Project-Based Learning is Key for STEM Majors’ University Success

It’s no secret that the once-superior education system in the United States has fallen behind countries like China and Singapore in recent years, particularly in the areas of science and math.  How can the US keep pace globally when our rivals in innovation and engineering are turning out university STEM graduates at increasing rates, leaving us to spin our wheels and try to keep up?

In 2010, President Obama announced a privately-funded program where corporations would partner with federal government initiatives to train 10,000 new engineers each year.    The focus was to be on enticing students with corporate internships and offering funding to university engineering programs.  But will these measures be enough?

US universities continue to attract plenty of freshmen interested in math and science, and significantly, they have a strong foundation already in place from rigorous high school coursework.  But the rate of these students changing their majors is huge.  To be clear, the problem is not from inadequate college preparation, but from the washout of STEM students once they’ve matriculated.

It has been suggested that many STEM students change their majors because of the barrage of dull classes they’re forced to take in lecture halls with hundreds of other students.  This scenario provides almost no personal interaction with a professor, and students can feel like they’re drowning in theory for the first few years of college, with little to no application of their knowledge.  Project-based learning would do wonders for retention rates in the STEM majors, as students would feel challenged and their skills valued.   College students can be quite passionate, and need an outlet for their creativity that years of classroom study of science and math doesn’t provide.

Shockingly, up to half of STEM-majoring university students in America are foreigners here to obtain an education.  Most cannot legally stay to work in this country after graduation, so a large percentage of each year’s graduating class leaves immediately afterward, rather than staying here to fill engineering jobs.   Initiatives to close the gap would be well-suited to focus on American students, not just students at American universities.

Project-based learning is one of the more successful homeschool trends, as effective as it is in giving students a sense of ownership about their studies.   But project-based learning didn’t originate with homeschoolers, and would likely strongly appeal to university students.     Applied knowledge is key; what good is filling your brain with knowledge if it doesn’t perform useful work?  Mentoring would also increase STEM students’ satisfaction with their chosen careers, and smaller classes not held in the typical large lecture halls would do wonders for students who don’t want to be just a number, but want their passion to be recognized.  Interactive teaching methods would involve students in problem-solving and critical thinking projects rather than didactic note-taking as a professor speaks of his own experiences.

Many unschooling parents take their cues from esoteric strategies at the university level.  After all, that is where we hope many of our children to be someday.  Project-based learning is the ultimate demonstration of acquiring knowledge.  Let’s use it now to maintain our kids’ interest in science and technology so they’re better able to withstand the endurance test college has become.   Eventually, Obama may get his 10,000 engineers.

About the Author:  Jennifer Needham believes in helping kids learn by freeing them from “education”.  She writes about homeschool curricula and  nutrition education at her website, Nutrition for Healthy Kids.

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