Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Study Abroad for STEM

STEM majors have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, with continued calls from the government and private industry to increase and diversify the STEM pipeline.  I am intrigued to see what this trend means for the world of international exchange.  As IIE’s green paper, “What Will it Take to Double Study Abroad” notes, STEM students often have curricular concerns that discourage them from studying abroad.  These include questions about how to integrate exchange experiences into the curriculum and how to address credit and grade transfers.  Additionally, the green paper warns that “Barriers to integrating study abroad into the curriculum also affect how well a student is prepared for and can adapt readily to both the cross-cultural experience and a new and challenging academic system.”  As the culture and faculty of these degree programs may not be welcoming of international exchange, it may provide interested students less of a chance to prepare for such experiences.  What remains to be seen is how these issues of culture and curriculum will change as STEM student interest in international exchange increases.  IIE’s 2014 Open Doors report shows that as of the 2012/13 academic year, the top field of study of US study abroad students is STEM, at 22.5% of total US students who studied abroad.  This is clearly a trend that needs to be studied.  

Diverse Issues in Higher Education recently took a closer look at this trend in the article “STEM Students Leading Charge to Study Abroad”.  The main driver for this shift is globalization.  Dr. Dana Elzey explains that “It is increasingly recognized in industry and academia that engineers no longer design products and services for their home [domestic] market alone, but design and solve problems in an internationalized marketplace.”  International experience makes STEM graduates more marketable after their degree, which helps both the student’s career as well as their alma mater’s reputation.  As a result, the demand for study abroad options for STEM students has increased.  The culture barrier has become more relaxed as STEM faculty have embraced the importance of international experience for their students, as they realize “that the challenges faced by this planet are interconnected and require communication and collaboration across boundaries in order to address them.”  The curriculum barrier has also been torn down with the rapidly increasing number of short-term opportunities that can be easily woven in to the most rigid of curriculums.  

I find the trend of increasing STEM enrollment in study abroad to be very exciting, however, I am slightly concerned by the lack of outcomes assessment data in the Diverse article.  While the study abroad administrators and STEM faculty mentioned in the article all seem to be avoiding the pratfall that Jane Knight mentions in her Five Myths piece- having internationalization be an end goal, rather than a process to achieve a goal.  They all claim to be using study abroad to make students more competitive in the marketplace, and give them an international context for problem-solving.  However, assessment of learning outcomes on these programs can help administrators hone these programs further in order to provide the best and most beneficial programs to their students, while providing hard data to silence any last nay-sayers of STEM study abroad programs.

Institute of International Education.  (2014).  Fast Facts Open Doors 2014.  Retrieved from: http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors

Institute of International Education. (2014). What Will it Take to Double Study Abroad?. Retrieved from: http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Publications-and-Reports/IIE-Bookstore/What-Will-It-Take-To-Double-Study-Abroad

Knight, Jane. "Five myths about internationalization." International Higher Education 62.1 (2011): 14-15.

Oguntoyinbo, Lekan.  (17 June, 2015).  "STEM Students Leading Charge to Study Abroad".  Diverse Issues in Higher Education.  Retrieved from: http://diverseeducation.com/article/73887/

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