Every year there are more and more American students receiving post-secondary education. Between 1995 and fall 2004, there was a 20 percent increase in the number of students enrolled in U.S. colleges, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
But while enrollment numbers are increasing, the percentage of American undergraduate degrees awarded in what is commonly referred to as the STEM areas — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is one of the lowest in the industrialized world.
Only 17 percent of American undergraduate degrees awarded in 2004 were in STEM areas of study, according to the education department. That’s compared to 52 percent in China and more than 40 percent in South Korea, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland, according to recent data published in the online journal Inside Higher Ed.
Despite the nation’s poor showing, MU is doing relatively well in awarding STEM degrees. In 2004, 21 percent of degrees awarded at MU were in the STEM areas. Linda Blockus, director of the Office for Undergraduate Research at MU, said the higher percentage is the result of two factors: MU’s research mission and the type of students the university attracts.
“Students who are serious about pursuing degrees in science and engineering are going to be looking for institutions that have strong research in science and engineering,” Blockus said.
Blockus said MU’s nuclear research reactor, the largest nuclear reactor on a college campus, is an example of the research opportunities at MU. The reactor produces no power but is instead used for research in areas such as detecting and treating cancer. Facilities such as the nuclear reactor attract good faculty members, creating a strong program and drawing in great students, she added.
Blockus said MU’s strength in STEM areas has multiple benefits. It will help create high-paying jobs and promote economic development in the state. A higher rate of STEM degrees awarded also means a society with a better understanding of public policies based on scientific processes, she said.
“With the problems we have as a society, be it diabetes, cardiovascular disease, be it global warming, you name it ... the solutions are going to be based in science,” Blockus said. “And if we’re going to have people that can solve those problems, we need scientists and engineers, and we need a public that understands science, engineering and technology issues, even if they’re not practicing scientists.”
Paul Vaughn, associate dean and director at MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, pointed out that there is a “huge interest” in the life sciences in Missouri, which boasts a “Life Sciences Corridor,” a stretch of research facilities that runs along Interstate 70 from Kansas City to St. Louis.
Vaughn said MU’s biochemistry program is one of the best in the country, and the university’s study of plant and animal genomics has surged, drawing in more students interested in those subjects.
“Scientists are what’s going to improve the quality of life in America and in the world,” Vaughn said. “If we are going to have scientists, they have to be prepared.”
But while MU’s number of STEM students tops the national average, it lags behind Iowa State University, whose official name is actually Iowa State University of Science and Technology. Just over 30 percent of undergraduate degrees are awarded in STEM areas, nearly double the national percentage. Iowa State is also home to the nation’s seventh largest engineering program in the country; the school’s College of Engineering awarded 850 degrees in 2004, nearly matching the number of degrees awarded in STEM areas by MU that year.
Mark Harding, director of admissions at Iowa State, said that science-related issues in the news, such as global warming and the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, are piquing people’s interest in science. “We are seeing recent tragedies increase interest in technology and engineering,” Harding said.
At MU, the recent departure of two top research officials, the retraction of peer-reviewed research from a top scientific journal because of fraud and the fact that MU’s faculty salaries lag well behind its peer institutions could hurt the university’s standing in STEM areas.
Vaughn said he’s concerned that the recently announced hold on new faculty hires could hurt students, especially those who have not yet committed to attending MU. He points out that CAFNR does not hire professional advisers for students, but instead relies on faculty members who are already dealing with a high faculty-to-student ratio.
“We would assume a higher quality of faculty (by offering a higher salary),” Vaughn said. “But I’m concerned about the decreased number of faculty.”
Blockus said that in order for MU to continue awarding higher percentages of STEM degrees, the state would have to step up its financial support, which has lagged behind the rate of inflation for five years now.
“We need to continue to put resources into science education and scientific research,” Blockus said. “If the environment is not as supportive as it could be compared to other states, we will lose strong researchers to other states.”