Look Who's Trying to Keep STEM Majors On Track

In the push to create the scientists, engineers, and software developers of tomorrow, encouraging more students to choose STEM majors is only half the battle. The more challenging half may be retaining students in these challenging fields of study.

A presidential commission found in 2012 that for every 10 students who enter college as STEM majors, only four complete degrees in one of those fields. For ethnic minority students, the rate is even lower. Most of this major-switching occurs during a student's first two years of college, with the majority who leave remaining in school, but graduating with degrees in other fields, such as the humanities and the social sciences. 

At a recent White House summit on college access issues, an array of philanthropists and funders made new commitments to do more on a range of issues related to college access, affordability, and readiness, especially for low-income youth. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute made its commitment known with its 2014 competition for new science education grants, known as "Sustaining Excellence." The Maryland-based funder wants universities to develop initiatives designed to increase student persistence in undergraduate STEM programs. HHMI plans to award 35 grants of up to $2.5 million each over the next five years.

HHMI traces at least some of the student exodus from STEM to the quality of science and math teaching, citing a finding that many students who leave STEM fields express dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction. David Asai, HHMI's director of undergraduate science education, has been an advocate of improved undergraduate STEM instruction since his own days on the faculty of Harvey Mudd College, an institution that he said placed much higher emphasis on teaching than his previous employer, Purdue University, did.

While many science, engineering, and other STEM faculty engage in cutting-edge research, Asai and HHMI believe research excellence and quality teaching are not mutually exclusive. HHMI believes one way to increase undergraduate engagement in STEM is for faculty to involve students more in authentic research experiences, such as through programs that match students with research mentors.

HHMI identified 203 research universities across the country that are eligible for five-year grants under the Sustaining Excellence competition. This activity is crucial for ensuring the nation has the scientific talent necessary for a technology-driven economy. The Presidential Commission reported that the nation needs an additional 1 million men and women with STEM degrees in the next decade. If the STEM retention rate in the country improves to even 50 percent, much of that goal will be met, according to HHMI.

With this new commitment, HHMI challenges colleges and universities across the country to come up with ways to improve STEM teaching and retain more students in these critical fields — and it's putting up millions for the effort.