Can technology fix the challenges facing STEM programs?

Many universities are very aware of the challenges their STEM programs face today.

Not only are they concerned with attracting students to their STEM programs — they’re worried about the retention problem plaguing universities everywhere. And that problem creates a related one: a lack of STEM graduates to fill open positions.

The STEM trap

The numbers are actually quite daunting: 48 percent of bachelor’s degree students enter STEM fields only to switch majors or leave the university entirely. Recent reports suggest that the number is even higher, closer to 60 percent. While some students choose to leave STEM because the coursework is too difficult, many studies have found that most leave simply because the courses are boring or uninspiring.  And it’s hard to blame them when most introductory STEM courses are held in large lecture halls with little to no hands-on experience.

According to a recent study from University of Washington researchers, university students in traditional lecture classes are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students that are taught with active learning methods. Scott Freeman, a biologist at the University of Washington and an author of the study, stated as a reaction to these results that “the change in the failure rates is whopping.”

There’s a better way

Some universities have already begun to experiment with new STEM programs that move away from the typical lecture style classes.The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley launched a prototype program last fall that offers a B.S. in Biomedical Sciences in a non-traditional way.

The program was designed to offer a clear pathway to a career, not just a set number of hours to graduate. A curriculum was developed to ensure the learning process happened sequentially, each course building on each other. The real unique factor of this program is that it wasn’t just the STEM elements that were redesigned — even the humanities courses were updated to focus on what students would actually need to know and use once they graduate.

A digital learning experience

One of the keys to this program is technology. The program was designed to be a digital learning experience. One that ensured that all students had access to all aspects of the curriculum, including advanced simulations. But UT Rio Grande Valley isn’t the only university relying on new education methods to retain STEM students. Many universities, including major names like MIT and Harvard, have begun to implement gamification elements to their courses, offering students the ability to learn outside of textbooks and lectures. James Paul Gee, a gamification expert, offered this perspective: “If we do not deliver the game, but only the text, we do not get problem solvers and system thinkers, we get, at best, paper-and-pencil test passers.”

How gamification can contribute to learning outcomes

In addition to just improving education, adding games and simulations have been shown to help turn students into professionals. Faculty from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Memphis have begun exploring how students can experience what it is actually like to work as an engineer by using gamification. The program they have designed gives students the ability to obtain practical hands-on experience early in their education by using technology to fill in the technical skills the students may not have yet. Students are able to see what they could actually do after graduation, offering them much more incentive to focus on their studies and stay in the STEM field.

If the United States is going to educate the amount of STEM graduates needed over the next five to ten years, universities need to test and implement new methods for retaining the students they have. It will take time and research to identify the best approaches and fully implement new approaches, but there is a significant amount of research already concluding that new gamification technology and simulations can significantly contribute to learning outcomes and the engagement necessary for increased retention.

At Labster we are working in collaboration with leading researchers from MIT, Exeter and Imperial College to develop laboratory simulations that are designed to be effective for learning STEM. You can check out our virtual labs here.


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