Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Strengthening undergraduate STEM programs

The undergraduate educational experience is the critical link in achieving our national objectives. The reason is simple. Undergraduate institutions produce those who go on to teach in America's K-12 schools. They are the source of future Ph.D.'s; they produce the political leaders, the local school board members, the Federal, state, and local officials who will make policy decisions relating to scientific and technological issues that have an impact on how we all live, work, and interact.

Excerpted from a paper presented at a 1994 PKAL Symposium on Administrative Leadership (in undergraduate STEM), by Stephen R. Lewis, Jr. (then President of Carleton College)

Arguments for consideration

  • We have a serious national need to improve the scientific literacy of our work force and citizenry, and the capacity of our scientific and technological manpower base.
  • Science and mathematics education at the undergraduate level is the critical point at which to attack this national problem.
  • We know what works in producing effective STEM education at the undergraduate level.
  • Effective undergraduate STEM education may be no more costly per degree produced than traditional approaches that result in higher attrition.
  • Making an adequate investment to ensure strong undergraduate STEM education for all students would be a cost-effective way for the public and private sector to join in a new partnership with the nation's colleges and universities to meet contemporary societal needs in areas of science, technology, and education.

Analysis of national objectives

Three national objectives seem to have wide acceptance, that:

  • Americans have the scientific, technological and quantitative literacy required to exercise responsible citizenship in a 21st century democracy
  • a steady stream of graduates from our nation's colleges and universities is motivated to pursue careers in a STEM field and well-prepared to do so, as Ph.D. candidates, K-12 science/math teachers, participants in the 21st century workplace)
  • the increasing diversity of our country is reflected in the diversity of communities in which science (STEM) is learned and science is practiced.

The critical link

The undergraduate educational experience is the critical link in achieving our national objectives. The reason is simple. Undergraduate institutions produce those who go on to teach in America's K-12 schools. They are the source of future Ph.D.'s; they produce the political leaders, the local school board members, the Federal, state, and local officials who will make policy decisions relating to scientific and technological issues that have an impact on how we all live, work, and interact.

For example, to the extent we are concerned with the full participation of U.S. citizens in S&T-based activities, the focus on undergraduates is critical to ensure that all students have the kind of baccalaureate level exposure to effective STEM education that motivates them to pursue careers in these fields.

Thus, we can call undergraduate STEM programs– whether in two- or four-year colleges, comprehensive or research-intensive universities– part of the "intellectual machine tool" or "human capital/goods-producing" sectors of the American economy. The quality of education in K-12 math and science, the size and quality of the nation's scientific research and development establishment are a function of– that is to say they depend upon– the effectiveness of undergraduate STEM education.

From a national perspective, therefore, the effective functioning of STEM programs at the undergraduate level is of fundamental importance. This is simple, straightforward production economics.

Some further economics

All institutions of higher education, even the most heavily endowed, are under extreme and growing financial pressure and are dealing with issues of finding the most cost-effective means of providing a quality program. While a quarter-century ago relatively few campuses were engaged in long-range planning and budgeting; it is now the norm for successful institutions.

In doing so, we weigh competing claims of different academic disciplines, of the support services needed directly by academic program and those that serve other student needs, and of the needs of general overhead services. We look for educational payoff in making budget choices, project future costs and revenues based on many alternative economic scenarios.

Since a research-rich, discovery-based, lean and lively curriculum developed in a community of learners is what works at the undergraduate level, the questions for those setting policies and budgets for the future- both at the institutional and the national level- are: what's the cost? and is it cost-effective?

For example, institutions and funding agencies alike might ask those questions relative to investing in strengthening introductory courses. There is growing evidence from many campuses that changed approaches in lower level courses- even with consequent added costs- lead to increased retention and low marginal costs of additional students at the advanced levels.

To illustrate this point:

Traditional undergraduate science and math programs treat first-year courses as weeding-out courses. This often means low class sizes at upper levels, resulting in consequent high cost from low student/faculty ratios. If the productivity of faculty, space, and instrumentation is to be raised, one way to do it is to reduce the attrition rate from lower-level to upper-level courses (one of the goals of reform efforts on many campuses today). When the introductory courses are shaped toward the aim of attracting majors- or at the very least to encourage students to persist rather than to weed them out- the result is well-filled upper level courses and increased numbers of STEM majors. Per graduate, the costs are modest, because the "conversion" rate from lower to intermediate to advanced courses is so high.

Such broader considerations about the economics of reform must be taken into account by all stakeholders in a strong undergraduate STEM community.

At the institutional level, this means that the scope of the discussion has to be expanded. Faculty, administrators, trustees must find new ways of talking with one another and of redefining problems and opportunities so that high-quality results can come with lower-cost methods.

This means:

  • a more iterative process engaging faculty and budget administrators
  • more variables to be considered simultaneously by individual faculty, by departments, and by divisions
  • more collective concern with the real objective of the budgeting process: promoting strong learning by students.

For starters, most traditional budgeting systems provide neither the accounting information nor the flexibility of decision-making to permit academic departments to know, much less to reallocate, the various costs associated with activities related to a course, lab or department. Information needs to be generated so that faculty can consider options of trading off alternative uses of resources- space (including improvements), instrumentation, support/technical staff, faculty time, consumables, library and computing resources, travel funds, etc.- as they consider how best to help students learn to do science.

This will not be an easy process. Most often, the information is not readily available on a cost-accounting basis; lines of budget authority generally dictate that the total resources actually employed in instruction are controlled by several different administrative units. Buildings and raw space cannot 'costlessly' by transformed into personnel, animals, or network access fees.

Yet, from the lessons and insights of the continuous improvement movement we know that we need to focus on the entire process- not on the individual pieces of the educational and budgeting process. This means breaking down administrative barriers that constrain budgets; it means involving many different people in discussions of how best to deal with individual courses, course sequences, major programs, or if- indeed- those are even the right categories to discuss.

If we expect faculty to be creative, they must have the flexibility to be so. Similarly, if faculty expect resources to be made available to them, they must be willing to consider the full range of constraints within which institutions must operate. Faculty and administrators have to understand each other and participate jointly in thinking through the best, most efficient, most effective ways of helping all students learn science.

Such a collaboration is even more essential now than it was in the past, because of the rapid and continuous obsolescence of techniques and instrumentation, the continued explosion of knowledge, and the demonstrable concern of all of our publics with the costs of the higher education enterprise.