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