21st Century Stem Students

This focus on student learning is considered in the context of the growing public awareness that the quality and character of the undergraduate STEM learning environment has both an immediate and a long-term impact on the health of our society. Thus, the significance of the ...which students? question must be emphasized.

Particularly in STEM fields, today's academic leaders are increasingly making decisions, shaping and reshaping programs toward the end that all students who study at their institution– not just the self-identified ‘brightest and best' intent on pursuing graduate studies– leave equipped with the critical 21st century skills of scientific, quantitative and technological literacy. This broad literacy goal is matched by further goals that lead toward ensuring each student access to learning experiences that motivate him or her to consider pursuing a career that requires scientific or technological skills.

There are many challenges to meeting these goals. One is the growing diversity of students in the undergraduate community– in respect to ethnic background, educational preparation, career aspiration, and age. Setting, implementing and assessing goals relating to student learning thus becomes a more complex operation than in a time when students in science and mathematics classrooms were more homogeneous, with backgrounds and careers aspirations that more closely mirrored those of the faculty.

Advances in science and technology, particularly research in the field of cognitive science, have also served as a catalyst for taking a new look at the learning environment. It is now validated what heretofore had been mostly intuitive about how people learn. Research validates that people learn best by working in teams, when they have personal engagement with what is being learned, and when what they are learning is seen as relevant to the intellectual and physical worlds they experience beyond the classroom and lab.

What is happening as institutions take student learning seriously is that new questions come to the table, ranging from those about admissions, advising, and working with alumni; about how to select, invest in, recognize and reward faculty, about how to build and sustain a programmatic and physical infrastructure that serves goals for student learning.

There are common themes woven through reports from campuses where, in recent years, there has been a conscious effort to build and sustain strong undergraduate programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These themes reflect both the changing context and the persisting goals for higher education in the 21st century. Attention to identifying and addressing the right questions is another common theme found in meaningful contemporary efforts to enhance student learning in the undergraduate setting. This questioning becomes an integral step to articulating a vision and setting forth a feasible agenda for action.

This PKAL Guide: Leading toward.... What works; What matters; What lasts focuses on the work of institutions taking ‘students and student learning' as the point of departure for their wrestling with current challenges facing American higher education.