Steps to streamline STEM degrees

BY: JAVIER RODRIGUEZ

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At the tender age of three, Jessica Magana routinely sat alongside her eight-year-old brother while he built scale-size models of helicopters with an incomplete Lego set. Only her intermittent appetite pulled her away from the colorful blocks. Once she turned five, Magana spent her time observing her father fine-tune his tractor-trailer’s diesel engine. Over time, Magana’s inquisitiveness led her to graduate Mount St. Mary’s College with a mechanical engineering degree. When Magana, who is currently earning her master’s degree, enters the field of mechanical engineering come graduation, she will join a small number of minority professionals.

“Ever since I can remember, I have always sought to understand how things work,” Magana said. “Whether I came across a store-bought item or a rebuilt diesel engine, I’ve always sought the satisfaction of knowing how something works.”

According to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering in 2011, women comprise only 13.4 percent of engineering professionals while African-Americans and Latinos comprise five and 6.2 percent of the engineering workforce, respectively.

Even though Congress passed several measures in the last decade to recruit and train teachers in the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the federal STEM initiatives rally around a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach instead of a broad-based inclusive approach. The approach that champions the use of four-year universities and graduate programs as an instrument to produce STEM professionals unfortunately weeds out a great number of students who enter the university with a desire to pursue a STEM degree.

Barbara Gildner, a lecturer in the Department of English at Santa Monica City College, said “too many students switch their concentration after struggling with their first STEM course.”

“Most students attribute a course’s level of difficulty to an innate lack of ability to do mathematics or science,” Magana said. “I know a lot of my incoming freshman classmates who switched majors midway through our first semester at Mount St. Mary’s.”

Believing that he or she will continue to struggle in all future STEM courses, students often switch to a non-STEM major or concentration. If an uninteresting course or lack of adequate preparation does not discourage students from pursuing their originally intended major, an unwelcoming academic culture may deter students—specifically women and minorities, who feel marginalized.

Even though women and minorities constitute 70 percent of the college student population, only 45 percent of the aforementioned demographic graduate with a STEM degree according to a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

To offset or preclude the number of students opting out of STEM degrees, the federal government should promote a broad-based approach that incorporates empirically validated teaching practices, discovery-based research courses, and greater partnerships between two and four-year colleges.

“Professors should aim to adopt teaching practices that prove effective school term after school term,” said Dr. Delroy A. Baugh, assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA.

The adoption of empirically validated teaching practices will not only improve student learning but will also produce better-prepared students. Furthermore, the replacement of unappealing laboratory sessions with discovery-based research courses allows curiosity-driven learning and fosters a deeper level of understanding.

Above par collegiate partnerships between two-year and four-year colleges will not only better prepare students to pursue higher education confidently and strategically, but also streamline the process of obtaining a STEM degree and allow students to wisely decide whether or not to forego a four-year institution. They can then use the technical skills obtained via a two-year college to join the STEM workforce.

Dr. Sandra H. Magnus, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and former Space Shuttle astronaut, said “students play a critical role in strengthening the aerospace industry.”

Although Magana’s parents never found her interest and passion for engineering abnormal, they admit that not a single one of her childhood friends pursued a STEM discipline in college. When asked to explain why they believe their daughter pursued mechanical engineering while her friends did not, they explained that the role played by her father and her older brother not only welcomed her inquisitiveness but also challenged her to seek the answers to the questions she asked them. A math and science-oriented magnet high school and encouragement from family to pursue her passion also led Magana to immerse herself in the field of mechanical engineering.

“My family played an important role [in my career choice],” Magana said. “It was their unimpeded guidance that allowed me to pursue something I really enjoy.”

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report of 2010-2011, the United States ranks 52nd in the quality of mathematics and science education and 4th, and declining, in overall global competitiveness. If the federal government’s STEM initiative fostered a child’s curiosity from a very young age the way Magana’s family did, and provided the resources needed to burgeon a child’s understanding of STEM disciplines, the U.S. would be higher in ranking.