STEM education has a retention problem, not a student problem

A common concern among employers and universities at the moment is the huge lack of STEM graduates. The current number of graduates just aren’t meeting the demand.

In 2012, Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology stated that 1 million additional STEM graduates were needed by 2022 to fill the gap. The Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK said they’d need to graduate 100,000 STEM grads a year until 2020 to keep up with the demand from employers.

It seems that the best way to solve this problem would be to attract more students to the STEM fields.

However, the real problem isn’t attracting students. It’s retaining them. Like software companies dealing with a high churn rate of new customers, universities are struggling to keep the incoming freshman in the STEM majors they initially declare. In the 2012 report, the Council also wrote, “Fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.

Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who has studied the matter, told the New York Times, “We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college, it’s not just a K-12 preparation issue.

The path to more student retention is better engagement

David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports that STEM curriculum at universities are “Dry and hard to get through, so if you can create an oasis in there, it would be a good thing.”

That oasis could be found in more engaging and relevant education tools. Today 90 percent of students own a laptop, 86 percent of students own a smartphone, and 47 percent of students own a tablet.

Students that grew up in a digital world need to be educated in a way that they can better interact with, compared to the classic textbook and lecture method of the past. For example, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the United States’ oldest tech schools, created a modern curriculum in the 1970’s that now includes research, design and social-service projects to better engage their students. As a result, their STEM retention numbers are some of the best in the nation, with 74 percent of their undergrads graduating in four years and 80 percent in six years.

This is corroborated by a scientific study published in Nature Biotechnology, which compared gamified laboratory simulations with traditional teaching methods. Researchers in collaboration with Labster, showed “a 76 percent increase in learning outcomes by using a gamified laboratory simulation compared to traditional teaching, and a 101 percent increase when used in combination.”

Its clear that the path to better retention is through the implementation of technology and modern teaching methods. In collaboration with leading institutions such as MIT, Harvard and Imperial College, Labster has received a number of grants to co-finance development and implementation of Ivy league quality virtual labs to all schools, including colleges with underprivileged students. If you’re interested in joining the collaboration, reach out to us.

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