Challenges to STEM Education and How to Overcome Them

Most companies naturally want the most innovative and skilled work talent, and their search for skilled workers is increasingly focused on the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The institutions of higher education equipping these students with workforce skills, however, continue to struggle with several roadblocks. To effectively grow STEM careers, universities must shift their focus to retaining STEM students, attracting talented young minds and adapting to the demands of these booming industries. Here’s how.

Boosting Diversity

Although STEM is a major driver of the nation’s job market, the disparity between genders and minorities leaves a lot of room to be desired. Despite an increase in the number of female, minority and disabled students pursuing degrees in STEM, this progress still doesn’t alleviate the historic patterns of underrepresentation in these groups — nor does it reflect their growth in the overall workforce, according to the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (www.nettercenter.upenn.edu).

Due to their academic positions as centers for innovation and strong local presence in their respective communities, universities are in an ideal position to create inclusion. By partnering with K–12 institutions and community development organizations, universities can be catalysts for change and bring higher education opportunities to minority groups.

Merit-based scholarships for local minority students, multi-institutional partnerships that promote policies to increase diversity and collaboration between minority-serving institutions and research universities are necessary to make this movement a reality. These tactics have been used by the National Science Foundation for years, and in their own words, it has been central to “engaging higher education institutions in improving STEM diversity.”

Blocking Student Disenchantment

Although more students are choosing to pursue STEM degrees, many of these programs have a retention problem. The rigors of freshman year might be deemed as a “rite of passage,” but many students entering these STEM programs encounter more than they expected. As these students grapple with their schedules and stress, they have very little breathing room to practice and study subjects that truly interest them.

Modern curriculums require students to sit through tedious prerequisite classes for years before they can even touch projects that give them real-world training in their chosen major. This ultra-traditional model — in addition to the lack of inclusion and support — ultimately discourages students from continuing a STEM education.

However, new breeds of STEM institutions are transforming the industry and applying student-centered approaches to their curriculums. Some of the nation’s top engineering colleges now offer students project-based learning, mentorship and access to internship opportunities as early as their first day of classes. For example, the University of Utah ditched tradition and built its Lassonde Studios entrepreneurship building — a 20,000-square-foot innovation hub decked out with maker spaces, 3D printers and other game-changing resources — to empower students to bring their creative ideas to life.

Reframing Failure

This new generation of students are entrepreneurial, inquisitive and strong-willed. They have never known a world without the Internet, and they don’t know what it’s like to not have instant access to information. These students want more flexibility, more hands-on, interactive training and fewer textbooks — and this requires a new outlook on failure.

In STEM, many problems often have more than one solution. You can reach the same answer with multiple different formulas, or program a robot in many different ways; this lack of rigidity fuels creativity, but it also opens the door to more failures — and that’s OK. Experimentation is key to innovation, so students should be taught to embrace failure — not fear it.

As our nation continues to push the boundaries of technology and science, universities and colleges must step up to the plate and foster the skills that these STEM industries desperately need in their employees. With a focus on inclusiveness and hands-on training, universities can truly be the frontrunners for STEM growth.

About the Author

Scott Rhodes is vice provost of Enrollment for Florida Polytechnic University (https://floridapolytechnic.org/) in Lakeland, FL. With an 18-year background in higher education, he leads enrollment and recruitment strategies for the university. His responsibilities encompass undergraduate admissions, graduate enrollment and enrollment marketing, financial aid, student records and registration and enrollment market research. He can be reached at strhodes@flpoly.org.

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