Report, experts analyze surging STEM activity at UW-Madison

October 30, 2014 By David Tenenbaum

Photo: Astronomy class

Students in professor Robert Mathieu’s astronomy class focus light through a set of lenses. More engaging instruction may be a factor in UW students’ increased interest in STEM majors over the past decade, Mathieu says. 

Photo:

A recent report on instructional activity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines at the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows significant advances in enrollment and degrees since 2000, which campus experts attribute to a number of factors, including job placement, greater career opportunities and enhanced teaching methods.

The report, prepared by the Office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research, shows that degrees in STEM fields rose from 35 percent to 40 percent of all undergraduate degrees between 2000 and 2013.

Comparing the 2000-01 to 2013-14 academic years:

  • Enrollment in STEM majors among juniors and seniors has grown from 32 percent to 41 percent.
  • Overall student credit hours have grown 5 percent, but STEM credit hours have grown 19 percent (the increase was 37 percent in chemistry and 19 percent in math).
  • The percentage of STEM majors in graduate, clinical and doctoral majors rose from 50 percent to 57 percent.

Although there is no single explanation for this surge in interest, employment and professional opportunities are clearly primary drivers, says Steven Cramer, vice provost for teaching and learning and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“The rapid increase in STEM majors can be traced to students’ desires to ensure a professionally rewarding career path upon graduation and to choose career paths that address some of our most pressing global challenges, including adequate energy, food, water, urban infrastructure and health care for our world’s societies.”

UW-Madison, Cramer notes, “is at the forefront in providing high-quality programs in these areas, and employment opportunities for our students graduating from these programs are high.”

“The rapid increase in STEM majors can be traced to students’ desires to ensure a professionally rewarding career path upon graduation and to choose career paths that address some of our most pressing global challenges … ”

Steven Cramer

That’s part of the story behind a surge of interest at the School of Nursing. “Student interest in nursing is often associated with job availability, variety, and anticipated satisfaction,” says Nadine Nehls, associate dean of the school. “From 2000-01 to 2013-14, our nursing program experienced an 81 percent increase in enrollment and a 103 percent increase in applications to our competitive upper-division program. We also added a Freshman Direct Admission program in response to the demand from students applying as freshmen.”

Another explanation may reside in the emphasis on updated teaching methods on campus, says Robert Mathieu, professor of astronomy and director of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. CIRTL is a network of 22 research universities that works to improve how future and current college faculty teach STEM subjects to diverse learners.

“The campus and the nation have put a lot of effort into the improvement of STEM teaching, and that investment will pay off in increased success and retention,” Mathieu says. “Research has shown that many students were leaving STEM classes, not because of a lack of ability or interest, but rather because they found the teaching and the classroom atmosphere uninspiring in terms of a career path.”

“The teaching that is most effective, for both learning and retention, uses increased engagement of students in their own learning — for example, through active learning techniques, classroom learning communities, inclusive teaching approaches, and more real-world situations drawing on the application of STEM knowledge. Frequent assessment and feedback to students are also essential.”

“The teaching that is most effective, for both learning and retention, uses increased engagement of students in their own learning … ”

Robert Mathieu

On Oct. 14, the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates announced a $7.2 million commitment to assist initiatives at CIRTL and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which works toward improving equitable outcomes in higher education. Both grants seek to ensure that all students are able to complete degrees in STEM and pursue careers in these in-demand fields.

Comparing 2004 to 2013, the university has also recorded increases in junior and senior STEM participation among targeted minorities (25 percent to 33 percent), first-generation college students (30 percent to 43 percent), women (29 percent to 39 percent), and Chancellor’s Scholars (36 percent to 54 percent).

The intense focus on STEM fields is showing what works to engage underrepresented groups, adds Jennifer Sheridan, executive director of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute. “In engineering, we’ve found a strong correlation between participation in clubs or other interest groups outside of class and a desire to persist in these degrees.”

“More than 45 percent of (engineering) graduates remain in Wisconsin and work in our technology industries.”

Jake Blanchard

Undergraduate enrollment at the College of Engineering has grown from about 3,200 in 2007 to more than 5,000 this semester, says Jake Blanchard, interim executive associate dean. “I don’t think we know for sure why this interest is growing, but it follows a national trend of increased interest in engineering. I think it is a combination of students’ interest in using technology to solve societal problems coupled with job availability. In engineering, we currently place about 94 percent of our graduates either in graduate school or a job.”

Continuing to provide a quality education for so many students has led the college to adopt new instructional strategies, Blanchard says. “We have created extra sections of key courses to handle the load. From the faculty perspective, we see bigger classes and, in particular, our laboratory courses are running at full capacity. We are using innovative educational approaches to meet the growing demand while improving the quality of the education.”

The interest in STEM represents an economic win for the state, Blanchard says. “More than 45 percent of our graduates remain in Wisconsin and work in our technology industries. As a result, they are directly translating their UW–Madison engineering education and experiences into knowledge and products that benefit their employers. We could use additional resources in the college to address the growth; we have to expand our labs to handle the upper-level instruction and we need more faculty.”