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The common concern among employers and universities is there is an alarming lack STEM graduates to fill the open positions available. For example, in 2012 President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology state 1 million additional STEM graduates are needed by 2022 to fill this gap. Likewise, the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK said they’d need to graduate 100,000 STEM grads a year until 2020 to keep up with the demand from employers.

Among those paying attention, attracting more STEM students is the most common refrain for solving this problem. However, the problem itself may actually lie in keeping the STEM students that enter college as STEM majors, not attracting those that don’t. Like software companies dealing with a high “churn rate” with their new customers, universities are struggling to keep the incoming freshman in the STEM majors they initially declare. In the same 2012 report, the Council wrote, “Fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.”

Even worse, new data from the University of California at Los Angeles found that number to be as much as 60 percent when pre-med students are factored in, which is twice the combined churn rate of all other majors. By increasing the retention of STEM majors to merely 50 percent, that would generate 75 percent of the 1 million STEM graduates called for by the President’s Council.  Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who has studied the matter, told the New York Times, “We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college, it’s not just a K-12 preparation issue.”

The Path to More Student Retention Is Better Engagement

David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports that STEM curriculum at universities are “Dry and hard to get through, so if you can create an oasis in there, it would be a good thing.”

That oasis could be found in more engaging and relevant education tools. Today 90 percent of students own a laptop, 86 percent of students own a smartphone, and 47 percent of students own a tablet. Students that grew up in a digital world need to be educated in a way that can better respond to, rather than the classic textbook and lecture method of the past. For example, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the United States’ oldest tech schools created a modern curriculum way back in the 1970s that now includes research, design and social-service projects to better engage their students. As a result, their STEM retention numbers are some of the best in the nation with 74 percent of their undergrads graduating in four years and 80 percent in six years.

This is corroborated by a scientific study published in Nature Biotechnology, which compared gamified laboratory simulations with traditional teaching methods. Researchers in collaboration with Labster, showed “a 76 percent increase in learning outcomes by using a gamified laboratory simulation compared to traditional teaching, and a 101 percent increase when used in combination.”

Its clear that the path to better retention is through the implementation of technology and modern teaching methods to better engaged STEM students. In collaboration with leading institutions such as MIT, Harvard and Imperial College, Labster have received a number of grants to co-finance development and implementation of Ivy league quality virtual labs to all schools, including colleges with underprivileged students. If you’re interested in joining the collaboration, don’t hesitate to check out our virtual labs and sign up for monthly updates.

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