published January 1, 2007

SENCER E-Newsletter, January 2007, Volume 6, Issue 4

Science is the Foundation for Careers

Dr. Melvyn D. Schiavelli

One of the main roles of U.S. higher education today is to educate the next generation of citizens who will help the nation maintain its competitiveness. Yet, despite the federal government spending billions of dollars on education programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, a May 2006 General Accounting Office study found that the proportion of students obtaining degrees in STEM fields has fallen.

Melyvn Schiavelli

In academic year 1994-1995, the study reports, about 519,000 students (32 percent) obtained STEM degrees. About 578,000 students obtained STEM degrees in academic year 2003-2004, accounting for 27 percent of degrees awarded.

These declining portions in the STEM disciplines are indicators of the nation's economic well-being over the next decade, since emerging science and technology fields will drastically reshape the economic and career landscapes of the future. Biotechnology, computer and information sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and geospatial technologies form the new rungs of the modern career ladder. The U.S., over the next decade, will require educated and technologically savvy workers who can learn new concepts, innovate, and think critically. The nation will succeed only if it can provide an educated workforce of sufficient size and with the skills that can adapt to shifting demands.

Science and technology form the universal language of business, driving economic growth and fueling future careers. Students must learn that universal language to succeed and flourish in a global economy. Graduates that bring the versatility of specialized technical aptitudes, and established business skills to the workforce will enjoy the high tech "gold collar" careers of the future.

In order for the U.S. to maintain its status as a world leader in scientific and technological innovation, we must find ways to motivate U.S. students and adults, using a variety of incentives, to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

U.S. higher education institutions can help by rethinking the traditional approaches to science and technology degrees. Many of our colleges, universities, and scientists treat these disciplines as if they are private clubs. Freshman chemistry, engineering, biology or other entry-level science courses at many campuses are filtering courses, designed to "draw blood" and to serve as a form of intellectual hazing. The curriculum, although challenging, frequently is not engaging or meaningful and often relies on memorization. Some larger universities may have several hundred students enrolled in one class section, and many of these courses are taught by junior faculty, not the top faculty. Although many schools will say "this doesn't apply to us" - if the lab coat fits, wear it.

These factors combine to drive away young students from the STEM disciplines. This is unfortunate because these are disciplines that people leave, not join late. Science is a team effort. We need to find ways to quit thinking of an education in science as an apprenticeship that begins in graduate school. If higher education institutions approach these courses as "gathering in" courses that include experiential learning, small class sizes, hands-on laboratory experiments, and mentoring, we can retain more students in the STEM disciplines.

Harrisburg Center

This is the approach we take at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. One of our goals is to educate students who might not otherwise have the chance or be encouraged to pursue science and technology degrees. We are attracting students who might consider a science degree but who would not survive in a 500-person introductory class. And we're not looking to weed out potential biochemistry majors in their first term.

By keeping our student-to-faculty ratio low, matching all students with mentors from area corporations and requiring three internships, we find that students who are eager to learn can become science stars. Our academic standards are challenging, but they are achievable. Assistant Secretary of Labor Emily DeRocco, in a recent speech, said: "Harrisburg U. truly is the model for how higher education should be delivered. I have often used the term demand-driven to describe the ideal state of post secondary education and training. Harrisburg University has achieved that ideal state. From business leadership to employer faculty to required internships and mentors, you have taken the traditional education model and transformed it into talent development."

Our future graduates will enter the marketplace equipped with the STEM skills to succeed immediately. And as our number of alumni grow, so too will the talent in this region. This in turn will attract new companies to the region and begin the cycle that leads to the vitality and creativity that breeds innovation. By becoming the hub of STEM education in the Central Pennsylvania region, we will attract new students into the STEM disciplines and produce alumni and future residents with the skills to create an entrepreneurial and innovation culture right here in the capital region. The American Council on Education's 2006 report Minority Students in Science and Technology, concluded that the talent pool needed to increase the number of bachelor's degree produced in the STEM fields already exists in colleges and universities across the nation.

We agree. Talent is the key driver to economic competitiveness and higher education must become innovative in its approach to developing that talent.