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The National Academies’ Summit on
Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Education Landscape
Summary of Participant Responses
The Study Group Inc.
December 5, 2011
Invited participants to The National Academies’ Summit on Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Education Landscape were asked two questions as part of the registration process:
1. What is the greatest challenge or issue you are facing in your work on 2-year or 4-year STEM education and careers?
2. What is the one big idea or insight you have about increasing the potential of community colleges in STEM education and careers that you will bring to the summit?
The following is a summary of participants’ responses to these two broad questions. The summary is based on responses of invited participants who registered by Wednesday, November 23rd.
Participants’ STEM Education Challenges or Issues
Participants report facing several significant challenges or issues in promoting STEM education in 2-year and 4-year institutions. These challenges range from students’ inadequate academic preparation for STEM study to the need to align STEM education with workforce demands and priorities. The five challenges or issues mentioned most frequently by Summit participants are:
1. Overcoming students’ inadequate academic preparation for STEM study. Students interested in pursuing a STEM career often begin their 2-year or 4-year study with too little preparation in mathematics, reasoning, and critical thinking to succeed. Extra coursework is required for remediation, which lengthens the time for earning a degree and slows down academic progress. As a result, students become discouraged from pursuing a STEM career.
2. Recruiting and retaining students in STEM education. Outreach to and inspiring students to pursue a STEM career and then helping them overcome barriers along the way is a significant challenge. This is especially true for women and minorities. Transfer and articulation policies and practices are a frequently-mentioned barrier to retention in STEM education that, when combined with this economic turndown where students are not taking a full course load, further lengthens time-to-degree and increases student attrition.
3. Creating and sustaining effective partnerships between 2-year and 4-year institutions. Although individual 2-year and 4-year institutions have forged effective STEM education partnerships, these partnerships are not recognized as important on a broad scale. In particular, 4-year institutions need to have a greater appreciation for the STEM education offered at 2-year colleges. Partnerships are needed to address such issues as curriculum and other program alignment issues, getting staff and faculty at both institutions on board with student needs and program requirements, and providing course and program articulation policies and practices between 2-year to 4-year institutions. Partnerships are essential in developing pathways from a technical degree into a full baccalaureate, especially after some time has passed since the student has completed an associate degree. There is a need for good research to inform policy, practice, and strategies that effectively evaluate the success of 2-year and 4-year institutional STEM partnerships in order to build support for these efforts on a national scale.
4. Finding the resources to support and sustain STEM education program improvement. There is a universal lack of time and resources to support the necessary STEM education collaborations and program improvement initiatives. Furthermore, the current economy has had a major impact on these efforts. Both 2-year and 4-year institutions struggle with the high cost maintenance of lab facilities. In addition, community colleges have difficulty in obtaining and managing external funding as institutional support for these efforts is often limited.
5. Aligning STEM education with workforce demands and priorities. The academic and corporate agendas for STEM education and careers are not always well-aligned. As a result, 2-year and 4-year institutions may spend precious resources building STEM education programs and pathways that do not lead students to successful STEM careers.
Participants’ Big Ideas and Insights
In the spirit of the Summit, participants will bring a number of big ideas and insights to the discussion later this month. Among these are
1. Building and strengthening STEM pathways between 2- and 4-year institutions. Participants bring with them several examples for strengthening STEM pathways and partnerships between 2-year and 4-year institutions. These examples include creating a 3-year curriculum focused on transition into baccalaureate for students lacking college readiness, developing degree completion models that build on 2-year programs, providing opportunities for 2-year and 4-year faculty collaboration, and exemplary articulation policies and practices.
2. Promoting an inquiry-based model of STEM instruction across 2-year and 4-year institutions. Participants have successful experience with inquiry-based STEM instruction that includes student coaching, hands-on labs, and teaching methodologies that teach STEM content in the context of employability skills. These participants believe that this model of instruction should become a benchmark for effective STEM education in 2-year and 4-year institutions.
3. Instituting specific curricular programs that promote effective STEM education. Participants have experience with specific curricular programs that have proved effective in retaining students in STEM education and careers. Programs mentioned include workforce education programs and biotechnology programs. Some of these curricular programs flourish in partnerships between 2-year and 4-year institutions.
4. Requiring articulation agreements as a means for creating viable and affordable pathways to STEM careers. There is substantial participant support for the importance of sound articulation policies and practices. One example is aligning occupational STEM curricula with the academic curricula. Another is the articulation of complete technician education programs. Participants argue that alignment policies and practices need to be part of STEM accreditation requirements for both 2-year and 4-year institutions.
5. Providing better support systems for students. Many participants recognize the need for better ongoing support systems for students pursing STEM careers. Types of support mentioned included grouping students into cohorts and addressing social, cultural, financial, and personal issues.
6. Adopting, publicizing, and promoting STEM education as a community college priority. Summit participants suggest that STEM education should become a public priority for 2-year institutions. STEM education at the community college level can play a major role in teacher preparation and workforce development. It can also reach rural and remote communities. Making STEM education a community college priority encourages the development of 2-year and 4-year institutional partnerships, emphasizes the importance of community colleges in the evolving STEM education landscape, and – hopefully – focuses federal funding on this critical issue.
7. Initiating federal funding for joint 2- and 4-year STEM education programs. Participants believe that NSF and other funding agencies can help strengthen STEM education by funding programs that start in 2-year colleges and provide a seamless transition into 4-year institutions. These external funding programs promote the development and adoption of effective curricular and articulation policies and practices as well as several of the other big ideas and insights outlined here. The results will be clearer and more attainable STEM career pathways for students.
8. Strengthening K-12 STEM preparation and achievement. Several Summit participants point out that successful pathways to STEM careers begin in K-12 education. Efforts that could be taken to improve the academic preparation of students in STEM include strengthening the K-12 curriculum, having students take a test to determine college or job readiness prior to leaving high school, having dual enrollment programs that allow for transfer of credits nationally, and recruiting students from STEM academies. Strengthening K-12 STEM preparation is particularly important in recruiting women and underrepresented minorities into STEM education.
9. Increasing the capacity and competitiveness of community colleges to receive grants from NSF and other federal funding sources. Participants understand that community colleges are frequently at a disadvantage when applying for federal funds for program improvement. Several participants pointed out that addressing these disadvantages is, perhaps, a federal role. Disadvantages include a shortage of faculty time to develop proposals and manage grant projects, inconsistent college administration support for grants, lack of grant-writing expertise, insufficient internal and external partnerships, and limited resources for institutions to learn how to submit proposals and manage awards.
10. Establishing professional communities to work on specific STEM education challenges (raised by Summit participants). Participants point out that the Summit is just the beginning of a national conversation on the role of community colleges in the evolving STEM education landscape. They hope that the Summit will lead to the creation of one or more professional communities charged with working on specific STEM education challenges in more depth. Challenges that participants view as topics for professional communities include those mentioned previously as well as: developing curriculum, leveraging technology, promoting faculty development, and recruiting more women and minorities into STEM education and careers.