President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Release Report Outlining Undergraduate Education Initiative

On February 7, 2012 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its report “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”  The report provides a strategy for improving STEM education, particularly during the first two years of college. 

This report is in response to economic analyses which found that there is a need for the United States to produce approximately 1 million college graduates with STEM backgrounds over the next decade in order to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology.  To do so, the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive STEM degrees by about 34% annually over current rates. 

While fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in STEM field complete a STEM degree, the report explains that “increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40% to 50% would, alone, generate three quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees over the next decade.”  It goes on to state that “retaining more students in STEM majors is the lowest-cost, fastest policy option to providing the STEM professionals that the nation needs for economic and social well-being, and will not require expanding the number or size of introductory courses, which are constrained by space and resources at many colleges and universities.”

The report highlights that “the first two years of college are the most critical to retention and recruitment of STEM majors.  The STEM courses in these years are also a shared feature of all types of 2- and 4-year colleges and universities – community colleges, comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, research universities, and minority-serving institutions.”

The report discusses teaching methods at the undergraduate level, stating that a “large and growing body of research indicates that STEM education can be substantially improved through a diversification of teaching methods.  These data show that evidence-based teaching methods are more effective in reaching all students – especially the ‘underrepresented majority’ – the women and members of minority groups who now constitute approximately 70% of college students while being underrepresented among students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees (approximately 45%).  This underrepresented majority is a large potential source of STEM professionals.”

The report proposes three strategies to address issues of student intellectual engagement and achievement, motivation, and identification with a STEM field.  These three key strategies are to adopt STEM teaching strategies that emphasize student engagement, provide all students with the tools to excel and to diversify the pathways to a STEM degree. 

Institutional and individual barriers exist and are addressed in section 3 of the PCAST report.  These include that faculty lack knowledge of evidence-based teaching and that they lack individual rewards for good teaching, there are limited resources particularly in light of the current economic climate, also the idea that students hesitate to major in STEM fields due to the perception that their grades will be lower as a result. 

The report points out that many two-year and non-research institutions do not have the programs or resources to offer students extensive research opportunities.  The report also suggests that “colleges and universities need to change their institutional and reward structures” since “although research will always be the hallmark of the research university and must be valued and rewarded, the ideal faculty incentive system is based on both teaching and research accomplishments.” 

In the report, PCAST identified five recommendations to generate the 1 million additional undergraduate STEM degrees:

Catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices
Evidence-based teaching was highlighted as an effective way to teach in STEM classrooms to build critical thinking skills.  This approach uses diverse methods to engage students in “active learning” in order to increase in coverage of content in classrooms.   

PCAST recommends that federal agencies establish discipline-focused programs funded by Federal research agencies, academic institutions, disciplinary societies, and foundations to train current and future faculty in evidence-based teaching practices.  It also recommends that the NSF institute a competitive grant program for “STEM Institutional Transformation Awards.”  These grants would go to faculty working to design transformational and sustainable teaching methods for STEM subjects. PCAST lastly requests that the National Academies develop metrics to evaluate STEM education.  

Advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses
The report recommends that universities and colleges expand the use of research courses in order to provide research experiences in the first two years of undergraduate education.  This would allow students to have the opportunity to generate scientific knowledge through research.  To expand the opportunities for students to research and design projects in faculty research laboratories, PCAST recommends reducing restrictions on Federal research funds and redefining the Department of Education Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education program. 

Launch a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the mathematics-preparation gap
“Because of inadequate preparation, many students need to take developmental classes in mathematics when they get into college.”

To address this complex problem, PCAST recommends that the National Science Foundation, Department of Labor, and the Department of Education support a national experiment in mathematics undergraduate education. 

Encourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers
To encourage students to pursue STEM degrees, PCAST recommends strengthening partnerships between high school and college; between two- and four-year colleges; and partnerships involving minority-serving institutions.  Many in the private sector actively support STEM efforts in high schools, colleges, and universities and strengthening these partnerships would greatly affect student learning. 

PCAST offers recommendations to strengthen the collaboration between the Federal Government, K-12 education as well as higher education.  These include expanding the Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative to encourage pathways from two- to four-year institutions; sponsoring STEM learning programs for high school students through the Department of Education’s summer STEM learning program; establishing public-private partnerships to support STEM programs; and improving data provided by the Department of Education and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to STEM students, parents and the greater community on STEM disciplines and the labor market. 

Create a Presidential Council on STEM Education 
PCAST recommends that the President, via executive Order, form a Presidential Council on STEM education to provide advice and leadership on postsecondary STEM education from the academic and business communities in order to provide strategic leadership for transformative and sustainable change in STEM undergraduate education. 

The reaction to this report by the public present at the PCAST meeting was positive.  Many believed that refocusing current investments in STEM education can address the barriers in student retention. 

In September 2010, PCAST released a report “Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future” which called for 100,000 additional STEM teachers over the next decade.  The FYI on that report can be found here

A link to the PCAST Report “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” can be found here.

Originally published in FYI, The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News.