Higher Ed Series: How can we encourage more STEM education?

The top 10 universities in the world are located within the US and the UK, which makes their partnership essential in leading the world’s knowledge economies. Given the increasing demand for a workforce educated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the US and UK, both governments have issued calls to action to urge higher enrollments in STEM. To bring some of the brightest minds from education, industry and independent organizations together, the British Council, in partnership with the Institute of International Education, held the fifth event in the British Council Higher Education Series entitled, Building the Pipeline: Incentivizing STEM in Higher Education.

Throughout this day long conference, dynamic speakers from the UK and US presented diverse perspectives and many common themes arose from the discussions.

Hands-on learning
Several speakers called for a reevaluation of teaching methodologies for STEM courses. Steve Barkanic of Business Higher Education Forum noted that the majority of United States higher education institutions do not teach STEM in the same way that is conducted in the field. Therefore, students’ interest and career objectives in STEM are often minimalized. Educators and industry experts alike agreed that “hands-on learning” was a key element in allowing students to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for STEM.

Martha Cyert of Stanford University referred to this as “concrete or tangible learning,” which engages students through practical problem solving closely related to the needs of the STEM workforce. Dr. Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine learned from his own experience of teaching a “no lecture” biology class, which thoroughly engaged his students in the activities and provided opportunities for communications development through group work. The effectiveness of this model inspired Science magazine to hold a contest for new colleges with the best laboratory models, which will be released in April 2013.

Mentoring girls
Linda Kekelis, Executive Director of Techbridge, led a break-out session on the importance of engaging young girls in STEM. Techbridge involves girls in STEM fields through hands-on projects with experienced women mentors. They have seen that many girls dream of making the world a better place, but often cannot conceptualize how to achieve this through STEM-related careers. Before joining the Techbridge after school program, most girls received limited, if any, information on STEM from their parents and teachers.
At Techbridge, the students gain inspiration from industry role models, who volunteer their time to mentor the next generation of inventors, scientists and engineers. After working with a role model, 84% of the girls felt more confident and 87% tried harder to overcome a challenge. The effects of this program have left these girls with a sense of empowerment to change the world through STEM.

Preparation for higher education
According to Steve Barkanic of Business Higher Education Forum, the first two years of undergraduate education present the steepest drop out rates. To improve retention, Dr. Michael Parrish highlighted San Jose State University’s work with high schools and community colleges to develop preparatory and prerequisite classes, allowing students to gain the skillsets needed to successfully enter university-level coursework.
Stanford University has developed a three-week summer program, the Leland Scholars Program, designed for incoming freshman from under-resourced secondary schools. Through this program, students work on designated projects with the same professors that they will work with throughout the year. As a result, students frequently interact with faculty members, increasing their potential for success.

Industry support
Arup, a global leader in engineering and design, recognizes that recent STEM graduates may still lack some skills required to be successful at their company. Consequently, Aiden Hughes explained, Arup has designed an internal training program developed for first-year employees to ensure that they feel supported at their company while fine-tuning their skillsets.

Cross-industry collaboration
According to Elizabeth Snyder from Oracle, STEM professions will be in high demand in the near future; however, there is a shortfall in data-savvy managers and of students studying STEM. This equation will leave the United States with more new STEM jobs than can be filled. It is critical, as Richard Halkett from Cisco mentioned, that industries properly assess their needs and share these insights with educational institutions, the educators and the students themselves. With current industry insights, educational institutions will have the opportunity to adjust their STEM curriculums to match industry expectations.

With a highly skilled workforce, both the UK and the US will remain global leaders in addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges. From encouraging economic growth to sustaining global resources, no one industry can accomplish such tasks alone. This is why the work of the British Council is essential in incentivizing international and cross-industry collaboration to invest in the future of STEM.

Crossposted on the  British Council USA blog.

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