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Modeling STEM Success

Systems Model Offers New Solutions in the STEM Education and Workforce Quandary

SOURCE: Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory A teacher and students examine a test tube at a science education event hosted by Argonne National Laboratory. The United States' competitiveness in science, technology, engineering, and math education is slipping, and new policies are needed to ensure our education system continues to train the best and brightest in these fields.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are vital to creating new industries and jobs that drive the innovation economy and spur economic growth. Yet, despite the growing demand for jobs in these fields, far too few students earn degrees in STEM disciplines today. [1]

In 2007, some 230,000 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in these fields to U.S. students, or fewer than 16 percent of all degrees awarded at this level. However, this share actually decreased during the past five years.[2] Compared to the rest of the world, the United States has a significantly lower rate of degrees awarded in these critical subjects, ranking 27th among 29 developed countries.[3] By contrast, China awarded nearly half of its first university degrees in these fields (47 percent), while South Korea awarded 38 percent and Germany awarded 28 percent.[4]

These trends are of great concern in both the private and public sectors. In today’s information and knowledge-based economy, business and industry know firsthand that STEM expertise is a leading predicate of the nation’s capacity to stay competitive. They also know that we are in a race to produce enough highly skilled workers to replace the large cadre of STEM-trained baby boomers who are rapidly approaching retirement.

That’s why business leaders recently have joined with President Barack Obama, Congress, university leaders, and other experts to focus significant attention on strengthening STEM education. Nevertheless, while a large range of solutions have been proffered, few have been shown to be able to move the needle on dramatically increasing the numbers of students who are prepared for and interested in careers in these fields.

The Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), whose members include Fortune 500 CEOs, university presidents, and foundation leaders, has been addressing this challenge by developing innovative ways to increase the flow of students into the STEM disciplines and careers. Through its Securing America’s Leadership in STEM Initiative, for example, BHEF is pursuing a goal of doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees earned in STEM fields in the United States.

Powerful innovation

This robust tool offers STEM education policymakers a glimpse into the future by modeling the likely outcomes of their policy decisions.

As part of that work, BHEF has introduced a powerful new tool, the BHEF U.S. STEM Education Model, which is the first simulation model to apply the principles of system dynamics to examine the U.S. education system. This robust tool offers STEM education policymakers a glimpse into the future by modeling the likely outcomes of their policy decisions.

Developed by Raytheon Company and donated to BHEF, the model uses census data and standardized test scores to track the flow of students through the P-16 education system and into careers in STEM teaching or STEM-dependent industries. The model strives to capture the many factors that affect the number of students who ultimately pursue STEM careers through a series of dynamic hypotheses and feedback loops. The model was developed specifically to help policymakers and educators identify the key challenges and develop systemic solutions to the STEM workforce shortages that our country faces.

The tool already has provided a number of instructive insights about the greatest leverage points for increasing the numbers of students who develop proficiency in STEM fields and who may pursue STEM careers. Here is a sample:

  1. Improving STEM undergraduate education. The model highlights the importance of strengthening STEM undergraduate education as the highest leverage strategy to meet employers’ immediate STEM workforce needs. For example, the model shows that scaling up cohort programs, which build strong social networks among students by grouping them through courses and other activities, could result in a significant and rapid increase in the number of STEM college graduates.
  2. Reducing attrition rates of quality STEM teachers. The model also shows that increasing the number of teachers who are “highly capable” can result in increased numbers of high-school students prepared to go into STEM fields, and consequently, become STEM college graduates. However, this longer-term strategy requires more time to take effect.
  3. Combining these two strategies would improve STEM outcomes more rapidly. The model shows that simultaneously combining the first two approaches above would result in greater numbers of college graduates in STEM fields than when either strategy is pursued alone. This is due to the additive effects of the increased number of P-12 students who are proficient in STEM fields when entering college and, hence, more likely to ultimately succeed in STEM majors.
  4. Tapping the latent potential of students who are proficient but not interested in STEM. Data from ACT indicate that fewer than one in five high-school students are both interested and proficient in STEM subjects. The BHEF model suggests that focusing on the pool of students who demonstrate high proficiency in math but low interest in STEM fields (about one in four) provides fertile opportunity to enlarge the pool of students who may choose and succeed in STEM majors. It also points to the importance of targeting outreach about STEM careers in the early grades, when student interests and career aspirations take shape.

Fundamentally, the model underscores the need for comprehensive, national STEM education policy that targets critical leakage points in the STEM education pipeline. The findings also highlight the importance of strengthening STEM education at the collegiate undergraduate level—a critical step if we are to meet employers’ needs for STEM workforce expertise in the near term and into the future. Knowing that it may take years to realize a return on the critically important work of bolstering STEM interest and proficiency among middle- and high-school students, bold new interventions are needed to strengthen undergraduate STEM education today.

Implications for policy

Findings from the model have immediate implications for educators, policymakers, and funders. They provide important lessons that offer guidance for policy development at the state and national level, and could inform the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and ongoing discussions of the America COMPETES Act, both of which remain stuck in congressional gridlock.

Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN), the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, has seen the model and noted:  “We all know that we need to drastically improve the state of STEM education in the United States. The [BHEF] U.S. STEM Education Model could be a very important tool in helping to identify those leverage points where we should focus our efforts in order to make the greatest impact.”

BHEF has demonstrated the model to hundreds of policymakers, education leaders, business leaders, and government officials whom are eager for new, more powerful tools to aid in their decision-making. Staff at the U.S. Department of Education are using the model to inform STEM-related policy development. The Office of Naval Research and other government agencies also have expressed interest in using the model to inform their STEM education policy strategies, as has the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Going forward

After testing the model with a broad range of stakeholders, BHEF plans to extend its approach to examine other contexts, policies, and strategies. For example, The Ohio State University, led by the Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy, worked with policymakers, educators, and workforce experts in Ohio to adapt the model to examine unique conditions in that state.

Based on discussions with state policymakers, BHEF and its partners, including Raytheon, are launching a State STEM Education Modeling Project that will adapt the existing national model for use by states. BHEF and Raytheon recently met with officials from Arizona, who are considering using the model to inform their development of a statewide STEM education initiative.

BHEF also is in discussions with a number of its members about applying the modeling approach to examine issues related to specific STEM industry and workforce demands, including the central role of community colleges.

In the BHEF U.S. STEM Education Model, we have a unique and powerful tool that is helping to expand our knowledge base about what strategies are most effective in increasing student interest and achievement in STEM education. The insights we are gaining may well help diverse stakeholders—including policymakers, funders, and educators—find new ways meet this nation’s needs for a competitive workforce that is fully invested with STEM expertise.

Brian K. Fitzgerald is executive director of the Business-Higher Education Forum, an organization of Fortune 500 CEOs, prominent college and university presidents, and foundation leaders who work to advance innovative solutions to our nation’s education challenges. Learn more at www.bhef.com.

The BHEF U.S. STEM Education Model is free and available in open source for use by the public through www.stemnetwork.org. A report on the Model, “Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates: Insights from the U.S. STEM Education & Modeling Project,” is available for free download at www.bhef.com/publications.

[1] A. Carnevale et al, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018” (Washington: Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, 2010).
[2] National Science Foundation, “National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators 2010” (2010), appendix table 2-13.
[3] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Education at a Glance 2009: OECD Indicators” (2009).
[4] National Science Foundation, “National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators 2010” (2010), appendix table 2-35.

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