Investing in Undergraduate Research to Support Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education

Investing in Undergraduate Research to Support Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education

Over the last two months, and as recent as last week, I attended meetings in Washington focused on the importance of investing in research at the undergraduate level in order to advance STEM education. The need for additional resources and funding to advance STEM education is an issue I have continually advocated for throughout my career on behalf of minority serving institutions and community colleges, and one that I believe is truly critical to the nation’s economy and global competitiveness.

Undergraduate research is an extremely effective learning tool for STEM students that both increases retention within related majors and better prepares students for graduate school and the workforce. It can also be effective in overcoming traditional barriers for first-generation students, underrepresented students, and women by providing benefits beyond the traditional classroom, including mentoring, professional development, a sense of community and support, and technical and soft skills enhancement.

After listening to faculty, STEM and research education advocates, federal agencies representatives, and the private sector, I have concluded that in order to increase undergraduate research and scale up STEM initiatives we must focus on partnering two and four-year institutions with strategic academic and industry partners. A great example of this is the collaboration between California State University Fullerton, Fullerton College, and Santa Ana College. Their ENGAGE in STEM initiative works to strengthen education for STEM transfer students and their eventual matriculation with the goal of increasing the number of STEM degrees awarded. These types of partnerships are developing the tools that foster student success in this field and serve as key factors in building the nation’s pipeline of STEM students.

Today’s STEM focused workforce demands students that are well prepared for employment. Additional interventions such as STEM-specific counseling, mandatory advisement in the major, mentoring, supplemental instruction, boot camps for students and their families, financial aid, and participation in undergraduate research are proving to be successful in transitioning students and supporting them as they pursue their education and move toward graduate school and/or employment. Investments such as these provide payoffs for the institution, the students, and industry now and well into the future.

Institutions, government, and industry can work collaboratively utilizing scholarships, grants, fellowships, and internships to support undergraduate research. Tremendous opportunity exists for students who pursue STEM education and are afforded a comprehensive support system to enhance their academic performance and their employability.

We cannot afford to lose sight of this in the era of federal budget sequestration and overall continued budget austerity. We must invest now for the future of our students, academic institutions, and our nation’s industrial and technological competitiveness.