White House and Universities Pledge Greater Effort to Retain Science Students

February 07, 2012

The Obama administration puts its stamp Tuesday on a strategy to boost the nation's numbers of science and engineering graduates by working harder to retain those already in the college pipeline.

Increasing the retention of students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to 50 percent, from current levels below 40 percent, would create three-fourths of the one million additional degrees in those disciplines, known as the STEM fields, that the administration sees as necessary over the next decade, a White House panel said in a report to President Obama.

"Retaining more STEM majors is the lowest-cost, fastest policy option to provide the STEM professionals that the nation needs for economic and societal well-being," the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said in the report.

The council's chief recommendations include giving students greater hands-on research experience at the undergraduate level, and creating new paths to a science degree through both two-year and four-year institutions.

Just ahead of the report's release, President Obama outlined a series of complementary steps, including a $100-million allocation from the National Science Foundation to improve science teaching on the undergraduate level, and commitments of $80-million in federal money and $22-million in private donations to train science teachers in elementary and secondary schools.

"Let's get more kids studying these subjects," the president said while hosting secondary-school students at a White House Science Fair.

After the science fair, administration officials pulled together a collection of higher-education leaders, including Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, to endorse their approach.

Mr. Rawlings said that over all, American universities have been part of the problem, by not putting enough emphasis on hiring and keeping faculty with teaching skills, and by too often discouraging rather than encouraging their science and engineering students.

"This is an issue that we can no longer blame on K-12," Mr. Rawlings told a panel session at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Universities and their representatives have made similar concessions in the past about their struggles with the quality of teaching and student retention. A common lament centers on the systems of tenure and federal grants, which encourage faculty to concentrate on research more than teaching.

Much of that was heard again on Tuesday, accompanied by renewed pledges to attack it. Mr. Rawlings promised a five-year campaign to improve science teaching at his organization's 61 member institutions, saying he wanted "implementation, not just talking about the problem." Yet, he hastened to add, "I won't stand up here and pretend that this is simple or that we're assured of success."

Part of the problem is figuring out how to even define good teaching, said S. James Gates Jr., a professor of physics at the University of Maryland at College Park and a member of the presidential advisory council. "We've thought about that," he said. "Unless we get the metrics involved, a lot of this will be spinning our wheels."

Still, the high-level commitment is an important step, said Mary Ann Rankin, a former dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin who is now serving as chief executive officer of the National Math and Science Initiative, a privately financed effort to improve student performance at the K-12 level.

"Faculty at a university are not taught how to teach," Ms. Rankin told the panel. "They're not even taught how students learn." The presidential advisory panel set out a "very badly needed" course of action, she said. "It almost made me cry when I read it."