Universities need to recruit and retain STEM students with design

STEM experts say universities must address current rates of STEM learning-program attrition. Reports indicate that only 40% who enroll in STEM programs graduate with STEM degrees.

By Stephen Blair, CannonDesign July 11, 2016

It’s time for action: Investing in STEM students

It’s undeniable that universities need to attract more students to science, technology, education, and math (STEM) programs moving forward. The U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicts that, in the next decade, we will need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than we will produce at our current rate. Currently, about 300,000 graduates obtain bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields every year. To create this new workforce of 1 million additional STEM experts, that number needs to increase by 100,000 annually.

The challenge cannot simply be met by attracting more students. STEM experts say universities must also address current rates of STEM learning-program attrition. Reports indicate that only 40% of those who enroll in STEM programs graduate with STEM degrees. The remaining 60% switch to non-STEM fields or drop out of college entirely.

These new methods move beyond a model where students passively listen to lectures and cram for tests to approaches that engage students in activities, enable collaboration across STEM disciplines, and encourage students to use their hands just as much as their heads.

With these new approaches to learning and teaching come new approaches to designing learning environments. These new spaces are obliterating the stereotypes associated with traditional STEM classrooms and fostering the type of creative brilliance that can help us educate and arm 1 million new STEM graduates.

Below are two key STEM trends that can help universities, along with examples of institutions leading the charge.

1. Put science on display: Let space educate

Historically, teaching laboratories and research spaces have been located in building core areas or in the basement. These underground "lairs" were uninviting and uncomfortable for those using them—they featured little to no windows, no natural light, and the overall environment felt more institutional than educational. This can no longer be the approach moving forward. Countless studies show that the design of classroom environments influence students’ motivation and learning, and universities are seeing the value in letting the student body become spectators in the science process. From a design perspective, we use the term "putting science on display" pretty regularly. The general idea is to place science classrooms and laboratories in public, high-traffic areas. Instead of solid walls, expansive floor-to-ceiling windows celebrate the sciences by allowing passersby to observe research activities. They can watch as activities unfold, creating curiosity and interest. The University of Buffalo has embraced this idea with its Clinical Translational Research Center (CTRC). Embedded in the same building as Kaleida Health’s Gates Vascular Institute, the CTRC uses interior glass throughout the building to show science in an open, transparent process.

2. Infuse appropriate technology into S&T academic environments

Millennials and Generation Z grew up in a digital world and expect to take full advantage of technology in every aspect of life, especially college. However, technology hasn’t revolutionized education the way it has other industries. STEM learning environments can be leading examples for how using technology can enhance learning by making it more engaging and accessible.

The Missouri University of Science & Technology’s (S&T) Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Building is one example of how universities can leverage such technology. Within the building, a virtual reality laboratory allows students to interact with computer-generated images in an immersive virtual environment. Additionally, the Missouri University facility offers a fabrication laboratory that enables students to explore and experiment with digital design and manufacturing as they create prototypes.

These are just two of several ways design thinking can help universities rise to the challenge of educating our next generation of STEM students.

-Stephen Blair is executive director of CannonDesign’s science and technology practice. He brings deep experience at the intersection of management, technology, and project delivery. This article originally appeared on www.cannondesign.com. CannonDesign is a CFE Media content partner.