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What Unique Challenges Do New Students Face in STEM Education?

The status of "most popular field of study" is being wrested away from business colleges everywhere as more and more students are enrolling in programs in STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The explosive growth, caused in no small part by businesses willing to pay a premium to secure technologically savvy talent, is associated with more than a few growing pains within the university system.

STEM education presents unique challenges to students and teachers alike. For instance, unlike history or even philosophy, the landscape is constantly changing. Many areas of expertise in high demand right now didn't even exist 20 years ago. The volatility of the technology powering many STEM disciplines means students and teachers must stay diligent or else let their education become obsolete.

And that's all on top of the technically complex material that students must master. Mastery (or non-mastery) of mathematical and scientific concepts becomes painfully clear when students must demonstrate working knowledge of the subject matter. To put it simply, this stuff is hard. To that end, we asked four universities what kind of challenges new STEM students are currently tackling as well as which of their programs is growing fastest.

Dr. James Spain, University of Missouri

Dr. James Spain -- University of Missouri

Question #1: What unique challenges do new students face in STEM education?

"The most frequent and significant challenge that our students face is their background in math and science. Students who have taken advance math, chemistry and physics courses in high school are much more likely to be successful in the gateway courses required by the STEM disciplines."


Question #2: Which STEM programs are growing fastest at your institution? What makes these areas so attractive?

"Our academic programs in engineering have been the fastest growing STEM majors. We continue to have strong enrollment in biology, chemistry, and biochemistry. First, students who select these majors generally enjoy math and science and consider themselves to be above average in these academic disciplines. The choice of majors aligns with post college interests - careers as engineers, graduate education, or professional school (the major meets requirements of Med School, Dental School and/or Vet School)."

Dr. Mark Anderson, Kennesaw State University

Dr. Mark Anderson -- Kennesaw State

Question #1: What unique challenges do new students face in STEM education?

"STEM disciplines are rapidly evolving, but the way the disciplines are taught is not changing. Modern Science is most active at the interface between disciplines, and discovery has become a multidisciplinary activity, where individuals from multiple backgrounds with many different perspectives are required to solve complex problems."

Question #2: Which STEM programs are growing fastest at your institution? What makes these areas so attractive?

"At Kennesaw State (and many other universities) the largest and fastest growing areas are biomedical sciences (biochemistry, molecular biology) and data science (statistics, analytics). The convergence of the traditional scientific disciplines is driving the activity in biomedical sciences because this field is historically interdisciplinary between biology, chemistry, physics, materials, mechanics and systems. Biological systems are so complex that no one approach can hope to solve the big problems. It is attractive because the stakes are so large – public health and the cost of health care are big societal issues, and that drives interest.  Public health problems – e.g. the Ebola situation – drive a lot of scientific work and discovery.

Analytics is huge at the moment. This is driven by the dramatically lowered cost of computing and data storage. Twenty-five years ago collecting data was the challenge because collecting data was very expensive – so the focus was on collecting a limited amount of data, but doing very well so the analysis was straightforward. Now, it is easy to collect large amounts of data, and the expense has shifted to the analysis of that data. With a lot of data, the challenge is how to make sense of it."