Students like STEM, but don’t succeed

Nearly half of  students say they’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — including health care — when they start college, but few will earn a STEM degree, according to a Complete College America report.

Forty-eight percent of recent ACT takers express interest in a STEM major, reports ACT. Forty-one percent of new four-year students and 45 percent of two-year students choose a STEM major, including health sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Four-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, while two-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.

Most don’t make it.

Among 4-year students, 57% of students who choose health sciences and 59% who choose computer science never complete a credential in that field.  The problem is more profound at 2-year colleges where 58% of health science and 72% of computer science students leave the program without a credential.

Those who stick with STEM complete college-level math in their first year, the report finds. Quitters don’t. They also complete few science courses.

Complete College America proposes scheduling college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in the first year to keep students on track. That will help only if students are prepared to pass college math, which many are not.

Community colleges are filled with young women who “think they’re going to be nurses” but won’t be, a researcher once told me. They don’t have the math or science foundation.

First-generation college students often focus on nursing because they’re not aware of their alternatives, writes Matt Reed, a community college dean. A colleague told him her job is to “talk students out of nursing.”

Closing the skills gap

With nearly 11 million Americans out of work — and 4 million unfilled jobs —  closing the skills gap is a priority write Jamie Dimon, president of JPMorgan Chase, and Marlene Seltzer, who runs Jobs for the Future, in Politico.

“Middle-skill” workers such as machinists, technicians and health care workers are in demand, they write. These jobs require job training and sometimes an associate degree, but not a bachelor’s degree.

Dimon’s company has launched New Skills at Work, which will analyze skills gaps in major U.S. cities — and in Europe. “These gap reports will then inform the allocation of $250 million in grants over five years to support non-profits like Jobs for the Future that have a track record of designing successful skill-development programs.”

Career tech education is gaining momentum in high schools, reports Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

The new Mississippi Scholars Tech Master program will recognize high school seniors who pass a career-certification test, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, score 18 of higher on the ACT, and complete 40 hours of community service. An existing program honors college-prep students.

Oregon will spend more on vocational programs in middle and high schools. The emphasis is on developing skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed increased support for career and technical schools to train more STEM-skilled workers.

Carnevale: We need practical pathways

Students need a choice of practical pathways, including career tech says Georgetown economist Anthony Carnevale in a New York Times interview.

Carnevale, who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce, worries the new Common Core standards will set the single-curriculum pathway in stone, despite lip service to applied learning.

In theory, the Common Core says, we just want you to be able to do a certain set of things, we don’t care how you learn it. But when I look at the assessments, basically it looks like very academic kinds of learning goals to me.

Today’s career tech isn’t a rehash of the old voc ed, which was “drummed out of the curriculum because it put all the females in home ec, and all the boys in the construction trades,” he says. Career and tech education can be integrated with high educational standards, but it “requires a different kind of teacher, a different kind of curriculum, different equipment” and funding.

C.T.E. is still the red-headed, illegitimate child at the family reunion in many ways. The path from high school to Harvard is still the one we all honor more, and that is a very academic pathway.

. . . it’s not practical to send everybody to Harvard. It is practical to send everybody to college. . . . (C.T.E.) . . . can produce higher high school graduation rates for less advantaged kids, higher math scores, more going to college.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is now backing career tech, says Carnevale. President Obama has been talking up certificates and two-year degrees for years.

The retirement of the baby boom generation will create 32 million job openings, predicts Carnevale. Economic recovery should produce 20 million new jobs. “That’s a huge opportunity, and now’s the time when the country needs to step up and meet it.”

Employers: Grads aren’t prepared for work

Most employers say college graduates aren’t prepared for work, reports Bridge That Gap: Analyzing the Student Skill Index, a Chegg survey.  Half of college students said they felt very or completely prepared for work in their field of study. Thirty-nine percent of employers said recent graduates they’d interviewed were well-prepared.

Students overvalue their mastery of “business basics,” according to employers, notes Inside Higher Ed.

Those include “creating a budget or financial goal” and “writing to communicate ideas or explain information clearly” (each show a 22 percentage-point gap), and “organization” (25 percentage points). In the widest gap, at 27 percentage points, 77 percent of students but only half of hiring managers reported preparation for “prioritizing work.”

Students fared the best at “making a decision without having all the facts.” About 47 percent of students said they were prepared to do that, and 37 percent of hiring managers said the same of recent graduates.

More than 90 percent of hiring managers are looking for graduates who’ve shown initiative and leadership. They also look for extracurriculars, internships and work related to applicants’ field of study. Only a third of college graduates have spent time gaining experience in their field.

Chegg also looked at “Office Street Smarts” by asking five questions:

1. Can graduates make a persuasive argument to convince others to adopt their ideas?
2. Can they write to encourage action or make a specific request?
3. Were they able to communicate with authority figures and clients?
4. Can they collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds?
5. Can they complete a project as part of a team?

Again, students “have an over-inflated sense” of their communications and collaboration skills.

STEM graduates were “slightly better prepared” to explain information and solve problems through experimentation, employers said.

Illinois brings remedial math to high schools

Illinois community colleges are teaching remedial math to high school students, reports Community College Times.

Half of new community college students need at least one developmental course. The Illinois STEM College and Career Readiness program identifies high school students who might be placed in development education and provides remedial instruction and support services before they arrive on a college campus. College instructors and high school teachers work together to align math curricula.

Participating community colleges include: Heartland Community College, Illinois Central CollegeIllinois Eastern Community CollegesJohn Wood Community College and three Chicago city colleges.

Hands-on engineering at STEM camp

At Foothill College‘s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camps, young engineering instructors don’t use books, lectures or lab exercises. The hands-on engineering curriculum lets high schoolers fly remote-control hovercraft, build robots and strap in for helicopter simulations, all in the name of science education, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

“In high school, they get a prescribed lab, they don’t really get to be creative,” said Peter Murray, the dean of physical sciences, mathematics and engineering at Foothill. “Here, we give them a whole bunch of parts and a plan, but we don’t tell them how to do it.”

The STEM summer camps are designed to attract groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering, such as women, minorities and low-income students. About half the students are female. Because the weeklong programs are free, students of all backgrounds can participate. 

In a robotics session, students were challenged to build and program a robot that could travel by itself through a cardboard maze. On the first day of camp, most robots just sat at the entrance of the maze, ramming helplessly into walls or spinning uncontrollably.

“At first it was hard because we were trying to figure it out; we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Sonia Romo, of Santa Clara, a camper at the STEM summer camps and an engineering novice.

Romo’s robot, dubbed Mr. Whiskers, made it through the maze once, but failed in a second try. The team had to “go back to the drawing board, think of all the possible bugs in the code, try a fix and test, test, test.” Mr. Whiskers made it through the maze three times by the end of the week. It ”feels really good,” Romo said.

21st century vo-tech

The New Vo-Tech is helping students prepare for skilled careers — and for college, writes Del Stover for American School.

 Not long ago, a manufacturer asked for assistance from the Pickens County Career and Technology Center (South Carolina). A factory robot needed to be retooled for a new product, and the company’s technicians were too busy to do the work. Could the high school’s students take on the project?

. .. Soon, students were installing a new welding arm and reprogramming the robot, even though the company didn’t have a technician’s manual to help with the work.

“After we finished that, the company said they were going to put the robot on line at the plant, and they’d need maintenance,” (Principal Leonard) Williams says. “So they hired one of our kids for an apprenticeship … and hired another kid from our electronics program.”

Vo-tech — often called career and technical education (CTE) — works best when schools work closely with local employers.

In Pickens County, 1,100 students “study everything from auto repair and high-tech welding to pre-engineering and medical sciences.” Some work in school workshops or apprentice at local companies. Others earn college credits at a local technical school or work toward vocational certifications.

 High school senior Toby Wofford took part in an apprenticeship program with a local manufacturer and has decided to stay on with the company after graduation. He is working part-time while seeking an associate’s degree at the firm’s expense.

Meanwhile, senior Conner Smith, who originally studied mechanical and architectural drafting at the technical center, says his experience sparked an interest in engineering that he’ll pursue in college.

In Europe, vocational education isn’t seen as a dead end, says Nancy Hoffman, author of Schooling in the Workplace. Vocational students can go on to technical colleges and universities. In the U.S., vocational education is seen as less rigorous, fit for low-performing students who aren’t going to college. There’s a stigma, says Hoffman.

“CTE prepares young people for high-demand jobs — in career areas where there are significant opportunities for middle-class wages. These jobs may require skills that may be slightly different  than what’s offered in traditional academics, but there are rigorous levels of math and writing required. This is not a dumbed-down version of high school.”

Career-tech courses don’t hurt — or help — math achievement, concludes a new study. Federal legislation has attempted to integrate career and academic courses to prepare more students for STEM careers and college majors.

CC cuts remediation to one semester

Community College of Aurora near Denver is streamlining remediation with hopes of getting students into college-level classes in one semester. Some students have needed as much as two years of developmental education to qualify for college-level classes.

. . . traditionally those at the 60, or pre-college level, needed two six-credit courses in Reading and English. That coursework now will be merged into an integrated five-credit class in one semester covering writing/reading intensively, with a supporting studio course in those disciplines.

Those individuals testing at the 90 mark starting in the fall in English get a composite, three-credit course (that merges English 90 and Reading 90), paired with an English 121 co-requisite or have the option to concurrently link English 121 to a content-area course, which beginning in August will be Psychology 101.

Quantitative Literacy, a new course, will prepare students for Statistics and Math for Liberal Arts, while a STEM Prep course will train students for college-level Algebra.

Half of STEM jobs don’t require 4-year degree

Half of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) jobs are open to workers without a bachelor’s degree, according to a new Brookings report, The Hidden STEM Economy.  These jobs in manufacturing, health care, construction, installation, maintenance and repair pay $53,000 on average, 10 percent more than jobs with similar educational requirements. For example, a computer systems analyst averages $82,320 without a four-year degree, according to Brookings.

Overall, 20 percent of U.S. jobs now require STEM skills, Brookings estimates.

Even in high-tech Silicon Valley, there’s a demand for people with math and fix-it skills but no bachelor’s degree, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Tae Kim and other students learn computer software for drafting and manufacturing at De Anza College in Cupertino. (Patrick Tehan, Bay Area News Group)

“Jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree represent a hidden and unheralded STEM economy,” said Jonathan Rothwell, author of the report. ”The overemphasis on four-year and higher degrees as the only route to these careers has neglected cheaper and more widely available pathways,” he said.

The report urges policymakers to boost funding for training in such careers as toolmaking, technical writing and technician work — the critical pick-and-shovel brigades in tech’s gold rush. Of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on tech-oriented education and training, just one-fifth goes toward training below the bachelor’s degree level. National Science Foundation spending largely ignores community colleges, it asserts.

At De Anza College‘s Manufacturing/CNC Technology Lab, students learn to run software programs and visualize multidimensional projects using $500,000 machines.

“There was a time when machine operators just pushed buttons. Those are the jobs we’ve lost — the simple, cheap, push-button jobs,” said Mike Appio, the lab’s department head. “Now everything is numbers. You need the ability to keep machines running on five axes spinning at one time.”

Patrick Pickerell dropped out of high school, learned to make coiled metal springs and kept on going. He runs Peridot, which specializes in precision manufacturing. His workers need ”math proficiency, but not advanced math, like calculus,” he said. “Kids that are gearheads are excellent candidates … people who enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together.”

AAUW: Women need child care, STEM support

Affordable child care and information about high-paying technical careers would help more women earn a degree and qualify for middle-class jobs, concludes Women in Community Colleges: Access to Success, a new report by the American Association of University Women.

Some 57 percent of community college students are women, estimates the AAUW.  One in four are mothers, often with work and family responsibilities.

Community colleges present an attractive option for mothers of young children, in part because they offer flexible schedules and low tuition. Unfortunately, limited access to child care disrupts the educational path of many mothers. Although more mothers enroll at community colleges than at four-year institutions, fewer than half of all community colleges offer on-campus child care, and available slots do not typically meet student demand. Student parents consistently cite child care responsibilities as a chief reason for dropping out . . .

Community colleges offer a wide range of job training, but most women choose traditionally female occupations, the report observes. While nursing pays well, women who choose early childhood education or cosmetology programs will earn much less than they could in technical fields. Only a fraction of women train to be “engineering technicians, automotive service technicians and mechanics, carpenters, and electricians.” Community colleges should try to close the gender gap in STEM career preparation, the AAUW advises.