BOISE – With fewer U.S. students going into key technical areas – a decline that’s raised major concerns about the nation’s future competitiveness – the University of Idaho on Wednesday announced a new effort to determine why Idaho students aren’t choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as the STEM disciplines.
“This is not just unique to Idaho, although I think it’s more acute in Idaho,” said UI President Duane Nellis. “It is a real concern, and it’s very revealing and fairly graphic, the decline of students tracking in this area.”
The Micron Foundation gave UI a $1.2 million, four-year grant to research the problem. The project will include focus groups, surveys, a statewide dialogue and interviews with students, teachers, parents and school administrators – all aimed at identifying why students don’t choose the STEM disciplines or don’t succeed in them.
“We will be able to identify those exact factors that influence a student’s ability to excel at STEM education,” said Dee Mooney, Micron Foundation executive director. “We look forward to learning all about the results.”
UI officials said the research should help guide STEM programs not only in Idaho but across the nation.
Jim Gregson, the UI’s STEM coordinator, said the research will explore “in a really sophisticated way the complex root problems associated with STEM, rather than just focusing on the related symptoms.”
A 2006 report from the American Association of Universities found that U.S. students are far less likely to earn undergraduate science or engineering degrees than those in other countries, and that the performance of American students in math and science declines as they reach higher grades and lags “significantly” behind that of many other nations. Plus, federal science research funding has declined as a percentage of gross domestic product for the past 30 years; Western Europe has surpassed the U.S. in published science and engineering articles, and Asia is rapidly gaining; and large numbers of key technical workers at federal agencies are nearing retirement age.
“This is a problem that’s kind of crept up on us,” Nellis said, “and then all of a sudden accelerated here, as we’ve seen the emergence of investment in places like China and India.”
Plus, the UI president said, “This has been coupled with a time of disinvestment certainly in higher education related to science and technology, at the state level and not just in Idaho, again, but nationally. … Nationally there’s been truly a disinvestment.”
Mooney said Micron has long been concerned about the trend. “We’ve been very vocal on upping the ante on STEM nationally and of course in Idaho for years,” she said, in part to ensure the Boise-based microchip company can find qualified employees.
“We always are interested in making sure that that pipeline is full of excellent engineers and math and science students.”