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Transforming STEM-H Education

Article by Sathya Achia Abraham, Virginia Commonwealth University – Science, technology, engineering, math and health (STEM-H) are a daily part of life – the technology that is integral to most workplaces, the medication that treats illnesses, the roadways and buildings that provide routes to travel and shelters for housing.

STEM-H is crucial, driving innovation and discovery, strengthening the national economy and creating jobs. And STEM-H fields will play a central role in addressing the planet’s largest current and future challenges – from global warming and access to clean water to improving health and access to health care. However, when it comes to STEM-H, the United States is at risk of losing its competitive edge.

According to the National Math and Science Initiative, 22 industrialized nations’ high school students performed better than U.S. students in science in 2012, and 29 nations’ high school students performed better than U.S. students in math in 2012.  Higher education is suffering as well, with less than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field ultimately completing a STEM degree.

In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology – an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers – set forth a goal, based on economic forecasts, to produce one million additional graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The strategy focuses on improving STEM education during the first two years of college. Now, the nation’s educators, scientists, engineers and politicians are on a mission to transform STEM-H education – from the ground up. Experts are focused on providing more hands-on research experiences and nurturing more creative and non-linear thinking from elementary school to college, thereby reducing  the practices of lecturing and memorizing of facts.

Virginia Commonwealth University is among the schools and colleges making a concerted effort to raise the STEM-H profile. At VCU, faculty have created educational programs to engage students early in their educations. VCU has created programs to improve student retention and graduation in STEM and to prepare students for graduate school. Other programs focus on teacher training and basic research.

Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves, Ph.D.

On April 18, VCU faculty, students and the general public are coming together for the university’s inaugural STEM-H Summit to be held during the annual VCU Student Research Weeks, which run from April 10 to April 25. The event will be held from noon to 3 p.m. in Engineering East Hall Atrium and room 1232, 401 W. Main St.

The program will highlight the variety of programs at VCU geared to supporting STEM-H initiatives and research.

“One of the challenges VCU has in terms of STEM-H education is that there are so many people doing so many different things … Our goal is to come together to offer a comprehensive set of programs which focus on all types of areas,” said event organizer Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves, Ph.D., associate professor of teaching and learning in the VCU School of Education, and of electrical and computer engineering in the VCU School of Engineering.

“Through STEM, we are tackling grand challenges, innovating, increasing U.S. competitiveness, increasing the economic capacity of our country and giving our children the opportunity to earn a better living,” Hargraves said. “The average salaries of individuals in STEM-H industries are substantially higher than those in other industries,” she said.

According to Hargraves, 25 percent of undergraduate students at VCU have declared a STEM major. She added that 19 percent of VCU degrees in the 2012-2013 academic year were granted to STEM majors. “We’re losing about 5 percent [of students to other degrees],” Hargraves said. “We really need to think about what it takes to keep students in these programs and successfully complete them. Part of that is offering the right opportunities.”

Retaining STEM students
Hargraves, who is among a number of researchers across the country examining why student retention in STEM degrees has been difficult, said there are a number of factors to consider involving a student’s academic performance and climate. Some students do poorly in classes, so they leave, while others learn that it doesn’t fit their true talents and strengths. Other students decide STEM jobs are not ones they want to pursue.

“Some students might feel isolated in the department, which can be a huge thing for underrepresented minority groups,” Hargraves said. “They may feel unwelcome in their classes or that the professors are not interested in their success.”

In recent years, educators have been developing research programs similar to the University Research Opportunities Program at VCU, which is focused on hands-on research experience, to help engage students and keep them interested in pursuing a STEM major. “Those types of programs have shown to be a strong influencer in keeping students engaged/interested in STEM majors,” Hargraves said.

Hargraves said that when undergraduates are able to engage in research in a lab in their discipline it’s a motivating factor for them to stay in the field. The same applies if students can snag a work experience, or summer internship in the field – it keeps them motivated and excited about their major. “They know that if they do well in their internship, they may be able to continue working at that company and have a job once they graduate,” Hargraves said.

Hargraves’s advice to students: “Find a mentor and just go for it. Look for scholarship opportunities. Your deans’ offices will have faculty and staff who know a lot – resources are there.”

The VCU STEM-H Summit will include a lunch event with guest speaker David Pugalee, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a poster session and oral presentations highlighting research and programs in STEM-H education, and a closing lecture from Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D., a science evangelist who has a passion for inspiring the next generation of STEM learners.

For more information about the VCU STEM-H Summit, contact Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves at [email protected], or visit: wp.vcu.edu/stemh.

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Article by: Sathya Achia Abraham, Virginia Commonwealth University