1. To draw on the
available research and empirical evidence to improve undergraduate education in
mathematics, science, and engineering;
2. To improve
attraction and retention of students by engaging them in activities where they
get to discover the science or mathematics; and
3. To encourage greater
collaboration between mathematics and the science and engineering programs.
For this column, I
will focus on the subheading to the title of the PCAST report: producing one
million additional STEM graduates. As I explained in my March column, On Engaging to Excel, this impressive
number is taken over a decade and includes associate’s degrees. Nevertheless,
it translates into the still impressive-sounding goal of an additional 75 to 80,000
bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields each year. How ambitious is that goal?
Graph 1 shows the
number of full-time freshmen arriving each fall with the intention of majoring
in engineering, as well as the number who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in
engineering the previous spring. The most recent number of intended majors is
for fall 2011. For actual bachelor’s degrees awarded, the most recent number is
for spring 2010.
The most striking
feature of this graph is the remarkable consistency in the number of intended
Engineering majors from 1980 through 2007 and the dramatic increase since then,
from 102,000 in fall 2007 to 184,000 in fall 2011. There are our extra 80,000
STEM majors, if we can keep them. 
It is too soon to be
able to tell how well we are doing at retention. The first big increase, with
the incoming class of fall 2008, has only just seen the graduation of those who
completed their degrees in four years. It will be two more years before the US
Department of Education releases the spring 2012 graduation numbers. But the
situation in the physical and biological sciences can shed some light on what
we might expect.
In both cases, the
number of intended majors took off following the year 2000, more than doubling
over the following decade. In the biological sciences, the annualized rate of
growth in the number of bachelor’s degrees from 2005 to 2010 has almost exactly
matched the rate of growth in the number of incoming students five years
earlier, at about 6% per year. In the physical sciences, the percentage rate of
growth in the number of degrees from 2005 to 2010, at 4% per year, is half of
the 8% per year growth rate in the number of incoming physical science students
five years earlier. It is reasonable to assume that engineering may be more
similar to the physical sciences than the biological sciences.
In short, the
problem is not with attracting students to STEM fields. The issue will be to
 The increased
interest in engineering programs is almost certainly a result of the recession
that began in 2008 and the high unemployment rate since then. I discussed this
connection in an earlier column, A Benefit of High Unemployment, November 2010.
Note that while enrollments in the biological and physical sciences began to increase
following the class of 2000, the rates of increase accelerated after 2007.