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.