The need for more and better prepared graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – collectively called STEM – has been a major focus this century. President Obama has called for 100,000 new teachers in those fields by 2022. A Business Roundtable “Change the Equation 2014 Survey on US Workforce Skills” found that employers are looking to fill 1.6 million jobs needing some level of STEM mastery within five years. In New Jersey alone, officials predict that more than 200,000 jobs in STEM fields must be filled by 2025.
“It is essential that the future US workforce be skilled in the STEM disciplines,” says Joel Bloom, president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark. “STEM has become pervasive in virtually every aspect of our lives. It is entwined throughout the industries that drive our national and global economies, including our healthcare systems, military and defense systems, manufacturing, transportation and every other business sector you can imagine. Therefore, STEM must be ubiquitous in our educational enterprise.”
New Jersey, which has the largest concentration of scientific professionals of any state, has recognized the importance in several ways, including an annual STEM scholars program, and a STEM Week each March to raise awareness for the state’s industries and the need for more graduates in the fields. The state gave colleges $900 million – more than half of the money from the 2012 Building Our Future Bond Act – for STEM projects. The largest include: $86 million for a STEM learning and teaching hub with a Center for Innovation and Discovery at NJIT; $82 million for a Chemistry and Chemical Biology building at Rutgers University; and $46 million to expand Rowan University’s College of Engineering.
Last year, Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks created the STEM Pathways Network, a group of educators, entrepreneurs and industry leaders charged with suggesting ways to improve K-12 STEM education. Earlier this fall, that group chose four cooperatives – the South Jersey STEM and Innovation Center, Delran STEM Ecosystem Alliance, Liberty STEM Alliance and Newark STEM Coalition – to work with The Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM on the best ways to provide the education and experiences that students need to succeed.
“I am excited to see this level of collaboration among our New Jersey educators, entrepreneurs, businesses and industries,” Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno says of the initiative. “We know we must improve STEM education opportunities in our state. We are not where we need to be, and we have to work together to make sure that our children are prepared to compete in the world’s economy.”
Laura Overdeck, chair of the STEM Pathways Network and the Overdeck Family Foundation that gave $300,000 to fund the STEM collaboratives, agrees that New Jersey needs to take a different, concerted path to regain its edge in this area.
“New Jersey has always had a long, storied history of innovation,” she says, noting the work of Thomas Edison and New Jersey’s numerous pharmaceutical companies. “Over the last couple of decades, that has weakened. We lost our branding. We are kind of better known for Snooki than as America’s medicine chest, anymore.”
Hendricks says more than 200 STEM initiatives exist throughout New Jersey, but there has been limited awareness and interaction among those involved.
“By organizing our efforts and enhancing collaborations, something new and powerful can emerge,” Hendricks said at a forum introducing the award winners. “We can truly build a cohesive innovation ecosystem that will help students find meaningful careers, supply industry with highly-skilled workers and meet the economic needs of the state.”
Overdeck says it’s important to give children a strong background in math and science so they will be able to succeed at the college level, and then in the workforce.
“You have to build that pipeline very early on,” she adds.
While a university, NJIT does strive to build that pipeline by introducing students in grades 4 through 12 to the STEM fields and preparing them for success in those disciplines through its pre-college programs. The school also enrolls more than 11,000 college students in 50 bachelor’s, 59 master’s, and 19 doctoral programs. NJIT is engaged in STEM work as well: conducting more than $120 million of research activity, and generating an economic impact of more than $1.74 billion on the state each year, according to Bloom.
While there may have been a time when it was hard to get students interested in STEM careers, that is not the case now, Bloom says.
“Students and their parents increasingly are understanding that the best jobs are in the STEM fields, and enrollment trends show that is clearly the case,” he says, adding that both applications and enrollments have risen, and the academic profile of students is also stronger. “The number of talented students seeking a STEM education is growing.”
Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken has seen a similar trend, reporting that the number of applications has more than doubled over the last five years and enrollment is up by nearly 30 percent.
The university uses an approach that teaches the integrated STEM subjects in a way that “synthesizes the disciplines into a real-world context,” says Katherine Cutler, a university spokeswoman.
“Stevens builds a strong foundation in theory, but aims to bridge the gap between theory and real-world application by introducing practical design elements earlier in the educational process,” she says. “Stevens takes into account the impact of globalization and focuses on equipping students with the soft skills required to succeed in today’s global economy.”
Stevens received a $2.8-million award from the National Science Foundation in 2015 for improving undergraduate STEM education. As a result, it has undertaken a significant initiative to train faculty on ways to transition from the traditional didactic “sage on the stage” mode of teaching, to the active, student-centered approaches to learning that research clearly shows are more effective, Cutler says.
Other colleges are also stepping up their games, revising curricula to keep up with evolving business needs and providing new labs and equipment so students work with the most modern technologies and get the best preparation for current and future job demands.
“STEM disciplines are relentless in change,” says Robert S. Prezant, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Montclair State University. “As our global economy shifts and the absolute mandate to live in a sustainable world becomes more and more apparent, curriculum in the STEM fields must not just keep pace, but be in the lead. As climate change continues to change the world we live in, as environmental issues grow and our population expands, the emerging issues demand changes in how we do science and what we study. That, in turn, mandates that our curriculum and research also changes.”
Prezant says STEM education at Montclair continues to be “discovery-based,” with students learning how to ask questions and test hypotheses. However, technology is providing richer opportunities for the students.
“Software has made specific demonstrations or complex structures much more easily illustrated,” Prezant says. “The opportunities for our students to also use very high-end research equipment, something that in the past was rare, is also now the norm.”
Montclair has seen its informational technology and computer science, and environmental studies and sustainability sciences programs grow, and large numbers of students continue enrolling in the life and health sciences. Prezant says the university has a very large doctoral program in environmental management that produces professionals heading to academia, industry, government and consulting. They “arrive in their roles with deep science expertise commingled with business and legal savvy.”
Kean University in Union established the New Jersey Center for Science, Technology, and Mathematics (NJCSTM) in 2004 to meet the state’s need for qualified science and mathematics teachers, physicians and scientific researchers.
Keith A. Bostian, NJCSTM dean, says the center has “the only programs in New Jersey with a core curriculum in the first two years that integrates science and mathematics courses linked to problem-solving, and hands-on laboratory courses to reinforce the classroom content.” Students can choose from several bachelor of science and combined BS/MS honors degree programs, and through a newly developed Research First Initiative (RFI), they are able to join faculty-sponsored research teams and learn through actual laboratory experience as early as freshmen year.
“The RFI provides students with the opportunity to learn science by ‘doing’ and offers mentorships which help to build confidence and enables students to identify as true scientists,” he says.
Kean’s NJCSTM has seen enrollment increase by half in the last four years, with a majority of students female and more than a third being members of minority groups. However, despite the demand for STEM educators, Bostian says it has been challenging to attract and keep students in the biology and chemistry teacher track programs, with nearly two-thirds choosing the math track.
Union County College (UCC) has also seen STEM enrollment increase, especially in engineering, says Liesl Jones, UCC’s dean of STEM.
“The conversation around jobs and the talk of how many jobs we will need to fill in STEM has helped attract students to the fields,” she says. “I think the ever-changing technology in people’s personal lives and in their classrooms in high school and earlier has helped pique interest in the STEM fields.”
The college has revised a number of its offerings based on input from industry advisory committees, faculty, the local community and four- year colleges.
“We have changed our computer science program to add programming languages and courses that will better prepare students for the job market they enter. We have also changed our engineering technology program,” Jones says. “STEM fields are constantly changing, and so it is important for us as educators to stay in touch with industry to make sure the content we deliver will provide the students with the skills they need to obtain jobs when they graduate.”
Bloom says NJIT has industrial advisory boards for every academic department to provide feedback about courses and develop relationships with professionals in the fields.
“We work with government as well as private industry to continuously improve and to assure that we are educating and innovating in ways that have tangible results and practical impacts,” he says.
Staying in touch with trends is also important to provide businesses with the employees they need.
Thomas Edison State University, based in Trenton, has new programs to prepare students to deal with hackers. The school offers a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity and a master of science in information technology with a concentration called Cybersecurity for Critical Infrastructure.
Rory Butler, assistant director of the School of Applied Science and Technology, says the programs were created “to meet the demand for qualified IT personnel.”
The BS is competency-based, focusing on skills needed in the workplace, and closely mirrors many popular information technology certifications, he says. The cybersecurity master’s focuses on the technological security of such critical sectors as energy, water, gas and transportation.
There is great demand for cybersecurity experts. US Bureau of Labor Statistics data show more than 200,000 job openings in the field went unfilled in the country last year. And the 2015 Global Information Security Workforce Study estimates the shortfall in the global security workforce will reach 1.5 million by 2020.
UCC has received two grants from the National Science Foundation to build and grow its own cybersecurity program, Jones says.
NJIT partners with industry through its Enterprise Development Center (EDC) and the New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII). The EDC houses more than 90 start-up companies where about 300 NJIT students are employed each year. Last year, the NJII received a $49.6-million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services to redefine the relationship among business, government and universities in a new model for advanced technology-based innovation.
Bloom says this model “expands the function of faculty to become more directly involved in the practical application of science and technology knowledge, and extends the classroom boundaries into the applied world as an enriching experience for the student.”
Many students in STEM-related programs at William Paterson University in Wayne gain critical skills collaborating with faculty in research leading to conference presentations and publication in peer-review journals. Students also have an opportunity to display their research at an annual campus undergraduate research symposium that grows each year.
Examples of recent research projects include a partnership between student Julia MacDonald and Lance Risley, professor of biology and a noted researcher. Together, they discovered a threatened species of bats in the High Mountain Park Preserve near campus, and US Fish and Wildlife Service are interested in the findings. Students Randall Sanders and Alyssa Apryasz presented a paper – and won the best paper award – at last year’s Geological Society of America conference. Working with environmental science professors Nicole Davi and Michael Griffith, they described a collaborative project between the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, the Paterson Museum, and William Paterson University. The project is designed to position the national park as an educational resource for Paterson students in grades 3 through 12, with a curriculum focused on natural geo-scientific processes.
William Paterson University offers degree programs in biology, biotechnology, chemistry, environmental science, computer science, and computer information technology and mathematics. The university works closely with alumni and friends at STEM-related companies, and on its College of Science and Health Advisory Board to keep curriculum aligned with industry needs. The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, with support from Becton Dickinson, is designed to encourage talented women interested in majoring in STEM fields by offering opportunities to develop leadership skills and explore science careers.
The university also provides specific career development networking programs on campus to connect students in STEM fields with companies offering internships and career opportunities.