The path to a STEM career is not the same for every student. While some excel in their coursework, others change majors during their college careers because they are not prepared to work in their chosen field. To help alleviate this problem and increase retention of computer science and engineering undergraduates in the U.S., the National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with Intel and GE, has awarded nine institutions with grants that will be used to enhance and support student preparation through graduation.
In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that highlighted how fewer than 40 percent of students who go into STEM majors actually complete STEM degrees. Boosting the STEM workforce will require approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the current rate at which the country is producing graduates, over the next 10 years. “Merely increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40 percent to 50 percent would generate three-quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees over the next decade,” the report emphasized.
Yet STEM majors are falling behind in graduation rates, attributing to the skilled workforce shortage. A recent Manpower survey found that engineers are among the top 10 most difficult jobs to fill in the U.S., despite other reports that reveal that college graduates with engineering degrees rank at the top of the pay scales, with those over 25-years-old earning a median annual income of $91,611, followed by computer science professionals at $80,180 a year.
One of the most effective ways to graduate more STEM students is through retention, and one major partnership between the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and the NSF, called Graduate 10K+, will help increase the number of graduates in engineering and computer science by 10,000 a year. In May, $10 million in donations were awarded to nine institutions whose projects aim to add such STEM graduates to the workforce. The grant funding is from donations from Intel, GE, and a personal donation from Mark Gallogy, of the investment firm Centerbridge Partners.
According to the NSF, each institution’s project was selected during a peer-review merit process that included a panel of experts, including scientists, engineers, and educators who are not affiliated with the NSF and the institutions under review. A call to action letter was sent to all engineering schools throughout the country, and 57 proposals were ultimately submitted for review.
Each of the nine projects that was selected has successfully “identified factors that can derail would-be engineers and computer scientists in their first or second year of undergraduate study and taken a targeted approach to addressing these factors,” NSF explains.
One project that’s gaining attention is called the Washington State Academic RedShirt in Engineering Program (STARS). It recruits Pell Grant-eligible students from high-needs high schools into five-year engineering programs intended to help students brush up on core skills during their first year before they embark on more challenging coursework. The program is a collaboration between the University of Washington and Washington State University, which applies the “redshirt” strategy used in sports, where players are delayed from participation (by sitting on the sidelines) and undergo extra development before they go onto the field.
“We’re talking about investing in an extra year in what will hopefully be a 30-year engineering career,” said Eve Riskin, University of Washington’s associate dean of engineering and program leader, in a statement.
The academic redshirt tactic is derived from the University of Colorado at Boulder’s GoldShirt Program, launched in 2009, which enhances student preparation with a five-year curriculum.
Other Graduate 10K+ projects include Cornell University’s Engineering Success (CUES) Program, which provides students with a spatial reasoning course, an engineering math institute with tuition support for summer courses, collaborative learning and research, and enhanced tutoring. The University of Texas at Austin aims to lower failures in calculus — a main factor in dropout rates — through the “development and implementation of engineering experiences that target key mathematical concepts with which students typically struggle.”
(Following is the list of Graduate 10K+ projects and descriptions, from the NSF):
California State University Monterey Bay, (with partner institution Hartnell College) Academic Integrity Management (AIM)
Cornell University: Engineering Success (CUES) Program
Merrimack College: Foundations for STEM Success
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Student Teams Engaging Peers for Undergraduate Progress (STEP-UP)
Syracuse University: Enhancing the Climate for Persistence and Success in Engineering (ECliPSE)
University of Texas at Austin: Improving Retention in Engineering by Incorporating Applications Into Freshman Calculus
University of Texas-Pan American: An Ecosystem for Success in Engineering and Computer Science in Rio South Texas