Politics

Universities Pressured to Boost Science, Math Degrees

By: Lilly Rockwell News Service of Florida | Posted: September 26, 2011 3:55 AM

Florida's colleges and universities are facing mounting pressure to graduate more students with science and math degrees as part of a statewide effort to more closely align college degrees with employers' demands and keep Florida competitive with other states.

The business community, in particular, has clamored for a de-emphasis on liberal arts degrees such as philosophy and history toward degrees like engineering and computer science to keep pace with demand. Businesses recruiting for these high-paid, high-skilled jobs say they have to look out of state to fill positions, and Florida is ranked "average" compared to other states in student preparation for science and math careers.

One study by a pro-business public policy advocacy group issued this year said the state needs 100,000 more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates by 2015 -- an extraordinarily ambitious goal that one university official said had "zero" chance of being achieved.

Florida's colleges and universities say K-12 schools are partially to blame for the STEM deficit. Schools need to do a better job making science and math interesting to middle school and high school students, they say.

"It starts with students losing interest in science and math as early as middle school," said FSU Professor of Biological Sciences Joe Travis, who is also the former dean of FSU's College of Arts and Sciences.

Florida isn't alone in its STEM mania. It is part of a broad national effort to produce more science and math graduates to meet global demand and stay competitive compared to other nations, such as China.

Even President Barack Obama weighed in during his State of the Union speech this year, vowing to recruit 100,000 more science and math teachers to help interest more students in those careers.

Florida university and college officials, who are largely on board with the shift toward STEM degrees, say there are myriad obstacles that prevent them from quickly churning out more graduates.

For one, universities have a long history of offering a large variety of degrees that are in demand by students, and what is popular with students may not match up with business needs.

"It doesn't work like the draft, where you can tap a kid on the shoulder, and say 'You are a physics major,'" Travis said. "You can't make students major in something in which they are not interested."

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said universities have to be responsive to student demand.

"Oftentimes, we offer more of what is in demand and if psychology degrees are in greater demand (with students), or if fine arts are in greater demand than STEM education, we offer more of them," Brogan said.

But he acknowledged that Florida is "woefully undersubscribed" in STEM fields.

Another barrier universities face is the expense of offering STEM degrees. It is more expensive for a university or college to offer a bachelor's degree in biology than one in history. That's because biology involves smaller classes, held in laboratories with expensive equipment, while a history class just needs textbooks and a teacher.

Students pay the same for each degree, so essentially liberal arts degrees help subsidize STEM degrees. To shift toward more production of STEM degrees would require a big investment that cash-strapped universities don't have. For instance, Paul Cottle, an FSU physics professor, said the university is anxiously awaiting legislative approval of funds for a new physics classroom building that would accommodate more students.

And there is the trouble of getting students interested in science and math at a young age. That's why Obama and others are promoting the idea of training more K-12 teachers in math and science. Some universities have started programs to help steer science and math majors toward teaching, but it is not an easy sell, Travis said.

At Florida State, the school is in its fourth year offering FSU-Teach, a program that helps students get science or math degrees simultaneously with an education degree. Students who choose this program are essentially giving up a higher salary they could make in the private sector, Travis said, and many don't stay in teaching very long.

Cottle jokes that he tells his students that FSU-Teach is a "little like joining the Peace Corps."

Some groups have started floating other solutions, such as offering incentives to bring students into STEM careers.

TaxWatch released a report last week that floated the idea of STEM tracks in high school, similar to Advanced Placement courses, and using Bright Futures or another scholarship program as a vehicle to incentivize students.

Cottle is a big supporter of incentives, arguing that the state should use Bright Futures as a vehicle for STEM incentive by making eligibility contingent upon taking a calculus or physics class.

"Students coming out of college now need to be prepared differently for the economy," Cottle said. "If we really are going to make that change in a reasonable period of time, five years or so, we need to put incentives in the system."

Others are not convinced incentives will work.

"You could offer people incentives, but what incentive would you offer them that is better than what is already out there in the private sector, which is the potential for a really good job?" Travis said.

For example, Travis said the starting salary for a geologist is $60,000 to $70,000, in part because there are not enough geology majors to fill demand. "The geology departments around the nation have to work really hard to get students to walk into class," he said. He says this lack of interest stems from how geology is taught in K-12 schools.

When earth sciences are taught, he said, it's done in a boring way, such as memorizing types of rocks.

"If we don't get them interested in science and math when they get here, you can't increase the numbers beyond what you start with," he said.


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