I recently met a colleague who surprised me with the question: “What are you doing in STEM?” I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback by the statement because, after all, WPI is well known as a science- and technology-focused school. The vast majority of our majors are STEM in nature. So it took me a moment to realize what my colleague was really asking me: “What are you doing to advance the STEM agenda here on campus—and beyond?”
This is a question that we should all be asking. The importance of STEM education for sustaining our nation’s economic growth and progress cannot be understated. Studies have shown that 50-85% of job growth in the U.S. is dependent on advances in science and engineering. In order to remain competitive and thrive in a global marketplace, we must support and champion the next great technological innovations by producing more scientists and engineers, especially those who have an entrepreneurial mindset.
Yet, at a time when the need for STEM graduates is more important than ever, America’s institutions of higher education are failing to meet the demand. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reports that 40% of college students planning to major in engineering and science end up switching to other subjects. The National Science Foundation estimates that engineering schools graduated 73,000 engineers last year, totaling less than 5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded nationwide.
Much of this failure can be attributed to the way that schools at all levels, from primary school to higher education, have approached the study and learning of STEM subjects. Historical models have sought to standardize learning using programs that focus on test taking and content delivery without attention to underlying theory and applications. This approach only prepares students for short-term outcomes and immediate gratification. It does not leave room for learning to be creative or innovative—vital characteristics for an ever-evolving economy.
So what type of educational environment can we create that not only brings together individuals interested in science and engineering, but also continually excites them along the way, and keeps the pipeline of highly skilled, sought-after graduates moving? Here is where WPI has real potential to increase the flow, patch leaks, and allow for a diversity of ideas and people. Our short seven-weeks terms, attention to depth, required projects that center on the intersection of science, technology, and society, our incorporation of the humanities & arts and the participatory nature of faculty-student interactions are all key cornerstones to our success.
We also infuse these ideals and methods into K-12 education through the STEM Education Center at WPI. Here, we work with local educators to engage and excite students of all ages in STEM subjects, helping ignite a spark, provide a sense of wonder and prepare the next generation of eager and inquisitive minds.
Now, I turn the question around to you:
“What are you doing in STEM?”
Each of us can make an impact in our own way using the resources we have. Here are a few ways I believe you can help support WPI’s STEM initiatives:
- Sponsor a project, either an IQP or MQP, which allows a small team of undergraduates to solve an important societal problem.
- Serve as an “ambassador” by sending talented high school students to admissions to view our innovative programs.
- Sponsor a scholarship to help defray costs for a global project participant.
- Endow a new scholarship aimed at a topic or discipline you are passionate about.
- Sponsor a summer research project to enable freshmen and sophomores to work in the labs with faculty—undergraduate research is a key component to engagement and retention in the STEM field.
These ideas are just a starting point as we move towards more and innovative ways of inspiring young minds in the STEM fields. Be creative—I am always interested in your ideas.