM-related work-study programs and internships and co-ops) rather than distracting them from it. Providing quality advice about courses, fields of study, careers, and navigating the many college pathways in STEM—as well as supporting learning communities—can help avoid many of the pitfalls that can delay or prevent degree completion.
Looking across institutions, the policy barriers to articulation and alignment need to be addressed. Although some removal of barriers can be promoted locally through, for example, the active commitment of individuals, (e.g., chemistry faculty in 4-year institutions working directly with chemistry faculty in feeder 2-year institutions and high schools), a negatively structured policy environment can impede such interventions. There is a clear need to explore all the policy impediments that make navigation of the pathways to STEM degrees in and across institutional boundaries especially difficult, and there are examples in various states and institutions that can be considered to smooth STEM pathways.
Looking from the top down, leadership is needed at every level to support change. Institutional leaders need to be committed to providing the supportive infrastructure that can make grassroots pedagogical and administrative changes possible (including active classrooms, technology, co-curricular supports, data systems, and teaching-learning centers). Loss of state support has negatively affected the operational model of many public institutions, forcing increased costs to be passed through to students, which disproportionately affects those who can least afford to attend, extending time to degree and may affect students’ choices of major (e.g., when there is differential tuition for programs such as engineering). National accountability structures, though well intentioned, currently reward the most selective institutions while penalizing those with fewer resources, but the latter are the ones who often enroll and succeed in enrolling STEM students from disadvantaged and less selective backgrounds. The admonishment to “first,
do no harm” should lead to a national discussion of how to recognize and honor the work of such institutions. At the same time, highly resourced institutions can be challenged to better support their STEM students through programs of active retention rather than “weeding out.”
Finally, leadership is required from all constituents, including state and federal government, funders, business and industry, and both higher education and STEM professionals, both within and across those communities. Rather than relying on failed or unsustainable structures that serve only a few or push out students who aspire to and are capable of completing a STEM degree, they should seek solutions that connect the pathways to STEM degrees.
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