Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Improvement Act, Legislation

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Full Title:

H.R.3130 – Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Improvement Act


As U.S. economic growth continues to depend largely upon advances in science and technology, the nation’s continued prosperity is linked inextricably to the ability to produce a technologically sophisticated workforce. However, since 1986, while the percentage of degrees awarded in the biological and social sciences has increased sharply, there has been a troubling decrease in the percentage of U.S. baccalaureate degrees awarded in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and computer science. In contrast, Asian and European countries have shown strong growth in degree production in all science and engineering fields and Asian institutions of higher education produce approximately six times as many engineering degrees as do U.S. institutions. The limited numbers of students pursuing science, mathematics, and engineering degrees appears to be a result of at least two factors: too few students who enter college wanting to major in one of those fields, and too many students who initially show such interest changing their minds during the first two years of their college education. Evidence of a decline in the percentage of freshmen choosing to enter and remain in mathematics and science-based majors first became apparent in the mid-1980s, as a result of a number of studies. Researchers determined that 40 percent of science, mathematics, and engineering undergraduates left the 11 major, and that most did so within the first 2.5 years of the undergraduate experience. Similarly, a 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics showed that fewer than 50 percent of students who intend to major in science and engineering fields complete a science or engineering degree within five years.

There is some evidence that poor K-12 preparation in mathematics has a significant impact on a student’s decision to enroll in undergraduate science, mathematics and engineering coursework.

According to NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2002, more than 40 percent of freshmen at public two-year colleges and 22 percent of freshmen at public four-year colleges required remedial work in reading, writing or mathematics. Among its science and engineering disciplines, approximately 28 percent of first-year students intending to major in the social and behavioral sciences and 25 percent of those intending to major in biological or agricultural science reported the need for remedial mathematics instruction. Fifteen percent of engineering and physical sciences majors reported a similar need for remedial mathematics instruction. A recent survey also found that students are facing increasing demands on their time, with nearly 75 percent of today’s college students engaging in at least part-time work and 25 percent working full time. However, factors not under the control of institutions of higher education, such as preparation at the K-12 level and non-academic workload, seem unlikely to provide the entire explanation for the current situation. While it has been difficult to determine the precise factors that precipitate an individual student’s decision to leave a science or engineering major, a number of signs point of factors such as poor teaching and limited mentoring. For example, a 1997 study of students who scored high (above 650) on the mathematics section of the SAT I and who declared majors in science, mathematics and engineering showed that both those who switched out of science, mathematics and engineering majors and those who persisted in these majors through graduation had similar complaints of poor teaching and difficulty in getting help with academic problems. The authors of this study were unable to identify the precise factors that differentiated the “switchers” from the “survivors,” but anecdotal evidence highlighted the positive impact of intervention by a faculty member at a crisis time in the student’s academic or personal life. Some experts who are critical of the current undergraduate education enterprise have pointed to factors such as lack of rewards for faculty engaged in undergraduate education, poor facilities, limited equipment and supplies for education-based activities, and a “survival of the fittest” mentality in science, mathematics and engineering departments as likely additional reasons for the high attrition rates evident in science and engineering programs.

Adding to the complexity of the problem is the diversity of undergraduate institutions in the U.S. Although research-intensive universities produce most of the engineering degrees and a large proportion of the natural and social science degrees at the undergraduate level, student enrollment at those institutions represents less than 30 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment nationwide. Comprehensive universities and colleges account for approximately 23 percent of the total U.S. undergraduate enrollment, and 12 liberal arts institutions for approximately 7 percent. Two-year colleges account for nearly 40 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment, and yet their impact on the number of science and engineering baccalaureate degrees conferred remains largely unrecognized since many students transfer to a four-year institution without first earning an associate degree. The diversity of U.S. institutions of higher education should be regarded as a strength, and not a liability, in improving scientific literacy broadly and in increasing the number of science and engineering graduates in particular, but it is clear that reform must not be a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

Source Citation:

U.S. Congress. 2002. House. Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Improvement Act. HR 3130. 107th Cong., 2d sess. https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.usccsset/usconset50639&i=634

Cite this page:

107th Congress. 2002. "Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Improvement Act, Legislation." History of Higher Education. https://higheredhistory.gmu.edu/primary-sources/undergraduate-science-mathematics-engineering-and-technology-education-improvement-act-legislation/