The future competitiveness of the United States in an increasingly interconnected global economy depends on the nation fostering a workforce with strong capabilities and skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As was stated in the landmark report Rising Above the Gathering Storm (NRC, 2007), the vitality of the U.S. economy is “derived in large part from the productivity of well-trained people and the steady stream of scientific and technical innovations they produce. Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, the U.S. economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living.” Indeed, according to a recent National Science Board (NSB) report, some 16.5 million individuals in 2010, including many in non-STEM jobs such as sales, marketing, and management, reported that their job required at least a bachelor’s degree level of science and engineering expertise (National Science Board, 2015). According to Kelvin Droegemeier, NSB vice chairman, the key message of the NSB report is that STEM knowledge and skills enable both individual opportunity and national competitiveness, and that the nation needs to develop ways of ensuring access to high-quality education and training experiences for all students at all levels and for all workers at all career stages.
In the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF) holds a primary responsibility for overseeing the federal government’s efforts to foster the creation of a STEM-capable workforce. As part of its efforts to develop a strategy for developing a STEM-capable workforce for the 21st century, NSF’s Directorate on Education and Human Resources (NSF-EHR)
asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (the Academies’) Board on Higher Education and Workforce to convene a national summit, or workshop, with the following statement of task:
An ad hoc committee will plan and convene a workshop to inform the National Science Foundation’s Directorate on Education and Human Resources in its mandate to help prepare a broad and diverse U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workforce for the 21st century. The activity will contribute to NSF-EHR’s preparation of a theoretical and evidence-based STEM Workforce Development R&D Core Framework. Workshop participants will suggest refinements in the goals for the framework, discuss research themes, and identify gaps as well as emerging research opportunities related to STEM workforce development. Possible themes for discussion include STEM pathways and transition points, STEM teaching and learning, career preparation and interdisciplinary education and training. An individually authored workshop summary will be prepared by a designated rapporteur in accordance with institutional guidelines. The workshop and summary will also serve as resources to federal and state policymakers, researchers, employers, and foundations that are contributing to the development of a robust and diverse U.S. STEM workforce.
In response to this charge, the Academies brought together about 150 interested stakeholders for a 2-day workshop on September 21–22, 2015, at the Keck Center in Washington, D.C. Participants represented a broad range of STEM disciplines and topics—but the full breadth of all STEM fields was not covered. For example, data science, computation, engineering and some of the biomedical disciplines received significant attention, while environmental sciences and physics received somewhat less.
Continual changes in global networking, data accessibility, and demographics compel the nation to maintain a determined focus on the sustained development of the critically important STEM-capable workforce. In his introductory remarks to the workshop, planning committee chair Rodney Adkins, retired senior vice president for strategic partnership at IBM, set the stage for the subsequent discussions by suggesting that five trends currently drive the U.S. economy: first, networking and interconnectedness are shrinking the world geographically and technologically; second, the unprecedented growth in data drives the need for new skills in analytics and automation that will enhance efficiency and productivity; third, the “age of transparency” that we have entered, characterized by an expectation of honesty and full disclosure, compels the need for greater access to information; fourth, people not only expect access to information, they expect it in real-time—a demand that accelerates the pace of technological change; and fifth, a generational transformation arising from both an aging workforce
and the emergence of the millennial generation is shifting the dynamics of the workforce and the face of both the public and the consumer. All of these trends, he said, oblige the nation to better understand how it should focus its efforts to develop a STEM-capable workforce that meets the challenges of a fast-paced, data-intensive, globally networked world. Adkins added that in his opinion, national security is the only other topic as important to the future of the nation as is preparing a STEM-capable workforce for the 21st century.
In preparing the agenda for this workshop (see Appendix A), the planning committee developed six overarching themes:
- Exploring new, innovative, and dynamic education and training pathways (and education providers) that lead to college and career success in STEM fields, in addition to the more traditional pathways and education/ training providers
- Understanding the “voice of the employer” and encouraging stronger college-business partnerships for more effective and sustained two-way communication between business and higher education
- Understanding the role of K-12 education in preparing the workforce of the future, and understanding how stronger university-school partnerships can enhance STEM workforce readiness at all levels
- Examining current and prospective developments in undergraduate and graduate education and their impact on STEM workforce readiness, including the encouragement of more hands-on, research-based learning; an increased emphasis on both interdisciplinary learning and “team science” at all levels; and the desire for more internships, apprenticeships, and traineeships for undergraduate and graduate students
- More clearly defining what we mean by a “STEM-capable workforce,” including a recognition that many so-called non-STEM careers still require some level of STEM capability or STEM savviness
- Identifying innovative and effective ways in which federal investments in education and training can enhance STEM workforce readiness
In commenting on these six overarching themes, NSF Director France Córdova said they address some of the most central and challenging questions NSF and the nation face in developing a national strategy focused on the STEM workforce. The first theme, she said, reflects the insight that the route through the education system to STEM jobs should be thought of as pathways rather than pipelines. This observation, she noted, is the central premise in the Council of Graduate School’s (CGS’s) report The Path For-
ward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States (Wendler et al., 2010). The NSB concurs with the perspective, stating in its report Revisiting the STEM Workforce (National Science Board, 2015), “STEM knowledge and skills enable multiple dynamic pathways to STEM and non-STEM occupations alike.”
The second theme addresses the need to better understand the employer’s voice in developing a STEM workforce. “We have little data indicating what skills employers require of new graduates entering the workforce,” said Córdova, who noted that a study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that new employees face increasingly complex demands requiring new skills (Wendler et al., 2010). “There is a clear need for communication about workforce training expectations between business and higher education, and perhaps no one cares more about this than the very students we educate—the millennials,” said Córdova, citing a recent publication from the Educational Testing Service (Goodman et al., 2015).
The third theme, she explained, focuses on stronger partnerships between kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) schools and universities. “We know there are many local models, some quite successful, and we’re anxious to hear about their evaluation and assessment,” said Córdova. “We want to identify those models that are widely translatable so that such programs could potentially make a broader impact.
The fourth theme, Córdova explained, advocates for a better model of learning informed by the science of learning. She noted research showing, for example, that hands-on, research-based learning is more effective in conveying STEM knowledge and capturing students’ interest. “Our agency’s experience in funding this research shows hands-on learning to be successful in attracting and retaining young people to STEM,” she said. Still, she added, a number of questions remain unanswered. “How do we scale such experiences so that more youth can have such hands-on experiences? Are there more effective curricula to engage with them? Are there innovative classroom approaches to STEM learning that can improve retention? How do we evaluate these demonstrations and disseminate them more broadly?”
The fifth theme explores what is meant by a STEM-capable workforce. “How do we provide access to STEM teachings to develop critical thinking skills?” asked Córdova. “How do we broadly provide a level of STEM sophistication, a basic knowledge about science and its methods, to ensure an educated electorate?” She cited a quote from Steve Jobs, who when introducing the iPad 2 in 2011 said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” This quote exemplifies the need to develop a broader curriculum that focuses
on STEM but also on its intersection with other disciplines to ensure it benefits everyone and produces an educated electorate. This goal, said Córdova, is in part the focus of the new NSF INCLUDES initiative,1 which she explained “aims to scale our effort to broaden participation in STEM to include discoverers of all ages and backgrounds.”
The sixth theme, she said in concluding her remarks, focuses on the federal investment in STEM education and aims to address the question of what the various federal agencies can do, individually and in concert, to enhance STEM education and STEM workforce readiness. The importance of this question, said Córdova, preoccupies NSF and all of the other agencies represented on the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education. It is also, she added, a major focus of President Obama.
The workshop was organized by an independent planning committee in accordance with the procedures of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The planning committee’s members were Rodney Adkins (chair), Daniel E. Atkins, Gregory Camilli, Rebecca Dernberger, Kimberly A. Green, Mary Alice McCarthy, DeRionne P. Pollard, Russell W. Rumberger, Debra W. Stewart, and Holly Zanville (see Appendix B for biographical information for all committee members). This publication summarizes the discussions that occurred throughout the workshop, and highlights the key points raised during the presentations, moderated panel discussions, breakout groups, and open discussions among the workshop participants. Chapter 2 presents an overview of the importance of STEM education and a STEM-capable workforce to the future competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Chapter 3 provides a student perspective on effective preparation for securing STEM jobs. Chapter 4 discusses some of the key challenges facing U.S. employers in high-demand fields, and Chapter 5 describes what is meant by a STEM-capable workforce. Chapter 6 recounts some examples of successful strategies for aligning higher education programs with workforce needs, and Chapter 7 describes alternative pathways and providers for preparing STEM-capable workers. Chapter 8 focuses on the role K-12 STEM education plays in laying the foundation for STEM careers. Chapter 9 summarizes the discussions that occurred in
1 NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners that have been Underrepresented for Diversity in Engineering and Science) is a scalable, national initiative to increase the preparation, participation, advancement, and potential contributions of those who have been traditionally underserved and/or underrepresented in the STEM enterprise (Kurose, 2015).
six breakout sessions, and Chapter 10 recounts the final open discussion of priority topics, considerations for federal investments in STEM education, and questions that merit further research and analysis.
A number of issues and topics surfaced throughout the 2-day workshop—during remarks by speakers and panelists as well as during the breakout group discussions—including those below. While voiced by more than one participant, they do not represent a consensus of workshop participants overall.
- There is often a significant gap between the knowledge, skills, and abilities most often sought by employers (e.g., data analysis skills, problem-solving skills, creativity, and employability skills such as teamwork and interpersonal communication) and the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students bring into the workforce immediately upon graduation. To the extent that employers and colleges/universities can work together to close that gap, and create campus-based and work-based learning experiences for students that enable them to develop those skills, there may be opportunities to better prepare students to thrive in the workplace early in their careers.
- It may be that the traditional boundaries of disciplinary focus—reflected in the undergraduate “major” and the graduate area of concentration—are becoming increasingly blurred, resulting in a need for greater emphasis on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to classroom instruction and labs. Institutions of higher education increasingly recognize the need to ensure that students have experiences in multiple disciplines and have the opportunity to work with faculty and other students across many different areas of focus and concentration. Because the workplace of the future may be characterized by an even greater “convergence” of disciplines (and by the need for more STEM-capable workers even among those not in traditional STEM careers), the undergraduate and graduate level experiences for all students increasingly need to reflect this reality as well.
- More work-based learning may be the wave of the future for giving students rich, experiential, project-based learning activities that require them to develop a wide range of knowledge, skills, and proficiencies. This includes off-campus and in a work setting (e.g., through internships or apprenticeships), via simulated learning on campus in the classroom or lab, and through extracurricular activities such as robotics competitions and “Maker” projects. Work-based learning enables students to experience the conditions that help them develop the key skills for career success—
including the aforementioned “employability skills” such as teamwork, problem solving, and communication.
- Equity and diversity were common themes throughout the workshop. While efforts to broaden access and participation in postsecondary education, particularly in STEM fields, have been a national priority for many years, large achievement and participation gaps remain. More targeted and more intensive interventions may be needed, such as programs that connect underrepresented minority and female students with industry mentors, support programs such as the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (now being replicated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Pennsylvania State University), and experiential learning activities that give students the opportunity to build products and solve real-world problems.
- The voices of employers should be more prominent in shaping college and university STEM course and lab curricula. This is a two-way street, with the need for more STEM employers to be involved in curriculum and lab design, and the need for more students and faculty to spend time in a business or industry setting to understand the changing nature of the workforce and its implications for teaching and learning. There may be ways that federal investments can incentivize such college-university-industry collaboration.
- Alternative providers of education and training, such as online institutions and the so-called coding boot camps, play an important role in the training of the STEM workforce. It will be important to study and understand the impact of these providers and the value they bring to both national and regional efforts to improve STEM workforce education.
- While federal investments in STEM workforce development are not the only or perhaps even the most important vehicle for strengthening the STEM skills of the nation’s undergraduate and graduate students, they can still be an important factor—provided they reflect current and (to the extent known) future workforce conditions and skills needs and to the extent they reach students who have the greatest need for development of those skills. NSF’s Advanced Technological Education initiative, which brings students into the workplace for guided hands-on learning that can be linked back to their curricula, was cited by many as one model for the types of federal initiatives that can enhance STEM education and workforce training.
In accordance with the policies of the Academies, this report has been prepared by the workshop rapporteur as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The workshop did not attempt to establish any conclusions or recommendations about needs and future directions, focusing instead on issues identified by the speakers and workshop participants. Statements, recommendations, and opinions expressed are those of indi-
vidual presenters and participants, do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants or the planning committee, and are not necessarily endorsed or verified by the Academies. They should not be construed as reflecting any group consensus. The planning committee’s role was limited to setting the agenda and convening the workshop.