Every so often leaders from business, industry and government sound the alarms about the waning of U.S. scientific and technological prowess and call on academe to produce more graduates. Education leaders at the university level then point an accusatory finger at primary and secondary schools for producing marginal students and at the students themselves for having little interest in science. Yet responsibility rests largely with the universities. They, after all, educated the teachers—the same teachers who seem to have made learning math and science too much like an Olympic triathlon: an ordeal from which few stars emerge.
The prevailing approach to teaching science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM, generally serves only to enhance gifted students already predisposed toward science and math. These elite students may hearten their professors, but the other 90 percent are being shortchanged. Science and math are foundational subjects of the liberal arts and also align with the increasingly rigorous demands of the contemporary labor market. Yet when average students confront the university's ossified approaches to these crucial subjects, they flee in vast numbers. It is no wonder math performance has declined at all levels of our society, including hundreds of thousands of teachers who find themselves ill equipped to inspire excitement in these areas to the levels necessary for our national competitiveness in the global economy.
Too many average students now avoid STEM courses except for the few that are required for graduation. Figuring out how to help them overcome the culturally fatal fear of science Carl Sagan warned of—specifically how to attract and retain them in STEM programs at the university level—is key to improving STEM skills and critical thinking in the population at large.
Young people entering universities today are hyperconnected, multitasking visual learners. They grew up with ubiquitous information technologies that offer access to unlimited information. Steeped in an information culture, these students are apparently less willing to ponder algorithms about combinatorial optimization or the entropy of a monatomic ideal gas without some additional context or understanding of purpose. Standardized sequential instruction will always be at odds with their nonlinear multitasking approaches to learning. The new technologies can, however, when appropriately channeled, help students rapidly integrate and master broad knowledge from complex and interrelated scientific disciplines.
To be fair, one reason students have been defecting from science and technology is that our economy has shifted toward a service sector dominated by the verbal and the visual. But another root cause is a denial among those in academe that our incoming students are fundamentally different than those of previous decades. The trouble is that most professors were trained to think in terms of biology, chemistry and other rigid academic disciplines. This model of higher education has failed to inspire the last two generations of students.
That is why we have revised the STEM enterprise at Arizona State University over the past decade, as part of a broader reconceptualization of the entire university. Our goal was to find a way of providing the best possible education for the students of Arizona and to develop a new paradigm for the American research university. As the nation's youngest major research institution, Arizona State has the advantage of not being hidebound by tradition, which has freed us to develop an egalitarian institution committed to academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic and maximum societal impact. We call this model the “New American University.”
To spur creativity and innovation, we introduced a set of “design aspirations”—eight interrelated principles that embrace such goals as transforming society, emphasizing transdisciplinary approaches, pursuing research for its potential usefulness and encouraging creative risk taking.
When we began our STEM efforts a decade ago, our goal was to double the number of majors as quickly as possible and, more broadly, to produce students with a new spirit of engagement in scientific and technological futures. To accomplish our objectives in this context, we offered our faculty the opportunity to design teaching, learning and discovery platforms in STEM areas. To liberate their thinking, we specified no limits whatsoever regarding philosophical or pedagogical boundaries.
In recent years we have reconfigured scores of academic units into new entities, including more than a dozen transdisciplinary schools, which arose from merged and restructured traditional academic departments. In the process, we have eliminated a number of departments—among them anthropology, geology, sociology and several areas of biology—that had outlived their usefulness.
The School of Earth and Space Exploration, for example, combines science and engineering research and education to advance our understanding of our planet and the universe. The school brings transdisciplinary fluidity to the former programs in geology and astronomy, fostering collaboration among earth and planetary scientists, astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists. Affiliated engineers bring technological expertise that advances the development and deployment of critical scientific instrumentation on planet Earth and in space. The theme of exploration represents our quest to discover the origins of the universe and to expand our understanding of space, matter and time.
The School of Human Evolution and Social Change combines faculty from the former departments of anthropology and sociology, thus giving students an integrated curriculum in the social, behavioral and natural sciences focused on the evolution of our species and trajectories of human societies. Unlike traditional academic departments, the professors and graduate students are free to organize themselves to best tackle critical global problems.
These transdisciplinary departments complement our large-scale research initiatives, such as the Biodesign Institute and the Global Institute of Sustainability, the latter of which incorporates the first-of-its-kind School of Sustainability.
To broaden the reach of our engineering programs, we offer students two separate approaches—theoretical and practical. The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engi-neering are organized into five research-intensive divisions, including the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering; the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering; and the School of Sustainable Engi-neering and the Built Environment. On the other hand, the College of Technology and Innovation at our Polytechnic campus focuses on use-inspired translational research and offers students interested in direct entry into the workforce an experiential learning environment. These “differentiated learning platforms” offer students with varying levels of preparation access to excellence in cutting-edge STEM education.
The results have been encouraging. We have seen a robust expansion in the number and diversity of graduates in traditional core disciplines such as physics and chemistry. Through innovation and linkages with other fields, quantitative literacy throughout the university has improved significantly as measured by learning assessments. In the life sciences alone, enrollment is about 4,600 students, up from 1,675 in 2001. We have 10,000 or so students studying engineering and technology, up from less than 5,000 10 years ago. Undergraduate enrollment in all STEM areas has increased to approximately 16,000, doubling the number over the past decade. The enrollment of women in STEM majors has nearly doubled, and the enrollment of minority students has increased by 141 percent.
Efforts to advance STEM education should remind us that reconceiving how science and technology are organized into academic disciplines has the potential to profoundly affect learning outcomes. It is incumbent on our academic community to pursue transdisciplinary teaching, research and creative excellence focused on the major challenges of our time.