Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Engaging to Excel

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has just released its report to President Obama on undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education: Report to the President, Engage to Excel: producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

As the title suggests, the bottom line is to increase the number of undergraduate degrees (Bachelor’s or Associate’s) earned in STEM fields by one million. As with budget savings, the numbers are made more impressive by making this a ten-year goal. Even so, that amounts to an extra 100,000 STEM majors per year. From the most recent year for which we have data, 2009, there were 241,000 Bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM fields and 70,000 Associate’s degrees. We are thus looking to increase the number of STEM degrees by about one-third.

This is a report that matters. Last fall PCAST did a thorough survey of all federal grant programs that support undergraduate work in STEM fields, focusing on the National Science Foundation (NSF) but including programs of the Departments of Education and Labor. This report carries specific recommendations on how this money should now be directed. The NSF programs Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES), STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP), and Widening Implementation and Demonstration of Evidence-Based Reforms (WIDER) have come in for particular attention.

There are four principal recommendations:
  1. Catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices.
  2. Advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.
  3. Launch a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the mathematics-preparation gap.
  4. Encourage partnerships about stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers.
While there is much that I could say about each of these, I want to focus this column on Recommendation 3 because it directly impacts the mathematics community.

After acknowledging the central role of mathematics in preparing students for STEM careers, the report then asserts that “introductory mathematics courses often leave students with the impression that all STEM fields are dull and unimaginative” [p. vi] and later complains that “Discipline-based education on effective undergraduate mathematics teaching also appears less developed when compared with other STEM fields.” [p. 27] The report describes at some length the problem of mathematically under-prepared students and recommends a sustained effort to increase the production of high school mathematics teachers by 100,000 (presumably over ten years) and a joint effort by NSF and the Departments of Labor and Education to “support a national experiment in mathematics undergraduate education.”

This national experiment has four components:
  1. Summer and other bridge programs for high school students entering college;
  2. Remedial courses for students in college, including approaches that rely on computer technology;
  3. College mathematics teaching and curricula developed and taught by faculty from mathematics-intensive disciplines other than mathematics, including physics, engineering, and computer science; and
  4. A new pathway for producing K-12 mathematics teachers from undergraduate and graduate programs in mathematics-intensive fields other than mathematics.
I have bolded and italicized the last two.  I would like to be able to read them generously as suggesting that the mathematics community could benefit from working with and learning from the experience of other STEM fields. But the nature of these recommendations combined with the other previously mentioned statements from this report suggest that PCAST does not trust the mathematics community to get right undergraduate mathematics education either in support of other STEM fields or in the preparation of K-12 mathematics teachers. In this report, there is a clear sense of frustration that despite its central role in STEM education, the mathematics community appears to have been slow to rethink its undergraduate curricula or pedagogy on a truly national scale.

In fact, there have been and continue to be many promising, sustained, and national efforts to reform undergraduate mathematics education. The mathematical community is learning from the successes that have occurred in physics, chemistry, and biology, but the lessons learned are not always easy to apply. Because of its central role across the disciplines, the sheer number of students involved, and the complexity of the issues that reach right down into pre-kindergarten, accomplishing measurable improvement in undergraduate mathematics education on a national scale is extremely difficult. We welcome the help of the other STEM disciplines, but ultimately this is the responsibility of the mathematics community.

I will return to this report in future columns. For now, I’d like to close with one observation and a question. In the fall of 2007, 276,000 of the entering freshmen in full-time four-year undergraduate programs declared that they intended to major in a STEM field. This number had remained essentially unchanged since 2001. Thanks to the economic downturn, by this past fall the number of entering freshmen intending to major in a STEM discipline had grown to 424,000 [data from The American Freshman]. There are our extra 100,000 STEM majors and then some. They are out there if the incentives are right. Now, can we keep them?

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