Education in the STEM Fields Needs Wave Makers

Much has already been written about the need for more talent in the workplace in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As noted in my previous blog on this topic, part of the reason why governments of countries all around the world have set high quotas for graduates in these fields is because the attrition rates are also quite high.

These alarming attrition rates start at Day ONE … actually, even before Day ONE.

Here’s what I mean: a multitude of factors keep students from ever electing to seek a higher education degree in these fields, despite the publicity for demand for these skills. Then for the few who DO take the big risk to major in these fields, they start dropping out of the fields almost immediately.

Here are some specifics examples:

  • When competition for scholarships (and other forms of recognition) is so fierce, why would I choose a field known to be particularly difficult and demanding, requiring extra time and effort from me, when I may not achieve the GPA I need to receive (or maintain) financial aid?
  • When the university experience is supposed to be as much about what you learn outside of the classroom, as it is about what you learn inside of the classroom, why would I select a field known for lack of affiliation and socialization?
  • If I am a person of any diverse characteristics (gender, ethnicity, LGBT, etc.), why would I knowingly enter a field where I am likely to be the only person (or one of very few persons) who looks (or act) like me? If I am a combination of multiple diverse characteristics, such as an African-American lesbian woman, then the chances become minute.

For those brave individuals who take the leap of faith and begin to pursue higher education in a STEM field, the most common feedback received from students about why they leave the field before receiving their degree include feedback including (paraphrased):

  • It’s boring and they don’t see the life application
  • They have difficulty understanding the instructor(s) / professor(s)
  • It’s too hard
  • It takes too long

All of the “problems” outlined above can be addressed. It takes individuals who are Wave Makers who will build a community of like-minded thinkers around them to disrupt the culture of academia. I realize this is no small under-taking!

Lecture should no longer be the primary method to convey information to university students in 2014 and beyond. In the 21st century, the vast majority of students are no longer 18-22 year old white males going to school full-time during the day before getting married, without any children. The educational system must adapt in these fields to account for the changing generations and their learning styles, as well as where students are in life.

For example, offer more two-year degree and/or certification programs. Classes online, classes involving experiential learning and – VERY importantly – providing the context for the business / cultural / societal problems to solve will motivate individuals to work past the barriers to entry in these admittedly challenging fields.

Classes no longer have to be offered solely during day time hours. Professors must be incented to learn to change too, instead of relying on the methods they were taught themselves in decades past.

Which multi-national corporations are going to start the waves of change by partnering with progressive university systems to begin experimenting with new models?

Betsy Winkler is Partner at People Results. She can be reached on Twitter @BetsyWinkler1 or on email at Sign up to receive her and her colleagues’ blog at Current.