SCIENCE OPPORTUNITIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION

11/23/2014
HIGHER EDUCATION
By Clifton Harris and Pat Owens

America’s economic success over the past century has hinged on global leadership in science, engineering and technology. To maintain this lead in face of dramatically expanding foreign competition, there have been renewed calls for increased science and engineering educational opportunities and outcomes, particularly for Americans from underrepresented groups, to fill projected STEM workforce gaps.

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The future is very bright for young people interested in science and engineering. U.S. energy is becoming very inexpensive and the global customer base for products is rapidly expanding.

Notable Undercurrents That Influence Future STEM Opportunities

The first is the ongoing mass migration of humans in emerging economies from rural surroundings to urban centers, an unprecedented event on a global scale. Many nations are developing a middle class for the first time in their history. The emerging global middle class will create unparalleled demands for innovative products, for improved technologies, and for well-designed and built infrastructures. Companies will need skilled technical workers to meet these demands.

A second major tectonic shift has been the very recent U.S. energy renaissance. American ingenuity, science and technology expertise — combined with entrepreneurial risk taking — resulted in the development of horizontal drilling and fracking techniques that effectively extract massive amounts of oil and gas from shale deposits previously thought to have limited utility. According to EIA, the U.S. now imports less than 30 percent of its petroleum products compared to over 60 percent just seven years ago. The surge in shale oil and gas infrastructure is already sparking a second wave of U.S. investments from chemical and steel companies to take advantage of cheap gas to power their plants/factories and to use as chemical feed stocks. There is already a massive $100 billion of planned chemical investments in the U.S. A third wave of investments is expected as manufacturing migrates back to take advantage of cheap energy, followed by investments in research and development. America needs more skilled STEM workers to get these plants designed, built, and operational and to staff the substantive research and development infrastructure expansion that will sustain global competitiveness.

The future is very bright for young people interested in science and engineering. U.S. energy is becoming very inexpensive and the global customer base for products is rapidly expanding. The American workforce will require a massive influx of innovative, intuitive STEM workers from a variety of backgrounds to satisfy these ever-growing consumer and industrial demands.

America Has the Human Resources to Accomplish This

To increase both the number and the advanced degrees of STEM graduates, colleges and universities can become more productive. There are data available that convey direct correlations between specific collegiate practices (e.g. undergraduate research) and subsequent success in STEM. On a per student basis, baccalaureate colleges produce about twice as many science PhD’s as all other universities. These liberal arts colleges comprise nearly half of the nation’s 25 most productive institutions in terms of undergraduates who complete STEM doctoral degrees. Schools are beginning to emulate this model.

More importantly, higher education institutions can do a much better job in providing opportunities to more effectively engage those large groups of Americans who are not adequately represented in STEM fields. According to the NSF, underrepresented minorities (URM) — African American, Hispanic, Native American Indian—made up 29.4 percent of the general population but only 13.3 percent of employed engineers and scientists. Women represent 51 percent of the population but received only 39 percent of 2009 STEM Bachelor degrees. While women have made progress; they are still dramatically underrepresented in computer science and engineering, and significantly underrepresented in the physical sciences and math.

Existing and New Programs to Improve URM STEM Success

Recognized as the national model for STEM education of URM students, the Meyerhoff Program, initiated in 1988 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), was featured in November 2011 on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Open to students from all backgrounds, Meyerhoff targets high caliber incoming students who are planning to pursue doctoral studies in the sciences or engineering and are interested in fostering the inclusion of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. The Meyerhoff home page notes that “The program’s success is built on the premise that, among like-minded students who work closely together, positive energy is contagious. By assembling such a high concentration of high-achieving students in a tightly knit learning community, students continually inspire one another to do more and better.” As of January 2013, 800 Meyerhoff scholars—mostly African American — had graduated and completed 108 PhDs, 32 MD/PhDs, 105 MDs and 85 graduate degrees in engineering. Another 300 alumni were enrolled in graduate and professional degree programs. These are impressive and unparalleled results.

The Meyerhoff program is highly structured and centered on 13 program components: recruitment, financial aid, summer bridge, values, study groups, community, advising/counseling, tutoring, summer research, mentors, faculty involvement, administrative involvement/public support and family involvement. Fifty scholars are selected annually from 2,000 nominations and 100 to 150 on-campus interviews. All selected scholars attend a mandatory pre-freshmen six-week summer bridge program that is a particularly intense socialization experience to adjust students to the rigors and high expectations of college life. The summer bridge is essentially an academic boot camp with students in class over 20 hours every week and planned activities or study periods seven days a week from early morning to late evening. Discussion with scholars clearly provides evidence of the personal impact made and personal relationships formed during their summer bridge experiences. During the academic year, scholars live in a common dorm, submit biweekly grade reports, meet monthly with academic monitors, form study groups, use and serve as tutors, perform community service, earn high grades, and attend monthly community (“family”) meetings. The result is that Meyerhoff scholars become a tightly knit group of individuals with a college life primarily centered on academic achievement. The cohesiveness and commitments are equivalent to intercollegiate athletic teams. Students are strongly encouraged to participate in laboratory research starting as early as sophomore year. Research opportunities in academia, as well as private industry, are readily available to Meyerhoff scholars. It is this experience that transforms students into scientists and the most important preparation for graduate work in science and engineering.

In spite of the impressive success of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, until recently no significant action had been taken to replicate it at other institutions. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) recently invested $8 million in a partnership with UNC Chapel Hill and Penn State to establish Meyerhoff-model programs. UNC’s Chancellor’s Science Scholars and Penn State’s Millennium Scholars Programs both began in summer 2013.

Several other schools have also taken initiative to emulate the Meyerhoff model and to replicate its success for their students. UMBC’s current list of these “descendent” programs includes: Bates College, Cornell (Biology Scholars), Duke School of Nursing (MADIN II), LSU (Louisiana STEM), Morehouse College (Research Scholars), University of Maryland Eastern Shore (Honors), Michigan (M-STEM Academies), Winston Salem State (STEM Scholars), and Winthrop (Eagle STEM Scholars).

With NIH INBRE and internal funding support, Winthrop’s Eagle STEM Scholars initiative began in 2011. Program elements include early dorm move-in, mandatory freshman study hall, frequent academic monitoring during the first two years, laboratory research for two summers and academic years; community service, team-building activities, and professional development seminar courses targeted to freshmen/sophomore and junior/senior cohorts respectively. Winthrop has earmarked financial aid for Eagle STEM scholars and plans to soon add a summer bridge program. During summer 2014, 64 percent of Eagle STEM students were engaged in full-time laboratory research, including six scholars selected for biomedical research at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, chemistry research at The University of Notre Dame, and chemical engineering research at Tennessee.

High school students interested in science and math can do a number of things to prepare for exciting STEM opportunities on the horizon.

First, as high school seniors, STEM-aspiring students would be well-served to enroll in Calculus, AP/Advanced Physics, and AP/Advanced Chemistry. Incoming STEM majors should expect to begin their academic careers with two semesters of calculus and two semesters of general chemistry, while engineering majors will also enroll in the first semester of calculus-based physics. These subjects account for a significant portion of higher education STEM attrition. Completion of high school calculus is a must; it is the best predictor of success in college chemistry. If calculus is not available in the school, then students need to find a rigorous online or local college course.

Secondly, college science program searches should focus on STEM undergraduate research opportunities. In only two summers of laboratory research, students will spend more time performing hands-on science than would be expected throughout the course of an entire four-year degree. Find out the number of science students who participate in summer research (divide that by total enrollment to get a sense of available opportunities). On a per student basis, Predominately Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) generally have many more research opportunities for undergraduates. At a recent NSF conference, this fact was cited as the primary reason PUI graduates are twice as likely to complete a STEM science PhD. Except for the few PUIs focused on engineering (e.g. Rose-Hulman or a service academy); students with engineering interests should center college searches on major engineering schools.

Thirdly, for students in underrepresented groups (primarily women in engineering, computer science, and chemistry; African Americans, Hispanics), targeted college searches should include schools with STEM diversity programs. Programs similar to those earlier described recruit well-prepared students and provide a community of like-minded individuals. The importance of a supportive peer framework to STEM success cannot be overstated. Upper-class members are readily available and make knowledgeable mentors. Program directors assist STEM students and network with contacts across the institution to open up opportunities. Freshmen arrive on campus with an immediate identity group. These programs may have financial aid and will have tutoring resources and academic monitoring. They often maintain contact with families to assist student transition. They work with faculty to create research opportunities, and provide aid for travel to STEM conferences, enabling the students to present their findings in an environment of their peers — highly effective preparation for graduate school. Furthermore, they are able to provide assistance during the graduate school application process, including GRE preparation, alumni contacts, recommendations and general advice.

America is at a crossroads in STEM higher education. With the changes being made, it is clear that STEM educational opportunities—particularly for students from underrepresented groups—will significantly expand. High schools are tasked with providing the sparks that initiate student interest in science and engineering. For students, identifying those colleges and programs that can provide the resources, structure and atmosphere suitable for cultivating their talents is more important than ever.

Dr. Clifton Harris is Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Winthrop University.Dr. Pat Owens is Chair, Department of Chemistry, Physics and Geology and Professor of Chemistry at Winthrop University.
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