An area of near universal agreement among America’s leaders is the need for more scientists and engineers. In fact, this may be the one topic where our business, education, labor, and political leaders converge. While some fields have more qualified applicants than positions, the situation in the STEM fields is just the opposite. There are more openings in technology and science than there are Americans to fill them. We currently solve this problem by granting H-1B visas and importing scientists, engineers, and others with specialized skills and training from around the world. While attracting the best and the brightest has long been part of our national lore and our immigrant past, present, and future, and is something to be proud of, few would deny that we need to train more Americans in these fields. Doing so, would provide access to quality, high paying jobs currently out of reach of young college graduates searching for work and, at the macro level, would benefit our national economy and competitiveness.
If we want to produce more world-class scientists we may need to change the way we think about STEM learning and what makes a good scientist.Or, as Nobel Prize winning physicist Carl Wieman says, we need to stop searching for STEM talent and instead start building STEM talent. Americans too often believe that talent is innate – that you are born to be a scientist or you are not. That you are good at math or you are not. This belief in a more or less fixed intelligence or aptitude is counterproductive and ignores what we know today about learning, motivation, interest, and becoming an expert.
While people may have interests or proclivities, contemporary research has well established that intelligence is not fixed. Rather, expertise is built through years of deliberate practice, and those years of intentional practice, combined with opportunities to learn from expert teachers, and perseverance, is what distinguishes a novice from an expert. Interest and motivation play an undeniable role but, like IQ, they are more than an innate trait and can develop and evolve through exposure, experience, and experiencing success.
Continuing to think, and behave, as if achievement in math and science is mostly a matter of innate “talent” not only ignores research on the brain, but also doesn’t help us produce more scientists. An important step in this direction is to broaden our horizons in our search for talent. Put another way, we need to expand the pipeline of talent. In this respect, the role of community colleges is too often overlooked and underestimated. First, a few facts will help us understand why. Nationwide, 42% of first-time degree seekers are enrolled in two-year institutions. In California, close to half of the STEM graduates from the flagship University of California system attended a community college before obtaining their degree.
As Professor Wieman said, we must build talent. One great example of talent building is going on at Citrus College in Glendora. Its programs, funded under the HSI provisions, are specifically designed to increase the success rate of Latinos and other low income students. They include STEM counselors, supplemental instruction, tutoring, and staff development. One of the most intriguing, though, is its Summer Research Program, which puts community college students directly into science research labs at 4-year universities and research institutions. Students don’t just learn about science, they work elbow to elbow with scientists. They don’t just learn about research, they participate in actual research. Most students do not have these types of opportunities until graduate school. For community college students it is rare, and for Latinos attending community colleges, it is nearly unheard of.
Einstein once claimed that, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” We can’t solve the nation’s need for more scientists, engineers, and other technical experts with the same educational system that assumes that talent will find the right path and follow it. Instead, why not aim to get more young people in labs and intrigued with science?
Dr. Romero is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Sacramento State University. She is the outside evaluator on the U.S. Department of Education funded “The RACE to STEM” Grant to Citrus Community College.