Engage to Excel: Producing One million additional college graduates with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (PCAST, 2012) - Contributions from Earth Science Education

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

[Engage to Excel (Acrobat (PDF) 5.3MB Feb8 17) is a report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, 2012) that addresses the challenges of recruiting and training 1 million more college graduates in STEM disciplines to meet future economic needs of the United States. This web page summarizes the 5 major recommendations of this report that focuses on the first two years of undergraduate education. It includes excerpts from the Executive Summary and documents the substantive work already done by the geoscience education community to address these recommendations.


"Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology. To meet this goal, the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34% annually over current rates... Fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. Increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40% to 50% would, alone, generate three-quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees over the next decade.... Retaining more students in STEM majors is the lowest-cost, fastest policy option to providing the STEM professionals that the nation needs for economic and societal well-being, and will not require expanding the number or size of introductory courses." (PCAST Executive Summary)

Recruitment and retention of new students to the STEM disciplines is a national priority. A clarion call was sounded in the National Academy of Sciences report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm--Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (2007) in which the "need [was] identified for a comprehensive and coordinated federal effort to bolster U.S. competitiveness and pre-eminence in the STEM disciplines." However, the capacity to build the STEM workforce of the future has been compromised because of barriers to students who choose to pursue career pathways in the STEM disciplines, particularly students from underrepresented groups. Twenty-five years of reports have identified the fundamental reasons cited by students regarding their decision to not consider, or to not pursue, majors in the STEM fields (see: Tobias, S., (1990), They're Not Dumb, They're Different--Stalking the Second Tier, Research Corporation; Seymour, E. and N. M. Hewitt. (1997). Talking about Leaving. Boulder, CO: Westview Press). Reasons that students cite for leaving the STEM disciplines include:

  • Uninspiring introductory courses as a factor in their choice to switch majors;
  • Low-performing students with high interest and aptitude in STEM careers often have difficulty with the math required in introductory STEM courses with little help provided by their universities
  • Members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields cite an unwelcoming atmosphere from faculty in STEM courses as a reason for their departure (PCAST Executive Summary).

A wholesale transformation in how we teach Science is needed. "Better teaching methods are needed by university faculty to make courses more inspiring, provide more help to students facing mathematical challenges, and to create an atmosphere of a community of STEM learners... a large and growing body of research indicates that STEM education can be substantially improved through a diversification of teaching methods. These data show that evidence-based teaching methods are more effective in reaching all students...Learning theory, empirical evidence about how people learn, and assessment of outcomes in STEM class­rooms all point to a need to improve teaching methods to enhance learning and student persistence. Classroom approaches that engage students in "active learning" improve retention of information and critical thinking skills, compared with a sole reliance on lecturing, and increase persistence of students in STEM majors." (PCAST Executive Summary)

"The first two years of college are the most critical to the retention and recruitment of STEM majors...In addition, STEM courses during the first two years of college have an enormous effect on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of future K-12 teachers. Based on extensive research about students' choices, learning processes, and preparation, three impera­tives underpin this report" (PCAST Executive Summary):

  • Improve the first two years of STEM education in college.
  • Provide all students with the tools to excel.
  • Diversify pathways to STEM degrees.

This is a challenge to, and a responsibility of, institutions of higher education, departments, and faculty involved in post-secondary education in all instructional environments.

PCAST Recommendations

Jump down to: Recommendation 1 | Recommendation 2 | Recommendation 3 | Recommendation 4 | Recommendation 5

The first two years are the most critical to the retention and recruitment of STEM majors. As such, "The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) proposes five overarching recommendations to transform undergraduate STEM education during the transition from high school to college and during the first two years of undergraduate STEM education:"

Recommendation 1: Catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices.

Three major findings accompany this recommendation: 1) "Classroom approaches that engage students in "active learning" improve retention of information and critical thinking skills, compared with a sole reliance on lecturing, and increase persistence of students in STEM majors. STEM faculty need to adopt teaching methods supported by evidence derived from experimental learning research as well as from learning assessment in STEM courses," 2) "A significant barrier to broad implementation of evidence-based teaching approaches is that most faculty lack experience using these methods and are unfamiliar with the vast body of research indicating their impact on learning," and 3) "Ongoing change toward the goal described here requires the ability to measure progress. Metrics for excellence in undergraduate STEM education would provide tools for institutions, departments, funding agencies, external evaluators, accreditation agencies, students choosing where to study STEM subjects, and those designing innovative programs."

The STEM disciplines have benefited greatly from a trio of reports from the National Research Council that have made connections with the learning sciences:

The evidence is clear: active learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking instructional practices improve student learning, enhance students' attitudes towards the STEM disciplines, and ultimately support increased retention. This engagement can be accomplished in both the classroom and research lab. STEM education can be substantially improved through a diversification of teaching methods. These data show that evidence-based teaching methods are more effective in reaching all students. To ensure excellence in STEM education for ALL students, faculty must engage in methods of teaching grounded in research about why students excel and persist in college.

The PCAST report identifies key elements of faculty professional development programs modeled after the National Academies' Summer Institutes:

  • demonstrate evidence-based teaching methods and engage participants in them as both teachers and learners;
  • provide an understanding of the evidence supporting these methods;
  • teach participants to use assessment effectively to increase learning and improve teaching;
  • provide participants with an opportunity to develop new teaching materials with critical peer review and feedback;
  • teach participants how to change their teaching and extend change beyond their own classrooms to foster institutional transformation on their campuses and discipline-wide transformation through their professional societies.

Recommendation 2: Advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.

Two strategies to engage students in research in their first two years are necessary: (i) widespread integration of research courses into the introductory STEM curricula, and (ii) increased opportunities for students to participate in faculty research programs in the first two years. The call to "Infuse the joy of discovery...." has been advocated by NSF as far back as 1995 (NSF in a Changing World). The PCAST report notes: "Traditional introductory laboratory courses generally do not capture the creativity of STEM disciplines. They often involve repeating classical experiments to reproduce known results, rather than engaging students in experiments with the possibility of true discovery" (PCAST, Executive Summary). Early engagement in research experiences has had a positive impact on recruitment of students from underrepresented groups in the STEM disciplines (e.g. Nagda, B. A., S. R. Gregerman, J. Jonides, W. von Hippel, and J.S. Lerner, 1998, "Undergraduate student-faculty research partnerships affect student retention." The Review of Higher Education 22: 55-72). To address this, PCAST's recommended action items are to: 1) "expand the use of scientific research and engineering design courses in the first two years," and 2) expand opportunities for student research and design in faculty research laboratories.

Recommendation 3: Launch a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the math preparation gap.

"College-level skills in mathematics and, increasingly, computation are a gateway to other STEM fields. Today many students entering college lack these skills and need to learn them if they are to pursue STEM majors. In addition, employers in the private sector, government, and military frequently cite that they cannot find enough employees with needed levels of mathematics skills." The recommended action is to support a national experiment in mathematics undergraduate education.

Recommendation 4: Encourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers.

"To take advantage of the breadth of available talent, nontraditional students should receive special attention. Adult and working students and those from backgrounds atypical of traditional STEM students may need alternative pathways to be successful in STEM disciplines...Establishing and supporting pathways will require a coordinated effort among diverse institutions...Multiple, alternative pathways are needed to achieve these goals, connections are needed among numerous types of institutions to provide more entry points and pathways to STEM degrees."

Recommendation 5: Create a Presidential Council on STEM Education with leadership from the academic and business communities to provide strategic leadership for transformative and sustainable change in STEM undergraduate education.

"The leadership of higher education and STEM-enabled businesses needs to be inspired to generate sweeping changes in higher education to produce the workforce America needs."

Earth Sciences Contributions to PCAST Recommendations

The Earth Sciences education community has anticipated, and is well-positioned to address, the key recommendations made in PCAST's Engage to Excel. A summary of 25 Years of Progress in Geoscience Education demonstrates a communal commitment to excellence in geoscience education through curriculum development, assessment, faculty professional development, research on learning in the geosciences, and building communal infrastructure to support teaching and learning. The following is a summary of the major recommended actions from the PCAST report, and many of the programs that have been developed by the Earth Sciences community that address these recommendations.

1-1 Establish discipline-focused programs funded by Federal research agencies, academic institutions, disciplinary societies, and foundations to train current and future faculty in evidence-based teaching practices.

The PCAST report specifically identifies barriers to reform of STEM education: faculty lack knowledge of evidence-based teaching, and there is a lack of facilitation and rewards for good teaching. Sustained faculty professional development programs are essential to effect the cultural changes needed to recognize and reward excellence in teaching (both for individual faculty and for exemplary departments). The Earth Sciences have over a decade of experience in delivering these support services:

Professional Development of Geoscience Faculty

Since 2003, NSF (CCLI/TUES) has supported the On the Cutting Edge Program for Geoscience Faculty Professional Development. This program integrates a workshop series with web-based modules that have been developed using digital library technologies. The workshops are designed to keep faculty current in their Science and in instruction and include live and virtual (including webinars, virtual journal clubs) opportunities with topics ranging from the "core" of the geoscience curriculum, to modern topics related to pedagogy and "emerging" topics in geoscience research. The On the Cutting Edge program has supported development of collections of community-contributed teaching activities (~2000 entries) that have been peer-reviewed using a scoring rubric based on scientific accuracy, pedagogic effectiveness, and robustness of the materials.

The PCAST report sets a goal of: "reaching 10 to 20% of the nation's 230,000 STEM faculty over the next 5 years." Through the On the Cutting Edge program alone, this goal has already been attained in the geosciences: As of 2013, ~1600 individual geoscience faculty have attended a Cutting Edge workshop (~ 1 in 5 of all geoscience faculty based on estimate of 7000 geo-faculty from AGI data). In 2013, the On the Cutting Edge website had 1.3 million visitors; 25% of visits are made by returning visitors, and 45% of geoscience faculty report regular use of resources on the On the Cutting Edge website.

The PCAST report affirms: "To train future faculty, Federal research agencies should require all graduate students and postdoctoral fellows supported by federal training grants to receive instruction in modern teaching methods." Two annual workshop series developed by the On the Cutting Edge program already address this mandate: Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences for senior graduate students and post-docs who seek careers in academia, and Early Career Geoscience Faculty Teaching, Research, and Managing Your Career for pre-tenure faculty. These workshops are designed to inaugurate early career academics in best practices in education to effect the cultural changes among the professoriate that have been identified by the PCAST report. Since 2003 ~650 senior graduate students have attended the Preparing for an Academic Career workshops, and more than 600 pre-tenure faculty have attended the Early Career workshops.

On the Cutting Edge has convened annual workshops, and has developed an online tutorial on: Designing Innovative and Effective Courses that focuses on student-centered learning, clear articulation of Student Learning Outcomes, alignment of assessments with these learning goals, and active learning strategies.

On the Cutting Edge has also convened a number of workshops and developed supporting websites to connect the geoscience community with new advances from the cognitive and learning sciences, including: The InTeGrate program (NSF-STEP) has convened a workshop and developed the supporting website that explores Teaching the Methods of Geoscience. The workshop and website explore the disciplinary needs for students to be able to address uncertainty, ambiguity, large datasets, geologic time, an incomplete geologic record, and open system behavior.

Geoscience Education Research

The geosciences has made numerous contributions to STEM education research. The NRC (2012) report Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER): Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering provided the evidence that demonstrates effectiveness of instructional strategies, methods, pedagogies and assessments. This link leads to a summary of DBER Contributions and Opportunities for the Geosciences. A summary of geoscience community workshops, theme sessions, projects, and bibliographies can be found at Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences.

Geoscience-specific education research has a long history, and was first identified in two reports sponsored by NSF:

  • Geoscience Education: A Recommended Strategy,1997, Geoscience Education Working Group I (GEWG I) NSF 97-171 "We recommend that GEO and EHR both support research in geoscience education, helping geoscientists to work with colleagues in fields such as educational and cognitive psychology, in order to facilitate development of a new generation of geoscience educators."
  • Bridges: Connecting Research and Education in the Earth Sciences, 2000; workshop report. Four recommendations: 1) Research in Education: provide opportunities for students to learn science by doing science; 2) Research and Education; translate new scientific discoveries into a variety of instructional activities; 3) Research on Education; a focused initiative is needed to determine how student learning is actually achieved in the Earth sciences; 4) Education in Research; to what extend are our instructional practices preparing students to consider careers in the sciences, or more generally, develop an appreciation of science as they enter their civic lives?

A series of community-based workshops, reports, and publications followed:Earth and Mind Cover

National Association of Geoscience Teachers publishes the Journal of Geoscience Education and In the Trenches, which are the primary vehicles for geoscientists to disseminate advances in curriculum design, assessments, and research on learning in the Geosciences. NAGT has recently established a Geoscience Education Research Division.

1-2 Create a "STEM Institutional Transformation Awards" competitive grants program at NSF.

Although not a competitive grant program at NSF, the geosciences have a strong legacy of supporting systemic, institutional reform at the department level. Resources that support institutional reform of geo-STEM education include:

  • Building Strong Geoscience Departments--includes advice and case studies on curricula, departmental programs, definition of strong departments, resources for heads and chairs, advice on how to promote your department, program assessment, student recruitment, and much more.
  • NAGT sponsors the Visiting Workshop Program, which became the Traveling Workshops Program. This program is designed to provide consultancy advice from national leaders to departments that are committed to curriculum/programmatic reforms.
  • The American Geophysical Union (AGU) sponsors an annual 2014 AGU Heads and Chairs Workshop that provides an opportunity for experienced and new heads and chairs of Earth and Space Science departments to share, discuss, and learn about challenges and successful strategies.
  • AGU and the American Geosciences Institute are collaborating to produce a series of monthly webinars, promoting dialogue on topics of interest to department chairs and heads.
  • NSF has recently sponsored the in January, 2014, Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education at the University of Texas. The report is now available.

1-3 Request that the National Academies develop metrics to evaluate STEM education.

The NAGT Building Strong Geoscience Departments program has developed online resources on: Program Assessment and Review to assist departments in development of assessment plans, program metrics and instruments, and meeting accreditation standards. The accompanying web module on Curriculum Design and Revision provides additional strategies to align student learning outcomes with curricula.

NAGT also offered a workshop at the 2014 GSA meeting on A Field Guide to Building Your Own Departmental Course and Curriculum Matrix for Student Learning Outcomes and Program Assessment.

2-1 Expand the use of scientific research and engineering design courses in the first two years through an NSF program.

The Earth Sciences have long embraced inquiry, discovery, and experiential-based learning in field and laboratory settings. A compilation of resources on teaching with data, models, and related classroom and lab activities can be found at: Site Guide: Teaching with Current Research and Data.

A number of resources on undergraduate research can be found at:

To specifically address the PCAST recommendation that undergraduate students should have the opportunity to engage authentic research in the first two years, the On the Cutting Edge program convened the 2014 workshop:

In addition, there are a number of online resources that provide general strategies and materials to support undergraduate research in the geosciences, including the first two years as recommended in the PCAST report:

The geosciences have also actively explored pathways to integrate the growing geoscience cyberinfrastructure into regular instructional practice:

  • Geoscience Education and Cyberinfrastructure. Report from a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation, April 19-20, Boulder, CO., 2004, Marlino, M., Sumner, T., and Wright, M., Digital Library for Earth System Education Program Center; University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, 43p. Download the PDF.
  • Planning the Future of GeoCyberEducation: Report from a Workshop, 2010, Ryan and Erickson (eds)--addressing the opportunities and potential barriers to student learning. Download the PDF
  • EarthCube Education End User's Workshop Report, 2012, Kastens, Krumhansl, Peach (eds); Download the PDF

2-2 Expand opportunities for student research and design in faculty research laboratories by reducing restrictions on Federal research funds and redefining a Department of Education program

The geosciences have worked to increase access to, and use of, federally supported research facilities and data. The federal government has invested heavily in research facilities, and we hope to leverage these investments by making them available for use by students and their supervising faculty.

  • Access to data generated through federally supported agencies (NSF projects, NOAA, USGS, EPA, DOE): Using Data in the Classroom
  • A Registry of Analytical Geochemical Equipment--a matchmaking service to allow lab managers to advertise availability of their instruments, and a guide for students and faculty to find needed analytical instruments to support their research projects. The related Geochemical Instrumentation and Analysis module provides students with tutorials on the fundamental principles, instrumentation, capabilities and limitations, data collection and representation of the major geochemical methods used in the geosciences.

3-1 Eliminating the Mathematics Preparation Gap; Support a National Experiment in Mathematics Undergraduate Education

Development of quantitative skills is one of the most important attributes of an undergraduate education that is required for students' success in either continuing graduate education or in the workforce. "Employers in the private sector, government, and military frequently cite that they cannot find enough employees with needed levels of mathematics skills. This lack of preparation imposes a large burden on higher education and employers" (PCAST Executive Summary). In addition "...low-performing students with a high interest and aptitude in STEM careers often have difficulty with the math required in introductory STEM courses with little help provided by their universities."

The Earth Sciences have developed numerous online service to support students' development of quantitative skills:

4. Encourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversity pathways to STEM careers.

Increasing diversity in the geosciences has been a high priority goal for the geosciences for decades. We have made some progress but there's more to do.

Recruitment and Retention of Students from Underrepresented Populations

NSF has taken a leadership role in recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented populations in their sponsorship of the Opportunities to Enhance Diversity in the Geosciences program.

The SAGE 2YC (Supporting and Advancing Geoscience Education in Two-Year Colleges) program addresses the importance of two-year colleges in recruitment and retention of students to the geosciences. They have developed numerous resources on:

The InTeGrate project has goals: 1) to develop curricula that will dramatically increase Earth literacy of all undergraduate students, and 2) to increase the number of majors in the geosciences and related fields who are able to work with other scientists, social scientists, business people, and policy makers to develop viable solutions to current and future environmental and resource challenges. This project has developed significant resources aimed to recruit diverse students to the cohort of geoscience majors:

The Geo-Needs Project conducted a series of focus group workshops with key stakeholders. An "ideal model" has been proposed that identifies the essential roles of administrators, instructors, instructional resource providers, and geoscience education researchers in broadening participation in the Geosciences. Download the full Geo-Needs Stakeholder Needs Assessment for Broadening Participation in the Geoscience Workforce report (Acrobat (PDF) 5MB Jun10 16) or the Executive Summary (Acrobat (PDF) 1.1MB Jun10 16). The associated website contains a rich collection of strategies, methods, references, and related resources.

The geosciences recognize the importance of introductory classes in recruitment and retention of majors to the discipline. This is due to the fact that Earth Science is irregularly taught in middle and high school curricula across the United States (notwithstanding the best efforts of the former National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) and the recent release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NRC, 2012)). The SERC Site Guide: Resources for Teaching Introductory Geoscience has a wealth of information that supports excellence in instruction in introductory courses.

There is also a growing awareness about the importance of motivations and barriers to learning in the geosciences. The web module on Student Motivation and the Affective Domain provides concrete advice on strategies to increase student motivation, and how to overcome barriers related to instruction about controversial issues.

Preparation for the Workforce--Career Pathways

"To promote pathways to STEM careers for non-traditional students, the Federal Government should provide current and comprehensive data on STEM jobs. Today, public and private employers of STEM professionals lack data about the skills, choices, and availability of STEM workers" (PCAST Executive Summary). However, in the geosciences data on projected workforce needs and the skills required to be successful in geosience careers are available from a number of sources:

5. Create a Presidential Council on STEM Education with leadership from the academic and business communities to provide strategic leadership for transformative and sustainable change in STEM undergraduate education.

The geosciences are well-positioned as a discipline, and as a community, to address the key recommendations put forward by the PCAST report, Engage to Excel.

  • 25 years of preparatory work by faculty from all the geoscience disciplines, at all instructional levels, and from all types of institutions of higher education have laid a strong foundation to meet these challenges; the National Science Foundation has played a lead role in providing the leadership, and the supporting funds, to provide excellence in geoscience education for ALL students;
  • geoscience education researchers have contributed to a greater understanding about "how people learn" about the Earth;
  • geoscience departments are increasingly designing and developing new curricula, new assessments of student- and program-level learning goals, and realignment of these goals to respond to the changing nature of geoscience and expectations of the geoscience workforce; and
  • geoscience professional societies, NAGT, GSA, AGU, AGI among others, are taking a strong role in support of geoscience education.

We have spent 25 years building the geoscience education community. We have an able and willing cohort of colleagues who are well-positioned to take a leadership role, and contribute to, a Presidential Council on STEM education. We're all dressed up and ready to rock'n'roll!