Probe could change how nation gets its engineers and scientists
CLEMSON — Professions that keep the Upstate economy humming will come sharply into focus as Clemson University researchers conduct a nationwide probe into what can be done to help university and college faculty members develop into better teachers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The results could revolutionize STEM education in universities across the nation but will be especially critical for the Upstate, where large advanced manufacturers depend heavily on engineers. They are responsible for a wide range of tasks from creating new products to making assembly lines move efficiently.
Organizers said the project, like many others driven by Clemson University, aims to support faculty, empowering them to help South Carolina and other states develop the best engineering workforce.
The Clemson faculty and graduate students leading the probe expect to find new ways to encourage STEM faculty members to sharpen their teaching and mentoring skills in an environment that has traditionally rewarded excellence in research over everything else.
The team hopes that students will be less likely to drop out of STEM majors and will benefit from a more well-rounded education that goes beyond technical know-how, if research universities nationwide do a better job of supporting faculty members as they refine their teaching, service, leadership and mentoring abilities.
While the project is just getting started, some ideas have been proposed to help develop better STEM programs. They include creating mentoring programs for faculty to learn from experienced educators, putting certificate programs online to make information widely accessible and changing the tenure and promotion process to reward those who seek to strengthen their teaching.
Karen High, a professor in the engineering and science education department and leader of the project, said that once researchers find some concrete answers, Clemson could become home to an institute that acts as a clearinghouse and research base for the best programs.
“We want to bring in people from across the country to do sabbaticals, do research projects and be involved with us, both on site and virtually,” High said. “The vision is to grow this into an international institute.”
The efforts would help position the Upstate as a leader in education, organizers said.
This project comes as the nation sees a steady uptick in demand for engineering and science graduates.
Employment of engineers nationwide is projected to grow 4 percent from 2014 to 2024, adding 65,000 new jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median annual wage for engineers in 2015 was $90,060.
Few areas feel the need for engineers as much as the Upstate. The Greenville-Mauldin-Easley area ranked No. 6 in a Forbes magazine list of America’s Engineering Capitals.
The project began last month when more than 50 STEM education experts from across the country gathered at Clemson for a two-day workshop funded by the National Science Foundation.
Among other topics, they considered whether anything is unique about STEM that makes faculty development different from other fields. Those gathered also looked at what can be done to promote service, leadership and other topics at a time when most faculty development centers on teaching.
The group found few concrete answers but discovered fertile ground for a national research agenda that informs areas that need future work, organizers said. Clemson researchers are now taking ideas from the workshop and figuring out the best areas to focus research efforts.
The workshop was led by the STEM Faculty Development Collaboratory. Clemson University’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences and the College of Education are equal partners in the collaboratory which is already expanding its membership to include educators and researchers across the country.
Sandra Linder, an associate professor of early childhood mathematics education, said the workshop was a fruitful collaboration between the many STEM faculty in attendance, and it revealed clear paths for the development of a national research agenda.
“This workshop was all about building a solid foundation, and I think we achieved that because of the diversity of viewpoints involved,” she said. “The conversations between STEM faculty and faculty from the colleges of education or colleges of humanities were enlightening.”
What makes Clemson an ideal place for the research is its one-of-a-kind department of engineering and science education, said department chair Cindy Lee.
“We are the only department like this in the world,” Lee said. “We are the only department housed in a college of engineering that focuses on STEM education. Right now we focus on students who are working toward becoming faculty members. But it makes sense to go the next step and focus on faculty already working in the trenches of higher education. That’s why Clemson is such a perfect place to start this.”