Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education

Sophie Johnson

The U.S. graduate education programs for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are known for being among the best in the world. However, a new report says many graduates lack the ability to translate their knowledge into different career paths. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recently published Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century, which recommends revitalizing the STEM graduate education system.

The main takeaway from the report is that the programs should be “student-centered,” said Dr. Alan Leshner, chair of the committee that wrote the report and CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Students would be encouraged to create their own project-based learning opportunities—ideally as a member of a team—as a means of developing transferable professional skills such as communication, collaboration, management, and entrepreneurship, according to the report. Experiences where students “learn by doing,” rather than simply learn by lecturing and coursework, would be the norm.

Professors need to teach students the necessary career skills that align with the STEM “core competencies” for both master's and Ph.D. degrees, the report recommends, in order for their students to transition into many different STEM fields. The STEM “core competency” suggestions range from rewarding effective teaching and mentoring, to ensuring diverse, equitable and inclusive environments to communicating their research to a broad audience. These changes would help institutions shift towards a “student-centered” system, which would allow graduates to directly apply knowledge acquired during STEM graduate programs to their future professions.

“Communicating the value of research and innovation is critical to maintaining public trust and support. The importance of preparing STEM students in ‘foundational’ competencies including the capacity to the public at large” is essential, noted Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America. According to a survey commissioned by Research!America, 86% of respondents say it is important for scientists to inform the public about their research and its impact on society.

Dr. Keith Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Francisco said in Science magazine that, “the key to a student-centered education is not for professors to do less research, but to do it in ways that focus on teaching students the skills and knowledge required to become a practicing scientist.”

Activities that expose students to career opportunities outside the lab should “supplement, not supplant” the time needed to acquire what the report calls “core competencies,” said Dr. Leshner in Science magazine, adding that changes to the current STEM education system should be “evolutionary, not revolutionary.” Dr. Yamamoto said “change is possible if there is institutional buy-in.”

Sophie Johnson will study biology at University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the fall in the undergraduate program.

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Without research, there is no hope.
The Honorable Paul G. Rogers