Can changing instruction help solve the STEM shortage?

Happy 2015! Due to some scheduling changes, our post on the edu-trends to watch out for in the coming year has been postponed a week. In the meantime, however, I wanted to highlight an interesting article that I came across in the NY Times on teaching trends in higher education science courses.

As we’ve written about on the blog before, there is a looming STEM shortage in this country: more jobs requiring STEM skills and knowledge, and not enough highly skilled STEM graduates in the pipeline. There are many factors playing into this shortage, but one issue is that many of the students who start college on a path to a STEM major don’t stay the course. According to the NY Times article, 28 percent of students at four-year colleges start out in a science, engineering or math major, but only 16 percent of bachelor’s degrees are granted in those areas.

The article highlights colleges and universities that are trying to do something about that attrition rate by changing the way introductory science classes are taught, shifting from a traditional “chalk and talk” approach to a style that emphasizes student engagement and small groups. While it sounds like it is still early days for this new style, there is some evidence that it could have a positive effect on student learning: the University of Colorado reported in 2008 that, among students in an introductory physics course, those that participated in the “transformed” classes improved their scores by 50 percent more than those in traditional classes, according to the NY Times article.

A change in teaching style at the post-secondary level isn’t likely to solve the STEM shortage all by itself, but it’s certainly an interesting approach to ponder.