Veenstra & Associates

Cindy P. Veenstra, Ph.D.

Improving STEM Graduation Rates Through the Research of Student Success and Practice of Quality and Continuous Improvement Thinking


The Importance of Mentoring and Internships

Thomas Friedman"s New York Times' article "It Takes a Mentor" published September 9th,  discusses a Gallup poll that found that "engaged" employees in the workplace often had a mentor in college who took an interest in them,  and an internship before completing their degree.

As Friedman points out, often employers want college graduates ready to work in industry. There are discussions currently ongoing for more government-employer-education partnerships.  

I have written an article that will be published in the October issue of the Journal for Quality and Participation that discusses the importance of internships and co-ops in preparing students to be "work-ready" .  Be sure to watch for it. 

Cindy Veenstra 



A Good Sign: University Presidents Addressing the Need for Higher Graduation Rates

It is a good sign to read and hear that university presidents are discussing the need for higher graduation rates, and with more emphasis.  The message is coming through clearly that it is no longer appropriate to say to a freshman class, look to your right and look to your left and one of you will not graduate.  Instead of a weed-out culture, universities are voicing a student-focused and engaged supportive culture that helps students graduate.  This is all very positive for the future of STEM education where student support is needed, both through engaged teaching and support outside the classroom.  

Two examples:

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an interview with President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, University of Maryland-Baltimore County.   President Hrabowski explained that all students need support in college. The UMBC learning communities are very important in providing this support.  His message is that high graduation rates are important and can be achieved, with the presence of learning support processes.

At the 2014 annual American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference held this past June, keynote speaker President Mitch Daniels, Purdue University, spoke of the importance of “getting the yield of this process up”, referring to much higher rates of degree completions.  In particular, he said that a weed-out mentality “has got to go” and it is important to “improve the success rate of teaching”.


As an aside,  ASEE’s Prism’s recently referred to President Daniels as “STEM’s Unlikely Patron Saint”

 Related to improving graduation rates, here is one of my articles posted on the leadership page that discusses an approach to supporting students in their first year of college.

“A Strategy for Improving Freshman College Retention” published in the Journal for Quality and Participation.


Cindy Veenstra, Ph.D. 

Community Involvement in STEM Learning

The ASQ Journal for Quality and Participation, April 2014 issue is focused on "Building Excellence through Social Responsibility".  In the article " Community Involvement in STEM Learning", David Davis and I discuss the importance of the involvement of corporations, organizations and educational institutions in the community in supporting informal STEM learning. In particular, we highlight citizen science projects, such as testing water quality to inspire K12 students about learning science.  These projects also have the potential of reaching out to economically disadvantaged students since the cost of the projects is often very low.  At the same time, entire families or neighborhoods can get involved in a fun activity that supports/encourages STEM learning and research.  

Most corporations recognize the importance of improving STEM learning and our K-12  education systems.  They recognize that there is a shortage of engineers, technicians and scientists.  Support of science citizen projects is often inexpensive and yet can be a community-wide effort.   In collaborating on citizen science projects, corporations are recognized as socially responsible members of the community  supporting K-12 STEM learning and future student pathways to careers in science and engineering.  

The entire issue  is at

Cindy Veenstra, PhD 

Freshman Interest in Engineering Increases 57%

An article in this morning's Inside Higher Education reports that using the UCLA/HERI CIRP survey given to freshmen, researchers have found that interest in engineering as a major has increased 57% in recent years. Other STEM fields have also increased. See this link for the article

This is great news!    The next question is: how can engineering colleges address student success and retention issues so that a higher rate of students are retained in engineering and enter the workforce as engineers?  

Often student success processes can be easily improved.  This includes processes for student support during the freshman year, continuing good advising support throughout the college years, collaborating with industry on internship and co-op opportunities so that students get some hands-on experience before they graduate and helping students navigate the university processes to meet their financial needs. 

Looking for ideas for improving engineering student retention at your engineering college?    Email me at


Cindy Veenstra, PhD 


Inequality in K-12 Schools Impact Engineering Graduation Rates

In the report “Engineering Emergency:  African Americans and Hispanics Lack Pathways to Engineering,”  Change the Equation calls for more support for minorities in completion of engineering degrees.  They report, “Without students of color, our nation cannot supply all the engineering talent it needs to remain at the forefront of innovation. U.S. employers report that engineering positions are among the hardest to fill.”

 The authors note that degree completion in engineering by African Americans and Hispanics is much lower that the percent of the population they represent.  This is a result of inequality in the K-12 school systems and fewer resources in math and science in some high-minority  K-12 schools.  As the report shows, a higher percent of African Americans and Hispanics attend schools with schools that did not offer calculus or physics-- courses that are considered preparatory for freshman engineering courses.  

 Change the Equation is correct to call this an engineering emergency and recommends high academic standards, and more math and science education in the K-12 schools. 

 I agree and am also supportive of more K-12 outreach and sponsorship of engineering co-ops and internships by industry.  I will chair a panel discussion on how industry can implement and sustain K-12 outreach programs at the American Society for Engineering Education National Conference in June in Indianapolis.  The session is sponsored by the College-Industry Partnership Division and will be held on Monday, June 16th.

 Some great news- The next issue of the Journal of Higher Education will include a research article to which I contributed.  It furthers this discussion on access of minority students to engineering colleges,  and completion of engineering degrees.  More in the next month.


Cindy Veenstra


Transition Courses- A Strategy that Works

Dr. Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education recently posted a blog entry about student success and helping students to reach college-ready achievement levels.

He indicated that some Kentucky high schools offer transition courses to students that are within 3 points of being considered as college-ready (19.0 on the ACT Math test or 20.0 on the ACT Reading test).  Of those students who took the transition courses, the pass rate was over 90%. Passing the course is an indication of achievement of the college-ready ACT benchmarks.  The 90% pass rate is great news for the success of this program.   

More school systems should consider offering transition courses.  As Dr. Holliday points out, less than 30% of the students in Kentucky who could benefit from the transition courses are enrolling in them.  The first year in college and especially the first semester moves so fast that this strategy may enable otherwise under-prepared students to have an academically successful first year in college.    

Finding Balance between STEM and the Social Sciences/Humanities

A new report by Burning Glass Technologies indicates that the need for STEM graduates may be much larger than previously reported.  Of job postings in the STEM fields in 2013, 2.3 million of the postings require a bachelor degree in a STEM field for entry level positions.  

In fact, by looking at actual postings for jobs, the report’s authors found that the demand for bachelor- degree graduates in STEM greatly outnumbered the supply and much more so than for non-STEM positions: “Drilling the data down a different way, the study found there were about 2.5 entry-level job postings for each new bachelor's degree recipient in a STEM field, compared with 1.1 posting for each new four-year graduate in a non-STEM field.”

Yet, in the research literature and popular press there has been push-back on the “STEM Agenda” focus of encouraging high school students to pursue  STEM majors and careers, and that there should be equal or more focus on the social sciences, liberal arts and humanities. 

To achieve some balance on this topic, let’s look at the distribution of majors of students who have earned a bachelor degree. 


 Figure 1: Distribution of Bachelor Degrees, 2011, Digest of Educational Statistics

 Figure 1: Distribution of Bachelor Degrees, 2011, Digest of Educational Statistics

Interestingly, the largest percentage of graduates are liberal arts and humanities majors, with social sciences, history and psychology majors having the 3rd largest percentage. Together they constitute 42% of the bachelor degree graduates.  Business majors are another 21%. 

STEM typically includes Engineering (9%) and Natural Sciences (9%) for a total of only 18% of all U.S. bachelor degrees.  By comparison, the percent of 2010 natural science and engineering (first university) degrees awarded in Singapore is 45%; in China is 44%; and in Germany is 30% (NSF, 2014).

As Figure 1 suggests, in the U.S., we are heavily weighted towards graduating students who have studied the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences.   To support the current and future STEM/innovation global economy and the projected U.S. STEM jobs, we need a more realistic balance between the STEM and social sciences/ humanities with significant increases in the percent of STEM graduates. Encouraging, inspiring and preparing students to pursue natural science and especially engineering and computer science degrees is very much needed. In doing so, we will still have sufficient social science and humanities majors to support the work, teaching and research in these fields.


References and Note

Bidwell, A., (2014, Feb 5) “Report: STEM Job Market Much Larger Than Previously Reported”, U.S. News and World Report,

National Center for Educational Statistics, (2012). “Table 313: Bachelor's degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2010-11”, Digest of Educational Statistics,

National Science Foundation, (2014). Science and Engineering Indicators, 2014. Appendix Table 2-36.

 Note in Figure 1, the Engineering sector includes Engineering, Computer and Information Sciences, Engineering Technology and Architecture, for a total of 9% of the bachelor degrees awarded. Only 4.5% of the bachelor degrees were engineering majors.  Another 2.5% were computer science majors.  



Action Required - Industry Collaboration


Grow STEM Opportunities through Active Industry Involvement


In the Quality Progress October issue, I co-authored an editorial with Glenn Walters on the need for quality professionals to speak up in their companies for industry’s active involvement in support of  K-16 education.  We advocated for a 3-part plan of collaboration with schools and the community-- through K-12 outreach, co-ops/internships and support of capstone projects.

There have been blogs questioning whether we really have a shortage of STEM graduates from colleges.  Unbelievable!  If you talk to a manufacturer CEO, one usually hears that the company cannot find the workers it needs.  If you look at the statistics of the percent of STEM graduates compared to all bachelor graduates, the percentage in the U.S. is lower than in some other countries. 

In addition, Bayer recently conducted a survey of talent recruiters.   Bayer scientists found that talent recruiters believe that it is a competitive environment to fill STEM positions.  Does it have an impact on business? Yes. “talent recruiters from STEM and non-STEM companies alike believe that the unfilled positions cause lower productivity, set limits to business growth, and result in lower revenue.”

In our article, we encouraged companies to look at their strategic plans and then decide  on the focus of their collaborations. Some companies may want to focus more on working with the schools and community to develop stronger connections with schools and bring their expertise to the schools both to encourage and work with teachers and to be role models for middle school students.  Other companies will want to focus more on internships and co-ops.  It is becoming more evident that in the current shortage of STEM graduates, that if a company supports an intern or co-op student, that there is a good chance of recruiting the student after he/she graduates.  When STEM students have a difficult time finding a summer job,  a summer internship will encourage students  to complete their degree and provide critical knowledge about the STEM workplace and STEM careers.  With the high cost of tuition, it is a win-win situation for both the student and sponsoring company.


Using Continuous Improvement to Improve STEM College Education

The PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) 2012 Report “Engage to Excel” predicts a need of  1 Million more STEM graduates in the next 10 years.  Just think about that.  If we continue doing what we have been doing, we will have a gap of 100,000 STEM workers each year for the next 10 years! 

The report goes on to focus more on higher education than K12 and to recommend reform of the first two years of STEM college education.  This includes improving the teaching of the first two years of STEM college courses, including calculus and physics; it means having discovery-based science labs and more research available to undergraduates.  This will lead to more retained students in STEM and a higher graduation rate, thus preparing more students for the needs of industry as scientists and engineers.

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL)communities have recommended improvement in teaching for some time; but often it is “preaching to the choir”; those faculty already convinced and committed participate in SOTL research and discussions; others don’t.  However it is a case of randomization of which student lands in which class; some students need more engagement and better teaching than others.  This brings up a dilemma; how to improve teaching in all 1st year STEM courses and how to do this at all universities (since all have STEM majors programs).  In the current higher education culture this will not happen.

However, there is hope with the PCAST report. Furthermore, if each university adopted a paradigm of continuous improvement along with innovation in teaching the first two years of STEM courses, significant progress would be made.  Presidents, chancellors and deans can guide the process by being aware of continuous improvement methods and demand continuous improvement efforts in learning outcomes year after year, consistent with their accreditation.  They can also set up reward systems (promotion and tenure) that encourage continuous improvement. At the same time, there can be more focus on the SOTL research and ideas by STEM faculty. Colleagues can be encouraged to adopt process improvement in teaching classes through the SOTL communities.  The end result will be better aligned processes for helping students learn at the rate expected of successful STEM majors.  

Adopting a continuous improvement approach will lead to higher retention rates, especially in the first year of college, which will lead to higher graduation rates and more STEM graduates.  


PCAST makes a strong recommendation for math courses

On February 7th, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Engineering (PCAST)  had a Public Briefing: Report to the President Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and made a number of recommendations.


The executive summary is here 

I was particularly pleased that the report addressed the need for better teaching of mathematics for many college freshmen with STEM majors, that many of these programs require a solid math background. Without excellent math preparation, the STEM major choices to a student may be limited. 

PCAST has recommended 200 experiments over the next 5 years; these experiments would be evaluated for effectiveness.  These activities will include summer bridge programs, using computer technology in remedial computer programs, college math  curriculum taught by faculty in other disciplines (such as engineering),  and “a new pipeline of  producing K-12 mathematics teachers from undergraduate and graduate programs in mathematics-intensive fields other than mathematics.” 

The need for this effort is strong; ACT Inc. statistics show that only 45% of high school seniors who take the ACT are ready for college algebra. The ACT math score of 22 is the benchmark for college algebra. (ACT Inc., The Condition of Career and College Readiness, 2011)  To be prepared to take Calculus I, it is generally accepted that an ACT math score of 27 is needed, a full 5 points higher than the benchmark for college algebra. As a result, a very small percent of students are prepared for Calculus I as they enter college.  However, for engineering, Calculus I is generally the desired math course in the first semester of college (unless a student placed at a higher level) and pre-calculus is considered a remedial course.

 It has been found that a six week summer bridge program by itself for student underprepared is not long enough or intense enough.  Programs that also include mentoring and tutoring throughout the freshmen year are more effective.  So  innovation and integrating of ideas is needed.

 My research has shown:

1)      Being prepared to take Calculus I for engineering majors is important; there is so much math in the engineering and physics courses and the courses tend to be graded competitively; students who enter engineering college with a calculus readiness are more likely to be successful.

2)      However, for non-engineering STEM programs , a balanced high quality college preparation course sequence will often provide an adequate preparation; in some cases a student can be very successful taking college algebra as a first semester course. In other words, calculus readiness may not be required, as long as the student has a strong preparation for English, science and other courses.

3)      The challenge is for those students who place into remedial math. Traditionally they must pay for enrolling in a remedial math course, yet earn no college credit, thus more likely to drop out.  Here is where innovative approaches are needed.   One example of innovation is integrating a remedial course with another college course, such as is being done at Madison Area Technical College (WI).  Luanne Borowicz and Emily Baguhn reported on their innovative approach at the ASQ Education Advancing the STEM Agenda Conference, of combining a remedial math course with college chemistry.  The retention and achievement levels of the students in both the math course and the chemistry course were exceptional.

 It seems like we have swings of the pendulum on where the STEM focus is; today, it is on improving math preparation and helping students with the freshman level math courses.  It is needed. In some past years, the focus has been on student confidence, student background and financial aid.  We must remember that student success in STEM is very much a multivariate concern; my model showed there were nine pillars for student success.   We must also remember that there is significant diversity in the STEM majors; so that math preparation may be essential in a STEM field such as engineering, and less of an issue in a STEM field such as biology.


Cindy Veenstra