The committee recognizes that it is not possible to specify a target “adequate number” of STEM professionals, given the varying demands across the different STEM disciplines and types of occupations now and in the future. However, the committee is nevertheless committed to ensuring that the nation has a robust, highly talented STEM workforce.
Advancing Goal 3 will require progress toward Goal 1 (increasing students’ mastery of STEM concepts and skills through engagement in evidence-based STEM educational practices and programs) and Goal 2 (striving for equity, diversity, and inclusion). Progress toward Goals 1 and 2 will increase the numbers of students entering and persisting in STEM fields and ultimately earning STEM credentials. However, achieving Goal 3 would not necessarily require that all of these increased numbers of STEM graduates enter STEM professions. Rather, graduates would apply their STEM knowledge, skills, and ways of thinking at work in diverse STEM and non-STEM occupations and through civic participation, helping to address the grand challenges facing society (see “Vision” in Chapter 1).
As a first step toward developing indicators of progress toward this goal, the committee identified three specific objectives for advancing the goal:
- Objective 3.1: Foundational preparation for STEM for all students
- Objective 3.2: Successful navigation into and through STEM programs of study
- Objective 3.3: STEM credential attainment
TABLE 5-1 Objectives and Indicators of Adequate Supply of STEM Professionals
|3.1 Foundational preparation for STEM for all students||3.1.1 Completion of foundational courses, including developmental education courses to ensure STEM program readiness|
|3.2 Successful navigation into and through STEM programs of study||3.2.1 Retention in STEM programs, course to course and year to year|
|3.2.2 Transfers from 2-year to 4-year STEM programs in comparison with transfers to all 4-year programs|
|3.3 STEM credential attainment||3.3.1 Number of students who attain STEM credentials over time, disaggregated by institution type, transfer status, and demographic characteristics|
The following sections of this chapter focus on these three objectives. Each section describes the objective and summarizes research demonstrating its importance for improving the quality and impact of undergraduate STEM education. It then proposes indicators to monitor progress toward the objective, discusses the availability of data for these indicators, and identifies the additional research needed to fully develop the indicators: see Table 5-1.
A broad set of skills and knowledge, often acquired through general education, is required to succeed in STEM classrooms. Depending on incoming students’ high school preparation and the type of degree or certificate they seek, this foundational knowledge may be acquired through a complex array of developmental coursework, along with introductory college-level coursework. This foundational preparation supports science literacy and STEM credential completion by developing introductory college-level proficiencies in mathematics, English language and communication, and digital fluency and computational thinking.
Although some students are prepared for the rigors of the STEM class-
room, others enter college lacking foundational preparation. Many of these students will spend a considerable amount of time catching up by taking developmental education courses to prepare themselves for college-level coursework (Bailey, Jeong, and Cho, 2010; Jenkins et al., 2009).
Developmental English and Mathematics
Many entering undergraduates must complete noncredit developmental courses in English and mathematics before they can enroll in college-level STEM courses. A national survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, which included all types of 2-year and 4-year institutions, found that 20.4 percent of first-year undergraduates reported taking developmental courses in mathematics, English, or both (Sparks and Malkus, 2013). The highest concentration of developmental courses was reported by students at open admissions institutions; the lowest concentration was reported by students at highly selective institutions. Participation also varied by race: larger percentages of Black and Hispanic students reported enrollment in developmental courses than did white students (Sparks and Malkus, 2013). In another study, based on an analysis of students’ transcript data, developmental education participation rates were estimated at 50 percent for first-time postsecondary students: they varied depending on the selectivity of the institution the students first attended, with developmental course-taking being lowest at highly selective institutions (22%) and highest at public 2-year institutions (68%) (Radford and Horn, 2012). The latter estimate is similar to Bailey’s (2009) estimate that 60 percent of all 2-year college students enroll in at least one developmental course.
The high participation in developmental English reflects the changing demographics of the national population. In school year 2013–2014, nearly 5 million K–12 students (10 percent of total enrollment) were classified as English learners, and they are the fastest-growing group in K–12 education (Bailey and Carroll, 2015). Some of these students will enter higher education with weak English reading and writing skills. Together with growing numbers of international students, as well as some native English speakers, they will need to successfully complete developmental English before enrolling in introductory college-level STEM courses.
English proficiency is an important foundational skill for success in undergraduate STEM. Research has shown that K–12 students’ mastery of STEM concepts and skills and their performance on tests of STEM content are related to their levels of language proficiency (Bailey and Carroll, 2015), and similar findings are beginning to emerge in research at the undergraduate level. For example, in looking at course performance in introductory chemistry, Pyburn and colleagues (2013) found that language comprehension contributed to final grades comparably with mathematics
ability and prior chemistry knowledge. Moreover, Parker, Adedokun, and Weaver (2016) found that international students’ limited English language and social skills posed a barrier to instructors’ ability to engage them in evidence-based collaborative learning experiences.
Digital Fluency and Computational Thinking
Competence in using computers to solve problems is essential for everyone in an increasingly digital world and is increasingly recognized as a key proficiency for undergraduate success (e.g., Vaz, 2004). As early as 1999, an expert committee proposed that all college graduates should develop information technology (IT) fluency (National Research Council, 1999). That committee proposed, in contrast to more basic computer literacy, IT fluency requires three kinds of knowledge: contemporary skills (to use current technology); foundational concepts (basic principles of computing, networks, and information systems); and intellectual abilities (to apply IT to complex situations and apply higher-level thinking). Although proposed as goals for college graduates, these levels of proficiency are likely important foundations for success throughout undergraduate STEM coursework, which increasingly requires students to use technology to gather and analyze data and solve problems. More recently, researchers have explored how to tap the digital fluency that some students possess to improve the quality of writing in first-year disciplinary courses for nonmajors (November and Day, 2012).
Most Americans ages 16 to 24 have limited ability to use computers to solve complex problems relative to their peers in other nations (OECD, 2013). To address this challenge, researchers and faculty practitioners are developing and testing instructional approaches to develop IT fluency and computational thinking (e.g., Miller and Settle, 2011; Sardone, 2011). Foundational courses based on the findings from this research will be essential for undergraduate success in STEM.
Strengthening and Monitoring Developmental Education
Ongoing research on developmental education promises to improve its effectiveness for supporting students’ success in college-level courses, in STEM and in other fields. For example, a U.S. Department of Education expert panel (Bailey et al., 2016) recently reviewed the available literature and recommended six steps: (1) use multiple measures for placing students into developmental classes; (2) require or incentivize students to participate in enhanced advising; (3) offer performance-based financial incentives; (4) redesign developmental courses by compressing the material or integrating it with other content in college-level offerings; (5) teach students self-
regulated learning skills; and (6) provide comprehensive, integrated student support programs.
Taking such steps can begin to address an important problem identified in several studies: Many students placed into traditional developmental mathematics classes make little progress toward success in college-level mathematics (Bailey, Jeong, and Cho, 2010; Logue, Watanabe-Rose, and Douglas, 2016; Valentine, Konstatopoulos, and Goldrick-Rab, 2017). In one promising approach to address this problem, students who enrolled in a redesigned, compressed developmental mathematics course as the first semester in a year-long quantitative reasoning sequence were significantly more likely to meet developmental mathematics requirements than a comparison group of matched students (Yamada, Bohannen, and Grunow, 2016). However, the evidence base on these recent innovations is small, and further research is needed to strengthen developmental education and optimize student placement and supports (Bailey et al., 2016).
While research is ongoing, many students continue to lack foundational skills in mathematics, reading, and writing and continue to be placed into developmental courses as prerequisites for entering STEM programs. The most recent data available, for 2011/2012, show that one-third (32.3%) of first-year student had enrolled in at least one developmental education course. Within this average, the rate of developmental coursetaking varied by type of institution, from a high of 40 percent at public 2-year institutions to a low of 15 percent at private, nonprofit doctoral granting institutions (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). Given this broad scope, it is important to monitor students’ progress through developmental education through the indicator proposed below.
Indicator 3.1.1: Completion of Foundational Courses, Including Developmental Education Courses, to Ensure STEM Program Readiness
This indicator is designed to illuminate the extent to which students are making progress through and completing foundational coursework. This foundational coursework will prepare students for success in STEM programs of study or develop general STEM knowledge and skills (sometimes referred to as STEM literacy—see Chapter 1) that may be valuable in whatever major program they choose and, after graduation, in their careers, home lives, and civic participation.
The proposed indicator would follow students who enter 2-year and 4-year institutions as they complete coursework in mathematics and English language and communications, and digital fluency. It would track students’ progress through developmental coursework in these subjects and their
subsequent entry into and completion of the corresponding college-level foundational coursework. This indicator could be measured by tracking the fraction of students successfully completing developmental course(s) or foundational courses in comparison with students that attempted to complete these courses (i.e., the pass rate in developmental through college-level introductory English and in developmental mathematics through college-level calculus). It would be disaggregated by institution type, gender, race and ethnicity, disability status, socioeconomic status, and first-generation status.
In the future, as research provides better understanding of the competencies needed for students to succeed in STEM, this indicator could also be expanded to include completion of key preparatory courses in the sciences. Colleges increasingly require students to complete such preparatory courses as introductory computer science, introductory chemistry, and introductory biology, especially for students whose K–12 exposure to these subjects is either limited or occurred many years before college entry. Florida International University, for example, offers a 2-credit-hour fundamentals of chemistry course designed to develop scientific and computational skills in preparation for college-level chemistry. A recent analysis found that students who completed this course in their first semester showed good to better-then-average performance in chemistry I the following semester, despite initially lower scores on the mathematics placement test (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2017).
Students take a variety of paths to completing a STEM program, often transferring between institutions, stopping for a period, and switching into or out of STEM majors (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). They pursue a range of different STEM credentials, including degrees and certificates, at different types of 2-year and 4-year institutions (e.g., research university, liberal arts college, nonprofit or for-profit 2-year college). Given this variety of pathways, it is important to provide students with clear guidance on program requirements and to remove as many barriers as possible to continuing in STEM (for those already in the field) or switching into a STEM program. When students are offered too many choices without adequate guidance, they may enroll in a wide variety of courses, accumulating credits without progressing toward a credential (Scott-Clayton, 2011).
Studies of student pathways in 2-year institutions suggest that those
institutions can best facilitate student success by redesigning curriculum, instruction, and student supports around coherent programs of study (Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins, 2015). A growing body of research suggests that this approach, “guided pathways,” improves retention and completion of credentials (Grant and Dweck, 2003; Jenkins and Weiss, 2011). Based on these findings, Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins (2015) suggest that 2-year institutions proactively assign new students to a program of study, based on individual counseling about student goals, interests, and aptitudes. Guided pathways may be especially important in STEM programs, which typically require specific course sequences for 2-year and 4-year degrees.
Successful navigation into and through STEM programs of study will also require improvement in introductory courses in STEM disciplines. Many students who intend to major in STEM later switch to a non-STEM course of study or leave higher education (e.g., Chen, 2009), and this attrition happens most frequently during the time when students are taking introductory STEM courses. Students may decide to switch to another major because they discover that their intended STEM discipline is irrelevant to their interests, as a natural part of early college exploration. However, a growing body of research suggests that the way introductory courses are taught is a significant factor that discourages students from continuing in STEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). Traditionally, some faculty members view introductory courses as an opportunity to “weed out” students they perceive as not capable of completing a STEM degree, and so design their courses for that function. Yet studies have shown that many capable students left STEM majors because they found those courses dull and unwelcoming (Seymour and Hewett, 1997; Tobias, 1990). In addition, some instructors and departments grade on a curve rather than students’ actual content knowledge, which can discourage students from continuing in STEM. Researchers have found that students may be discouraged from continuing in STEM majors because they receive higher grades in courses outside of STEM (Ost, 2010; Rask, 2010; Seymour and Hewitt, 1997; Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner, 2013).
Many studies have shown that students’ negative experiences in introductory courses reduce the likelihood of completing a STEM major (Astin and Astin, 1992; Barr, Gonzalez, and Wanat, 2008; Crisp, Nora, and Taggart, 2009; Eagan et al., 2011; Mervis, 2010; Seymour, 2001; Seymour and Hewitt, 1997; Thompson et al., 2007). For example, Barr, Gonzalez, and Wanat (2008) found that negative experiences early in introductory chemistry courses were a critical factor in minority students’ waning interest in premedical studies.
In another example, the introductory calculus sequence that is generally required for a 4-year STEM degree can be a barrier to completing the degree. A recent survey of more than 14,000 introductory calculus students
across a representative sample of 2-year and 4-year institutions found that students’ confidence in their mathematical abilities and enjoyment of mathematics declined from the beginning to the end of the term (Bressoud, Mesa, and Rasmussen, 2015). In a further analysis of the survey data, Ellis, Fosdick, and Rasmussen (2016) found that women started and ended the term with significantly lower mathematical confidence than men, and women’s likelihood of not continuing to calculus II was 1.5 times higher than that for men. This finding suggests that lack of mathematical confidence, rather than lack of mathematically ability, may be responsible for the high departure rate of women. By choosing not to continue in calculus, women are leaving the pathway to a 4-year STEM degree, adding to the workforce gender gap in STEM fields, such as engineering and computer science. The authors estimated that if women persisted in STEM at the same rate as men starting in calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75 percent (Ellis, Fosdick, and Rasmussen, 2016).
The findings of Ellis, Fosdick, and Rasmussen (2016) echo Correll’s (2001) seminal study of high school students, which found that cultural beliefs about gender negatively bias women’s self-assessments of their mathematics competence: men were more likely than women with the same mathematics grades and test scores to perceive that they were mathematically competent. For both genders, higher self-assessments of mathematical competence were associated with a higher likelihood of enrolling in high school calculus and selecting a quantitative college major (e.g., STEM). Women’s lower perceptions of their competence relative to men were associated with a lower likelihood of enrolling in calculus and a lower likelihood of selecting a quantitative college major.
As discussed in Chapter 3, research has begun to illuminate new, evidence-based approaches that are being applied to redesign and improve these gateway courses. To address the problems in introductory calculus, for example, Bressoud, Mesa, and Rasmussen (2015) recommend strategies to improve calculus teaching and learning, including “ambitious” teaching, new curricula, student supports, and training of graduate instructors. At the same time, five undergraduate mathematics associations recently released a common vision for improving courses and programs that calls for scaling up evidence-based teaching approaches (Saxe and Braddy, 2016). These developments reinforce the importance of engaging more students in evidence-based STEM educational practices (see Chapter 3) as a critical step toward increasing the numbers of students who earn STEM credentials.
Helping more students successfully navigate into and through STEM programs also requires establishing articulation programs to smooth transfer pathways between 2-year and 4-year STEM programs (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). When faculty and administrators at 4-year institutions do not clearly communicate with their
counterparts at 2-year institutions about the expectations and requirements for a 4-year STEM degree, 2-year students may not select the courses necessary to transfer. Guided pathways may be especially important for student success in STEM fields, which typically require college-level mathematics and specific course sequences. Completion of STEM coursework in the first 2 years of college is related to persistence in STEM (Bettinger, 2010) and may also ensure that students who transfer from 2-year to 4-year institutions or between 4-year institutions can still complete their degrees in a timely fashion.
Reducing the barriers posed by rigid course sequences could also help more students successfully navigate into and through STEM majors. For example, students are less likely to migrate into an engineering field than to other STEM fields. Measured at the eighth semester, only 7 percent of engineering students had migrated into this field, compared with 30–60 percent in other STEM fields (Eagan et al., 2014; Ohland et al., 2008). The engineering accrediting agency specifies that engineering programs must provide 1 year of a combination of mathematics and basic sciences (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., 2016), and students typically spend most of their first year in these prerequisite courses. A second-year or third-year student who is interested in engineering may be discouraged from migrating into the field by the prospect of having to complete these prerequisite courses. Although efforts to redesign the entry-level curriculum to increase student interest and attract more students to engineering majors have been under way for more than two decades (Director et al., 1995), they have not yet encouraged many students to switch into engineering from another field.
Indicator 3.2.1: Retention in STEM Degree or Certificate Programs, Course to Course and Year to Year
To measure progress toward successful navigation into and through STEM programs, this proposed indicator would measure the extent to which students are making timely progress toward completing STEM credentials. This indicator is designed to follow the progression of traditional and nontraditional students through the many pathways they can take to pursue STEM credentials at 2-year and 4-year institutions, including transferring across institutions and taking courses from multiple institutions at the same time. It would be disaggregated by students’ demographic characteristics (gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status and disability status).
Indicator 3.2.2: Transfers from 2-Year to 4-Year STEM Programs in Comparison with Transfers to All 4-Year Programs
This proposed indicator would provide information on the proportion of all transfer students who enter 4-year STEM programs of study, primarily focusing on transfers between 2-year and 4-year degree programs. It would measure the percentage of transfer students (disaggregated by institution type) who enter 4-year degree programs in STEM fields in comparison with the percentage of all transfer students (disaggregated by institution type) who enter 4-year degree programs, across all fields of study. This indicator would need to be disaggregated by race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, disability status, and first-generation status. With this measure, it will also be important to compare the extent to which transfer students enter at full third-year status (i.e., have the appropriate lower division coursework) relative to the third-year status of students that began their degrees at 4-year institutions.
Comparing the credit accumulation of transfer students with that of “native” junior students is an important component of this indicator because research indicates that loss of credit is a major barrier to success for transfer students (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). Overall, 25 percent of 2-year students transfer to 4-year institutions, and, among these, 62 percent successfully complete a bachelor’s degree (Jenkins and Fink, 2015).
The importance of credit accumulation is illustrated by Monaghan and Attewell’s (2015) analysis of data from a nationally representative sample of students. The authors found that less than 60 percent of incoming transfer students were able to transfer most of their credits, and about 15 percent transferred almost no credits. Those who were able to transfer most of their credits were 2.5 times more likely to earn a 4-year degree than those who were able to transfer less than half of their credits. Comparing various factors that might detract transfer students from completing a 4-year degree, the authors found that loss of credits when they transfer was strongly related to not completing a degree. Competing explanations—including lowered academic expectations based on attending a 2-year college, the vocational focus of some 2-year college programs, and the potentially lower rigor of 2-year colleges—were unrelated to failure to complete a 4-year degree (Monaghan and Attewell, 2015).
Although some early studies found that transfer students experienced “transfer shock” in the form of lower grade point averages after entering a 4-year institution (e.g., Hills, 1965), more recent and rigorous studies find that this effect does not seem to persist (e.g., Carlan and Byxbe, 2000) and that transfer students are as likely to graduate as those who are “native” to the 4-year institution (e.g., Glass and Harrington, 2002; Melguizo, Kienzl,
and Alfonso, 2011). For example, Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson (2009) found that 2-year students who transferred to a public flagship university were as likely to graduate as those who started there, and those who transferred to less selective public 4-year institutions had a greater chance of graduating than native students.
Different types of 4-year institutions vary in their acceptance of transfer credits, with public institutions accepting the most credits. Simone (2014) found that transfer students who entered private nonprofit institutions transferred 21 percent fewer credits than those who entered public institutions, and those who entered private for-profit institutions transferred 52 percent fewer credits. This variation, in turn, influences completion rates: transfer students’ completion of bachelor’s degrees is highest (65%) at public institutions, followed by private nonprofit institutions (60%), and lowest at private for-profit institutions (35%).
As discussed in Chapter 1, attainment of STEM credentials is important to both individuals and the nation. Because scientists, engineers, and other STEM professionals play a critical role in innovation and national economic growth (Xie and Killewald, 2012), the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012) recommended that institutions work to retain more students in STEM to complete 4-year degrees. Attainment of STEM credentials is also valuable for individuals. Relative to the general U.S. workforce, people with a STEM credential at any level (certificate, 2-year degree, or 4-year degree) enjoy a wage premium (National Science Foundation, 2015).
Indicator 3.3.1 Percentage of Students Who Attain STEM Credentials over Time, Disaggregated by Institute Type, Transfer Status, and Demographic Characteristics
This proposed indicator would measure the completion of STEM credentials (degrees and certificates) overall in comparison with credentials earned across all fields, disaggregated by institution type, and demographic characteristics (including gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and ability status). In addition, to provide information on the outcomes for students who transfer into 4-year STEM programs, the indicator would be disaggregated by students’ transfer status. It would follow the percentage of
STEM credentials relative to credentials across all fields, measured by time to degree at 100 percent (2 or 4 years), 150 percent, and 200 percent. This indicator would include credentials earned by students who pursue degrees at 2-year and 4-year institutions and those who transfer among institutions or take courses from multiple institutions to complete their degrees.
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