What Can We Learn From This Big Give for Higher Ed STEM Teaching and Scholarships?

Everyone seems to agree these days that colleges need to produce more STEM grads—everyone, that is, except students, who often avoid these subjects like the plague or drift away after taking a few classes out of boredom or because the work load is too heavy. 

A growing number of funders are obsessed with fixing this problem, and many believe the key to making science, technology, engineering and math degrees and careers more interesting to today's college students is to make STEM instruction more engaging. Which makes obvious sense.

Biologists, physicists, engineers, and other faculty in the STEM fields engage in some of the most fascinating, cutting-edge research projects in the world. Yet these same professors often seem at a loss when it comes to bringing their fields of expertise to life in the classroom.

This disconnect has implications for the nation's STEM workforce. Many students who leave STEM majors have cited unengaging teaching by math and science faculty as a factor in their decisions. Who wants to spend four years of college bored out their mind or, worse, lost and confused by a string of clueless geek professors? 

Related - IP Guide for College STEM Funding

As I wrote here last year, David Asai and Erin O'Shea at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have championed efforts to improve the quality of STEM teaching. Former university science faculty know how challenging it can be. To these advocates of better STEM instruction, add Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty. That's right, the philanthropic arm of this nonprofit student loan servicer is about a lot more than the college financial aid. Great Lakes also wants to boost the number of STEM graduates nationwide, and it is committing $9 million to the effort.

Over a third of that funding—$3.2 million—will target STEM teaching, training future STEM faculty in teaching techniques that have been shown to be effective. The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is the chosen recipient of these funds.

CIRTL's work is all about improving the quality of STEM education by training STEM graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to be great teachers as well as cutting-edge researchers. CIRTL works with a network of more than 20 universities across 16 states.

But STEM teaching is only one part of a three-pronged effort to boost the nation's stock of engineering, science, and mathematics graduates. Another $4 million will provide financial support for STEM students and support research on the financial burden of a STEM degree.

Because majoring in a STEM field can require hours of laboratory research, students in these fields have less time to devote to part-time jobs to help fund their education and pay living expenses. For STEM majors from low-income families, the burden can be especially high. Great Lakes is committing $4 million to provide $1,000 annual stipends to hundreds of STEM majors at 10 colleges and universities across Wisconsin, while researchers evaluate whether the assistance helps undergraduates stay enrolled in college and successfully complete degrees.

Finally, Great Lakes is awarding $1.9 million in scholarships to low-income students majoring in STEM-related disciplines. Scholarships under this initiative reached 750 students at 400 colleges and universities.