First Look - Spring 2014
“The United States has become a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of scientists, engineers and innovators. However, that position is threatened as comparatively few American students pursue expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and by an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects.” – ed.gov/stem
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is making national headlines and is a hot topic for educators from the elementary to the college level. The ever-increasing need for students and educators in STEM-related fields poses ongoing challenges for educators and American industry leaders as they seek to prepare the next generation for a future job market rooted in STEM-related professions.
Why does STEM matter? To summarize: It translates into economic growth, thousands of well-paying job opportunities and national security. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a report issued in 2012 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology concluded that if the United States is to maintain its historic pre-eminence in the STEM fields, then the country must produce approximately one million more workers in those fields over the next decade than the U.S. is currently on track to turn out.
President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal includes a number of investments designed to improve teaching and learning in STEM subjects for teachers and students in the nation’s schools, according to ed.gov. Included in this proposal is $110 million worth of grants to be awarded to school districts in partnerships with colleges to transform STEM teaching by adopting new practices in preschool through 12th grade (P-12) education to increase the number of students who seek out postsecondary education and careers in STEM fields.
STEM and the Liberal Arts
“Mount Union students studying in STEM-related disciplines benefit from our liberal arts tradition. They engage in a rich integrative education to prepare them to become successful scientists, engineers, mathematicians and world citizens,” said Dr. Patricia Draves, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the University. “Students gain excellent communication and critical thinking skills and view these as an integral part of their educational experience. In their first year of graduate school, when completing projects such as detailed lab reports, defenses or oral reports, students with a liberal arts background already have experience with those tasks while students from larger institutions will be doing those projects for the first time.”
A recent report released by the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) demonstrates that many small and mid-sized independent colleges are preparing postsecondary students for a career and/or graduate study in STEM fields in a more efficient way than larger institutions.
Findings of the report, “Strengthening the STEM Pipeline: The Contributions of Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges,” suggest that small and mid-sized private institutions perform better than public institutions in students’ persistence and undergraduate degree completion rates in STEM fields and substantially outperform public nondoctoral institutions. In addition, an overwhelming proportion (80%) of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM fields earned degrees in four years or less, compared with 34% at public four-year nondoctoral institutions and 52% at four-year doctoral institutions. What’s more, STEM graduates of small and mid-sized private colleges are more likely to plan to attend graduate school and just as likely to enroll immediately in a graduate program as peers who graduated from larger public universities.
“We’re finding that graduates from our program are valued for both their technical expertise and their ability to communicate and work with other people,” said Dr. Ken Weber, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. “There’s a big need for technical people to be able to relate to other people in the workforce at a non-technical level.”
“The skills that a liberal arts education provides students make them well-rounded and desirable candidates in this competitive job market,” said Dr. Kim Risley, associate professor and chair of the Department of Biology. “At Mount Union, we provide the framework for students to succeed not only in their STEM disciplines but in the liberal arts as well. For biology, the study of life goes beyond the science of life to how that life will be lived within a changing, global community. Because STEM fields are interdisciplinary, the liberal arts help students deal with complexity in unique ways.”
Dr. Osama Jadaan, professor and chair of the Department of Engineering at Mount Union, said Mount Union’s strong liberal arts background was one of the main reasons he desired to join the Mount Union faculty. For example, according to Jadaan, engineering and the fine arts go hand in hand. To illustrate this point, Jadaan shared about a recent show he attended while on a cruise. The show incorporated colorful laser lighting and a large computer screen streaming videos – all the work of engineering.
“At the same time, I wasn’t paying attention to the engineering part – I was taken by the art – the singers and dancers,” he said. “This is a perfect example of where engineering and theatre come together. In industry, art and engineering go together. If your competitor makes it in a more artistic way than you do, you’re going to go out of business.”
According to Jadaan, the liberal arts background is what sets Mount Union’s engineering graduates apart from graduates of larger institutions.
“I’ve been in engineering for 24 years and have worked in engineering and in research labs,” he explained. “Two main things I heard from industry leaders are that they want engineers who are more hands-on, and they want engineers who can communicate.”
Mount Union’s Integrative Core curriculum prepares students of all majors to be successful writers and speakers.
“Communication skills make a huge difference when it comes to where a student will end up in his or her career,” said Draves. “We’re able to utilize Mount Union’s liberal arts core curriculum to make our graduates in all disciplines better communicators.”
“A liberal arts foundation gives our students a broader context from which to work so they have to think about the implications of what they develop or what happens after a problem is solved,” said Dr. Jeff Draves, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
STEM at a Young Age
Dr. Dhanunjay Boyalakuntla, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, demonstrates
how a wind tunnel works during a recent STEM middle school visit to Mount Union.
Mount Union faculty members are working to help educate students in the P-12 sector on the opportunities available in STEM-related fields. The University recently hosted 33 students and two teachers from Alliance Middle School for a day of STEM-related activities.
According to event coordinator Dr. Anne Triplett, professor of mathematics, the purpose of the visit was to pique students’ interest in math and science-related fields.
“Kids seem to like math and science at an earlier age, but something happens in middle school, and they don’t seem to like it so much later on,” Triplett said. “That’s why we bring them here.”
Triplett said younger students often can’t see the big picture of what can be done using science and math. While on campus, students participated in a project with the Department of Engineering, learned about computer programming from the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems and completed activities with the Department of Mathematics.
“We try to show them how you can use math in a cool way and have some cool applications,” Triplett said. “It’s not just learning your times tables like they do in school. Kids have to see that math and science abilities will get them somewhere.”
Jadaan agrees. The Department of Engineering has planned a number of events to bring younger students to campus to experience engineering and other STEM-related fields.
“Some of those kids may not understand or have opportunities to experience the things they are able to by visiting Mount Union,” Jadaan said.
In addition, Mount Union, in partnership with computer security company SecureState, recently held an information security challenge event for high school students as a way to promote information security and computer science as a career.
“It’s important to give younger students a positive experience so they have an opportunity to explore worlds they might be interested in but haven’t yet encountered,” Weber said.
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is also actively involved in educating P-12 students. The department holds an annual summer science camp for area youngsters, works with students conducting science fair experiments and visits area schools to present chemistry demonstrations.
“What we’re trying to do is show younger students how exciting science can be,” Jeff Draves said.
Women and Minorities in STEM
Leaders in STEM-related fields are increasingly looking to hire more women and minorities, but this often proves to be a challenge due to a smaller percentage of these groups pursuing education and careers in those areas.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, minorities and women constitute 70% of U.S. college students but earn only 45% of STEM degrees. Jadaan noted that fewer than one in five engineers are women – and this is a huge problem for the profession.
“The challenge for engineering is that it doesn’t have enough diversity,” Jadaan said. “If you don’t have diversity of ideas, you are missing something. If you don’t have women sitting at the table being involved in the design of a product, you’re going to miss half the market.”
While Jeff Draves said the chemistry profession is becoming more balanced between males and females, the need for minority representation remains a real concern.
“We need a wider range of backgrounds to attempt to tackle problems and figure out what the problems are to begin with,” he said.
According to Risley, the current representation of women and minorities in STEM fields does not mirror the representation of these groups in the overall population.
“This creates advancement opportunities in STEM fields for women and minorities,” she said.
The Integrative Core and STEM Students
Mount Union Founder Orville Nelson Hartshorn’s educational vision embraced “education for the masses, coeducation, economy of education and illustrative and integral instruction.”
This vision continues today at Mount Union, with the University’s Integrative Core curriculum serving as a foundation that gives students a well-rounded experience. The Integrative Core comprises eight courses including a First Year Seminar taken in the first semester; Foundations courses from each of the four Foundations areas (humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and arts) taken by the end of sophomore year; two Themes courses taken during the junior year; and a Capstone course taken during the senior year.
“The curriculum is a 21st century vision of the liberal arts,” said Dr. Michelle Collins-Sibley, director of the Integrative Core, professor and chair of the Department of English and chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary and Liberal Studies. “It’s a much more deliberate and intentional way of representing the liberal arts to students in ways that streamlines the number of courses they have to take while also helping them see the interconnectedness of the liberal arts.”
The Integrative Core framework works well for students in STEM fields, according to Collins-Sibley. Due to the heavy load of coursework students in STEM majors are required to complete, it can be challenging for those students to get the full liberal arts experience in four years. The Integrative Core allows students in STEM majors to learn that each liberal arts foundation area comes with its own disciplinary lens and methodology.
“It gives them an opportunity to practice science in the context of the various communities within which they will live and work after graduation,” she said.