With an eye on future workforce needs and the massive Baby Boomer retirement wave that’s already in full swing, the nation needs students to not only be interested in STEM, but also to follow through on their dreams of becoming the next scientist, doctor, or engineer. According to Glassdoor’s recent list of 25 Highest Paying Jobs In Demand, for example, at least 15 of the 25 jobs that pay the most and are in high demand by employers nationwide require STEM skills. Physicians, pharmacy managers, and software architects sit at the top of that list and demand annual salaries ranging from $130,000 to $212,000.
So while the path to potential success in the STEM fields is clear, the question becomes, how can institutions of higher ed not only attract more students to these fields – many of which are associated with difficult and complex classes – but also keep them engaged for 4+ years?
1.Inspire, Don’t Weed Out
LaCourse says at least some of it comes down to teaching students in a more inspiring manner. “Instead of acting as ‘weeders,’ and looking at the [exit] of some students from STEM as a mark of success,” LaCourse states, “we have to help all of the pupils coming through our programs to be as successful as possible.”
2.Make It a Campus-Wide Effort
A good first step in that direction, LaCourse continues, is to make STEM student retention a campus-wide effort that starts at the registration and orientation level and extends right through to graduation. “Depending on the size of the school, some students turn into numbers, with no one really knowing if that pupil has run into trouble or challenges with his or her coursework,” says LaCourse. “What colleges don’t always see is the investment that’s required on both sides of the equation, and how to effectively take care of their side of that equation.”
To do its part in bridging “both sides” of the STEM equation, UMBC recently launched a holistic students support initiative that’s being funded through an $18 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. The funds are being used to create “a national model of comprehensive support to expand and increase the success of students seeking degrees in STEM,” says LaCourse. Known as STEM BUILD@UMBC, the initiative incorporates a number of different efforts, including the use of professional advisors that focus closely on student achievement, progress, and (when needed) intervention; building community to better support students in their educational endeavors; and collaborating with five community colleges, Gallaudet University, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
3.Create a Blameless Environment
As part of its effort to keep STEM students engaged, UMBC is also “pushing innovation” at the professor level, says LaCourse, and in a largely “blameless” manner. “If someone helps students achieve success, great. But if it didn’t work, then that’s fine too,” he explains. “The important point is that the professor tried something out and we’re here to support that and honor him or her for it, whether it worked or not. We see this is a great way to push innovation through the educational system.”