The STEM Report Card

March 2014

The STEM Report Card

How are STEM outreach and education efforts measuring up?


STEM: it seems like the acronym is everywhere. From student enrichment programs to President Obama’s speeches, science, technology, engineering, and math have gained the national spotlight.

Data show that STEM jobs are growing in the US, and workers in these areas earn higher salaries and experience lower unemployment. It’s no wonder that attention has intensified in this arena.

The question is: Are we seeing results from outreach and education efforts? Some signs to point to yes. Others say there is still room for improvement.

Although the STEM buzz has picked up in the last several years, its genesis may date back further. James Brown is the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of more than 500 business and professional education groups (including NSPE) working to inform policymakers on the importance of STEM education to US competitiveness and prosperity. He believes that interest in STEM really took off after the publication of Thomas Friedman’s bestselling book The World is Flat in 2005. “It got people focusing around STEM and its role in international competitiveness,” Brown explains.

President Obama’s administration has focused on STEM issues. For example, the administration’s Educate to Innovate initiative, launched in 2009, aims to improve student achievement in science and math. With federal budgets tight, the effort aims to take advantage of public-private partnerships. The administration helped launch a new nonprofit, Change the Equation, which brings the business community together to improve STEM education.

While STEM talk has turned in recent years from whispers to shouts, NSPE has a long history of providing a voice in science, technology, engineering, and math. For instance, the Society’s Professional Policy No. 65 on Elementary and Secondary Education urges state and chapter members to demonstrate leadership in elementary and secondary education programs in STEM areas.

It is NSPE’s policy to assist chapters to develop and promote initiatives. The Society believes that the future of the US as a world leader is dependent on the development of technological leadership.

In addition, NSPE’s Position Statement 1768 on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education emphasizes the need for significant change to the core curriculum at the K–12 levels in order to not only develop more STEM professionals, but also create citizens prepared for an increasingly technical society.

NSPE recommends that professional societies, business leaders, federal agencies, and other stakeholders partner to develop a STEM Strategic Plan for K–12 education. “The well-being of our citizens and the future of our nation are at stake,” the position statement stresses.

STEM workers are not widgets to be produced on an assembly line, but one indicator of progress in this arena is a bigger pool of STEM-trained individuals. That means examining education statistics.

Fortunately, there has been some good news in this area.

The National Student Clearinghouse, founded to streamline the process of enrollment verifications and student loan reporting, launched a research center about five years ago to help inform policy conversations.

The center found that between 2009 and 2013, bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering grew 19%, versus a 9% growth rate for nonscience and engineering disciplines. The clearinghouse includes in its definitions of science and engineering areas such as social sciences and psychology, following National Science Foundation classifications. But even if more traditional STEM disciplines are separated out, the news still looks positive (see infographic)—for instance, engineering degrees have grown 24% in that period.

Change the Equation analyzed Department of Education data, without the inclusion of social sciences and psychology, and found a similar growth rate for STEM degrees and certificates—an increase of 25% between 2009 and 2012. That’s almost double the growth rate for the previous eight years (13%).

For bachelor’s degrees in traditional science and engineering fields, the numbers are lower, but still growing. The clearinghouse found a 6% overall growth rate in those areas over the last three years. Research manager Jason DeWitt compares that to a 3% rate over the last 10 years. “The rate of growth has just about doubled,” he says. “So that seems to indicate that something has happened…to accelerate the move towards a technology-driven economy.”

Increases are good news, but number-crunchers can’t say how much of this growth is due to outreach versus the economic downturn.

DeWitt points out that during any recession, enrollments spike as people who are unemployed or underemployed return to school. “Data suggests that some of those people…are moving into science and engineering fields,” he says. “It suggests people are looking to what they perceive to be a more secure labor market.”

DeWitt believes both the economy and outreach may be drivers. “It’s hard to disentangle the two,” he says.

Another caveat is that growth isn’t uniform, even within one field.

The American Society for Engineering Education has reported uneven gains in degrees. In 2012, some disciplines saw big jumps (environmental engineering degrees increased 30%). However, civil engineering experienced only 1% growth, with the number of degrees expected to stay the same or decrease slightly in the next several years, based on enrollment trends.

People often look at STEM as a monolith, says Brown, but in some fields, too few people are graduating to fill jobs, while in others, the opposite is true. (Computerworld recently reported that electrical engineering lost 35,000 jobs last year.) Thus, the public policy approach has to be flexible, he notes.

News in other areas, such as educational testing, is mixed as well. For instance, student math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have increased slightly in the last couple years. (The average math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders in 2013 were each one point higher than in 2011. And they were 28 and 22 points higher, respectively, than in the first assessment year in 1990.)

On international comparisons, however, the US is still not stacking up as well as we’d hope, says Change the Equation CEO Linda Rosen. “It shows that even while the spotlight and effort has been focused on K–12 STEM learning, other countries are doing the same but more quickly and perhaps more coordinated because they have national education systems.”

Women’s and Minority Studies
Any examination of STEM progress must include a look at underrepresented groups.

The National Student Clearinghouse shows increases in science and engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to women. In engineering, for example, the number of degrees earned by women has increased by 33%. “It’s true that of all the bachelor’s degrees in engineering, women still only account for 19%,” says DeWitt. “Nevertheless, a 33% growth over the last five years does suggest that trend is changing. The dial is moving on that.”

But the news on minorities is less encouraging. While Hispanics have been earning a higher percentage of engineering degrees (see February 2013 PE), rising to 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees in 2012, according to Change the Equation, African Americans have been losing ground. In February, the organization released its “Engineering Emergency” brief, which shows that African Americans hold just 4.3% of all engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level and higher, a drop from 5.0% in 2001. As minority populations grow, “we will have some significant problems down the pike if we don’t address this now,” says Rosen.

Linda Rosen—Linda Rosen

Change the Equation is spearheading efforts to identify what works in outreach efforts and increase their impact—including on underrepresented groups. It offers a list of design principles for effective STEM philanthropy, a rubric to evaluate programs, and a database of proven initiatives to help guide corporate investments.

The organization has also identified four programs that are ready to be implemented nationwide, such as the Girlstart Summer Camp, a week-long STEM experience, and Project Lead the Way, a K–12 STEM curriculum.

All of the programs in the STEMworks database are having an impact, says Rosen. “But the real issue is what is the magnitude of that impact.” We’re still reaching too few young people, she stresses. “You have to separate how effective a program is as an atom versus what its catalytic action is.”

Over the last decade, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has spearheaded an initiative to “change the conversation” on engineering. Its research found that traditional messages were not successfully communicating what engineers do or why people should join the profession.

New messages developed through the effort, such as “engineers make a world of difference” and “engineers are creative problem solvers,” may be working, but so far evidence is indirect.

Anecdotal evidence comes from the University of Colorado Boulder, which developed a rebranding effort based on the new messages. According to the NAE report Messaging for Engineering: From Research to Action, in 2012 the number of minority students who enrolled in the college of engineering was more than double the average enrolled annually between 2004–08. In addition, the minority retention rate increased from 34% to 53%. And annual average female enrollment increased from 20% to 25% of the engineering class. “It is impossible to prove that these increases were due to the new messages,” says the report, “but they are certainly encouraging.”

Greg Pearson, NAE’s senior program officer for K–12 Engineering Education and Public Understanding of Engineering, admits that this evidence requires inference. Unfortunately, so far no funder has been willing to pay for research on changes in public understanding of engineering, he says.

Texas A&M University is another school that has been working on its communications. Steady increases in engineering applications there have resulted in an initiative to double engineering enrollments.

Publicizing the school’s effort to grow enrollment to 25,000 engineering students by 2025 (“25x25”) has helped boost applications even more, says M. Katherine Banks, P.E., dean of the engineering school and vice chancellor for engineering for the Texas A&M university system. The NSPE member predicts they will be up again this year by almost a third.

The school is making progress with women as well. While nationally, growth for women in engineering has been less than 1% since 2007, Banks says, Texas A&M is on track for a 27% increase in female applications for 2014. “These are all indicators that the message is getting out there, at least at A&M.”

The school is not looking to just increase enrollments but also to retain students—a critical issue in engineering in particular. A&M has developed new offices for retention within the engineering college, including one specifically for recruitment and retention of women.

Banks believes that while there has been a lot of focus on STEM, there needs to be more effort to market the idea of engineering. “Oftentimes the E is silent, right?” she says. “We’re not quite where we need to be in terms of engineering within the STEM discussion.”

But she thinks the work is paying off. “From my perspective, sitting in this chair at this institution, there’s no doubt we’ve been successful,” she says. “This many students, this type of increase over a short period of time…we have succeeded at least in increasing visibility.”

But that’s just the first step, she emphasizes. Now the school has to make sure the students succeed. “In two years, hopefully we’ll be talking about our retention rate.”

Despite all the talk about STEM, James Brown notes that a comparison of federal laws from 10 years ago and today would not show a lot of changes.

James Brown—James Brown

One of the big challenges, he notes, is that there are more than 240 programs across the federal government that deal with STEM education. Last April, Congress sent the administration’s plan to reorganize or eliminate some of those programs back to the drawing board to get input and buy-in from the educational community. That process is still ongoing.

“We’ve gone from the notion that we need to prioritize STEM education programs to now we’re having a debate of what prioritization looks like,” says Brown. “That’s progress from our perspective.”

He believes the political gridlock that has been gripping Washington for most of the last five years is beginning to loosen. “We will be making decisions about budgets that haven’t been made in many years,” he says, another sign of forward movement.

Still, federal resources remain constrained. Six or seven years ago, a STEM effort would involve creating a new program or resource, Brown says. Now it requires decisions about what to do less of. That’s why the talk of jobs is important, he continues. The focus makes it real: If you have STEM skills, you will be twice as likely to find a job than if you don’t.

The executive director sees signs of optimism in the daily legislative reports he receives on state STEM activity, which he says is 10 times greater than five years ago.

He also believes we’re starting to close opportunity gaps among high-need schools. “That may not lead to an increase in US performance in some international comparison from 25th to 24th  [place],” Brown says, “but it may improve the plight of kids in the urban inner cities and their chance to go to college for the first time and study in the sciences.”

Overall, Brown thinks there is room for optimism. “The happy tide of history is heading in our direction,” he says.

NSPE: Advocate for STEM

Enhancing STEM education is one of NSPE’s top legislative priorities.

As a member of the STEM Education Coalition, the Society has advocated for the prioritization of STEM in federal budgets. In 2012, NSPE and other partners supported an amendment that restored $51 million in funding that would have been cut from a Department of Education math and science program.

The Society has also been proactive in its support of the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act to enhance K–12 engineering education. The bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require that states include engineering design skills and practices in state science standards, provide teachers with tools and support to teach engineering, and enable schools to target funding toward engineering education. In addition, the legislation would help enable research on engineering education.

Learn more and get involved at

A Team Effort


Last September, the Indiana Society of Professional Engineers participated in the Celebrate Science Indiana event, which brought about 5,000 kids to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Members of the society helped the kids construct wood-block buildings and test their stability on a shake table, and build their own paper rockets and launch them with compressed air. The society helped add engineering to an event that had previously focused just on science.

In west Texas, each year volunteers from the South Plains chapter help organize, judge, and referee the Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology (BEST) robotics competition, for middle and high school students.

And the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers collaborated with other organizations to help develop the Next Generation Science Standards, released in 2013. The standards are the first science standards meant for national use that incorporate engineering design.

Growth in Science and Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees

From 2009–13, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded has
increased in all areas of science and engineering

Academic Year Ending
Growth (2009-13)
All Disciplines
All S&E Disciplines
Biological and Agricultural Sciences
Earth, Atmospheric, and Ocean Sciences
Mathematics and Computer Science
Physical Sciences
Social Sciences
Non S&E Disciplines

* Includes students whose gender was not reported and could not be imputed

Bachelor’s degrees also increased among women.

Academic Year Ending
Growth (2009-13)
All Disciplines
All S&E Disciplines
Biological and Agricultural Sciences
Earth, Atmospheric, and Ocean Sciences
Mathematics and Computer Science
Physical Sciences
Social Sciences
Non S&E Disciplines