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N.C. A&T outpacing other UNC schools in math, science grads

 From the Triad Business Journal:

 

N.C. A&T outpacing other UNC schools in math, science grads

The Business Journal by Matt Evans, Reporter

  

The opening of the new STEM Early College at N.C. A&T State University this fall in conjunction with Guilford County Schools should give that campus a boost in its efforts to turn out more graduates trained and ready to go to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs.

 

But N.C. A&T is already outpacing other Triad UNC campuses and the UNC system as a whole when it comes to fulfilling what many education and policy leaders have said is the critical need for more graduates with skills in science and math. According to data provided by the UNC system, A&T increased the number of STEM-related degrees it granted in 2011 by 39.3 percent compared to 2008, while the number of non-STEM degrees rose by just 3 percent.   Data for 2012 was not yet available.

 

 UNC-Greensboro, meanwhile, increased STEM degree production by 18 percent and non-STEM degrees by 15.5 percent in that period. Winston-Salem State University was lopsided in the other direction, increasing STEM degrees by 17.5 percent while non-STEM degrees increased by 45.6 percent.

 

STEM degrees granted systemwide in 2011 were up by 20.7 percent from 2008, compared to an increase of 11.2 percent for non-STEM degrees.

 

High-level priority

 

Increasing the number of graduates in STEM-related fields has been one of the top educational priorities during the past decade, and a buzzword on the lips of business and policy experts all the way up to the president of the United States.

 

 In June 2011, President Obama spoke at the headquarters of semiconductor manufacturer Cree Inc. in Durham and exhorted schools to do more to produce workers qualified to fill jobs going wanting even with high unemployment.  He said only 14 percent of undergrads go into STEM majors, and only 40 percent of those students will graduate with a STEM degree in six years.

 

“We must do better than that,” Obama said. “If we’re going to make sure the good jobs of tomorrow stay in America, we need to make sure all our companies have a steady stream of skilled workers to draw from.”

 

 A&T’s efforts date back to ’90s

 

 That stream has gained strength in the Triad during the past few years, especially at N.C. A&T where the STEM shift has been most pronounced.

  

Wanda Lester, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at A&T, said the lopsided growth in STEM degrees at her school is not meant to de-emphasize other kinds of academic fields, but it is a “long-term interest” of the school to produce more scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

 

 She traces the origins of A&T’s current momentum in STEM growth back to the late 1990s, when the school started adding more doctoral degrees in engineering and other scientific fields. Having doctoral programs in a field attracts top faculty and research opportunities that help draw young science-minded students.

  

“It’s filtered down” from the Ph.D. level to undergrads, she said.

  

“Students who are interested in engineering hear we’re a top producer of engineers and it attracts more students to the field.”

 

Early College initiative

 

 The opening of the STEM Early College on A&T’s campus this fall will filter that interest down to even younger students, she added. The Early College will usher high school students through a STEM-

  

intensive curriculum that moves quickly to college-level courses, giving high school students a chance to get a head start on their degree.

 

 The students won’t be obligated to stick with STEM in college, but Lester believes most will, and many may choose to stay at A&T.

 

 “I believe the high school years are very influential,” she said.

 

 STEM is important but it’s not the be-all and end-all for every campus, said Brenda Allen, the provost at Winston-Salem State University, which has seen faster growth in non-STEM degrees during the past few years.

 

 Allen noted that while N.C. A&T and UNC-Greensboro have greater concentrations on the kinds of basic sciences that are the core of a STEM curriculum such as their shared Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, WSSU has historically concentrated more on fields such as education and nursing.

 

 WSSU’s “Sure” efforts

  

WSSU still works hard to support STEM students, she said, with opportunities such as the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience or “Sure” program for undergrads in biology, chemistry, computer science and math majors going on now. That National Science

  

Foundation-funded program provides a stipend for participants who take part in current research projects.

 

 But “not every school can respond to every need,” she said. “The resources just don’t work out that way, and historically different schools have had different niches.”

 

 Engaging businesses

  

There are ways that all schools, including those that have already had success encouraging more STEM students, can do more, said Julia Jackson-Newsom, a special assistant to the vice chancellor in the Office of Research and Economic Development at UNCG, and that school’s STEM coordinator.

  

UNCG has taken steps such as the 2010 launch of the campuswide Research and Instruction in STEM Education, or “Rise,” network to better coordinate math and science educators and researchers. UNCG has also worked on the creation of a STEM-focused dorm whose residents will take classes and participate in programs together.

 

 Jackson-Newsom said there could be better communication of best practices and success between schools, but just as important would be better communication with the business community.

  

“We hear stories about jobs needing to be filled, but it would help us to know more about those jobs specifically” and what skills graduates would need to be able to do them, she said. “The business community could do a lot by offering more internships and working with us to deliver hands-on experiences.”