How higher ed leaders can make STEM more accessible
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In an audio conversation, Education Dive spoke with two experts from the Society for Science & the Public about key areas in STEM education and ways education leaders can broaden the pipeline. The experts are Maya Ajmera, the CEO of Society for Science & the Public and publisher of Science News, and Caitlin Sullivan, the organization's director of outreach and equity. Key takeaways from the conversation are below.
Providing quality STEM education means taking care of teachers
Ajmera said it's clear K-12 teachers are "hungry for professional development." Building an effective STEM program, she said, means making sure teachers are surrounded by learning opportunities to improve and like-minded colleagues that can offer support. Sullivan added that teachers often don't have the expertise to lead students through difficult STEM topics and that higher education institutions play a special role in training teachers.
Teacher shortages continue to affect STEM pathways, which is why Ajmera said that more institutions could start making teacher credentialing pathways more affordable, especially because data shows teachers often feel underpaid and undervalued. The National Science Teachers Association has said that low pay and poor administration contributes to high turnover, which also contributes to a lack of qualified science teachers.
According to association's website, after three years, nearly 30% of all teachers leave the profession — which jumps to around 40% after 5 years. For those who graduate with STEM degrees, it’s more appealing find other jobs.
“The average beginning pay for teachers nationwide is $26,639, and the average salary, $40,574. In comparison, college graduates who enter engineering can earn an average of $44,362 annually," the website states. "For science teachers, the lure of science and technology careers is becoming more and more enticing."
Education leaders must offer support and encouragement
Ajmera suggested that institution leaders should work with K-12 school systems and creating a mentorship program, because then "you'll see a number of these kids are not only going to have role models and mentors, they are also going to learn how to do research in a lab."
To keep students engaged in STEM, Sullivan said K-12 leaders should look at local science fairs, where they can reach out to teachers and local communities to make sure children have the support they may not have to enter competitions.
"We learn it's not just that they don't have the skills, it's that they don't have the confidence. They need folks in the community to say 'hey, this is something you can actually do. I believe in you," said Sullivan.
This reality often plays out in the STEM gender gap. Issues like lack of confidence, fear of workforce discrimination and limited role models are factors hindering women from getting into STEM fields. In fact, a 2017 survey of 11,500 girls across 12 European countries commissioned by Microsoft showed 60% of respondents said they would feel more confident pursuing STEM careers if they thought men and women were treated equally in those fields.
Recognizing the business case STEM education
"I think there is an enormous business case for investing in STEM education," Ajmera said. "I make a public policy case that our local state and national governments need to put more dollars into innovative STEM programing in a way that young people are doing project-based learning."
Mark Land, vice president of university relations at Clemson University, told Education Dive during a meeting recently that investing in STEM programs is one of the reasons why his institution has done well in South Carolina, despite statewide higher education budget cuts. As land-grant university, Land said Clemson has a mission to give back to the state, and STEM opportunities and partnerships with industries help graduates contribute to the local economy.
"One of the big questions facing higher education is the value proposition," Land said. "Samsung moved to the state to make washing machines, seeing it as an R&D hub, and within a few months of them being here we signed an agreement with them to form a partnership. They are looking for employees, research scientists."
"The types of jobs people currently have may not be here in 10 years," Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe told Education Dive. "We have a responsibility to give [students] the skills that will help them thrive in the future. We constantly have to think about what the best learning opportunities are for all kinds of people.
"From my perspective the business is really all about what we are giving our students in terms of what they will be able to do with their careers after they graduate," she said.
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